Date of Visit: 10/16/21 Reviewer: Lindsay
One of my favorite little mysteries of the season- or life in general, really- is how a chance encounter with a person can lead to connections later on. While waiting in line at The Devil's Attic a couple of years ago, I got to talking with a man from Ohio. He introduced himself as Fred Hearn, and explained that he was mentoring with some Louisville haunters in preparation for creating his own haunted house in the Dayton area. I found him to be a really likeable person, and promised I would try to come out and see his haunt whenever it opened.
That year finally came in 2020, when Hell's Dungeon officially opened its gates to the public. Due to the timing of their opening, I was unable to squeeze them in for the regular season, but I did grab a sort of "sneak peak" with a special show they did the first weekend of November. Given the limited time they had to build (about a month if I recall correctly), I thought their haunt was pretty darn good, and vowed to make it back next season for the full show. I pride myself on being a woman of my word - if I promise you something, 9 times out of 10 it is going to be done. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I was on the road to Dayton to see this haunt in full for the first time.
Tickets to Hell's Dungeon start at $24 for general admission. If lines are long when you get there or you need to save time, they do offer a fast pass upgrade for an additional $10. Finding this place can be a little tricky; there are signs to direct you, but it's tucked behind a shopping center. Turn right once you're back there, and you will find the entrance to the haunt. Because it's at a strip mall, loads of free parking is available, and you should have no trouble grabbing a spot somewhere.
The Dungeon team has been working hard on improving and making changes to the haunt since their maiden season, and a few of those changes can be seen as soon as you arrive. A fiery red glow and iron bars now surround the staircase, suggesting that you're about to descend into Hell itself. Video projections play overhead, and a rotting skeleton stands guard over the entrance. Heading downstairs into the lobby, what was once a brightly lit and bare space has had the lights dimmed considerably and more scenery added. Bizarre paintings of ghoulish faces line the wall across from the ticket counter, and there seems to be an altar centered around the bust of a nasty-looking demon. (Could this be a tribute to Rufus the Rejected, the demon who rules over this circle of Hell? You'll find out more about him soon.)
Once you've purchased your tickets, there's a cool photo op that precedes your entry to the spacious waiting area. This has also received an overhaul, sporting a fresh backdrop, new lighting, and different static figures replacing the former clowns. Stepping into the queue, customers are greeted with booming music, a counter selling cold drinks, and the odd roaming character. (Actually, you could encounter some of the Dungeon's denizens at any time during your visit... I spotted at least three clowns running wild through the lobby while I was there, among other characters.) If you're into magic, the talented magician Lucifer may also be present, performing tricks to entertain the line.
The queue had some additional decor here and there, but I didn't get much time to take it all in before being approached by "Raven", a cloaked and masked woman. She mysteriously offered her hand, a silent request to lead me to Rufus. Hand in hand, we picked our way through a couple of dark, cluttered rooms. When we eventually emerged into his chamber, she released my hand and quietly left me to the big, brutish red demon scowling at me from his throne. Hell's Dungeon actually has a whole story built around this guy and how everything ties back to him; something I, admittedly, need to catch up on, but you can find the full series of videos on their Facebook page.
Regardless, I at least knew that I couldn't afford to be weak in his presence. I parked my hands on my hips and stared right back at him.
He was not at all impressed.
My bravado soon crumbled when Rufus rose from his throne and approached, having zero qualms with getting right in my personal space. I still tried to stand my ground, but he got so close our faces nearly touched and I had to back down. (That has to be the third time I've been put in my place this season. One day I will learn.) Speaking in an amplified growl, Rufus began introducing himself and telling me about his dungeon. This scene was one of my favorite parts of the haunt, mostly because of what they did with the character - I noticed a speaker nearby and thought he was just following a recording, but was later told that he had a microphone hidden in his costume! I thought that really enhanced his presence and made him more intimidating. Due to distortion from the speaker and loud noises coming from the rest of the house, it was a bit hard to follow his speech (that, and he was all in my face the entire time he was talking... kind of distracting). But I got the impression that I wasn't the most welcome guest as far as he was concerned, and it was going to take a lot of luck if I wanted to escape this dungeon alive.
Beyond having its backstory to tie everything together, Hell's Dungeon does not follow a single theme, instead consisting of three areas for groups to explore: the swampy abode of the Firewoods, a family of cannibalistic hillbillies; an insane asylum, and a 3D clown carnival. Each part stretches for several rooms, and having had a full year to work on the show, the haunt has grown and expanded even more from its first season. (If I'm remembering right, the owner told me they added another 10,000 square feet - wow!) The first room or two following the meeting with Rufus felt kind of bare in regards to props and such, but the set work is fairly well done in the rest of the house, especially for one that's only in its second year. Some of the scenes you'll walk through include the Firewood family's disgustingly bloody home and butcher shop (complete with a walk-in freezer), the cemetery they maintain outside, the waiting and examination rooms in the asylum, all manner of brightly colored, 3D mayhem in the clown carnival, and many other creepy and fun rooms.
Something I can't leave out about Hell's Dungeon is that it's one of the more interactive haunts I've experienced. At various points, you'll be asked (or ordered) to stand in specific spots, perform tasks, or touch things in order to keep going - sometimes with unexpected results! The asylum in particular had some tricks up its sleeve... a nurse asked me to look over an x-ray of a hand to check for broken bones, which I did, then yelped when a shot of air suddenly hit my legs! A doctor also ordered me to touch a specific part of an examination table - little did I know it was covered by a shock mat (ouch!). And I flat out wasn't allowed to leave one room until I stood in front of a chalkboard reciting "I WILL NOT DISOBEY" as loudly as I could. (No promises, guys.)
Affectionately referred to as "Rufus' Rejects", the Dungeon's cast is largely on the younger side, but they possess a good level of energy and enthusiasm. You can tell they enjoy what they do, and know the layout of their scenes- and the house- well. I didn't catch his name, but there was an impressive clown roaming the lobby and queue that I just had to grab a photo with. Rufus was a menacing and strong introductory character, and your meeting with him really sets the tone for the rest of your experience. Both the Firewoods and the asylum crazies made sure I was thoroughly harassed throughout the haunt (I remarked to Fred that he might just have some *real* crazies in there!), and the clown in the carnival's laser room popped me four (!) times when I was trying to find the exit... then came back for me later! I didn't notice any scenes that were devoid of actors, either, and that's always a plus.
But as decent as the set design was, and as fun as the actors were, my favorite part of Hell's Dungeon was the ending. After somehow making it past the clutches of the carnival's clowns, I found myself in a white hallway... with curious blood splatters on the walls. Then a door at the end of the hall suddenly slid open.
"... what the hell is THAT?!"
Out came 9 feet tall killer robot on stilts, swiftly ducking under the door frame to advance on me. I have no idea what I thought was going to emerge from that door, but he definitely wasn't it! Naturally I fled, and of course he chased after me... then lingered outside of the exit for a while as I tried to catch my breath. (I was informed later that this mechanical monster's name is "HeyWire". Where the hell did Rufus find him?) Shout out to whoever came up with that idea; I'd been to 15 other haunts at the time, and that was the best ending I'd seen yet! Wasn't expecting it at all.
As far as opportunities for improvement, I didn't see much that wasn't related to the haunt still being a little green, and most of what I did notice was in relation to its environment. Like I mentioned earlier, the scene right after the intro with Rufus felt sort of empty and could use some additional props or pneumatics to fill it in. There is a lot of open space in the Dungeon's waiting area that could be filled in as well. (Within reason - I'm sure they need at least some of that space to accommodate crowds on the busiest nights.) The asylum had a neat elevator effect you enter before starting the carnival portion of the house; the actor in there worked the scene well, but you were basically standing in a big empty wooden box that moved. Painting it up and adding some decor to make it feel more like a real elevator will help.
Hell's Dungeon was fun the first time I went, but they've made some awesome changes for 2021 and I had a great time while I was there. Something I've also noticed in speaking with Fred, as well as his cast and crew, is the passion they have for their haunt and creating a quality show. In my opinion, that's the most important thing if you're looking to get into the haunt industry. I have a feeling this place is only going to get better every season, and I'm really hoping to get back for a return visit next year.
ENVIRONMENT: 7/10 - Not bad at all considering how new the haunt is. Would like to see some extra love given to the queue, the scene following Rufus, and the elevator eventually.
ACTING: 6/10 - Decent number of actors and no dead areas. Cast is energetic and interactive.
SCARE FACTOR: 8/10 - Their actors can be vicious at times, and also hunt in packs (especially in the asylum)! When they aren't scaring you, they're either interacting or entertaining. And that ending was scary, hilarious, and totally unexpected.