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San Francisco's Halloween treats

Night tours at Alcatraz, 'Shocktoberfest,' the Winchester Mystery House and Day of the Dead add up to a frightfully good time in the Bay Area.

October 25, 2009|Mariella Krause

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco's fog doesn't creep in on little cat feet. It rolls in boldly and aggressively, as if the assistant director on a horror flick has just yelled, "Cue the fog!" Chilling even on a sunny summer day, it's the ideal special effect for one of the city's favorite celebrations: Halloween.

Perhaps San Franciscans love Halloween a little too much: The wildly popular Castro Street party got so big and out of control that the city shut it down. But the Bay Area still offers plenty of places to scare up some Halloween fun, using its unique charms for added ambience.

An inescapable experience

Some consider Alcatraz one of the most haunted places in America. But with as many as 5,000 flesh-and-blood visitors milling about each day, would you even notice a ghost? What could be a disembodied cry is probably just a kid who isn't getting his way.

But during the Alcatraz Night Tour, as the light grows dim and the crowds start to thin, it's easy to imagine ghostly goings-on, and you might find yourself at least pondering the possibilities.

The tour starts out much as any other Alcatraz experience: You pose for a souvenir photo while boarding the ferry, watch the city fall away as it approaches the island and wait in line to pick up the audio tour that will take you through most of the cellblock. Not so spooky.

But then it starts to get dark, and the mood begins to shift. Even the sea gulls start to sound vaguely unnerving. The nighttime visitors get to explore a part of the prison that's off-limits during the day: the hospital ward. Your audio tour won't send you to this abandoned wing off the mess hall; you have to know to go on your own. It's open only from 8 to 8:30, and it would be easy to miss it altogether.

That's what's so great about it.

While everyone else is downstairs taking snapshots of one another smiling behind prison bars, you can be upstairs roaming through the deserted wards. Some of the rooms are illuminated only by camping lanterns. A low-budget effect but a good one, throwing long shadows across the institutional green paint and dingy tile floors.

It is creepy. It's easy to imagine tortured souls wandering around, doomed to spend all of eternity in backless hospital gowns.

Most guests start to make their way to the ferry to catch the 8:40 p.m. departure. But if you're willing to stick around until the last boat leaves at 9:25 p.m., you can experience Alcatraz at its quietest and most forlorn.

During this time, National Park Service rangers give presentations to the remaining visitors about famous inmates and demonstrate the automated cell door system in "Sounds of the Slammer." You're also free to wander the halls, which by then are as lonely and desolate as a week in solitary.

Haunted? Maybe. Dark and eerie? Absolutely.

Shock it to me

In San Francisco, you need not worry about which horror movies the video store has in stock when there are half a dozen Halloween-themed plays you can see. "Shocktoberfest," for instance, has become a Halloween tradition.

This annual blood-fest, put on by the Thrillpeddlers, is inspired by the Grand Guignol tradition of French horror plays, which means plenty of spurting blood whenever the occasion demands -- and the occasion demands it frequently. As gruesome as it may sound, the show has a wicked sense of humor and an over-the-top style that will leave you laughing even as you cover your eyes.

The theater itself is part of the show. Besides traditional seats, there are Turkish lounges meant for two (think chaises draped with rugs and scattered with pillows). Or you can choose one of the interactive Shock Boxes, double seats in the back of the house that elicit intermittent screams when their occupants experience little moments of personal theater staged just for them.

This year's double feature includes "The Phantom Limb," a commissioned play set in a New Orleans brothel, and "The Torture Garden," which was written in 1922 for the actual Theatre du Grand-Guignol and is being performed in English for the first time. Both provide good, gruesome fun for any aficionado of the macabre.

The door to nowhere

Staircases that just end. Secret passageways. A door to nowhere. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is more than just an architectural oddity; it's the Bay Area's official haunted mansion. No one jumps out at you, and you won't see special effects.

It's just a creaky old Victorian mansion with a great story behind it.

It began in the late 1800s when Sarah Winchester, a widow and heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, sought the counsel of a medium after one too many Winchesters had met an early demise.

The medium told her there was a curse on her family, compliments of the unhappy spirits who had died at the business end of a Winchester rifle. She told Winchester that she could appease the spirits by beginning a construction project that would never end.

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