Written by: Matt Patti | September 29th, 2023
SPOOKTACULAR! (Quinn Monahan, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Halloween season is fast approaching, and many Americans are likely already planning their trips to a haunted attraction. A good number of these haunts are not just staged in a single house, though, but in multiple houses and mazes in one location combined into one larger event: “Scream Parks,” as some label them, range from theme parks offering special Halloween treats to local family farms putting on shows with haunted hayrides and frightening cornfield walk-throughs.
While very prevalent today, in the early 1990s these huge events were nonexistent. There were, of course, local haunted houses that offered a singular experience, but having multiple haunted attractions in one single location was unheard of. That all changed with the opening of one small Massachusetts haunt: “Spooky World.”
In 1991, David Bertolino, a man who worked in the Halloween-costume business, was quite enthralled with the popularity of autumn hayrides. He wanted to cash in on this money-maker and bought a farm and surrounding field in Berlin, Massachusetts, but he also had a novel idea: make the hayride scary. Thus, one of the first-ever haunted hayrides was introduced: a hayride taking place at night that involved creepy props and actors dressed in terrifying costumes chasing the wagon.
Bertolino named the attraction “Spooky Hayride,” but the property actually consisted of both the hayride and a horror museum in which props and costumes could be purchased. The townspeople, and even folks from further areas, fell in love with the idea and Bertolino raked in the success of unexpectedly high crowds. The following year, in 1992, he decided to add a haunted house to the property, and America’s first horror theme park was born.
In his debut feature, SPOOKTACULAR!, director Quinn Monahan explores nearly every aspect of Spooky World in detail. From its origins to its substantial growth and eventual demise, Monahan gives the viewer a complete look at the popular attraction. As a haunt enthusiast myself, this documentary is especially intriguing, as it shows the beginning of the multi-experience haunt phenomenon.
SPOOKTACULAR! highlights fascinating insider information about what it takes to run a haunted house, including building-code specifics and managing a workforce of actors with varying personalities. One can certainly sympathize with the challenges these haunt owners face. The creativity of the designers of Spooky World is also on full display here, as we discover some of the tactics they use to build sets, perform stunts, and effectively frighten guests.
While these practices are used in many different haunted attractions around the country, Monahan does a great job at bringing to light what made Spooky World stand out. The actors and most of the employees were all local townspeople, from farmers to cops. One of the largest draws for customers was the special guests that Bertolino would feature. Such horror icons as Robert Englund and Linda Blair, who respectively starred in A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist, made appearances at Spooky World to sign autographs and meet fans.
While celebrating how special Spooky World was, Monahan manages to take an objective view of the attraction. The film features interviews with employees and patrons alike, some exclaiming how terrifying the event was to them and some folks not nearly impressed. Also, Monahan shows the growth of Spooky World, with a very satisfying visual of a park map showcasing its expansion over the years. However, the decline is equally noted, showing the struggles and challenges Bertolino faced and the humps he had to navigate, some of which he could not overcome.
While SPOOKTACULAR! is enthralling and quite enjoyable, it is not perfect. The one prominent annoyance throughout is the recurring scenes from old horror films that play between interviews. These detract from the doc overall and are quite distracting to the viewer.
The pacing is sometimes also a bit strange. Some elements, such as Bertolino’s childhood, are explored midway through the runtime instead of at the beginning, which is an odd choice. Also, the editors do a decent job of assimilating virtual interviews into the doc alongside in-person ones, but there are a few virtual interviews that are of poor quality and are unfortunately noticeable.
In the end, SPOOKTACULAR! is a fascinating look at America’s first horror theme park. The interviews are captivating, whether they are in support of Spooky World or not, and the growth and decline of the park are both highly intriguing and eye-opening. The film really encapsulates everything about the haunted-house industry into one case study of a particular haunted attraction, and Spooky World is the perfect candidate. Scary for some and pure fun for others, Spooky World laid the groundwork for the Scream Parks of today, but many will argue there will never again be a place quite like Spooky World.
[SPOOKTACULAR! just had its world premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.]