Review: Haunting of Hammond Castle, Gloucester, MA (3.5 stars)

Last year, the team from Events INSIDER went on a 10-day Halloween blitz! In October 2013, I visited 28 attractions to bring you reviews and information on everything Halloween in New England. We went indoors and outdoors as far north as New Hampshire, as far south as Rhode Island, and as far west as Connecticut. Don’t forget to visit http://EventsINSIDER.com, where we list more creative October events than anyplace else!

The Haunting of Hammond Castle takes place in perhaps the most fantastic venue that we have seen this year: an actual castle built to match those in Europe. I’ve been to this location twice during the day, once on a normal musuem day (it was decent) and once during a Renaissance faire (spectacular!). This was my fourth time visiting at night, and I am sorry to say that we did not find it as appealing as we once did.

We’ve been to many attractions, like Spooky World (high budget) or Fields of Screams (low budget) that don’t seem to have a theatrical vision. The Haunting of Hammond Castle seems to have the opposite problem. It is perhaps the most theatrically unique and daring place that we have seen. Wow! Great job! Unfortunately, I sense that it’s underfunded and not very well managed, not terms I use lightly.

Unfortunately, Hammond Castle lacks parking, so you park a couple of miles away in a state park. There you’ll find vendors selling food and some volunteer booths raising money for charity. Unfortunately, the vendors gave up early in the season, perhaps because of low attendance caused by an early October cold snap, or lack of marketing, or word of mouth about the attraction not being that good. But you can still buy a few snacks there.

We boarded a school bus, the shuttle to get to the castle, and before we left, an actor in a lab coat gave us a very high concept story. We were joining an experiment to dive into the brain of a psychopath and possible murderer. It would have been nice to have gotten this story on the bus while it was driving, saving time. The backstory was quite elaborate and set us up to think of the haunted attraction as having a real story, with a start and ending, not just a random series of dioramas. We were hopeful.

Unfortunately, a story did not fall into place (or perhaps I just didn’t find it accessible). Most attractions send you on a self-guided tour, with “spotters” along the way to make sure you watch your step, go in the right direction, don’t steal anything, and don’t vandalize the property. In this case, we were given our own tour guide dressed in a full hazard suit with a lantern. Unfortunately a number of conflicts emerged. The high tech nature of the “science gone wrong” was a mismatch for the ancient looking castle. (I am aware that during the day the castle is filled with the inventions of its former resident, but those seemed to have all been removed for this journey, or at least, lights were not placed so we could see any of them.) The high concept of the complicated backstory was a bit too brainy for our group. Were the things we were seeing taken from the mind of the psychopath, and why? How? What was supposed to represent what? There was a murder, so shouldn’t there have been a murder re-enactment taken from the psycho’s memory? In what I am sad to say was a bad choice (really I do not take any ego boost from talking down an attraction) our tour guide was forbidden from speaking in a situation which would have greatly benefited from constant exposition. We passed through a hallway in the basement twice. The first time, there was an asian woman in a chair attached to silver hoses and electronics, who I suppose was the psycho whose mind we were visiting. She screamed and twitched for us. The second time we went through (a mistake?) she just seemed annoyed. I’m sure having several actors all wearing the same fox mask was supposed to symbolize something. What, I don’t know.

Really, the haunt seemed more bizarre than spooky. It was the most bizarre thing we saw in all our journeys this month. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was certainly a confusing thing. Spots of genius proved that this group has real strengths in set design and staging. We saw a spooky artist with a painting that had a monster emerging from it, as though he was bringing it to life. We saw a giant butterfly mummy with pins all in it. The setting, the castle, was really quite beautiful, it’s hard to think of a better location for a haunted house. There was even an indoor pool with a monster. That being said, The haunted path that we walked alternated between indoor and outdoors, but strangely, two thirds of it was undecorated and had no actors, including all the outdoor spaces (outdoor spaces are automatically more spooky and should be the focus, I would think, when it is not raining). So much of our walk was simply getting from one place to another, and of the remaining one third, quite a bit had only basic decorations: for example, quarantine plastic sheeting in fitting with the science experiment theme. So it was not all genius. What was up with the room filled with wrapped “happy birthday” gifts? If this was going to be a “Sleep No More” experience, great, but we were prepped by the actors for a haunted house instead.

With 25 people in our group, it was impossible for every actor along our route to spook us. So each of us got the attention of perhaps a third of the actors, surely a bad way to make use of volunteers. Of course our group being so large also spread out, making this situation worse, something which our tour guide could not properly manage, being forbidden from speaking. We found that we couldn’t get much attention from the actors so we held back a bit from the front. What they might have done was to stop the group and stage a 3-minute scene at different points along the route, similar to The Legacy of the Hanging Judge at the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts. This would have lengthened the attraction, which was only 20 minutes long, and allowed them to fill in the details of their spooky story. Stopping for a bit would also have lessened the walking and walking. Traveling through the castle you really have to watch your step on the stairs and watch for doorways. We would have loved to have spent some time standing still just admiring the amazing architecture of the castle. It would really have allowed them to play to their strength in theatre and also maximized how much time each actor spent with each visitor.

The lighting was not well designed, I am sorry to say. I was unable to find photos of the haunted attraction so I have put up some beautiful daytime photos of Hammond Castle. You can see how great it is. So why was there not lighting that at least showed off the natural beauty of the place? Or maybe the lighting was there on the outside but I missed it because our walk was too quick. I don’t know. My friend missed the wonderful painting with the monster emerging because it was not lit. Neither was the butterfly I mentioned as another favorite. This being a science experiment haunt, it would have been nice to have seen Frankenstein Lab stuff like glowing flasks of liquid, equipment making electric sparks, or one of those weird touch globes that make your hair stand on end.

I have to support originality and groups that take creative risks. And I know that running a nonprofit isn’t easy, and kudos to all the volunteers who clearly gave this their all. What they’ve done at Hammond Castle is exceptionally creative, but weird and didn’t really work. It was shorter and less full of staging than it should have been, especially to draw visitors from as away as Boston. The last time I visited Hammond Castle I quite enjoyed it but did have a similar sense of high art not quite hitting the mark. That time they had us sign our names, pretending that a TV crew was filming, and then as we walked through the castle, we saw bits of the crew go from normal to terrified to destroyed to finally absent with a spooky white noise television screen. In theory, this was a brilliant idea, but how it was executed… I had to piece that together afterwards… during the experience, I didn’t get it. This time I feel the same. I sort of get it that it was a journey through a mad woman’s mind… but mostly, I was just disappointed. I’m sorry.

Unlike at The Haunted Cornfield at Connors Farm, where they seemed to have thought of everything, I got the sense that the current staff at Hammond Castle was overextended, handling too much at once. They were a bit on edge when I spoke with them, is what I mean. My recommendation for a low budget production is this: you make a well thought out plan, which is so good that you can raise $25,000. If you don’t know any rich people,. you dress in a suit, attend business functions and network, and find them. Then you invest this into your attractions and people and marketing, and then you don’t get overextended and have time to think through everything and even run a few people as a test to get feedback on how you’re doing. This creates an upwards cycle where the next year you do ever better, the next year after you do even better, and suddenly you have a huge fundraiser with long line. I’ve seen extremely long lines at Hammond Castle for their haunted attraction in the past and this year (even though we came on a Saturday) it was empty. I really hope instead of overusing their volunteers (who are all worthy of praise) that Hammond Castle will begin an upwards cycle again in the years to come. Really all my negative commentary here comes with much love and hope for their future. Hammond Castle is such a beautiful location and deserving of the kind of exceptional oversight that the Trustees of Reservations and Newport Mansions give to their historic properties. I encourage you to reach out and get involved. This is a venue that deserves an 5-star haunted attraction. This year I can only give them 3.5 stars.

This review was from Events INSIDER’s 2013 10-day Halloween blitz, where we visited 28 attractions across New England. Visit http://EventsINSIDER.com, where you’ll find more fun Halloween and October events than anywhere else!