Many haunted attractions focus on larger than life. Props, animations, special effects, pyrotechnics, etc. to create scares. While these attractions are undoubtedly entertaining and often scary fail to miss, they fail to miss the mark in creating a sense of realism, a sense of danger that makes genuine fear. Having improved exponentially over the past several seasons, Hellstead Manor (Hallstead, PA) embraces “realism” utilizing custom-built scenes, sets, and passageways of horror to bring to life a classical Victorian style haunted house filled with horrific secrets. Hellstead Manor has finally captured a very dark sense of reality, allowing guests to uncover a more in-depth, twisted, and often sinister “story” interwoven throughout an extensive journey into a fantastical world of horror!
Hellstead Manor is two connected “attractions,” the first being a trip through a hauntingly charming “haunted house” (actual house features a few impressive scenes then transitions into an outdoor enclosure), and one of the most genuinely disturbing “outdoor” trails we have ever visited called “The Wretched Woods.” A realistic yet fantasy infused attraction Hellstead Manor left is wanting more and has addressed previous season criticisms of feeling too “empty” instead of focusing on making the entire experience feel “realistic” and a one-of-a-kind haunted attraction!
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic change, the “museum” aspect of the story has been primarily reduced to a retelling of the “legend” while waiting to enter the attraction. The first segment of the actual “Hellstead Manor” attraction once again takes place inside the beautiful Victorian style, chilling “haunted house” which features what is now an “abandoned” museum, with broken televisions, covers over displays, etc. followed up by what appears to be a dining room that has been lost to time as well. Darkness fills each room. Dead “bodies” appear to be wrapped in white cloth sitting ominously at the dinner table as immediately the attraction “felt” far more sinister than previous incarnations. The few actors in these opening scenes are threatening; they scream and then quickly usher guests out into the larger portion of the “manor” attraction built outside in an enclosure. It was clear that we were now “outside” and no longer in the house in previous seasons. However, scene improvements and changes made to lengthy corridors and rooms, including adding more “depth” to each area create a sense one is trapped inside a forbidden place, where danger awaits.
A maze-like enclosure, wooden planks, and rotting hallways are decorated with overgrowth of foliage, adorned with a design that embraces “abandonment” and the perfect setting for a creepy “haunted house” style attraction. Tight corners, darkness, blinding strobe, and period lighting allow the actors to stalk and hide, creating a constant sense of fear and tension. Tattered clothing, rags, and nets strung from above add an additional sensory layer to the lengthy “maze” like structure and augments anticipation between each room, as one must navigate cautiously to avoid encountering the few but demented inhabitants of the manor.
“Less is more”-It is essential to highlight the gritty, almost realistic nature of the entire attraction and how simple but effective visual tricks create a sense of being stalked continuously in a twisted haunted house. Each “room” in the manor itself is richly detailed, including an evil child’s playroom (with a disturbing actor that has one of the most unique takes on the traditional “play with me” tagline found in so many haunts), a bedroom with a body that has a beating “heart,” rooms filled with scenes of medical torture, a movie-quality morgue scene that has a variety of dead bodies and actors perched from above, and mad doctor’s laboratory where grotesque mutations and medical experimentation is evident. Each room tells the “story” of this twisted family, an evil doctor, and its now forever deformed inhabitants without being narrated. The custom-designed/created sets/animatronics and monstrosities are unlike any you will see is any haunted attraction. Twisted realism permeates the entire attraction infused with an ever-building, almost forbearing sense of sinister evil, creating an atmosphere of fear.
We felt there was a lack of action in between each room in previous seasons and really an overreliance on “jump” or startle scares. While “jump” scares, screaming, etc. are still the norm, several actors have now started using their “scenes” to build fear. For example, as we walked through the darkness, we heard the sound of a massive, blunt object behind us yet could not see, and others had such freakish characters (including some monster that wanted our eyes) it was hard not to feel disturbed. Furthermore, adding interactive elements to the corridors/maze-like sections makes the attraction far more exciting and really was a welcome change from prior visits. With a few more actors and additional “rooms” for exploration, the “manor” attraction featured can really begin reaching world-class status.
Once escaped from “Hellstead Manor,” we entered “The Wretched Woods,” an entirely outdoor walking trail set in the dense forest surrounding the property. From a design standpoint, outdoor walking trails are challenging to master because you cannot control the elements and always need to be aware of “space.” Instead of purchasing large animatronics and producing the attraction, “The Wretched Woods” is realistic, relying heavily on the unknown, disturbing moments, and the environment to generate scares. Being lost in the dense, ominous forest and taunted by clearly evil, possessed beings often unseen creates a constant unsettling sense of paranoia. The demonic creatures or hillbillies that live along the trail are almost impossible to see and do a fantastic job of using paranoia to their advantage. Creatively, realism once again dominates the presence, as everything is custom built from costume design to each prop and set. Disturbing, simple imagery and lighting augment the already eerie atmosphere of the dark forest; for example, early on, you’ll see the hanging of little, tiny, almost like voodoo dolls, but they’re not. These hanging figurines are fashioned out of a stick, representing wood figurines. Scenes get more disturbing but never venture out of the realm of reality; guests will encounter a scene of human sacrifice, a person who is impaled by multiple arrows, distracting from the blinding light that hides “the protectors” of the woods, and more often than not it is impossible to discern reality from fiction. “The Wretched Woods” thrives on mind-games, spawning psychological horror.
Not all of the trail is “psychological” and there are theatrical elements. For example, a hillbilly family found midpoint through the trail may seem “normal” in the haunted attraction industry as a typical theme. However, “The Wretched Woods” is designed to scare, and this family is disturbing, and an encounter with one of the family’s children is absolutely mortifying. “The Wretched Woods” is possessed by such dark characters and a realistic design that chills the spine yet never goes overboard with gore or larger than life scenes. The ambiance of the ever-present, growing fear is mastered by this attraction and with additional actors and a more robust, more defined “finale.”
The Final Word
Hellstead Manor (and “The Wretched Woods”) has improved its entire show from previous seasons, focusing on realism, creating a dark, gritty experience that relies heavily on psychological fear to build constant tension and genuine apprehension of the unknown. For the most part, realism and actors did a great job of using their environments to scare augmented the already impressively designed scenes and outdoor sets featured by this attraction. A lengthy journey, Hellstead Manor has abandoned its more “theatrical” storyline and, in its place, is realistic yet surreal and focused on scaring and disturbing each visitor brave enough to visit!