Date of Visit: 10/1/22 (Opening Weekend) Reviewer: Lindsay
Following a narrow escape from a chainsaw-slinging lunatic, we've finally emerged from the trees. It does not take me long to lose the strangers I entered with - they swiftly disappear into the haze up ahead. Their fates are lost on me, I know I will never see them again. There is now only me, the infernal glow of the heavy fog - and the looming, dilapidated mansion, its outline barely visible beyond the tall iron gates. By all accounts, the place looks like it should be abandoned... but I know, all too well, that it is very much alive.
If you're thinking this sounds like the introduction to a haunted house story you'd hear around Halloween, you aren't too far off. In reality, it began my adventure through the legendary HellsGate Haunted House, a dark secret lurking within the forests of Lockport, Illinois.
A creation of the talented team at Zombie Army Productions, I was introduced to HellsGate over the 2021 season, when I was in town to visit their late sister haunt, Statesville Haunted Prison. Other than my haunter friends insisting it was a "must see", I went into this one pretty much blind, with no real knowledge of its storyline or characters. And wow... I was completely unprepared for what I found! Their show absolutely blew my mind, one of the best I'd ever experienced. At the end of the season, my team allowed me to give out an award to one of the haunts I visited. The Living Horror Story Award was created to reward haunts that go above and beyond to provide an immersive show for their customers. When I looked over all of my qualifying haunts, I couldn't think of a better one to be the first winner than HellsGate. I contacted them to arrange a visit this year, and when the first night of October came, I kicked off the month in the best way possible: venturing into the woods to face the Darkness once again.
HellsGate offers several ticket options for you to tailor your experience. The standard General Admission ($35) and expedited tickets (VIP - $50, Instant Entry - $65) are there, but did you know you can also purchase an All Access Pass to score a backstage tour and other goodies? And if you contact the haunt at least 24 hours in advance, you can set up a "Hell Pass" to arrange for a member of your group to receive some extra special (read: extra scary) attention! (Tip: purchase tickets online to save money! Prices are higher if you buy when you arrive.) Parking is free, but at a completely different address from where they are actually located - make sure to visit their website before you go.
A spooky adventure calls for a little mystery; once you reach the parking lot, your experience starts by boarding a shuttle bus to find the haunt's real location. No sooner have you all settled into your seats than the bus swiftly carries everyone away, traveling briefly through a downtown area before plunging into the pitch black woods. (Hold on tight, because it's a rocky ride!) Upon arriving, guests will have the opportunity to purchase tickets, use the potties, and grab some concessions to enjoy as they wait. Make your way to the big striped tent to get in line, but watch out for roaming monsters! Statesville's former inmates managed to break out of the old prison, and many of them have settled nicely into their new home at this house of horrors. Right off the bat, I had one of their clowns, Sharky, barring me from entering the VIP line. Following a quick photo, I also encountered Skraps ("Slider Jesus") and Heretic on my way in. Between the energetic line actors and rocking soundtrack in the tent, the atmosphere is perfect for getting the audience pumped for the show!
In order to reach the main house, HellsGate sends groups off to navigate a treacherous trail through the woods. This part isn't too long, but it does a terrific job of setting the tone for their story. As you tread carefully among the trees and explore these cursed grounds, you'll encounter lurching, snarling zombies, imps, ghouls, maniacal groundskeepers, and other threats hell bent on ensuring you don't find your way out. There are some really cool sets out here - I remember a thick, foggy green swamp and a crumbling old cemetery being among them. We also approached a large shack, where an older gentleman waved us in, claiming we'd be safe from the zombies in there... yeah, he was either wrong or lying. My favorite part was a really intense scene that forced my group to squeeze through tight wooden passages and tunnels, while contending with blinding fog the entire time. We eventually stumbled back outside, but our relief was short lived... we barely dodged the chainsaw maniac waiting for us out there, and while the taller one with the hammer showed me a little mercy, I can't say the same for the others.
If you make it past all of the monsters prowling the forest, you'll soon reach the mansion, the largest part of the haunt. The immersion only deepens here, where the manor's staff collects guests and neatly organizes them to enter the house. (A word of warning: making it this far doesn't mean you're safe at all... more characters lurk outside!) Once everyone was gathered inside, a preshow commenced where the servants attempted to warn us that their home isn't as it seems, and we'd be wise to avoid touching anything or anyone. Unfortunately for them- and us- their warnings were sharply interrupted by the arrival of The Twins, two possessed little girls appearing over our heads. To make a long story short, pandemonium struck not long after they showed up, and it became clear that Darkness itself had full control over this place. The mansion's staff quickly ushered us out, but that was as far as they could go... escaping from this doomed estate was now completely on us.
HellsGate's mansion is an impressive beast, with multiple levels that will have groups literally exploring it from top to bottom. Many of its rooms are appropriate to the theme, like the library, with its lopsided shelves filled with old, fraying books. Or the kitchen, messily stacked with pots and pans, and presided over by a scowling, piggish chef - who didn't appreciate our intrusion and let us know it! You'll also walk through the Twins' unsettling, darkness-infested bedroom, filled to the brim with eerie dolls... and there might be some clowns hiding in there, too. Of course, the Darkness had to make some "renovations" when it took over, and the scenes only get crazier as you progress through the house. We entered a laboratory with experiments in progress, battled our way through a cave filled with massive dragons, and had to descend from the upper level via a giant slide, where fog shot out and enveloped us on the way down! The atmosphere in this place is equal parts creepy and chaotic, and it's honestly hard to put the full scope of the production into words... big props, special effects, animatronics, hidden passageways, and crazy amounts of detail are everywhere you turn. Just like the first time, my face was a constant mix of fear, wonder, and delight as I was going through.
(By the way, the show's ending has received a complete overhaul for 2022. I'm trying to avoid spoiling too much, but it was as insane as the rest of the house is - beautifully designed, yet scary if you allow yourself to be immersed. It made me uncomfortable in the best way... the feeling of 'we need to get out of here or we're next' was almost overwhelming. Amazing!)
The mansion itself wasn't the only thing tainted when the Darkness arrived: it's also infected many of the home's staff, transforming them into twisted, darker versions of themselves, and opening the door for all manner of terrible monsters to invade the place, too. HellsGate has more actors than I've ever seen in a haunt at once, and they are literally everywhere. Pretending to be props, finding creative spots to pop out, stalking you (I don't know how many times I looked over and someone was following next to me!), whispering in your ears, some even flew overhead! Some were a bit more interactive or aggressive than others, but all of them were devoted to their roles, especially considering it was their first weekend. I'm not hard to scare, but they made me scream- my loud, horror movie scream- at least four times, and getting that reaction is not so easy. (My apologies to the poor actor who heard one of those and was like "was that your scream I just heard?! My goodness!" Sorry for the noise, but that just means you all got me good!)
If you were lucky enough to evade the Darkness' clutches, some awesome things are waiting when you get out. HellsGate's gift shop is among the best I've seen, not only selling any merch you could ever want, but also handmade spooky art! And right outside the door is their new midway, where you can have photos taken, play games, purchase food and drink, or warm up by the fire. Some fun changes have also been made here for 2022, including a Fobbles (fog-filled bubbles) machine and- to my delight- roaming characters! That was the one thing I felt the midway needed on my last visit, and I'm glad they got some actors out there.
This was only my second visit to HellsGate Haunted House, and as I live pretty far away, I regret that I can't drive up to see them every year. But their show has quickly become one of my all time favorites, and they will absolutely have my business any time I'm in the area during haunt season. I really can't stress this enough: if you love haunted houses, consider coming out to the Chicago area and finding this mysterious mansion in the woods... you'll be very glad you did.
ENVIRONMENT: 10/10 - Perfect in every way. The mysterious bus ride, the lively atmosphere of the tent and midway, the highly immersive trail and mansion. I loved it all!
ACTING: 8/10 - The entire property is loaded with talented actors. A few did seem more reserved the night I went, but it was their first weekend, too.
SCARE FACTOR: 8/10 - Early in the house, we wound up with a conga line that was 3 or 4 groups deep the rest of the way. And they were still finding ways to scare us! I couldn't believe it!
OVERALL: 9/10 - One of the best haunted houses in the country! If you are a serious haunt lover, you have to come here!