Fight or flight? Visitors get spooky experience at Del Mar 'Scaregrounds'
In the still quiet of the night at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, punctuated only by the occasional passing train, a sudden blood-curdling scream tore through the crisp autumn air — followed by a chilling laugh.
The Fairgrounds has turned into the "Scaregrounds."
"It messes with your nerves. It was scary," Kayla Mitchell said. "I feel like the last part was a good ending because the chainsaw really scared me especially since you could feel the air of it. The girl screaming, that was really scary ... It scared the s--- out of me."
And that's exactly the point: scaring people, said Dylan DeFatta, the regional manager at Scream Zone, one of the haunted attractions around the county. DeFatta, along with his father Greg DeFatta, runs the Haunted Trail in Balboa Park and the Haunted Hotel in downtown San Diego.
After each Halloween season, DeFatta said their creative team gets together to plan for the next one.
"We talk about the things that really thrived that were just twisted and awesome and mad and then the things that maybe we should switch out and improve and see what is going to be trending this year," he said. "What's going to make people want to pee their pants next year and give the whole place a once over and start from November."
The Scream Zone is actually three attractions, or as the company calls it, "Del Mar's Trifecta of Terror." There's the Stars of the Silver Scream, the Labyrinth Manor and Haunted Hayride.
"The crowd favorite is the Haunted Hayride. Everyone gets onto a wagon pulled by a tractor. We pull you up and down these creepy jockey roads that the fairgrounds typically uses for horse racing and house the horses and the jockeys," DeFatta said. "So it already is kind of creepy and eerie. And then we fill it with different scenes, anything from a clown carnival to a Killbillies set with voodoo swamps or whatever our creative team can pull out of their twisted brains that year."
The thrill of the haunted attraction is not just for guests but also for the actors portraying ghouls, goblins and monsters. This is Anthony Tucker's second time as a "Scaracter" — a portmanteau of "scare" and "actor" or "character."
He's been going to Scream Zone since he was a teenager and has been doing a home haunt with his family in San Marcos for 25 years. Tucker said the experience helped him overcome his fears.
"When you're a little kid, everything seems really scary, and a lot of the experience is overcoming your fears and confronting them," he said. "And being on the other side of that is helping other people to experience that in a safe way. And it's also a lot of fun because you get to be with a lot of really good people and you have a really good time."
Tucker portrays Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" horror series. He does take it easy on little kids because he was once in their shoes, but adults — that's a different story.
"There's something fun about playing a character that you don't get to be in your typical everyday life."Anthony Tucker, "scaracter" at The Scream Zone
"We don't want to push anybody a little too far. But parents, on the other hand, we can go for them," he said.
And that goes for bigger kids as well. "Teenagers, of course," he said with a smile.
New this year is the Midway Madness — a Halloween-themed carnival where guests can test their zombie apocalypse survival skills with the Zombie Archery or see if they could survive Pennywise with an axe throwing down one of four clown-theme lanes.
But scaring people and being scared is the main attraction at The Scream Zone.
"There's something fun about playing a character that you don't get to be in your typical everyday life," Tucker said.
For Mitchell, it was a very memorable experience. It was her first time at a haunted attraction.
"I was very nervous to begin with," she said. But does she get scared easily? "Well, I didn't think I was until today."
It was at that point Tucker, as Leatherface, snuck up behind her with chainsaw revving, sending Mitchell screaming and running in the opposite direction.
The Scream Zone is now open. Dates and times vary. For more information, visit the website at thescreamzone.com