As the number of scare events across the UK expands and spreads like wildfire, the locations continue to get more niche, stranger, and in some cases inherently more awesome. Such is exactly the case with the Halloween Unfairground, a seasonal night-time takeover of the entire of Weston-Super-Mare’s Grand Pier, now in its second year. Seeing such an immense structure – especially one so associated with childhood fun and summer times – bathed in ominous green light and flaming torches duly establishes the tone for the unique (and dichotomous) night ahead.
Kick-starting barely inside the ticket barriers with a dramaturgical setpiece involving a puppeteer and his wayward Punch & Judy marionettes, Unfairground sets its theatrical intentions from the get go. It’s always nice seeing scare events investing effort in creating an actual script and staged scenes; and this opening wonderfully set the mood, boasting creepy masks, a tongue in cheek seaside humour, fun audience interaction and the idiosyncratic occurrence of actually being chased into an attraction! Established from the very outset is how committed Unfairground’s actors are to their characters, and to getting both a laugh and fright from their audience.
Following the opening scene is a long promenade walk to the head of the enclosed pier, accompanied along the way by one nicely surprise impact scare, we felt that this tunnel could have doubled down on the fear even more with some tension building music, smoke and distracting lighting; small tweaks that could make the opening to the event even stronger.
The hub of the main event is a lights-down takeover of the actual main pier arcade: all the neon machines are turned off and the happy seaside ragtime music is supplanted for ghostly wails, Halloweenish pop songs, and the background whirr of carnival rides. All in all a creepy atmosphere, though once again one I think could have been enhanced with a smoke machine and some wandering ‘street’ entertainment.
As for the mazes, almost all are refits of the daytime Pier attractions, an impressive feat considering they presumably are open during daytime operation and have to be transformed in the hour between closing and Unfairground opening. The only bespoke build for the event is incidentally the first you come across:
Built specifically for the event, FREAKSHOW takes place in a marquee and plywood maze just outside the main pier, as a winding warren of black walls and carnival staple vignettes. The design team may have been watching a little too much Total Wipeout or Takeshi’s Castle while laying this one out, as the obstacles within were often so challenging we were scared for our health moreso than from the scareactors. Having a pitch black walkway with netting blockades at ankle height were more annoying than frightening, and many of the other obstacle rooms – such as the bungee-chord maze – didn’t capitalise on the good distraction opportunity this is for actors. Sadly most of the actors we met within were uncharacteristically flat, and preferred to sit and stare, or lie down and throw hay at us; once again more irksome than scary. All that being said, the maze did have a couple of nice touches, the ring-master compare at the entrance was wonderful, the balloon strewn floor was perfect for self-caused startles and clown stalking, and a UV slime room contained one of the most interesting actor makeups we saw all season. But the less said about the electric-chainsaw finale the better… Leatherface is rolling in his grave.
Taking over half of the pier’s resident funhouse, CRAZY CIRCUS is less of a scare maze and more of said Funhouse: Live; as after-hours it is populated with a plethora of clowns. Once again, the cast really showed their commitment to actual characters in here, abstaining from the usual grunts and boo tactics in favour of dialogue and sustained interactions. That being said though, due to the nature of the attraction being brightly lit and openly visible, this one was very light on scares as you could see all the actors from several scenes away. For coulrophobes this would be a nightmare, but for us it was a fun and kooky jaunt. If there was any way to dim the lights or narrow & occlude the route, CRAZY CIRCUS has real potential to be a unique and scary experience.
As Unfairground’s hooded maze, something I malign, DEAD END was never going to be top of my must-do list; but here they do break standard maze protocol by having the actors able to touch you (well, they’ve got to do something eh?!). Even with that facet though everything failed to resonate and just left me feeling the scares were nullified by the distraction of trying to find your way. Blind orienteering isn’t scary to me, but lazy haunt building is. Seeing as this uses the Pier’s “Crystal Maze” permanent attraction, it would be nice to see these sets used more explicitly in the future. All that being said though, this maze accrued by far the longest queue of the night and did seem to be causing some good screams from other guests.
HOUSE OF HORRORS: ALIVE
What’s scarier than a ghost train? A ghost train with real ghosts!… Or rather a girl that dresses like a ghost and leaps onto your trundling car. The concept of putting live actors in a ghost train isn’t a new one, but it’s one that is reliably effective (and much missed in Alton Tower’s case). It plays on your expectations of cardboard cutouts and budget animatronics, eschewing and juxtaposing them for sudden and startlingly fluid scares: for every 3 rattling robot skeletons that creak towards the train, one will leap forth and charge at your carriage beset to get way closer to your face than any ghost train can ever manage. Likely a health and safety nightmare nonetheless all the actors blending in well with their respective scenes and managed to elicit a good variation of solid jump scares, always breaking the safety net of being within a ride train.
HOUSE OF MURDERS
Occupying the other half of the pier’s funhouse is the clumsily titled, but delightfully executed, HOUSE OF MURDERS, containing the events most coherent and pre-ordained storyline, most astute scares and by far best actors. Almost setup like a simple promenade theatre piece, HoM has you follow in the footsteps of the Seaside Slayer across several murder set-pieces and crime scenes. Whether by necessity or choice, only one actor plays the titular killer meaning you often enter a scene to interrupt or discover his killing, receive a scare only for him to run forward to set up the next one while you interact with the victim. Absolute plaudits go to the majestically-long haired actor we had in the role that night who expertly handled this task of storytelling, scene setting, and repeated scare executing, to effectively stage manage a maze of this manner, all while providing intense and closeup frights is no small task. Also of note is how vocally forceful and scream-queen worthy the actresses playing the victims were within. Despite being quite short, and lacking a big finale or satisfying story conclusion (possibly due to the actor limitations), this was by far the best attraction of the night; utilising the dichotomy of actual grimy horror with the dazzling lights of the funhouse to disturbing effect.
So ironically enough our favourite attractions of the night seemed to be the ones that were least interested in fitting the pre-set scare-maze mould. Where Unfairground seems to really exceed in is creativity born from necessity. Having to shoehorn scare attractions into a day-time funland forces their hand to make some unique choices; and while some work better than others, the reliably committed acting team coupled with these settings prove that limited means can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
Conscious of the limitations daytime operations may enforce, it would be great to see more theming elements and atmospherics added to certain mazes, and the nature of the property would make for a fantastic haven for roaming scare actors. The creative team at Weston Pier have a great model on their hands here, and one we look forward to returning in the future to see how they develop it, hoping that they capitalise on all the eccentricities that make this scare attraction so unique. Who needs fun in the sun, when you can have fear on the pier?