20 years of straight-up terror: Miami’s favorite scary carnival returns for Halloween

Some things are always scary, no matter how many years pass.

The dark (where the unspeakable might be waiting). Tight spaces (where someone — something — might brush up against you). Sudden movement (especially in your general direction).

These are the elements that have powered House of Horror Haunted Carnival for 20 years.

The Halloween-themed experience, which opens Sept. 29 at Miami International Mall in Doral, has actually been around for 22 years. It took a break for two years: In 2019, when it lost its home, and in 2020, when a real-life horror — the COVID pandemic — shut down the scares.

But you can’t keep a good ghoul down, and in 2021, House of Horror reopened inside the abandoned Sears store at the mall (the experience also includes a midway in the parking lot with carnival rides like the new Fireball Rollercoaster, games and entertainment). Ready to be scared witless by fictional characters instead of a virus, Miami showed up in droves, providing the attraction with its best year to date.

Tickets to the House of Horror Haunted Carnival at Miami International Mall include unlimited rides.
Tickets to the House of Horror Haunted Carnival at Miami International Mall include unlimited rides.

“We have had about 80,000 to 100,000 people over previous years,” says executive director Tony Albelo. “But last year we had 150,000.”

House of Horror began its 20-year reign as House of Terror at the old Planet Hollywood space in Coconut Grove in 2001, says creator Nelson Albareda, CEO of Loud and Live, a global entertainment company that’s the parent company for EngageLive, which owns House of Horror. After 9/11, though, the word “terror” felt wrong, and the title changed.

The attraction moved to Bicentennial Park, then to Miami International Mall. Over time, Albareda says, the event has become more than just a place for teens and 20somethings to scare their dates.

“We’re more child friendly,” he says. “It’s our idea to continue growing by catering to different people. We get a lot of families now.”

This year, in addition to three haunted houses that are not recommended for kids under six, there will be “Scare X Studios,” a less terrifying spot for gaming and selfies for the timid and the very young. There are also plenty of kid-friendly carnival rides and a Halloween parade with candy and costumes on Oct. 30.

One of the actors from 2021’s House of Horror in Doral.
One of the actors from 2021’s House of Horror in Doral.

As for the scary stuff, three haunted houses — DrownTown, Insanitorium and The Silent Mall, which Albelo swears is the scariest — will come to life with the aid of live performers like Samantha Ruiz. She sells real estate by day, but when the sun goes down she morphs into a variety of creepy characters whose only goal is to terrify everyone in the place.

Ruiz, who has been part of House of Horror since 2008, has played everything from zombies and vampires to burn patients and clowns over the years. She loves working at the attraction so much she has been known to keep her makeup on after the show (if you see someone with a fork sticking out of her head in Denny’s some late night, it’s probably her).

Over the years, the cast has become a family, she says.

“We have internal games and talk about who got the best scares,” she says. “We take polls. Someone will say, ‘We had an adult pee themselves! We did a good job!’ We make it fun every day depending on the crowds. A jump scare will work for one group and not another. We’re constantly changing.”

As for what truly scares those brave enough to venture in, Albareda says that the tried-and-true still works. Dark. Tight spaces. Jump scares.

“The teenager we originally scared grew up in the ’90s, but the Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with tech,” he says. “But what hasn’t changed is consumers still want the physical experience. It can only be achieved through actors. So our main goal is to train actors and not go the tech route like they do at some other Halloween events at Universal. Here, it’s back to basics.”

House of Horror Haunted Carnival

Where: Miami International Mall, 1625 NW 107th Ave., Doral (between JC Penney and the food court)

Open: Sept 29-Oct. 31

Hours: 6-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; 5:30-11 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays except Oct. 31.

Tickets: $20-$40 online; rides free with admission; houseofhorrorcarnival.com

Parking: Free in the surrounding mall lots