Not only is Reindeer Manor Abusement Park in Red Oak the oldest haunted house attraction in the world, having opened in 1974, but it is also the first of its kind, according to property owner Alex Lohmann. In fact, he says, before it opened as a haunted house, there really was no such thing as a haunted house attraction, or simply "haunt," as the Reindeer Manor staff call them, aside from darkened mazes that Shriners or church groups would throw together for Halloween.
So Reindeer Manor has had plenty of time to perfect the art of creeping people out. My visit last weekend with my two children (Iris, 14, and Lyle, 9) convinced me that they haven't been resting on their laurels.
Reached by free hayride from the parking lot, the complex is divided into three separate attractions (13th Street Morgue, Dungeon of Doom and The Haunted House at Reindeer Manor), with a sort of food court in the middle offering very reasonably priced snacks like sausage on a stick, giant root beer floats and a few old-school arcade games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong -- all set on free play!
Tickets for the three are sold separately or in combo tickets at $35 for adults or $17 for children age 10 and younger (discounted a few bucks with a coupon you can print from the website). We started in the 13th Street Morgue, which was like a redneck funeral home from hell. Actors would drag tools and farm implements such as shovels and pitchforks against walls and concrete, sending sparks flying among screeching noises. Dimly lit and full of uncanny antiques and creepy old photographs, the whole thing was just eerie. Especially the child actors portraying demented undead. Adding to the unease was knowing that, without the no-touch policies of most haunted attractions, the actors here are allowed to touch you. Not only did they excel at jumping out from dark corners, but a hidden ghoul might grab an ankle or stroke your hair. My son admitted he nearly wet his pants a couple of times. He and Iris both had death grips on my arms the entire time, and absolutely refused to be the first through any doorway or around any corner, digging in with their heels if I tried to nudge them.
The Dungeon of Doom was even scarier, maybe even too intense for some. They'll sell tickets to kids younger than 10, but make sure yours can handle it. I actually had to pick Lyle up and carry him at one point, as he became a nervous wreck after a zombie reached for him out of total blackness while death metal blared and masked lunatics revved chain saws. It was also claustrophobic; at one point, you have to push yourself through a tight black rubber inflated tunnel and just hope against hope that there isn't anything horrible awaiting you on the other side. Of course, there is.
Lyle had to play a few arcade games and watch a bit of TV (a Family Guy Star Wars parody was projected on a screen in the food area) to unwind and find comfort in the familiar before braving the final attraction. Meanwhile, the line was getting longer and longer.
In fact, it was probably an hour wait before we got into The Haunted House at Reindeer Manor. But a DJ playing Guns N' Roses, Pink Floyd and Bauhaus and a series of skits by actors in ghoul attire kept us from getting bored for too long. By far the most amusing was when a couple of black-robed wraiths and a guy in a Hannibal Lecter mask busted some hilarious dance moves to Daft Punk's "Around the World."
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Inside, it was set up more like a series of skits than a walk-through haunt. A mad scientist tortured a couple of victims with electro-shock "therapy" in a crude lab complete with a crackling Tesla coil. Then, his assistant chased us into the next room, where the resurrected wife of the house led a séance with a horrible ending. In another room, a lunatic pulled the entrails from a still-living young woman. Yet another room was completely built on an angle, giving the disorienting impression that gravity had shifted. Zombies crawled on the floor, chasing us from room to room. This was the most theatrical of the three, more visually impressive than scary but not without its chilling moments.
The real-life history behind the place adds to the spookiness: A fire killed a family of sharecroppers on the property. This tragedy was followed by the apparent suicide of the property owner, though some suspected his secretary and rumored mistress actually shot him. After his son took over the property, the family was bankrupted in the Great Depression. Determined to break what appeared to be a family curse, he and his spiritualist wife invited psychics and witch doctors to break the spell. Their bad luck only ended when their bodies were found in the house and barn; she was killed by poison, he by hanging. Whether it was a suicide pact or if one murdered the other was never determined.
Supernaturally assisted or not, all three attractions were really impressive -- worth the steep ticket price and the drive out into the sticks south of Dallas. It's clear the workers and volunteers, many of them from the Boy Scout troop and BSA Venture group that the haunt's profits support, take great pride in it, gleefully and enthusiastically getting into character. I'd say the combo deal is worth it. As long as you've driven that far, might as well make a night out of it and hit all three. In fact, even though he had been so terrified by the second haunt that he almost refused to get in line for the third, my son is already begging to go back again. Now that he's conquered his terror, he's addicted. Or maybe it's the root-beer float and the free arcade games.