Fright Haven: A Strip Mall Spooktacular 

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Stratford, Connecticut is home to a LA Fitness, a Discount Seafood restaurant, and, most thrillingly, Fright Haven: “Connecticut’s largest, scariest, and greatest world class indoor haunted house attraction.” 

On the morning of Sunday, October 16th, when I decided to brave Fright Haven, only one friend, Andrea, had agreed to embark on this quest with me. Serendipitously, our friends Susannah and Bradley also hopped in the Uber for a last-minute study break. We began the trek to Stratford around 6:30 p.m. As I sat passenger-side to Fahat––our lovely Uber driver––it hit me that I, in fact, had never been to a haunted house. I decided to start scouring the internet for any information that I could find on the attraction.

On its website, Fright Haven describes itself as a non-profit haunted attraction that has been donating its proceeds to the greater Stratford community since 2015. By the “greater Stratford community,” they mean the unexpected combination of the CT Burns Care Foundation and the Stratford Police Department.

They have carefully curated 20,000 square feet of scares with two storylines: Hotel Hex and Witching Hour. The Fright Haven website paints a very vivid picture of the attractions. Hotel Hex (a new plotline for the 2022 season) tells the story of a journalist who disappears while investigating an abandoned hotel on the outskirts of town. In a similar vein, Witching Hour follows a family that goes missing in the woods and the little boy who attempts to find them. It is unclear on the website whether these are two completely separate attractions which just happen to be under the same roof, or if they are somehow narratively intertwined. 

On Yelp, the people’s soapbox, attendees are divided on the quality of Stratford’s spookiest indoor attraction. With an average of three and a half stars, reviews ranged from “This place is absolute trash. By far, the worst haunt I have ever visited in any state I have been in for Halloween” to “This is literally the first ever haunted house I’ve ever been to that I was genuinely scared. I will definitely be coming again.” The Google reviews community was similarly split on whether Fright Haven was the best or worst $25 they had ever spent. One user wrote, “Easily worst horror attraction I have ever done. Went last fall and now that I am starting to see ads for it, I feel compelled to say something.” The owner of Fright Haven replied, “Hi. Sorry you had a bad time, but there were 44 actors tonight. We usually try to have 50ish. After that we run out of places to put them. Maybe they were all on break when you went through?” Needless to say, we had no idea what to expect. 

As we pulled into the strip mall, I immediately feared that I had copied the address into the Uber app incorrectly. Fahat slowly inched his Toyota RAV4 around the strip mall, and there was no world-class indoor fright attraction to be seen. I caught a glimpse of a 99-cent store, Marshalls, and LA Fitness––exactly what the website had described––but no Fright Haven.

As we pulled around a corner, faint rainbow strobe lights and heavy bass vibrations signaled that we had arrived. The building resembled an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory––that is, if someone had decided that what a Burlington was missing was a rusted shipping container parked out front. 

After many thank-yous to Fahat, we walked into the establishment with a sense of calm, until Susannah caught a glimpse of a half-dead bellhop wearing a dunce cap. She hid behind me as we tiptoed to retrieve our tickets. Andrea decided that she should use the restroom before we braved what Fright Haven had to offer. 

“Hey, where’s your bathroom?”

“Only one we got is outside. The Porta Potties in the parking lot,” the man behind the desk replied. 

Andrea’s eyes widened.

“It’s all part of the experience, hon.”

We returned from the bathroom to find a strangely long line for an early Sunday evening. I came to appreciate the down time as I realized that the crowd offered half of the spook that Fright Haven had promised. In front of us, a couple embraced each other as if one of them was leaving for war. Behind us, a 45-year-old woman stood with her two small children, who were dressed in eerily innocent costumes. (We derived some comfort from their presence; if they could do it, so could we). 

Upon entering the Hotel Hex, we were greeted by a five-foot-tall elderly woman who quickly shoved us into an elevator. Andrea and Susannah immediately started screaming, straying from the plan we had agreed on: try and remain as calm as possible so the actors wouldn’t sense our fear. 

As we walked through the rooms of the hotels, we spotted actors in rocking chairs, beds, or even on top of bookcases. The decor wasn’t necessarily impressive—in fact, much of it looked like it was from a yard sale—but the darkness and fog contributed much to the ambiance. Although it was near impossible to discern any details from the website’s proposed storyline (not once did anyone mention a dead journalist) the actors compensated for the plotlessness by increasing their engagement with the guests as the house progressed.

Possessed hotel workers began to follow me down very narrow hallways and synchronized their pace with mine. Amongst a sea of miscellaneous curses from our group, I decided the only thing that could bring me back to reality was switching between belting Waka Flocka Flame’s 2010 hit “No Hands” (feat. Roscoe Dash & Wale) and Chief Keef’s revolutionary track “Love Sosa.” When I locked eyes with the demon actor behind me, I simply sang, “I said look ma, no hands!” Their reactions to my behavior were the strongest evidence of the strength of Fright Haven: I was not able to make a single actor break. 

Suddenly, we were no longer in Hotel Hex. With no announcement, the hotel set disappeared, and we found ourselves in a diner filled with zombies who warned us that “mommy” was going to “eat us up.” As in the Hotel Hex, the stated storyline of Witching Hour was entirely absent. I presume Fright Haven allocated their strongest actors to this B-plot, as they started to offer specific commentary on our behavior. One walked up to Andrea, sniffed her, and called her “filthy.” Another mocked me: “Hey sweaty, why are you gripping onto that white sweatshirt so much?”

While we walked, butchers licked their lips aggressively, convincing us that we were about to become dinner for this elusive “mommy” character. In the center of the penultimate room was a face-down mannequin (probably from the Marshalls next door) dressed in a lacy black thong and a truly egregious amount of fake blood dripping down its back. Andrea exclaimed, “Woah! Why so sexual?” “ARE YOU DISRESPECTING MOMMY?” an actor shot back. 

At our jumpiest and clammiest, we walked down a long, ominous hallway and eagerly waited to meet “mommy.”

“Guys, be ready there’s another scare. I know it. I just know it.” I attempted to prepare my friends for the upcoming horror finale.  “Brad, be careful. There’s gonna be something else.”

And then we were at the gift shop. Another elderly woman (Fright Haven had a robust senior staff) sat at a tiny folding table and attempted to operate an iPad, processing the supposed sale of $35 Fright Haven sweatpants. No one appeared to be making any such purchases.

Fright Haven declined to comment on my experience. However the owner of Forsaken Lands, an outdoor haunted attraction in Goshen, CT, agreed to provide some insight into this unconventional industry and the people who are involved in it: “actors come from a multitude of areas. We have some that have come from local theater programs. A lot of high school students. Some actors have worked at other haunted attractions that were looking for a new haunt home. All different ages, you know people in their 50’s and 60’s who were just looking for something new to do on the weekends” Alex, the owner and operator, told me. 

Fright Haven definitely drew actors from all ages and backgrounds. Their TikTok reflects that niche Alex described of high school theater kids students who are now looking for a secondary outlet; we definitely felt their youthful energy. No one can really put on a haunt like a 17 year old who was denied the lead in Shrek

Every haunted house establishment has something unique to offer, fueled by their distinct cast of characters and craft of their sets. Perhaps this explains Fright Haven’s surprising quirks. Alex also had some words of wisdom to share for the average fright seeker: “definitely expect the unexpected. Every haunted attraction is unique and beautiful in its own way. You can never say if you’ve been to one you’ve been to them all.”

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