Shanghai Nightmare: The haunted house that makes China scream for Halloween

Travel | by Stephan Larose
Posted: October 29th, 2009 | Updated: April 21st, 2011 | Comments

Though Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Oktoberfest have all made considerable inroads in China, the festival that's seen the least adoption is also probably the most fun of them all. Yeah we're talking about Halloween. Though trick-or-treating is basically non-existent here, we're seeing more and more Halloween-themed parties every year.

In Hong Kong, Disneyland is going to be scaring kids silly with their "Ocean Park, Madame Tussauds, and Lang Kwai Fong are all hosting parties of their own. In Shenzhen, there'll be Zombie Friday and Halloween Saturday parties. In Guangzhou, Hooley's hosts a halloween party. Beijingers can go against the grain at Anti-Halloween: Hallowine but non-slackers can hit Spooked, and a host of other parties. In Chengdu, Hemp House, Lan Town and others are putting on Halloween parties. In Qingdao there are halloween runs in the afternoon and a halloween Bash at night. Halloween in Shanghai will be doubly fun. Shanghaiist is hosting a Zombie Walk, but you shouldn't wait til 11pm to go out and get your freak on—the spook-o-meter for Halloween in China just went up a notch with the opening of Shanghai Nightmare, a ghost and goblin infested house of horrors—and it's the real deal. Other sites made the area around Shanghai Nightmare's 107-year-old warehouse sound frightening enough to make my skin crawl. I was half expecting to be wandering into Shanghai's abandoned mental hospital district, complete with left over head-bandaged crazies and schizoid needle-totting doctors. Television's cranky Dr. House (less his Vicodin and cane) in a gravy-stained lab coat would probably do the role justice. But when I arrived, gloom shrouded alleys and groaning specters failed to materialize. Instead, the walk along recently greened Suzhou Creek was actually really nice! I'd say it's better this way, it lulls you into a sense of security before being pitched into the mouth of madness. Before going in we spoke to the genius behind the nightmare, Charlie Xu and Gan Quan, two former Intel employees with backgrounds in graphic design and robotics. Between the two they'd the potential to create an experience as indelibly disturbing as say, Eraserhead (remember the scene where he tries to feed his misshapen "son"?), but have contrived a system that allows those who can only handle an I'm-8-and-pooed-my-pants level of fright to forego the I'll-have-night-terrors-every-day-til-it-kills-me level if they so choose. Phew! All you need do is carry a ward against the nightmare's disturbed denizens, which comes in the form of a little lantern. All that's missing is the "pansy" badge that should accompany it.

As the young couple (yes, they're married) explained this to me, I noticed their Oxford cloth, button-down collar look contrasting rather vividly with the evil gleam in their eyes, confirming for me that the most normal-looking people are usually the craziest. Over the course of history, "psycho" and "genius" have exchanged places frequently enough to make your head spin. Lucky for these two that they live in an age when their particular mental disturbance can be harnessed to turn a profit. I'll certainly never look at an Intel employee the same way again. I'm sure Quan turns straight into Pinhead the moment your back is turned (Just joking Quan, I'm just a little bit scared of you!).

Quan explains that the entire get-up is exceedingly safe, his words coming through a bizarrely-labored David Cronenberg-like grin. Huantcon, where the couple studied up on all things horror, revealed a vast ecosystem of vendors and providers catering to the large terror-theme market in the US, but the majority of what they learned there concerned safety. As a result, Shanghai Nightmare meets, and in some areas exceeds, US code. They've even got safe word for you to bring the thrills to a stop. Too bad that word will never work cuz it's not "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!" Overall the place is great, the experience is polished all around from the moment the morbidly writhing Grudge girl lookalike scares the bejesus out of you until the moment you're in a hapless Blair-Witch-victim sprint out the ending scenario, making the initially iffy RMB 98 entry fully worth it. What's great is finding yourself actually living out slasher flick clichés. All-by-yer-lonesome and inching down darkened hallways obviously intended to obscure obligatory face-eating hellspawn while whispering "hey, is anyone there?" Heavy, gurgling breath... "Grandma, is that you?" At moments you're moving at a terrified crawl like that dude in Alien who labors through air ducts with—what was that, a BBQ lighter?—at others wanting to run like its 28 Days Later. Progress through the 13 zones is like taking a tour through the entire horror film cannon, your dawning dread initiated by terror cues and scary scenes you've seen before. If you don't have any plans for Halloween yet, you should definitely consider the twenty-minute traipse through Shanghai Nightmare. Though original plans were to close after Halloween, Quan and Charlie have decided to keep it going for another eight days, and we strongly recommend a visit. It's deadly fun. Getting there It's east of Chengdu Bei Lu bridge (over Suzhou Creek) on Suzhou Nan Lu, a quick walk from Metro Line 1 Xinzha Lu Station. Cabs drop you off either at Beijing Lu and Xinqiao Lu (walk north up Xinqiao Lu, hang a left at the creek) or Chengdu Bei Lu's dead-end at Suzhou Creek (walk east down Suzhou Nan Lu). Cost RMB 98 for your basic nightmare. RMB 198 gets you VIP queue-jumping powers, vodka to calm your nerves at the end and a t-shirt to commemorate the experience. "Pansy" lanterns RMB 20. All pictures courtesy of Shanghai Nightmare.
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