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Something spooky this way comes

Halloween ‘haunted houses’ try to top last year’s scary fun

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One hundred years have passed since Mina Van Helsing's successful vampire-slaying tactics saved a bunch of hapless tourists who had stumbled into the castle. But now that period of mayhem and terror is all but forgotten. And tourists are coming back.

It could be a deadly mistake. Because all is not well deep inside the castle's crumbling interior. Rumors whisper of experiments gone awry. Gypsies talk of a Great One, who has supposedly come to lead vampires into the sunlight. There are flashing lights and strange noises — and you, too, can help solve the mystery of the Castle of Chaos.

Now in its fourth year, this annual Halloween attraction is just one of more than two dozen that line the Wasatch Front. Each has its own character, its own target audience, its own special thrills.

What makes Castle of Chaos different, said Laura Bedore, one of the creative forces behind the attraction, is that "it's like being in a huge interactive video game."

Call it a cross between a haunted house and a murder mystery, adds James Bernard, another of the Chaos creators. "It's interactive, it's fun; there's a mystery to solve. There are scares, but they are more startles than terror. We don't do the blood and gore."

As people enter the castle, they are given a character. It may be a dumb blond cheerleader or a retired army general or a parapsychologist searching for ghosts. "Then the creatures will react to that character," Bedore said. As you go along, you collect cards and clues, and at the end, there are prizes.

What's fun, said Steve Hagan, another partner, is that "depending on how you act out your character, the ending will be different every time."

Putting it all together is "an incredible amount of work," said Bernard. "But it's worth it. Because not only are we giving people a good time, but we're supporting a good cause."

Proceeds from Castle of Chaos support the Burn Camp at the University of Utah Burn Unit, and for the past nine years, Bernard has worked as a therapist there. As enthusiastic as he is about the haunted house, he is even more enthusiastic about the camp: "We take the kids to a camp on the Green River. These are all kids whose lives have been altered, who may have retracted socially.

"But here, no one stares at them, because the other kids are just like them. They have lots of activities. They can talk about their experiences — or not, as they wish. It's a fabulous, fabulous thing for them."

Part of the proceeds also go to high school drama departments, which supply many of the 35-50 volunteers who help run the show. It's a great experience for them, said Bedore. They learn makeup and costuming and sound and lighting techniques. Part of what they do with the crowd is scripted, part is improv. "They get to hang out, scare people, wear fangs. That's motivation, right there."

Each year the Castle of Chaos gets a little bigger and a little better, said Bernard. The major part of the experience is geared toward families, though best suited for kids 10 and older. For little kids, there's Dragon's Castle, this year at the Cottonwood Mall. But for those who like more scares, there is now an "extreme" option — the Black Crypt. "The ending there is the best scare ever," said Bernard. "It's like nothing else that I've ever seen before."

Another attraction that sits squarely on the less-scary side is the Halloween Cruise on the Provo River.

These boat rides are offered at the CLAS Ropes Course, operated by Benjamin Allen. The 25-minute ride features songs and scary stories ("The Cremation of Sam McGee" or "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow") as boats make their way past dozens and dozens of lighted jack-o'-lanterns and other props. But just as spooky are the gnarly tree branches that hang over the river, and the eerie splashes and splats you can hear in the water, providing lots of atmosphere.

Occasionally, something may rise out of the river. But you'd also best be on the lookout for pirates, said to infest these waters. Oh, wait. Apparently, they are candy-toting pirates, so no worries, mate.

"But sometimes," say Nathan, 9, and Spencer, 6, who help their dad run the rides, "there are extra surprises." Surprises that the boys themselves orchestrate — so beware of boys with innocent gleams in their eyes.

This will be the fifth year for the Halloween cruises. "We used to do a spook alley out under the trees, where we dropped spaghetti on your head, stuff like that," said Allen. (They also did a Christmas cruise along the river on an old pontoon boat.) "Then I went to San Antonio and saw the boats they used on the Riverwalk. And I knew it was just what we needed."

He got one of the 40-person boats, and it worked so well that a second one has been added. "And then because we had these boats, we added the Halloween cruise."

People are surprised you can cruise on the Provo River, he said. "They call me up and say they know every inch of the river and there's no place you can put a 40-person boat. But we can do it right here."

The level of the river has gone down a bit in recent years, and they've had to adjust their landing docks, but the boats are flat enough that they can sail in shallow water.

They get families, grandparents, college kids, Allen said. "There's no blood. No gore. Everybody just has a lot of fun."

E-mail: carma@desnews.com