Stage Blood

This time of year, some of the city’s best acting isn’t on local stages — it’s in the dark and foggy passageways of the city’s legendary haunted houses.

The Catacombs

Location: 1100 Santa Fe, in the West Bottoms

Cost: $18

Length: 35 minutes

General feeling: Ambitious but threadbare

Memorable characters: A killer clown; a gangly ghoul with a scratchy goatee, Stephen King glasses and a grunt straight from the slaughterhouse; a number of sleepy-looking women, each in a hoodie and a dab of white makeup that leaves them looking more like game-day superfans than monsters

Representative scare: A figure lurks in the shadows of a cramped, black hallway. Out it slides, jolting you a little. Then it waits patiently while you ask if you’re going the right way.

Best scare: Deep in the mirror maze that is the Catacombs’ choicest stretch, one skilled haunter pounces out no fewer than five times, always vanishing into a mirror and then materializing again, scant heartbeats later, just ahead.

Best gross-out: None. The bloody doll parts don’t cut it.

Important lesson: Just because they name it Catacombs doesn’t mean there have to be any catacombs.

Is there a cheesy slide? No.

Does someone leap out at you just when you think it’s all over? Yes. But during our visit, the climactic slasher’s chainsaw was on the fritz. To his credit, he waved it over his head and chased us anyway.

Lowdown: Remember how, when you were a kid, your mother always made a big fuss over your homemade presents? Catacombs is like that gift — except you’re paying $18 a head. Catacombs is eager to please, featuring a lengthy maze, but it’s often meager in detail and craftsmanship. Scare-for-scare, it’s outclassed by the Beast and The Edge of Hell, just around the corner.

The Edge of Hell

Location: 1300 West 12th Street

Cost: $20

Length: 40 minutes.

General feeling: A lavish, satanic pop-up book

Memorable characters: A half-corporeal ghost woman, dancing sadly; an undead musician, rocking the Bach on an infernal pipe organ; Death himself; St. Peter, who is amusingly blasé as he separates the wholesome from the hellbound

Representative scare: While you feel along a dark tunnel, light flashes and thunder booms just as a spring-loaded demon-dog-snake-skeleton bursts out, shrieking and quite possibly knocking you to your knees.

Best scare: Fresh from the electric chair, a death-row lunatic charges at you, wielding tools that throw sparks.

Best gross-out: That rat guy outside, still open-mouthing vermin after all these years

Important lesson: Heaven is haunted, too.

Is there a cheesy slide? A fall straight out of Milton: five stories, from heaven to hell

Does someone leap out at you just when you think it’s all over? No.

Lowdown: This is the Cadillac of the industry, consistently making us sweat and scream. For all its familiarity — still with the secret door in the fireplace? — The Edge of Hell offers the best fake-scares in town, mixing skilled actors and prop traps with appealing artistry: The spinning hallway is a jack-you-up marvel, the projected images of dancing ghosts have a chilly beauty, and there’s grandeur in the moment when Death appears, bathed in light, at the top of a celestial staircase.

Halloweekends at Worlds of Fun

Location: Worlds of Fun

Cost: $19.95, Twilight Tickets

Length: Five haunted zones, some outside, each lasting from 15 to 20 minutes

General feeling: Rubbery, but not so much that it won’t make kids cry

Memorable characters: A rail-thin undead nurse who glides silently up beside you in line; a 7-foot-tall, lizardlike beast clanging cymbals, talking like Michael Jackson and daring people to dance; an evil mental patient in a strobe-lit house of madness who said to us, “Hey, Sarah! It’s me! From school!”

Representative scare: Dude in rubber mask hides in fog until you approach. Then he scrapes a shovel against the concrete, creating sparks.

Best scare: The Timber Wolf, a ramshackle nightmare

Best gross-out: A bathroom scene, complete with grisly stalls and a shit-barnacled toilet. Fortunately, the swill it gushes at you smells nicer than the water on the log ride.

Important lesson: Keep your arms and legs inside until it comes to a complete stop.

Is there a cheesy slide? Why bother? The Mamba drops you 205 feet.

Lowdown: Too many Wal-Mart-style masks and props. Voiceovers constantly assure us that “characters” won’t touch — things tend to be scarier when evil doesn’t let you know its ground rules upfront. Still, Worlds of Fun plays rougher than you might expect, going for gore more than kid-friendly spookiness. Thanks to its huge cast and atmospheric environments —we love the meat-lockered corpses in the mental ward as well as most of the fog-soaked outdoors areas — we jumped often and spent serious minutes pleasantly disoriented. Factor in the rides, and this is 20 bucks well blown.

The Nightmare

Location: 3604 Main

Cost: $12

Length: 25 minutes; longer if you stay to pray

General feeling: Pious gore; also: pushy, abusive and batshit crazy

Memorable Characters: Sinners; a gnarled fellow on a rope bridge who slides the head of a live snake in his mouth; hordes of the howling damned, banging on a cool moving cage; Solomon’s Porch pastor, Troy Covey, videotaped saying that “Tonight is not about a religious argument” and then hitting us with Romans 3:23; Lucifer, metrosexual as a matter of principle

Representative scare: Two parents knock each other around a living room, blaming each other for their teenage son’s homosexuality. Meanwhile, the son blows his own head off.

Best scare: Shirtless gang members get up in your face, shouting and shoving and waving their pieces, while white cheerleaders are shot in the background.

Best gross-out: In the bloodiest scene in town, a man is flayed alive.

Important lesson: Black guys are scarier than demons.

Is there a cheesy slide? No.

Does someone leap out at you just when you think it’s all over? Yes, wielding a clipboard and conducting a “survey” that jumps, in just three questions, from “What was your favorite part” to “If the Bible is true, do you think you’re going to heaven or hell?”

Will you see Jesus nailed bloodily to the cross, moaning in agony while images of the smoking World Trade Center flicker to his left? Yes.

Lowdown: Although Nightmare never advertises itself as a “Christian” haunted house, its aesthetic is The Passion of the Christ-style evangelism meets After School specials. Covey says Nightmare’s horrors are drawn from real life, which explains the grisly drunken driving accident and maybe the self-inflicted abortion, but not so much the ritualistic flaying or the dude who rubs his rat on you. Despite much impressive splatter, Nightmare is less scary than it is punishing. Cast members manhandled us through the confusing-in-a-bad-way layout, and the blaring voiceovers for each scene are utterly incomprehensible. The cast has fun with its bullying and blood lust — but didn’t Jesus say that violence in thought is as great a sin as violence in action?

Categories: A&E, Stage