Welcome to the first proper edition of the Fog Report, intrepid readers! For this journey into the artificial mists, I’m starting with a little hometown pride. Smell that brine in the air? That’s our next destination.
While I may not live there anymore, I am a native of Long Beach, CA and still dwell in close proximity. Not only is it one of the biggest ports in the United States, but also home to a decent bit of preserved history. Plenty of buildings found downtown still carry their Art Deco trappings, and historic sites abound.
Yet one of the most significant storied places in Long Beach is not even from the city originally. Permadocked in Long Beach Harbor, the Queen Mary is a former ocean liner, launched in 1934 as a luxurious passenger ship, turned into a troop transport during World War II, and back to its original purpose for another two decades before retiring in 1967 to Long Beach; today it is a floating hotel, museum and tourist attraction you just know carries numerous ghosts.
And it does. It’s been called one of the most haunted places in America, with documented spirit sightings and unusual phenomena reported regularly. The stories behind the haunting are what inspired Dark Harbor, the ship’s seasonal Halloween offering. Now in its 10th year, the event plays on the myths and legends of the ship in order to create a cohesive, underlying theme, utilizing the Queen Mary both figuratively and physically to create the thrills and chills. This is easily the biggest strength of Dark Harbor, which doesn’t shy away from its source material and has created many of its own iconic characters loosely based on genuine history and possibly-genuine phantoms that call the vessel home.
This year I was invited out to be a part of the media gathering for opening night, and am glad to say right away that the last ten years have been good to Dark Harbor, which has improved and changed in its run to become a proper SoCal haunt icon in its own right. So, what does it have to offer?
Dark Harbor takes place chiefly on the grounds the Queen Mary is docked beside, where a sinister carnival has set up. Passage onto the ship itself is mainly through three of its six mazes, while the rest of the time between is spent in the pseudo-fairground outside. You’ll find your general concession stands, the occasional outdoor bar and a series of rentable cabanas for relaxing in while you watch things go by. There’s live shows and performances throughout the night - anything from fire-eaters to acrobats to aerialists - and the option to ride the Sinister Swings, a ride relocated to Dark Harbor from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Also offered is the 4-D Panic Experience which I was unable to take part in but have heard promising things about.
There’s a definite party atmosphere to most of the event, and one that for me is hit-or-miss. Your mileage may vary, but I personally am not a big fan of the kind of modern fair mood that comes with some of the spectacle here. The loud pop music that blares sometimes from various corners is the most egregious and irritating thing, detracting from the sense that this is some wicked cavalcade. There are plenty of spooky props scattered around, and the roaming monsters - most of which seem to be demented carnies - are out doing grade-A work keeping folks on their toes. All of that is fine and makes sense with the theme established; I just wish there was a slightly more committed approach to making it feel like a dark carnival rather than a “Woo! Party!!” place. Maybe that’s just me being a stickler for ambiance.
That said, I’ll never begrudge the more tongue-in-cheek aspects of the event, especially when it comes to the interactions with the ghouls and creatures stalking the area. They all seem to be having a good time, and that makes me happy. The midway is also a place to bump into many of the event’s icons, including the Captain, the Ringmaster and (my personal favorite) Graceful Gale. They’re surprisingly approachable for a group of undead, and are not shy about joking around with guests or posing for pictures. For me, interaction trumps most things, and all of these characters all stay so delightfully in-character; Hell, the talent at Dark Harbor as a whole is phenomenal, and I want to commend the scareactors for killing it that night.
Oh, and before I forget: one of the fun aspects of Dark Harbor has been the concept of the “secret bar.” Hidden in the various mazes of Dark Harbor are four themed bars that require knowing where they are and/or getting an access token, usually from one of the monsters. This is double-edged only in that, in the latter case, people will often come up to various monsters and just demand tokens, when the expectation is really to play with them and earn a token through interaction: last year, for example, I was given a token by a clown called Puddles without me even knowing that was a thing, just because she was fun and I played along with her antics. I’m not sure how it’s done this year, but to anyone who is going on a bar quest, please remember to be considerate to the ghouls, okay?
I did manage to find the new Fathom 6 Bar almost by accident, which is the newest venue. It’s worth finding just so you can say you stood in the very belly of the ship, where the decay and corrosion are real and very ominous. But I’m not gonna tell you where it is… You’ll have to discover it yourself! It’s not about the destination, etc, etc.
The real draw of Dark Harbor is naturally the six haunted mazes. If I gripe a little about the lack of immersion during the main event, then know that it’s well made up for here. Using the ship’s rich history as a backdrop, each makes creative use of its location and setting - especially the three that wind their way through the dark interior of the Queen Mary herself. The corridors and stairwells, metal walls and portholes, and even the occasional section that puts you through the inner-workings of the liner, among the now-silent engines and machinery, goes a long way toward showcasing how unique the experience is. This was a real ship, and it lends credence to the scareactors hiding in the shadows. Furthermore, each maze has a definitive storyline and character tied to it, a concept I love in any themed attraction with its own IP.
I’ll break down each maze here, from my least to my most favorite. This is strictly my personal preference, as I am glad to say there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I’ll similarly try to avoid putting in too many spoilers, but it bears mentioning a few of the highlights in each maze for me.
The newest maze at Dark Harbor, Rogue makes its debut this year having taken over the old footprint (and many of the old setpieces) of DeadRise. This makes some sense because both mazes - represented by the Captain - are based on lore from the time when the Queen Mary was a troopship. The story behind this one is that you are re-experiencing a fateful night in 1942 when the ship was nearly capsized by a rogue wave. While the ship ultimately survived, the Captain did not, and this maze is a ghastly echo of the last moments of his life - possibly warped to show what would have happened if the ship did go belly-up ala The Poseidon Adventure.
I think this one will grow on me as time goes on. There’s some neat beats in Rogue, from a scene where the living Captain tries to steer the ship through a projected stormy sea to a recreation of a Queen Mary lobby room that is upside-down. I think the reason this is so low on this list is because the theme is inherently kind of hard to pull off. The scares mainly come from the shouting of ghostly soldiers, constantly ordering you to keep moving, take cover, get below, etc. There’s a manic energy to the maze which I’m not necessarily a fan of, but again, it’s not like the maze doesn’t work. I look forward to seeing future iterations of this in the coming seasons, if it sticks around.
At the heart of the midway is the Ringmaster’s circus tent, where her nightmarish misfits, freaks and oddballs wait for you in a disturbing funhouse. This one is the closest to actually being a maze, sending you through a hall of mirrors and along branching paths, through a spinning tunnel and even a ball pit. Come to think of it, there’s balls everywhere in this maze, though I think that’s mainly from guests dislodging them from the pit (intentionally or not) and scattering them through.
While the Circus and its Ringmaster don’t necessarily have ties to the ship’s history, they’ve been a part of Dark Harbor long enough that they’re established lore for the event, and at this point it would be stranger if both weren’t present. This is probably my favorite iteration of the maze so far, as in past years it was usually at the bottom of my list. It succeeds in embracing the disorienting quality of funhouse gags, and the carnies inhabiting do a great job both hitting on the scares and camping it up.
(And if you meet the bearded lady, feel free to say hi. She’s an old friend of Midnight Marinara’s.)
As tired as it might seem for some people - myself included - cannibalism can still be a good theme for a maze if done correctly. Here the dark and fetid kitchens of the ship are ruled by Chef, the ghost of a vicious cook who was thrown into his own oven after it was revealed he’d been poisoning passengers and serving their remains in his dishes. Entering through the Queen Mary’s distribution center, you soon find yourself surrounded by Chef’s loyal undead staff and the bodies of those who made the cut for the menu.
There’s a lot of up and down in this one, so prepare for some exercise. It’s also very claustrophobic and warm in the tight corridors, which kind of naturally lends to the Grindhouse atmosphere with all the bloody bits. This year they managed to rework the maze’s footprint so that you’ll eventually end up down the boiler room and pass through Hatch 13, a watertight door that crushed a man to death in 1966. It’s considered one of the more active haunted spots on the vessel, and the reworking allows for another icon, Half-Hatch Henry, to be a part of this maze, right at the source that inspired his character. Overall, Feast continues to improve as an experience, though I do miss Soulmate, the maze that once occupied Feast’s area and was the home of Graceful Gale and her machinations.
Named after the Queen Mary’s most haunted cabin, B340 tells the (totally fictional) story of Samuel the Savage, a demented passenger who went on a murderous rampage during a voyage and was locked in B340 until they could make port. Somewhere in the interim though, Samuel vanished, leaving nothing but a bloody mess in the room he’d been sealed in. As the maze progresses, you follow a detective’s doomed trail and discover what drove Samuel to commit his crimes.
There’s been a lot of variations of this maze over the years, and I feel it maintains the same level of creepiness and intensity throughout. More visceral than haunting, it has a surreal tone with moments where it seems like you’re seeing twisted visions of Samuel’s past and the various grotesque demons that haunted him. This one is chock full of cool moments and creative scares, my favorite being a walk across a catwalk over a very real drop into a darkened boiler room, where it feels like the bridge is collapsing underneath you.
Scary Mary lurks here, based loosely on the sightings of ghosts near the first-class pool. Mary is said to have drowned in the pool in 1952, and her lonesome spirit lingers on in death, looking for new playmates. This year, the story seems to center on a wannabe paranormal investigator having conjured Mary back from beyond. You’ll venture toward the pool where she drowned, encountering her and her victims along the way.
Lullaby is a much quieter, more subtle maze with superb gloomy atmosphere. What parts aren’t dark are lit in watery blues and greens, and scares come from unexpected places. Gone is the overarching theme of toys and games, and instead there’s more emphasis on the buildup and the horror; weird as this might sound for a maze, it has great pacing. While you don’t actually go to the pool like you did in previous years, I’ll just say Lullaby finds a new and interesting way to get the pool theme across at its finale.
The most effective of the off-ship mazes, Intrepid makes excellent use of the preexisting port village area near the entrance to Dark Harbor, using both its exterior and interior. The story centers on the Iron Master, the immortal and damned architect who designed the Queen Mary and was bound to an iron Hell after making a deal with a sea witch to preserve the ship’s legacy. Your journey begins on a ghost train and carries you to Edinburgh, Scotland, where a funeral procession, a foggy swamp and plague-filled catacombs await.
This has been my favorite maze since it got reworked last year, and it remains the most entertaining and genuinely spooky of the haunts for me due to its varied locations and great use of atmosphere. The production value of this maze is high, considering it doesn’t have the foreboding interiors of the ship to work with, and I think it translates well as a supernatural journey through the Iron Master’s tale, ending with him appearing in all his macabre glory. This one is well worth a visit.
Also, any maze that has plague doctors in it is going be a high pick on my list. Call me biased, but plague doctors are always cool.
Tips for the Event
If you’re planning on going to Dark Harbor, here’s a few kernels of wisdom from someone that has attended this event a few times and still only kinda knows what they’re doing. Take them as you will.
The biggest complaint I hear about Dark Harbor every year is the parking situation, which is known to cause traffic backups approaching the venue. What I’ve personally done to avoid this is park downtown, generally near the Aquarium of the Pacific/Shoreline Village, and make use of the Passport bus to get to the Queen Mary. These buses are free, and from the area I mentioned it only takes maybe 10 minutes to make the trip. They also run until 1 AM, so you can stay for the bulk of the night before heading back.
Hit the mazes on the ship first, as they tend to fill up quickly for general admission. There is a slight upcharge for Fast Fright which is definitely worth it if you go on a weekend, but during a weeknight or Sunday crowds don’t get too bad and you should be able to hit all the mazes if you plan accordingly. Of the outdoor mazes, Circus tends to back up, so save it until later in the evening or hit it right away.
Less of a tip and more of a rule: remember to be polite and respectful to the crew and the monsters. The number of stories I’ve heard about rude and belligerent guests harassing the Dark Harbor staff is way higher than it should be. I shouldn’t have to spell it out, but it bears repeating.
Dark Harbor has come a long way in 10 years, and its fascinating to see how much it enhances itself every year. It’s quickly become something I look forward to each Halloween season, and for me ranks among the best that SoCal has to offer. Nothing quite tops the way Dark Harbor utilizes its “ghost ship” location for maximum impact, and the talent behind-the-scenes should be commended for the work they’ve done making the mazes tie in with the ship’s myriad tales. The actors always impress, from the icon characters to the street monsters, maze lurkers and performers during the shows, and I hope they continue to be given room to play in this haunted space. All in all, it’s well worth a sojourn if you happen to be in the area around this time of year.
Thank you for joining me on the start of my Halloween odyssey. Have fun, stay safe, and I’ll see you in the fog.
Dark Harbor runs for 23 nights from September 26th through November 2nd. Tickets can be found here. Special thanks to to Dark Harbor and Victori Solutions for inviting me to the media event.