When it comes to horror films, the sequels are usually a disappointment.
We wondered if the same formula might apply to the second annual Spooktacular at Edinburgh Zoo, which runs on half-hourly evening slots from 5.30pm until 7.30pm, until October 31.
But, no, this year is definitely better. Think of it like Damien: Omen II, except a PG version.
In 2021, it seemed like their ambition had been pared back, as there were still lockdown restrictions. This time they’ve gone for more extravagant effects. Good news, for those of us who want to scare the children as revenge for their naughty behaviour. They’ve gone big on the spooky festival, as they won’t be doing a Christmas trail this year, only a festive grotto.
“With even more light trails in and around Edinburgh over the festive period, Halloween gives our charity the best opportunity to provide something special and exciting for local people and visitors from further afield,” says Lindsay Ross, events and experiences manager at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). “We have built upon our event from last year, with new features including a graveyard on the lawn which shows animals which have gone extinct and links in with our conservation work, and some frighteningly fun characters to meet along the way.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that all the furry and feathered residents are asleep at this time. They warn you in advance, in case you expect to see lions dressed as Beetlejuice and penguins as Babadooks. The animals are blissfully unaware of the silly humans.
The only creatures we see, like last year, are the flamingos, who are late-night dipping in their pool, but also a group of otters having an evening fisticuffs session, as well as a single Bagot goat, which might be a ghost. It seems entirely opaque though.
The earlier evening slots are probably best if you have under fives in your posse and it was barely dusk when our group, including my nieces, aged 11 and nine and the three-year-old nephew, arrived in the car park. The scares felt on the softer side at first, since there was a bit of residual daylight to keep the monsters at bay.
That’s just as well, as the youngest member of our party is a bit of a nervous Nelly, unlike his big sisters, who were born gallous.
As you might expect from NL Productions, who are also responsible for The Enchanted Forest in Pitlochry, there's colourful lighting along the signposted trail.
This includes spotlights on stripey-stockinged witches who have crashed their broomsticks and twitching eyes flickering on the branches, with zones include Toxic Wasteland, Spooky Sea and Web Walk, which features extravagant webs and cocooned ‘bodies’.
You can also expect to see plenty of skeletons, some of whom I recognise from last year. I don’t think they remember me though.
As it’s a prerequisite these days, there are plenty of photo opportunities, including one that involves sitting on a bench beside a long deceased bride and groom in Victorian clothing.
Not a great advert for Edinburgh Zoo weddings. You can also take a picture with a suspended witch’s hat on your head, or in front of the giant bat wings, with their pink neon veins.
The skellies, one of which is on a swing, are also hanging out at The Lost Graveyard. It’s here that we spot the gravestone of the extinct Northern White Rhino, which is rather poignant and grim. However, we end up having to bypass the remainder of this entire section, since the youngest in our party wants to give a wide berth to the grim reaper, who lurks in the corner.
“NO,” he says, and stops walking.
We form a splinter group to check out this moving creation, which features realistic-looking eyeballs - a projection, I assume, with my limited technical knowledge. I hope my soul isn’t being harvested tonight. Junior is also not keen on the creepy video of the portrait of a Victorian gent transmogrifying into a zombie. We zip past that. Also, my own dreams have been slightly haunted by the red-eyed witch/bride type person, with her veil floating in the breeze.
The older nieces aren’t freaked out by anything. Generation Z and Generation Alpha are completely hardcore. The lockdown baby, not so much.
There are also a few actors to meet en route. My nephew loves the swashbuckling pirate, who gives him a bravery-inducing therapy session.
Beside the Mansion House, there’s also a strange wild-eyed character in luminous nail varnish, top hat and tattered suit, who seems to be channelling a character from Deliverance, and his ‘wife’, further along. They do a ghost story skit for everyone who passes by, and respond admirably to silly questions. It must be an exhausting job. I’d be breaking the third wall constantly.
She tells us to come back for a children’s tea party later. It’s just part of her story, but the eldest niece takes it literally, and hopefully segues back for potential scones later.
The most frightening thing for the adults are all the food stalls. We visited just after the kids had had dinner, so we ignored all the “ooh, hot dogs” and “marshmallows!” comments.
Also, be brave while exiting through the gift shop, which is full of tempting cuddly things to squeeze the colliewobbles away. Heads down and clutch the wallet tight.
At least there is plenty to distract them inside the park, and maybe a bit to learn too.
As Ross says: “Events like this are important for RZSS because we can reach a whole new audience to help create a world where nature is protected, valued and loved by providing critical funds and experiencing a deeper connection with animals”.
And, presumably, skeletons.
Tickets are £17 for adults, £13 for children, under threes are free. Members tickets are £14 for adults, £10.50 for children, www.edinburghzoo.org.uk