Fierce red queens. Apocalyptic 3-D zombies. Hansel and Gretel's vengeance. This year, Downtown Manhattan has three haunted houses to choose from, each with its own distinct way of evoking fear. Here's how each one is best at making your heart race.
By [Leonora Desar] BEST BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE Steampunk Haunted House "Have I stepped into a dream or a nightmare?" you ask yourself when a hand reaches out and pulls you across the threshold of a life-sized looking glass. Suddenly, you find yourself separated from your group and faced with the ghostly presence of Alice Liddle, who guides you into Third Rail Projects' ethereally macabre rendering of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. This is not your blood-and-guts haunted house. Instead, your pulse quickens when you find yourself nearly alone and displaced in an image-saturated purgatory that is part immersive theater, part neo-Victorian fashion show. Everyone's experience is potentially different. You may find yourself led into a lush sitting room where the Red Queen, a shimmering apparition in blood red, pins you down with her gaze. Or perhaps a masked knight will challenge you to a game of chess, the doors shutting tightly behind you. In any case, even as the dream begins to dissolve, you are already wondering what would happen if you returned for a second spill down the rabbit hole. Through Oct. 31, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. (at Pitt St.), 212-598-0400, www.steampunkhauntedhouse.com; $10?$50. BEST FAIRY TALE YOUR MOTHER NEVER TOLD YOU NIGHTMARES: Fairy Tales You slip a blindfold over your eyes. "No peeking!" Rapunzel admonishes as you grab hold of her coarse rope of hair and tread into a pop-up storybook world. These are not your childhood bedtime stories. Here, the iconic and familiar fairy tales of youth are boiled down to their most climactic moments or, in a few instances, twisted into something nearly unrecognizable. You enter the story but also become a character in it, acting as both witness and complicit accessory. In the absence of relentless stalking by the characters, you can pause to appreciate the aesthetic delights of the world coming to life around you. On the other hand, though, there is also time to register its inauthenticity?the flat, two-dimensionality of the set design, the permanent environment beyond. Suspension of disbelief never fully takes hold, especially after the first half ends and you are ushered back into the well-lit main lobby?and effectively out of the narrative?before embarking on the second half of the experience. But overall Nightmare: Fairy Tales, while not riveting on a visceral, gut level, teases the intellect and engages the senses. Through Nov. 5, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St. (betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.), 212-352-3101, www.hauntedhousenyc.com; $30?$100. BEST HEART ATTACK DOUBLING AS DARK COMEDY Blood Manor Suddenly the creature?you don't know what else to call it?is leaning in for the kill, her breath hot on your neck: "I bet you taste soooo good. Just one little bite? Come back here?NOW!" This is just one example of the relentless torment awaiting you inside the bowels of Blood Manor. There is no time for reflection, from the moment a looming monster lures you inside to your final mad-dash escape through machine-gun fire. The momentum builds quickly with constant sensory overload?a whirling green laser vortex, glow-in-the-dark 3-D zombies?but through it all, you still manage to catch glimpses of dark humor that, while hokey, elicit a chuckle in the midst of all the action. A blur of newspaper clips scream campy headlines, while in another scene vampire strippers of three sexes?male, female and other?slither up and down silver poles in a From Dusk Till Dawn-inspired montage. If Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino had collaborated on a sick joke, they may have very well come up with something like this. Through Nov. 5, 163 Varick St. (at Charlton St.), 212-290-2825, www.bloodmanor.com; $28.50?$50.