The funny thing about being scared in a haunted house is that you expect to be scared -- if you're expecting it, does it really qualify? In most local haunted houses, it's more a startling than a scaring that you'll get.
The Lemp Caverns and Dr. Zurheide's Asylum (7-11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and Oct. 30 and 31. $13-14; $19 for both. Lemp Avenue and Cherokee Street, 314-664-6668) use a surefire tool to induce disorientation and shockability: total darkness. This key factor is not used in most haunted houses! Better-lit attractions include a fantastically done movie theater with an audience of corpses. The folks who run the cavern have put together the cleverest scare devices of all the houses. The Asylum is more gory than ghoulish -- but beware the shovel man!
Hill House (Same times and dates as Lemp Caverns. $13. Highway 61-67 South, near the Imperial exit on I-55 in Kimmswick, 636-467-6668.) has some good pitch-black passages and a nifty outdoor section. But there ain't much fear here, and it's too brief.
The House of Darkness (7-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday through October. $8-$13.50. Next to Soulard Market, South Broadway and Carol, 314-631-8000) is the most beautiful of the houses, with an interior made to look like a rotten old mansion. Vincent Price's Night Gallery is an awesome collection of horror memorabilia, with life-size figures, giant monsters, celebrity death masks and autographed movie stills, and the haunted house contains a room that will cause your knees to buckle or make you run in shock.
Elvira's Nightmare (Same times and prices as House of Darkness, 19th Street and Washington Avenue, 314-631-8000) features the remarkable Squishy the Clown; Freaky's Circus of Horrors in 3-D, a carnival of the insane staffed by angry high-school students; and an excellent room in which the ghoul-actors gang up on the guests.
Screamworld (Same times as House of Darkness. $8-$14.50. Springdale Pool Complex, Highway 141 two miles south of Gravois, 314-631-8000) includes the Camp Hackenslash Hayride, the pleasantly disorienting Curse of the Mummy in 3-D and two haunted attractions, in one of which a clever actor leads you through green fog bit by bit so that you get lost again and again.
Purgatory (7 p.m. nightly though Oct. 31. $13. I-55 south to Barnhart exit 185, then left, 636-464-4397) is an old-fashioned harum-scarum with pitch-black passages and a walk through the woods that will scare you if you let your imagination go.
Six Flags Fright Fest (5-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Oct. 30 and 31. Call for prices. I-44 and Allenton Six Flags Road, Eureka, 636-938-4800) includes the Mausoleum of Terror, which is pretty tame, although props do shoot out close to visitors. The Brutal Planet haunted house is second only to the House of Darkness for artfulness, with elaborate gore spread through a postapocalyptic slum. The Haunted Hayride features large, detailed scenes, but the Terror Train has two fantastic moments -- keep an eye on your neighbor and prepare for a special effect you won't see anywhere else.