For many Alaskans, Halloween conjures up childhood memories of extra-large costumes, worn over of our snowsuits as we went trick-or-treating through knee-deep snow while doing our best to avoid the houses known for handing out toothbrushes or religious pamphlets. It means candy corn, hot cocoa and belly aches.
For adults, it's a chance to escape, perhaps to imbibe a little too much, dress up and act out in ways that would be frowned upon any other time of year. It's an opportunity to be someone or something else for a night, and have fun doing it. All bets are off on Halloween.
There's a small group of particularly enthusiastic Alaskans, however, who have Halloween on the brain year-round. These are folks -- some describe themselves as "warped" -- who have made the art and technology of scaring people a labor of love.
GATEWAY TO DARKNESS
Michelle Marsh is one of those people. She and her family have run Gateway to Darkness for the last eight years. "I've always loved Halloween and have been intrigued in how to scare people. We used to have a pretty elaborate haunted house in our garage," she says. "Then I found a haunted house attraction trade show online, attended that, and came back totally inspired."
Gateway to Darkness, open every weekend through Nov. 2, is now located in one of a long row of large Quonset huts in an industrial area on the north end of Wasilla. It looks unassuming from the outside and might be difficult to locate if not for the orange spray-painted sign near the front door. Once inside, however, you're immediately transported into an meticulously produced macabre madhouse. This haunted house is geared for people over the age of 12. It's not kid-friendly, and makes no apologies for that.
The very first attraction -- the entrance to the haunted house itself -- is also one of the most anxiety-inducing. Visitors are forced to wedge themselves through a tiny slit between two large inflatable walls for what feels like a solid 15 feet. It's impossible to sense what awaits at the end of tunnel, and those suffering from claustrophobia may find traversing it an impossible endeavor.
Without giving too much away, Gateway to Darkness excels in the element of surprise. It mixes live actors with mechanical dolls and dummies, and it's mostly impossible to tell the difference between them until one of them bursts to life. There's a clown room and a meat locker and a terrifying pig man.
The haunted house relies heavily on strobe lights and mazes to create a sense of disorientation and unease. About halfway through you're given a pair of 3-D glasses to wear, which makes parts of the walls jump out at you, and some of the actors are painted to blend in with the walls. At some point, it's difficult to walk in a straight line. And even if you could, you're not sure where to go or how to escape.
"I love seeing fear on people's faces. It's fascinating to me," Marsh says. "It's healthy to scream. It releases endorphins."
Marsh admits, however, that there have been a few incidents in which people have had unpleasant side effects. "We've had a girl have a panic attack once," she says. "A few have lost bodily functions, and lots of people just close their eyes and try to run out of there as quickly as possible."
Marsh says that the production is a yearlong family project. They submit floor plans to the fire marshal the year prior. In the off-season, they attend trade shows, research new technologies and build props. By May of each year, they are already beginning to construct the set.
"It's truly a family affair," Marsh says. "Our daughter has worked with us since she was 9 years old and it's something we all get to enjoy together."
If you are unable to make the trek to Wasilla, or are looking for more kid-friendly options, Anchorage has a few. Fright Night is an Anchorage staple, much improved over its nearly three decades in existence as special effects technology has evolved and the art of scaring people has been refined. It's open every evening through Nov. 2.
"This will be our second year utilizing 3-D technology," Fright Nite manager Kurt Solberg said. "People were really impressed with what we had last year, and it's only improved. Images are more vibrant, and things really seem to jump out at you."
Solberg says the 10,000 square-foot haunted house, located in the Northway Mall, takes about 15-20 minutes to walk through. During that time, participants will have to navigate through mazes, a clown room, and a "Nightmare on Elm Street"-themed chamber, among others.
"It's the detail work that takes all of your time," explains Solberg. "I love to sculpt and paint, and a lot of the spooky stuff is inspired by my grandson, who loves Halloween."
Even though it's his brainchild, Solberg admits that he's not immune to Fright Nite's intended effects. "The baby room freaks me out," he says.
Solberg works as a safety officer during the daylight hours, so safety has always been a priority at Fright Nite. The attraction is wheelchair accessible and designed to be inclusive of everyone, young and old. "There's spooky psychological stuff for the adults," Solberg explains, "And more surprising elements that pop out and scare the little ones."
Another option this year is a haunted house at American Legion Post #1 from 5-9 p.m. Oct. 28-31. For those willing to brave the cold outdoors of late October, Anchorage Parks and Recreation offers up family fun at Goose Lake Park for the ninth year in a row. "Haunted Trails" is designed for all ages and comes complete with carnival games, a trick-or-treat trail for the little ones over age 3, and a spooky trail for kids ages 8 and up. This year, it's held on Oct. 25.
According to Recreation Programmer Jennifer Thorne, the focus of the event is fun for all ages. "That's why we have two different trails and a lots of different activities," she says. "There are games, arts and crafts, storytelling and hot chocolate. It's a safe environment, and our goal is to provide activities for the whole family."
Alaskans are hardier than most, and we defy the elements each year to venture outside dressed to impress in Halloween get-ups usually complimented by snow boots and mittens. Whether you crave Halloween thrills that have induced panic attacks in others, or you're looking for a safe and wholesome event for the kids, Anchorage and Mat-Su have you covered.
Gateway to Darkness
Open 7-11 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Halloween
6-9 p.m. Sunday
From now until Nov. 2
1241 W. Melanie Ave, Wasilla
3-D Fright Night at the Northway Mall
Open 6-9 p.m. Sun.-Thursday
6-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
From now until Nov. 2
$10, $15 for 3-D
3101 Penland Pkwy., Anchorage
4:30-6:30 p.m. Trick or Treat Trail (ages 3 and up)
6:45-8 p.m. Spooky Trail (ages 8 and up)
Friday, Oct. 25 at Goose Lake Park
$5-$8 per person, tickets at Fairview Recreation Center
5-9 p.m. Oct. 28-31
$4 for adults, $2 for children under 13
American Legion Post #1
840 W. Fireweed Lane