USA TODAY’s Carly Mallenbaum takes us inside several pandemic-friendly Halloween drive-thrus in Los Angeles, California.
LOS ANGELES – Up until this year, my favorite part of Halloween was going to a haunted house. I find it thrilling to wander in a dimly-lit space with ghoulish decor, blaring minor-chord music and scary costumed actors. I think the appeal is that haunted houses are safe scary spaces, where I scream and get grossed out and cover my eyes, but know that nothing bad will happen.
This year, many immersive horror experiences – including Universal’s popular Halloween Horror Nights (for which I once dressed up as a demon and worked a maze) – are canceled because those scary spaces aren’t safe from the threat of COVID-19. However, a new holiday activity has emerged: The Halloween drive-thru.
What is a Halloween drive-thru?
Expertly carved pumpkins turn into sharks, celebrity faces and dinosaurs in the mesmerizing Nights of the Jack in Calabasas. (Photo: Courtesy of Nights of the Jack)
The Halloween drive-thru has become the pandemic-friendly event of the spooky season. The concept: You stay in your car and cruise through pumpkin-filled lands of tombstones and candy for roughly 25 minutes. Typically, entry is one ticket per vehicle. You aren’t allowed to get out of your seat, unless it’s to pop your head through a sunroof for a photo-op. Masks are required if keep your windows down.
But can the Halloween spirit waft in through the car window? I went to three drive-thru experiences to find out: Nights of the Jack (formerly a walking experience) in Calabasas; Halloween Road (a Freeform channel-sponsored pop-up) in Los Angeles and Haunt ‘O Ween (a family-friendly experience) in Woodland Hills.
The good: Live entertainment
The Sanderson sisters from “Hocus Pocus” perform onstage outside at Freeform’s Halloween Road experience in Los Angeles. (Photo: Richard Harbaugh, Freeform)
Each drive-thru had some sort of artist taking the stage. At Nights of the Jack, a pumpkin carver crafted an impressive sculpture to honor the late Chadwick Boseman. At Halloween Road, the Sanderson sisters lip-synched a song from “Hocus Pocus.” Haunt ‘O Ween had a band playing Halloween songs. Apparently, I really missed in-person shows! I watched the sculptor in awe, blushed when Winifred Sanderson wished me a happy holiday and rocked out to a holiday song I’ve never heard before while driving about 5 mph. Interacting with other humans outside of my quarantine bubble (and from a safe distance inside of my car) so excited me, that I accidentally promised a witch, who was giving out candy, that I’d bring her back a tasty child.
The bad: Waiting in lines of cars
A tunnel kicked off Haunt ‘O Ween, a drive-thru that had seemingly random decorations bit did give away pumpkins in Woodland Hills. (Photo: Courtesy of Haunt ‘O Ween)
The actual drive to the drive-thrus isn’t so bad because at least in LA, traffic has been tame in the last few months. But when you get to your destination, expect lines. At Haunt O’ Ween, there was congestion even mid-way through the experience. Of course, waits are expected for every desirable holiday activity, but I haven’t been out at a public event so long that I forgot queues existed. I didn’t miss them.
Also of note: Not all drive-thrus are created equally. Nights of the Jack, which runs through Nov. 1 at $69 per car, took me on a spellbinding trip through Hollywood, under the sea and into an alien invasion all via meticulously-cut pumpkins. I kept announcing how awesome the outing was while still there. But Haunt O’ Ween, which runs through the end of the month for $70 a car, felt a little more random with skeleton props that didn’t tell any obvious story, costumed actors that didn’t seem follow any particular theme and arbitrary branding throughout. That said, it was still a hoot and every car got a free, disinfected pumpkin. And Halloween Road in Los Angeles – which, sadly, already finished its limited-run – was a ball from start to finish with a prize wheel, opulent “Nightmare Before Christmas” displays and focused “Addams Family” actors who refused to break character.
Short on scares, big on fun
None of the drive-thrus I went to were frightening. That makes sense, considering that the driver of a moving vehicle may not react safely to a jump scare. But the spooky safaris were totally festive and fun. (I didn’t get to experience the scarier Fright Farms which opens later this month in Norco, California.)
Though I normally want the scariest Halloween experience I can get, I was happy to get a dose of levity at a place that felt safe amid a raging pandemic. Joke gravestones that I’d usually roll my eyes at – “Barry De Live” and “Dee Cayen” among them – had me snort-laughing at Nights of the Jack. And the fact that my car was part of a photo moment at Halloween Road, sitting atop Jack Skellington’s spiral hill, has already cracked me up a dozen times.
I thought a drive-thru would lack a photo-op. I was wrong. My boyfriend and I posed in masks in my car (as he recorded video) during the Freeform’s Halloween Road experience. (Photo: Freeform Halloween Road)
Life in 2020 has been full of enough terror as it is, that it feels good to instead embrace the absurdness and joy of the holiday of ghosts and monsters. This October, I’m delighting in the ridiculousness of receiving a shovel full of candy (social-distanced style), chatting with friendly witches and admiring a Spongebob Squarepants made out of pumpkins. I’m currently seeking a fourth drive-thru experience to help sustain the silly, magical feeling.
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