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October 15, 2009

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Welcome to Shanghai Nightmare

AT last there's a Halloween haunted house to make your flesh crawl and your hair stand on end. Shanghai Nightmare has fiendishly clever actors who can spot the real scaredy-cats. Michelle Zhang takes a peek. In a dark, seemingly endless hallway, the White Lady omen of death suddenly appears. As you scream, a small light goes on and the lady vanishes.

You're terrified but there's no way back, so you move on with others. On to the children's bedroom where old toys and bones are scattered among spiderwebs. On to the eerie laboratory where mad alchemists are mixing potions. On to a maze of flashing green mirrors that looks like a haunted forest with branches reaching out for you. And on to other chilling and disorienting weirdness.

Along the way creatures emerge from the dark and spring at you: ghosts, goblins, exorcists, mummies, witches, werewolves, vampires, zombies and things that go bump in the night.

They're not mechanical pop-ups or illusions - they're flesh and blood actors who interact with you, sense your fear, and make you jump. It's improv horror at its creepy best - plus high-tech special effects - so grab your garlic and your good luck charms.

No one under 16 is allowed without a guardian (and no one under three).

Welcome to Shanghai Nightmare, the city's first (that we know of) Halloween haunted house in a 107-year-old abandoned warehouse on Suzhou Creek. The one-month entertainment project, which ends on October 31, features 13 chambers oozing gore, graveyard mist and graphic scenes of horror.

The idea is to bring some pre-Halloween fun to the city's fearless adventurers.

"We want to bring something new to Shanghai's nightlife scene," says the founder, 26-year-old Chinese-American Quan Gan, who left a lofty cooperate job at Intel to set up the "ghost field" with the help of his girlfriend, Shanghai native Charlie Xu.

When Gan first arrived in Shanghai about a year ago, he found that Shanghai people had started to celebrate the Halloween as a fun night "but without knowing much about it." Clubs and bars organized costume parties and that was it.

As one of the biggest festivals in the United States, Halloween has a business value of around US$600 million every year, says Gan. "Practically every city boasts several haunted houses on different scales as part of the celebration, which usually kicks off five weeks before Halloween Day."

Back in school in the Bay Area in the US, Gan used to play a ghost in a haunted house. He was so successful that he terrified one visitor into peeing.

"I still remember the sense of achievement I felt at the time," Gan laughs.

The idea of building a similar thrilling attraction in Shanghai came to him. Xu, an art major, supported him wholeheartedly.

It took them 10 months to plan, build and operate, during which they even made a trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin state, to attend HauntCon 2009 and learn the ins and outs of the haunted house industry, including construction, management, makeup, acting and other essentials.

A Stanford University engineering graduate, Gan has designed every part of the Shanghai haunted house himself.

"Shanghai Nightmare is an original concept using advanced techniques including fog, moving lights, loud sounds and other special effects," he says.

Although there are many twists and turns in the 500-square-meter space, there is only one path. The actors - altogether 30 - interact with visitors and hint at the way.

"We had a successful launch and from the initial feedback, guests said it is scarier than anything similar in China," Xu says.

The biggest difference between Shanghai Nightmare and other haunted houses in China is that it has live actors interacting with the visitors. The actors can choose which one in the group to scare - not necessarily the first one in the group.

No one is actually touched, however.

"Anyone can be attacked," she warns. "Even if you know they are coming, you have no idea when they will come and if they will come for you."

If you are too scared and don't want to be frightened too much, you can buy a talisman, a pendant that glitters, for 20 yuan (US$3), which will protect you from any up-close and personal attention form the actors.

The tour takes around 20 minutes to walk through all the 13 chambers. The admission is 98 yuan (US$14.35).

The target customers are expats and young people interested in Western culture. They expect to sell 10,000 tickets to cover the investment.

Children under three are not admitted and those under 16 must be escorted by a legal guardian.

Date: through October 31 (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), 7pm-12am

Admission: 98 yuan; 188 yuan for VIP (includes priority entry, cocktails after the tour and gifts)

Tel: 5375-2589

Address: 1295 Suzhou Rd S.


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