Get Spooked: Howl-O-Scream’s 2018 Houses

Are you ready to get spooked this Halloween?

Courtesy of Busch Gardens Press Images

Are you ready to get spooked this Halloween?

October, affectionately labeled the “Spooky Season” by the most dedicated Halloween aficionados, is upon us once again, Monarchs. As festive gourds are carved, sweaters donned, and pumpkin-spiced beverages sipped, there is one Halloween tradition on the Virginia Peninsula that is celebrating another season: Howl-O-Scream.

For the past twenty years, Halloween lovers across Virginia have flocked to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg for nightly scares and spooks in the park’s numerous haunted houses and scare zones. The attraction has become particularly popular with high school students in the area, who use the event as a hangout with friends.

Courtesy of Busch Gardens Press Images
The haunted houses at Busch Gardens have become a Halloween staple on the peninsula.

But, with great popularity comes great…lines. The park can get pretty busy, so how can one know which houses are worth the wait? Well, Monarchs, have we got the list for you.

Howl-O-Scream is home to seven haunted houses this year- three of them completely new. After much thought, these houses have been debated and brutally rated according to scare factor, aesthetic appeal, and overall theme, helping you know which houses are right for you. Each house has a brief summary of its defining points, and #1 spots were awarded to a house for each of the aforementioned categories.


Scare Factor: Not very scary- you can usually see what’s coming

Aesthetic Appeal: Nice incorporation of the natural environment

Overall Theme: Stereotypical Halloween chainsaws trope, a bit weak

This haunted house pulls from all the classic scare tropes, as if Busch Gardens saw zombies, chainsaws, and light cannibalism and just said “yeah, throw a bit of plaid flannel in there and it’ll be great.” Apparently this tactic works, as Lumberhack was one of Busch Gardens’ oldest Haunted Houses to make the cut (pun fully intended) this year. The story goes that workers at the logging camp are now zombies, awaking from the dead after getting a bit too close to the saw equipment in their previous life. The maze is outdoors on dirt paths and bridges, which incorporates the natural woodsy scenery of Busch Gardens to the best effect. Scares are fairly sparse and rely mostly on sounds like chainsaws, shovels, the usual screams of agony, but the decoration is exemplary, and the severed limbs that line the path look best at night.


Scare Factor: Not bad, but not very scary

Aesthetic Appeal: Interesting design, but copious pathways of corn make up most of the maze

Overall Theme: A creative original twist on the corn maze

Continuing the theme of Midwestern-set loss of limbs, Cornered centers on the story of a cursed farming community where people are disappearing and corn husk dolls are left in their place- supposedly the work of a farmer named Jasper McCobb (yes, that’s a corn pun). This story is undoubtedly one of the more thought-out plots Busch Gardens has designed for their haunted houses, but it does not necessarily come through in the maze. Still, even if it doesn’t fully utilize the backstory, Cornered is a fairly well-constructed house. The entire outdoor structure is built as a corn maze with intermittent rooms and silos within; it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the interior makes incredible use of the space and hides any structural elements in decoration. Scare-wise, Cornered is a little tame (unless you have a thing about birds…), and any real jumps will likely be caused by performers disguised in the corn or the Busch Gardens favorite, people hiding behind tiny trapdoors.


Scare Factor: Laughable

Aesthetic Appeal: Artistically done, like a macabre Fr0zen

Overall Theme: A little too whimsical to be dark and fear-inducing

The first indoor maze on this list, Frostbite steps outside the realm of typical Halloween spooks for something a bit more whimsical. According to the entrance video (which features some ridiculous green screen work and a laughable costume), legend says that the giant that protected the space and kept it warm has died, leaving the castle to be taken over by ice creatures of an unspecified nature. The story isn’t great, there’s no way around that; what might have been an interesting premise for using the DarKastle building ended up being a little more Frozen than fear-inducing. However, this house debuted some of the newest scare technology at Busch Gardens, including overhead cages, bungee lines, fake snow, and temperature control to create a distinct atmosphere. With Frostbite being situated in the former DarKastle building, the park was also able to make excellent use of the line space in the house, decorating the outdoor waiting areas with lights and costumed performers to make the waiting experience more interesting.

Circo Sinistro

Scare Factor: Excellent performers make for great scares

Aesthetic Appeal: #1 on the list- Hauntingly beautiful

Overall Theme: #1 on the list- Very immersive and all elements stay true to the concept

Undoubtedly one of Howl-O-Scream’s more popular attractions, Circo Sinistro excels in all categories. The house theme is modeled around a nefarious 19th century circus, and that’s all the story it needs. Guests are taken through different old-timey train cars and tents in a combination of indoor and outdoor zones, each with a different theme or twisted aspect. Performers are fully costumed in detailed 19th century garb and vintage clown fashion, and the rooms are intricately decorated in extreme detail. Circo Sinistro is perhaps the most immersive haunted house in the park due to the sheer expanse of the maze space and variation in scare tactics. While certain rooms of the maze have changed slightly since its opening in 2016, the house still provides a unique experience. The line might tend to be a little long for this one, but it’s worth the wait.


Scare Factor: #1 on the list- Heavily relies on noise, but guaranteed to get the most screams

Aesthetic Appeal: Very well-made props, but nothing special aside from that

Overall Theme: Dystopian future is a bit of a tired theme

Dystopia is the first new house on this list, replacing the classic (and well-aged) Deadline in the Escape from Pompeii park space. Essentially, this house read a bit too much into George Orwell’s iconic work, 1984, and thought “yes, now let’s make it gross.” The dystopian, post-apocalyptic future trope has been played in excess across all sorts of media in the past few years, but Busch Gardens cranks up the dial to 11. Each room is designed to be a step in the process of brainwashing and physically conforming guests to the new dystopian standard. There’s “hypnosis,” surgery, and then a series of rooms that don’t really make sense, but serve as an opportunity for scare performers to bang trash cans and rattle chain link fences (hey, someone has to reuse the old Deadline props). The house relies heavily on grotesque prop people and bodies instead of actors in many parts of the house, particularly the final room, which contains what might be the most detailed and disgusting prop piece Busch Gardens has ever designed. All of this combines to become a house that may not be conventionally scary, but definitely startling and scream-inducing. Overall, though, Dystopia, also the longest maze currently in operation, lacks the originality and human element of the other houses.

Demented Dimensions

Scare Factor: Pretty spooky and weird, but not scary

Aesthetic Appeal: Through the roof, very bizarre and well-crafted

Overall Theme: Nonexistent

There’s some complicated backstory involving dimensions, portals, and monsters for those who really want to connect all the pieces, but Demented Dimensions is designed to be a maze of wildly differing rooms with no real relation to one another- and it’s wonderful. In particular, the maze captures the element of surprise because guests truly never know what the theme of the next room will be. Forget about the “everything  and the kitchen sink,” Demented Dimensions threw in a giant tea set, several couches, and a full DJ booth for good measure (no seriously, those are all actual set pieces). Busch Gardens pulled out all the stops with blacklights, strobe effects, fog, sound, and incredible set design to craft an experience that keeps guests on edge through the entire maze. Sure there’s not much story continuity or extensive lore, but the house doesn’t need that to be fun, weird, and a bit spooky.

The Vault XX

Scare Factor: Very tame

Aesthetic Appeal: A wide variety of different elements and themes

Overall Theme: No continuity, but a wonderful series of spooks from the past

The Vault XX is a special anniversary maze set up for this year’s Howl-O-Scream- the 20th celebration of its kind. In honor of the years of frights, Busch Gardens has resurrected (or rather, exhumed) some characters and decorations from the most popular discontinued houses. As the maze starts, guests walk through a morgue with the titles of former mazes on the compartments- a rather tongue-in-cheek memory lane. From there, the house leads through a succession of mini-rooms and characters stolen from Howl-O-Scream’s best, including werewolves from Hunted, Scarlett the witch from Unearthed, Clowns from 13, Little Red Riding Hood from Deadtime Stories, and a mummy from Curse of Pompeii. The maze isn’t particularly scary and there’s no new theme, but longtime fans of the event may enjoy seeing their favorite frights back in action for one time only.