I arrived at Busch Gardens of Williamsburg at 3 o’clock on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. I immediately noticed the immensity of Halloween décor throughout the park. Pumpkins, skeletons, werewolves, zombies, unfriendly clowns and spiders larger than me, were spread throughout the park.
Despite the dreadful décor, I went on with my day like any other day at the park. I rode the rides, from Le Catapult to the new and very popular Verbolten. After a while, my friends and I took a break to eat some delicious pretzel-dogs in Germany, when a message rang out over the speakers of the park. It released a friendly reminder that Howl-O-Scream would officially begin at 6 o’clock sharp. My friends and I didn’t pay any attention to it until 15 minutes later we heard an ear-splitting cry of terror.
We immediately looked outside at a group of girls running in circles, terrified of a group of clowns honking horns and cackling at them. There were at least 10 of them. We waited to leave our eating/hiding spot until these clowns sauntered off, and we eventually ventured out into a fearfully different Busch Gardens. Within moments I heard more sinister music playing, much like the kind you would hear in the background of a horror film. I found myself starting to squint as fog began surrounding us and every other country in the park.
Our first stop on the Howl-O-Scream adventure was a haunted house in Germany called Bitten.Now, I did not know much about it but I went with two other friends who had been before. All they told me was that it was a haunted house filled with vampires. I thought, okay, no big deal, I can handle a few vampires. What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, this turned out to be more of a maze than a house, with little to no lighting, fog everywhere, sand covering the floor and every corridor had someone hiding behind it waiting to scare you. Granted, none of the actors are allowed to physically touch you, but they do get pretty darn close.
After a while, I couldn’t tell if the screams were coming from the actors or the people daring to go inside. All I know is, I wanted to get out of there. My fear took over and I forgot that these “vampires” are just people like you and I, and that this is just their job, which they do all too well.
With much relief I exited the haunted house and vowed to not go in another one. Even though I was in the house no more than five minutes, it felt like forever when I didn’t know what was lurking around every corner. By the time we got out of the house, the sun was close to gone and nighttime was almost upon us.
The factor of Howl-O-Scream didn’t seem as scary when the sun was still up. I started to relax from the haunted house experience until we were crossing a bridge from Germany to Italy and we saw people running away. Sure enough there was a group of vicious werewolves walking around, growling and snarling at every passer-by on the bridge. One of my friends almost fell off because she ran so close to the edge to get away from this guy.
Not too long after that we were still making our way to Apollo’s Chariot when we heard the buzzing of not one, not two but several chainsaws. Immediately we stopped and thought about what that could possibly be. Not so shockingly, there was a group of cloaked zombies running around like crazy with chainsaws.
I learned that while there is no way to completely escape the actors, there are ways to avoid them. If you do not make any eye contact with them and pay them no attention, the actors will ignore you as well, or use it to their advantage and run towards you. On the other hand, you can try to stare them down and act like it doesn’t bother you in the hopes that they will get bored and leave you be, or they could see it as a challenge and have a staring contest.
What to avoid
The one thing to try and avoid is letting them know how scared you are, because it just eggs them on. I witnessed a girl running around in a circle, being chased by a clown for several minutes. Had she just screamed and kept going, the clown would have moved on to another innocent scare victim. Personally I was able to avoid the actors, mainly through looking away and walking in the opposite direction, but sometimes they came towards me and I either ran, pushed a friend to get them out of my way or threw one of my friends in front of me to keep them away.
The closest experience I had with one of the actors was when I was almost free from the gardens. I was walking out, not really paying attention, and I hear someone over my shoulder say, “Hey, how’s it going?” and I turn to stare right into the face of a bloody werewolf. Needless to say, I screamed bloody murder and ran for my life.
By the end of the night I did have fun and it was a successful fear-fest, but if I ever do go back, I would make more of an effort to see more of the park. You have the option of entering six terrifying haunted houses, ranging from Catacombs in Italy, Fear Fair in Festa Italia, to their newest addition, Root of All Evil in Germany.
All of the houses have their own terrifying theme and offer something different for everyone. However, if you’re like me and don’t care too much for a haunted house, there are some eerie shows to see. “Night Beats” in Germany is a new show for the season, featuring an undead band singing and dancing through time, beginning with music of the 1920s to present day.
Another new show to consider is that of “Dig It Up!” Located in Italy, it is the most eclectic of the shows and definitely offers a more enthusiastic display of music for audiences of all ages. While walking through Italy I was able to walk past a showing and listen to it.
It did have a very nice, upbeat feel to it and did not seem to be filled with fear like the rest of the park. For those with a more mature taste in a show, Ireland’s “Fiends” is one filled with mature entertainment, song and dance as well as plot that is simply electrifying. If I went again, I would personally skip a haunted house or two and stop to see a show.
Howl-O-Scream does change the atmosphere of Busch Gardens, but it does not change the rides. If you are able to ride them at night, all of the rides remain open until the park closes at ten. From The Griffon, Loch Ness Monster and Alpengeist, to Mach Tower, Battering Ram and Curse of DarKastle, there are still a wide variety of rides to experience and enjoy during the day, as well as the scaring hours.
Even though you know that they are actors, the “roaming hordes”, as Busch Gardens calls them, are very convincing. The costumes may be fake, it may just be a mask covering up someone’s face and the chainsaw may not be fully functioning, but when it is dark, there is fog and they are chasing you around, the fact that it’s not real no longer matters.
You don’t really have to be a good actor to be part of the roaming hordes, however you do for the haunted houses. When I went into Bitten there was a girl sitting on top of a coffin very still. As we were walking past the vampire she didn’t move, flinch or say anything, until we walked right in front of her. She lunged forward with a loud hiss and managed to really terrify us. Myself, I couldn’t do that.
I would probably start laughing or look bored or something. None of this is actually real, but the actors are good enough that you forget they are actors and start to believe in the fantasy of it all. I went into this thinking I’d feed into it for fun but remind myself that it’s not real. I honestly thought I would not get as scared as I did. Nothing in the park seems real, until there really is a zombie with a chainsaw chasing you around the park. In the moment, all logic goes out the window and terror does take over a little bit.
If you do not like fear, you can visit the park during the day, Friday through Sunday, and leave by 6 p.m. However, if you want the full Howl-O-Scream experience, stay throughout night, well past 6 o’clock and venture through the park at your own risk. To get more information and to purchase tickets go to www.howloscream.com and let your adventure into the dark side of the gardens begin. Proceed with caution.