Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Haunted house attractions follow a shock-tested formula of ghouls and gore, and can be as predictable as cardboard tombstones in a cemetery diorama. But in a tourist mecca like the Wisconsin Dells, which on our last visit offered five spook houses, competition spurs innovation and improvement.
Ghost Outpost is a good example of what can result. It may lack the grand scale of Top Secret Inc., or the pedigree of the Museum of Historic Torture Devices, but its earnest efforts make it a worthy destination. There's something about an attraction that screams "stop here!" when its logo includes a rat with a bulging belly and a bloody mouthful of human hand.
Ghost Outpost's creative anarchy can be glimpsed in its exterior, a mix of Spanish mission, medieval castle, with a hint of 1930s gangland Chicago thrown in -- liberally decorated with fake human skulls and an over-sized bald eagle, its wings spread heroically.
Once past the turnstile, you're greeted by two rag-clad human skeletons, hung in chains, whose jaws clatter and eyeballs twist knowingly toward each other as they argue about what's inside. "Beware! Beware!" cries one. "Proceed at your own risk through this haunted hotel." "If you don't make it through alive," the other adds, "you can get your money back!"
"Hee hee hee hee!" the skeletons giggle, and then you're on your own.
Shuffling forward into a pitch black passageway, arms extended to deflect pop-up monsters, your feet cross a pressure plate and trigger what has to be the most satisfying phony electrocution that we've seen in a long time. Blinding strobe lights flash, electric sparks crack like rifle shots, and a hooded body strapped to a chair bucks back and forth, up and down, so violently that it looks, well, real. "Gahhhh-ah-ah-ah-AHHHH!!!!" A gut-wrenching, air-rending scream fills the room, ricocheting off of the walls. This multi-media assault goes on for far longer than necessary, but when it's over and you're left in blackness and comparative silence, you feel for the pressure plate so that you can watch it all over again.
It turns out that the electrocution is Ghost Outpost's ghoulish masterpiece, but to expect something equally unparalleled from this spook house (or any spook house) would be asking a lot. You've still got to shuffle forward through a warren of 17 dark chambers, triggering scenes of black-light, strobing, bloody mayhem behind protective (and camera-confounding) metal mesh fences. No effort is expended to make sense of it all. An alien explodes out of a human body (more screaming), a "Barrel Eel" pops up and eats the bottom half of a hanging torture victim, an unidentified technician vomits into a barrel of nuclear waste. There's an insane asylum, a human autopsy, hungry zombies, a "Vortex Room," and a "Hallway of the Dead."
And there's one last grotesque surprise. As you turn the final corner and see daylight ahead, a tiny bathroom appears to the left, its open, filthy toilet covered in wads of wet-looking brown goo. Unfortunately, your vantage point is also a pressure plate, and before you can react the bowl of the toilet erupts with a spray of water that leaves you gagging as you stagger out into the light.
"Did you like it?" an eager employee asked as we exited. "We try to make it better every year."