REVIEW: Paranoia 2012

One of the new haunts in SoCal this year was Paranoia, located in Santa Monica, close to the pier and Promenade. Billed as a large-scale attraction featuring three mazes, Paranoia was backed with huge marketing – more so than most haunts tend to be in this region.

Located on an upper level of Santa Monica Place, Paranoia took up a massive retail space in the somewhat high-end mall; perhaps too massive for its own good. The haunt was produced by nightlife event planners Deep Lifestyle Group, as well as consultant on the Queen Mary Halloween event when it was Shipwreck, Matthew Gavin. And that is a very telling combination. The marketing push behind Paranoia was very impressive, from commercials to a very swanky, very well done media premiere that was absolutely great. A huge kudos to Spin Public Relations – they were absolutely key in putting a professional face on Paranoia and they should be pleased; it was a remarkable effort, which really surprised us, as most haunted attractions have very little pro marketing effort behind them.

The issue with Paranoia was the fact that it was very light on creativity and professional art direction; in some cases, art direction was completely absent. If that problem lies on the shoulders of Matthew Gavin and the creative team, they need to own it and understand it. However, this is not at all intended to be a mean-spirited slam on them or the Paranoia staff – all of which we found to be very friendly and very enthusiastic, which worked wonders for the lack of environment.

Paranoia was divided into three separate mazes: The Infirmary, Insomniac Clown Playhouse, and finally, Granny’s Manor of Mayhem. Each maze carried its own theme, and each maze sat side-by-side, with all entrances facing a sea of queue switchbacks and each exit on the opposite side of the space. While the layout wasn’t great, it did see, to be fairly effective in its function. We just hate seeing a sea of switchbacks anywhere, from haunts to major theme parks and attractions; it’s an instant turn off for us. Exiting guests into the same area seemed to work, although if you wanted to experience one or two of the other mazes, the walk back to the front of the building and into the endless switchback queue got old really fast. Given the space and the layout of the mazes, it probably was the best they could do, operationally.

The mazes themselves were fairly long experiences, which was good; it always sucks when haunted attractions are way too short. This was not an issue at Paranoia. The price of admission ranged from roughly $25-$40 depending on whether or not you wanted to buy a VIP Fast Pass or not. What we did like about the operation of Paranoia, was that once you bought a ticket, you could go back through any of the mazes as much as you wanted, which would have been ideal for bored teens wandering Santa Monica with little else to do; the unlimited maze access aspect was really good and smart on the part of attraction management.

While the Paranoia mazes were really decent in length, they were uneven as far as art/creative direction go. Many rooms in each maze had little-to-no prop or scenic elements, leaving large dark wall flats with urban art as the only environment for talent to work with. Ironically, some of the art painted on the walls throughout Paranoia was really cool; unfortunately, that doesn’t make up for lack of creative content, and the talent in the mazes was left with not much of anything to work with. The rooms that were propped-out ranged from fairly elaborate to really weak and half-assed. Even the sections of each maze where an effort had been made to actually create a strong environment had serious short-comings; exposed electrical elements, extension cords, and lighting fixtures really left us feeling that there was no effort at all made to create a seamless fantasy environment. Probably most folks wouldn’t notice or care; however, we work with world-class haunts that do go the extra mile and absolutely are aware of such things. And you can bet that after Paranoia advertised that they aimed to “rival” both Queen Mary and Universal Studios Hollywood, that was an invitation for us to inspect this attraction with white gloves. Most of the props and scenic design were so-so throughout Paranoia. Most of the time, it felt to us that a huge check had been written with the directive to go to a Halloween superstore and buy all the stuff possible and disperse it throughout each maze. That’s how it felt, and that’s how it looked. It was evident that Paranoia was in desperate need of a professional art/creative director; not just someone with deep pockets.

The maze talent was fairly high-energy and most of the folks we interacted with seemed to really be having a good time, and it showed. That’s critical when it comes to a successful haunted attraction. The staff of Paranoia was very decent and so we do consider that a huge plus. Unfortunately, even the strongest staff can only go so far when there is little in the way of immersive environmental theming to work with. Large haunts with tremendous theming can usually get by if they have to with mediocre talent simply due to rich environments and scenic elements. It doesn’t work the other way around; you can’t put good talent in poorly-directed or minimally-themed mazes and expect the enthusiasm of your guests to last very long. And that was Paranoia’s biggest challenge.

We didn’t have a bad time at Paranoia; not at all. And judging by the screams and laughs of the people visiting, it was likely a successful month-long venture. But let’s call it like it is, for the sake of integrity and being honest. This particular haunt was never intended to be world-class or even a serious contender in the haunter community. Paranoia was created to be a highly-profitable haunted house planted in the heart of Santa Monica in a high-traffic area where bored teens and tourists would be willing to plunk down their cash. And that’s exactly what happened. As long as we’re clear on the business model here, then we accept that and feel that Paranoia hit its mark. But a “Universal” or Queen Mary quality production? No way. Not even close. It didn’t have to be, and that’s the point of it. Taken for what it was, Paranoia served up some scares in a low-tech environment with minimal theming and decent talent working their asses off.

Will Paranoia return next season? Who knows? If they made a killing financially and the space is still available next year, perhaps. Will it be on our list of haunts to attend/promote? Probably not. Understand that isn’t a slam or insult; we simply prefer dedicated haunted attractions in October to focus on rather than simple ventures in place to capitalize on the season. There’s nothing wrong with that type of business, really; it’s just not what we’re attracted to or interested in when our time is so short already.

Again, kudos to the hard working men and women that spooked up Paranoia this year, and thanks to Spin Public Relations for having us out and doing a seriously kick-ass marketing job!

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