Date of Visit: 10/9/21 Reviewer: Lindsay
With a soft rumble over the gravel, the bus rolls out of the parking lot.
Just moments ago, I was standing in line for that bus with dozens of other people. Everyone had been upbeat and talkative, and you could almost feel the excitement in the air. Now, as the bus swiftly carries us away from the familiar downtown area, the excited chatter has died down into nervous whispers. Peering through my window, I watch the city's lights gradually fade out, replaced by pitch black woods that send a prickle of apprehension up the back of my neck. Most of us seem to be thinking the same thing: 'Where are we being taken? And what is waiting for us when we get there...?'
Many places have that classic haunted house story that surfaces around Halloween time. A shabby old house on the block, or dilapidated manor tucked deep into the forest, where unspeakable things are said to have taken place, and the spirits come alive every Fall season. The subject of campfire tales and urban legend. Lockport, Illinois has one of these stories, too - in the form of HellsGate Haunted House, which is where I found myself traveling with a shuttle full of strangers on an overcast October night.
Sister haunt to Statesville Haunted Prison and another creation of the Zombie Army, HellsGate Haunted House was also a haunt I had sitting on my bucket list for a while. It was something of a legend among my haunter friends, many of whom described it as what would happen if Disney World designed a haunted attraction. I've learned to trust their judgement- they work in the industry, after all- and since I was going to be in Lockport for a night visiting Statesville, I figured it was only right that I pay HellsGate a visit, too.
Boy oh boy... if only I'd known just how much I was in for.
HellsGate Haunted House has several different ticket options, from the $35 General Admission to the $125 "Hell Pass", where you can pre-arrange for a friend or family member to receive extra torment! Since they're only 10 minutes from Statesville, I chose to pair them in a "Twice the Terror" combo, granting me VIP access to both for about $71. Parking is free, but something really important you need to know is that you park at a different address from where the haunt is! (Make sure you check their website before leaving to find out where!) Once you've arrived and parked, you'll board a shuttle bus to their real location. I thought this was a nice touch - it adds a little mystery to the experience. There is also a COVID-19 mask requirement inside the bus and the haunt, so don't forget to bring one!
Upon arriving, guests are dropped off next to the haunt's ticket trailer and queue. If you don't have tickets yet, you can purchase some here, or redeem any you bought online. Port-a-potties and concessions are available as well. Loud metal music booms from the big tent that holds the line, and several different characters run about through the crowd, creating a fun atmosphere to get customers pumped for the show. (I felt bad for the girl who had a shovel-wielding villain stalk up to her and cackle, "Is this going to be a problem customer?" He sounded like he was really hoping she was... I shudder to think what happens to a "problem customer" here.)
A classic haunted house adventure demands that it be hidden away in the woods, and the HellsGate experience begins with a jeopardous journey along their haunted trail. While it isn't too long of a trek, the trail is very well done, and you will walk through some crazy sets out there. My group passed the elaborate, bone-laden ritual site of a skeletal monster, had ghouls crawling after us through a cemetery, and dealt with many other creatures and maniacs trying to prevent our escape. The actors in this portion had some clever hiding spots, and knew how to blend well into the forest, too.
Should you manage to brave the spooky woods, you will quickly see The Mansion- the second and largest part of HellsGate- looming ominously up ahead. The setup here is amazing, from the old house's beautifully designed facade, to the cast of characters outside that not only introduce guests to the story, but also assist with crowd control. A woman in a lovely black dress sorted visitors into neat lines so we could enter in an orderly fashion. While waiting, I spotted a man with a lantern up on the balcony, lurking and watching all of us. My attention then settled on the fretful caretaker, pacing back and forth in front of the mansion's doors. Where the woman in the dress had been pleasant, everyone else didn't seem thrilled that we were there. I found myself wondering, 'Why are they all so tense? What is going to happen?'
We would find out shortly after being ushered into the home. The Mansion is where HellsGate goes from great to absolutely incredible, and it all starts with a preshow that's like something straight out of a Disney ride. (Now I know why people made the comparison!) Thunder roared and lightning flashed through the foyer's stained glass windows, fading into silence - silence sharply broken by the arrival of "Mother" at the top of the stairs, and "The Twins", two possessed little girls, above our heads. Their looks and voices alone were enough to make anyone's skin crawl, but I stole a glance at Mother while the Twins were speaking, and was startled to notice that she seemed to be controlling them like puppets... something about the whole scene sent a chill down my spine, and I began to wonder if all of us finding this place would bring about our end. Almost as if in answer, pandemonium struck, and the mansion's staff were soon waving us towards a secret passage in an attempt to get us out safely. From that point on, surviving this house of horrors was up to us.
Every Zombie Army haunt is a full production and HellsGate is no exception; The Mansion is a multi-level attraction that groups will explore from top to bottom, including the basement and attic. A lot of the rooms are appropriate to its theme, like the library containing shelves upon shelves of aged books, and the Twins' bedroom, filled with an uncomfortable amount of eerie dolls (some of them life-sized). Others are a bit random, such as the garden or greenhouse that's home to killer plants, and a laboratory. Some interactive elements have been added, too: finding the key in one room means your ticket is free, and a giant slide takes you from the attic to the basement... where fog shoots out and swallows you on the way down! And the set design was just unreal. I've experienced some killer shows, and this had to be the highest budget haunt I've ever walked through. Massive props, loads of detail, larger-than-life animatronics, and crazy special effects are everywhere you turn. It's kind of hard to put the sheer magnitude of this place into words, but for probably 50% of the walkthrough, my mouth was hanging open behind my mask - and a steady stream of "dude!" and "oh my god!" came out when it wasn't.
(My only complaint: they have an operations team spread throughout the house to keep groups moving, so you don't get as much time to admire the work they've put into their show. However, not only were these employees costumed, they were also in character, frantically waving us along as if we'd be in grave danger if we didn't keep going - an excellent way to maintain both immersion and crowd flow at the same time!)
Whatever darkness has befallen the manor has not only corrupted those who call it home, but also completely infested it with wicked souls and nightmarish monsters. Actors are all over the place, and with the amount of eye candy found throughout the haunt, they've got plenty of chances to catch you off guard. There was an emphasis on pop-out scares, but when the cast did get a few more seconds with you, they were not at all afraid to get in your bubble, gang up on you, and trap you in rooms in pursuit of more frights. I do want to drop a shout out to "Miss Daisy" in one of the transition scenes, as I really enjoyed my interaction with her. She was just floored that I came alone - and thought my The Houses October Built shirt was so scary! The actors just before the slide also commended me on my bravery... then sent me down by myself, resulting in me getting trapped and tormented by the two actors in the room that followed (a guy with longer hair and a short girl, both in bloody clothes). Thanks, guys.
If you are fortunate enough to escape HellsGate without being consumed by the darkness, the haunt's excellence doesn't stop when you walk out of the exit. They have an extensive gift shop stuffed with merch and other spooky goodies. The gift shop also exits into their midway, where visitors can enjoy free photo ops, play games, do an escape room, purchase more concessions (they have mixed drinks!), and watch videos. I would've liked to see a few roaming characters here, too, but after everything that house just threw at you, I can see the need for a space where people can fully decompress.
There are many things I could say to sum up my experience at HellsGate Haunted House, but what happened right after it was over should give you a good idea. Walking in a daze towards the gift shop, I said out loud to no one at all: "What in the hell did I just walk through...?" It was one of the best haunted houses I've ever been lucky enough to see, and any die hard haunted house fan absolutely has to put it on their list.
ENVIRONMENT: 10/10 - Nothing short of incredible. HellsGate sets out to tell a true Halloween story and they completely pull it off from beginning to end.
ACTING: 9/10 - Both the haunted trail and mansion were loaded with actors. Great enthusiasm from their whole cast.
SCARE FACTOR: 8/10 - There is a lot in here to spook and entertain customers! Actors are literally everywhere, and may attack from any direction.
OVERALL: 10/10 - Congratulations to HellsGate Haunted House for being the very first haunt I've reviewed to pull off this score! This place is a must see!