The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The spookiest, scariest Halloween attractions in the D.C. area, ranked

A hanging skeleton in the catacombs along the Haunted Trail at Field of Screams in Olney. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Five haunted houses, five weekend nights — and one reporter who naively assumed that after two or three, some sort of a scare defense would emerge. An inability to be startled by an escaped madman or headless ghosts, perhaps. A stout disinterest in the circling clowns. But no: The region’s spooky attractions have a (probably bloody) leg up on even the most seen-it-all visitors.

Gore tolerance aside, the mission never wavered: Visit five Halloween spots — you know, the ones whose names sound the same, like Fields of Fear and Field of Screams — and figure out which deliver the biggest frights. Some, like the new American Scream Halloween Selfie Museum, proved to be more entertaining than disturbing. Others, like Fright Fest, were scream-worthy enough to cause day-after hoarseness. Here’s how they rank, from mildest to scary-as-yell.

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5. American Scream Halloween Selfie Museum

All your selfie ghouls — er, goals — can come true at this interactive art installation next to Lord & Taylor in Tysons Corner Center. Guests have 45 minutes to explore 31 scenes, most straight out of such horror flicks as “The Shining” and “Silence of the Lambs” — one for each day of October, co-creator Jon Libbesmeier says.

The sets, arranged like museum exhibits throughout the 4,200-square-foot space, are intricate and, naturally, ideal for selfies: Slip on a clown mask and pose with a single red balloon, a la Pennywise the Dancing Clown from Stephen King’s “It.” Clutch a serrated lollipop like the one used as a murder weapon in the 2007 film “Trick ‘r Treat.” Stick your head inside Croczilla’s jaws and smile wide, or slip into church with a demonic nun.

There are no scare actors but plenty of evil scarecrows, rotten pumpkins and giant teddy bears spilling their guts (literally). Scary-good puns, too: Sit down with a box of Killogg’s Cereal Killer, and spoon-feed fingers to a bloody zombie who looks like he’d prefer a heart to a hearty breakfast.

In a “rated R” room at the back of the museum, become part of an autopsy scene or sidle up to “Doctor Duck Lips,” a botched plastic surgery patient. And finally, turn to the pièce de résistance: a coffin. About 20 percent of visitors lie down in it, Libbesmeier estimates, an experience that’s unsettling and, one hopes, won’t soon be repeated. Whatever you choose, the museum is an Instagrammer’s delight — with photo ops to die for.

Open Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 20; open daily Oct. 24-Nov. 3. 7952 Tysons Corner Center, Tysons, Va. $18 online; $20 at the door. Appropriate for most ages.

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4. Fields of Fear

There’s a “crybaby” exit halfway through each of Fields of Fear’s scariest attractions. But by that point, a pale witch has already popped out of what appeared to be a solid wall — purring how glad she is to see you and brushing her long, bony fingers across your shoulders. And you’ve already walked through cobwebs, sprung into the air over unexpected, loud noises, and recoiled at the mysterious blasts of air nipping your ankles.

Cox Farms’s annual haunted extravaganza is “high startle, low gore,” says Lucas Cox, who runs the Centreville event with his sister. “If somebody’s looking for blood and guts, we are not the place. It’s about the surprise.”

Nearly 100 actors make Fields of Fear a multisensory adventure. When visitors arrive, they’re given timed-entry passes to three attractions: the Dark Side Hayride, Cornightmare and The Forest: Back 40. Cox’s wife has refused to walk through the latter two mazes for the past six years. And indeed, during the half-mile, candlelit trek through the forest, two high school students seized a stranger’s hand, thrusting her into the danger zone: the front of the single-file line.

Plan to spend a few hours at the farm; in addition to the haunted activities, there’s a terrific view of the stars, multiple bonfires, a dance floor and a giant six-lane slide. Toast the season with apple cider, kettle corn and cinnamon-roasted almonds. It’s the ultimate fall party, which summarizes Fields of Fear well: The tween-heavy experience is fun-scary, not scary-scary. You’ll be startled, and you’ll jump, but you’ll probably be grinning, too — and the guy chasing you with a chain saw just might smile back.

Open Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 2; also open Oct. 13. 15621 Braddock Rd., Centreville, Va. $15-$35. Not recommended for children younger than 12; guardian required for children younger than 14.

3. Laurel's House of Horror

In a nondescript strip mall in Laurel, a glowing marquee announces that this is the right place: “Laurel’s House of Horror,” a once-abandoned movie theater now occupied by the macabre.

Maryland’s largest indoor haunted house makes smart use of its unique setting: Visitors spend 20 to 30 minutes wandering through six theaters that have been transformed into a butcher’s shop, church, graveyard and creepy dollhouse. Because the floors are slanted, there’s a constant sense of change in elevation which makes for a disorienting experience.

On opening night, a meat merchant eyed up passersby, determining if they fit her ominous needs: “You’re too malnourished,” she told a portly man. A woman with a pixie cut had “hair too long,” and a petite girl was too tall.

There’s crawling involved in one theater, and at another point, the only way out is to shimmy through clouds of green fog so thick that it’s impossible to see below the waist. It’s like being dropped in a sensory deprivation tank, with maniacal laughing — origin unknown — that ricochets throughout.

Perhaps the highlight of the haunt is the sole theater that acknowledges its past life: A black-and-white film crackles on the screen, final credits rolling until “The End” pulses in chunky white letters. On a Friday evening in late September — prime time for moviegoing — only dust filled the worn maroon seats. Business here must really be dead.

Open Friday through Sunday and select Thursdays through Nov. 2. 935 Fairlawn Ave., Laurel, Md. . $25. Most visitors are age 10 and older.

2. Six Flags America Fright Fest

On the second weekend of its annual Fright Fest celebration, Six Flags America in Prince George’s County hosted a 30-hour coffin challenge for couples: Lie side-by-side in a double-wide coffin for nearly two days; win a prize. Clearly, this is a place that thinks outside the (rectangular, permanent) box.

During Fright Fest, the amusement park comes alive with scores of the undead, who slide through plumes of fog to catch passersby unaware and then stalk them. The thrill rides remain open until closing time — and if there was any question, plummeting 20 stories on the park’s “Superman” coaster is way scarier in the dark.

But the six haunted houses are the most horrifying part of the experience, and that’s a compliment. While Fright Fest lacks the charm of more homegrown operations, its production quality is impeccable: Expect a dizzying use of strobe lights and theatrical sound effects in houses such as “Total Damnation,” “Voodoo Curse” and “Twisted Fairy Tales,” a 3-D maze that steals the show.

On a recent Saturday night, the monsters inside each themed house weren’t content to lurk in the corner — or satisfied with eliciting just one scream. A zombie with a green face, fluorescent under the black light, crawled desperately after one guest, chains scraping the floor as he pleaded for help. And a bludgeoned ghost abandoned his post, pursuing another visitor until she reached the exit — puffing hot breath on her neck from a distance of no greater than an inch. It’s challenging to navigate a maze in the pitch dark with that kind of company. No wonder they call the theme park a scream park this time of year.

Open Saturdays and Sundays, and select Thursdays and Fridays through Nov. 3. 13710 Central Ave., Bowie,Md. Starting at $42.99 (extra fees for haunted attractions). Not recommended for children younger than 13.

1. Field of Screams Maryland

The body count at this 40-acre compound in Olney is — well, good luck keeping track. It’s easier to quantify the blood: Creative director Michael Lado ordered gallons for this year’s event, opting for the translucent kind that always appears wet. It’s smeared across victims’ limbs, splattered on walls and put to fine use elsewhere.

At Field of Screams, fresh meat — that is, visitors — can tour the Slaughter Factory, a haunted house in which convincingly realistic dead pigs dangle from the ceiling and brush passersby’s shoulders. In the catacombs, where 550 skulls line the walls, a trickling sound hints a fountain nearby. Turns out that something is dripping, but it isn’t water.

Most people come for the two haunted trails. Each one takes about 35 minutes to explore and leads to stations like a serial killer’s lair and ransacked campground. Mid-trail on a recent weekend evening, a trio of laughing clowns welcomed a skeptical guest to the Big Top with sweet promises: “Want some cotton candy?” one clown tempted, offering a handful of thick cobwebs that covered a skeleton. “Stay for a while. We’re nicer than we smell.”

The trails are physically demanding: There’s extremely low visibility — prepare to navigate confusing hallways in a blackout dark cabin — and earsplitting noises. Chained doors rattle violently, as puffs of breath graze your neck, delivered by . . . who? There are better things on which to focus, like squeezing through a blood-soaked crawl space and getting across the floor that’s dropping out beneath you.

Those who emerge can celebrate at one of the ground’s bonfires — being frightened burns calories, so indulge in fried Twinkies or funnel cake. Try your hand at ax throwing or the “Carnival Town” games, one of which involves tossing squishy silicone brains into a roving zombie’s open skull. If you miss — and you probably will — it’s no big deal. What’s one more brain on the floor?

Open Fridays through Sundays and select Thursdays through Nov. 2. 4501 Olney Laytonsville Rd., Olney, Md. $20-$120. Not recommended for children younger than 10.