Opechee Haunt presents The Donnie Darko Experience: 2018 Review

Opechee Haunt, Glendale, CA

Sam Kellman has a reputation in the haunt industry as being the “kid haunter.” It’s not without reason. Sam first began creating haunted experiences at age 9, crafting a little haunted house inside of his bedroom. At age 11, he put together his first true “haunt,” wrapping around the perimeter of his family’s house. The following year, he attracted the attention of Theme Park Adventure, which published a glowing review of his “Sum of All Scares” home haunt, and in the years since, Sam and his Halloween passion, Opechee Haunt, have churned out a variety of unique attractions each year.

But Sam is more than a “kid haunter.” For starters, he’s 16 now. Not yet an adult, but certainly beyond the label of a “kid.” A local magnet school student, Sam has evolved Opechee Haunt each year, creating new and different types of experiences and taking a stab at a different manifestation of haunted attraction with each new year’s offering. Be it interactive technology and smart phone integration or a charming and family-friendly programmed show, it’s clear that Sam is not content to rest on any laurels and continues to stretch his creativity with new challenges and experiences. And for 2018, Opechee Haunt tackles an IP for the first time, bringing the cult classic film, Donnie Darko, to life in a haunted house format!

 Follow the clues and the rabbit to progress through the Donnie Darko Experience.

Follow the clues and the rabbit to progress through the Donnie Darko Experience.

Haunt enthusiasts actually had a chance to preview Opechee Haunt’s Donnie Darko Experience this past summer at Midsummer Scream. There, within a two minute mini-haunt, guests had to venture through a maze all alone, encountering recognizable and scenic moments from the movie—including a memorable encounter with Frank!

The same concept has been retained at the full maze experience this autumn—right down to the solo entry. Donnie Darko is a slow burn movie that isn’t really conducive to the typical overt “boo box” scares of many haunts today. As such, the maze has been treated as a certain amount of show interspersed through the layout. Unlike Midsummer Scream’s truncated version, the Donnie Darko Experience has been expanded to feature additional cinematic-style scenes and incorporate a pulsed system that pauses each guest at a particular scene for a set amount of time before releasing them into the following room. This different approach to the traditional haunted maze formula forces a shift more to the storytelling and adds a new wrinkle to Opechee Haunt. The level of synchronization and timing involved is much more inter-dependent, and the storytelling has evolved into a theatrical presentation.

 Hello, Frank.

Hello, Frank.

Layout-wise, the first half or 2/3 of the maze consists of guests deliberately pulsed through various scenes that match the cadence and plot beats of the film itself. The preshow and explanation of rules has been done in the style of Jim Cunningham self help videos, providing an immediately entertaining Easter egg in a maze full of them. Next comes the airplane crash, with the fateful tragedy delivered aurally, before guests roam through Middlesex High School, Donnie’s own home, the space of Jim Cunningham, and more. Guests proceed to the next room only after a lamp mounted to a wall next to the passageway turns green, creating a pulsed progression that immediately calls to mind The 17th Door. It is not until the last couple of rooms that guests encounter a scene of great energy, leading to a breakneck jaunt through the remaining 1/3 and out the exit of the maze itself!

 The actor in the bathroom scene is incredibly creepy and absolutely riveting.

The actor in the bathroom scene is incredibly creepy and absolutely riveting.

 Donnie contemplates burning everything down at the Cunningham residence.

Donnie contemplates burning everything down at the Cunningham residence.

What is particularly impressive of this year’s Opechee Haunt are the level of details that Sam has tossed into the set and theming—even though the vast majority of visitors will never pick up on them—and the technological sophistication that Sam continues to improve upon. The programming for the audio and lighting and the lamp control system strive toward the level put on by professional haunts, and the synchronized effects require significant rehearsal with the actors.

Sam has intentionally pursued a more cinematrographic approach to this year’s Opechee Haunt, eschewing the traditional in-your-face “boo” scares, to stretch the limits of what he can do. But as a designer, he can’t help but hide Easter eggs throughout the maze, from Donnie’s diary on the ground to his letter to Roberta Sparrow, handed out by Frank to guests as a nice souvenir. There are even some tongue-in-cheek jokes in props and items in plain sight. Consider the titles of the books in Jim Cunningham’s joke. At least one of them is a dark humored reference to his eventual downfall. Undoubtedly, the focus this year is on producing creative and different ways to tell a story. In this case, one that very much feels like a fever dream through a series of shocking acts.

 The ending is high adrenaline and more inline with traditional haunts.

The ending is high adrenaline and more inline with traditional haunts.

Add up all the complexities, attention and care to detail and logistics, and advanced storytelling, and it’s clear that “kid haunter” really doesn’t do Sam justice. If anything, he is a member of the new, young blood generation of haunters who are carrying on and evolving the legacy of home haunters before them. Taking advantage of greater access to information and increased ease of acquiring theatrical technology at low cost, these new folks are constantly expanding their knowledge, spearheading innovative ideas, and producing haunts that are just as sophisticated as what the professional folks put out. They’re unleashing attractions that belie their age, showing how passion and commitment to quality and details shine through no matter what one’s experience may be.

Opechee Haunt wrapped up its haunting season last night after a record five-evening run, so unfortunately, fans will need to wait another year. But Sam is always innovating and always plotting what new tactics he can take in presenting another haunted story, so be sure to circle in Opechee for a haunt visit next year. Admission is free, as is the case with home haunts.

To Sam: bravo on a great job with the Donnie Darko Experience this year! It certainly provided a memorable and captivating walkthrough, and we can’t wait to see what your creativity brings next!

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.