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A Frightful Flop: Is the Haunted Trail Worth the Trek?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

by Teagan Durbin

If you’re a San Diegan, you are no doubt familiar with the orange wooden sides that pop up on the west side of the Cabrillo Bridge come late September. They advertise perhaps the most popular local attraction during the Halloween season, The Haunted Trail. It’s been running for a little over two decades, been recognized by the Travel Channel and CNN, and amasses hordes of patrons that normally you’d only find at a major amusement park. But after a few shaky years returning from the pandemic, just how well does San Diego’s most famous horror attraction hold up in 2023?

And so I took it upon myself to enlist a friend of mine and investigate the scene. We arrived on a Thursday evening around 7:30, expecting to be met with a huge line, and were instead shocked by its absence. The past few years, the queue has been the longest part of the entire experience, a fact that would be a bigger detractor if not for the atmosphere of the line itself. Several large and out-of-commission animatronic monsters loomed on raised platforms, bathed in purple and red lights while a large screen featured select gore-filled scenes from The Evil Dead, Zombieland, and so on. Several scare actors lurked through the line attempting to sneak up on groups of overconfident teenagers. Their enthusiasm for such an opportunity needs no explanation. Periodical waves of screams can be heard from the very beginning of the trail, emphasizing just why this line is so effective; it allows for uneasiness to set in. Even the most cool and collected patron inevitably becomes a tad antsy after an hour or so.

If my own experience was just the irregular result of several timing quirks, and the lines have indeed reached their typically outrageous capacity, there are some things you might want to know if you plan on purchasing tickets yourselves. If you can, buy the timed-entry tickets, which run $32.99, from the website beforehand. Consequently, you’ll spend time in the main queue, but get to skip the box office ticket line, which in past iterations spans haphazardly outside of the actual entrance, veering towards the parking lot. Don’t even bother with the “Scream Pass'' admission. As for parking, either show up pretty early or find a way to get dropped off. The lot and street options are particularly limited and tricky to navigate given the crowds, so do yourself a favor and get someone to do you a favor.

Once you actually enter, the attraction is distinctly more homespun than you might be expecting after the huge crowds. The Haunted Trail features no consistent story, rather a combination of various, unconnected horror icons and themes throughout the entire experience. In the past they’ve featured a plethora of famous movie villains, but any IP related material seems to have vanished. This year, expect to find zombie prisoners, evil nuns, clowns, demonic possessions, and perhaps the most frightening; a dingy hotel lobby with unwelcoming staff - a nod to The Haunted Trails sister attraction, The Haunted Hotel. There are some returning elements past attendees will no doubt recognize, such as the iconic chainsaw finale and a school bus that, for whatever reason, has been implemented in every recent iteration of the event. Actually, the reason is because it’s the most terrifying part, with attendees being forced to file one-by-one through a cramped aisle, past rows of seats filled with a nerve-wracking mixture of dummies and live actors. Claustrophobes beware.

The frights tend to be more effective the closer you are to the beginning of the experience, where patrons still retain good distance from each other and the scenes are perhaps more thoughtfully constructed. Zombies and ghouls often utilize the spaces between groups to creep up from behind and even pursue you and your friends way beyond the “end” of their scene. However, about two thirds of the way through the mile-long walk, attendees become more and more congested, and as a result, have to move through the sets as one big blob. For me, this is where the experience dramatically drops off in its potential to be genuinely startling. Any sense of vulnerability is gone, and actors have no way of attacking attendees individually. One will also notice that the sets become less coherent the further you go. What this means exactly, can only truly be explained if you see for yourself.

While the construction may leave something to be desired by those better accustomed to more polished theme park haunted houses, the sheer energy and commitment of the actors more than makes up for it. It should be noted that scarers are not afraid to get close by any means; I myself was snorted at, lunged at, and even close enough to an unrelenting zombie to endure the unfortunate experience of having a drop of spit land on my face. The site promises that they won’t touch you, and, no, you’re not allowed to hit them either.

Its quirks are too big to ignore, but not offensive enough to refrain from embracing the experience. Despite this, The Haunted Trails remains a fun activity to occupy one of your October evenings. It is essential, however, to go into the trails expecting and perhaps making yourself more susceptible to being spooked.


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