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We Busted Spirits at Hong Kong's Ghostbusters Haunted House

Halloween may be a relatively new import to Hong Kong, but busting goes strong in the city's theme parks.

I stand in line, watching four men dressed as Ghostbusters posing for pictures and chatting up girls. Nearby, two guests extend a selfie stick to snap a photo with a Slimer statue. A guy in a Stay-Puft outfit lumbers past, stopping for hugs and photos. I shake my head at the heat and take another sip of day-glow green ectoplasmic soda.

When I was six, I would've killed to visit an amusement park like this. No exaggeration: I mean literal murder. I would've ended a human life, and done it smiling, if it meant a sip of Slimer soda and a chance to try on a proton pack. The fact that I'm doing so on Halloween only sweetens the pot.

In fact, Ghostbusters is so perfectly-themed for a haunted house, I'm surprised no one's done it before. Halloween may be new to Hong Kong, but the city's caught on fast. We file into a replica of the firehouse and through Egon's lab. Employees in Ghostbusters uniforms hand us laser tag blasters.

"Keep hands here and here. OK?" says a Chinese woman with a nametag reading ZEDDEMORE. She reaches for my plastic blaster. "Are you ready? Go!"

All photos by Mike Sakas

In the next room, neon-painted ghosts leer from the walls. I shoot one and he wiggles. I hit a book and the table shakes. My buddy lights up a tombstone and a skeleton lunges from the wall. Behind me, a suit of armor starts dancing—and it's hard not to grin. Sure, the tech isn't top notch—it's basically the same "shooting gallery" you see in hokey Western restaurants—but it's primarily for kids and so good-natured. 

The ghosts themselves are borrowed from the old '80s cartoon, and time has not made them less bizarre. Gibbering mouths, lolling tongues, and Lovecraftian asymmetry surround us as we blast through the three rooms. Since this is Asia, after turning in our guns we stop at a designated selfie station in front of the containment unit.

This is Ghostbusters Academy, one of seven haunted houses that make up Halloween Fest at Ocean Park, Hong Kong. To stand here is to be at ground zero of Asia's adoption of Halloween, but it also provides a glimpse at how Asian amusement parks are leveraging technology to upgrade the haunted house experience.

The shooting range isn't the only Ghostbusters-themed attraction here—there's an entire area devoted to the franchise, divided by old and new. Ghostbusters Academy represents the original film.

After entering, guests can lounge around the replica firehouse examining lockers, standing at Venkman's desk, and perusing newspaper clippings from the film's press montage. There's a fireman's pole to slide down, though the drop is only two feet. Jump-suited employees offer proton packs and slime blowers for guests to try on, then lead the crowd in Cantonese-accented call-and-response shouts of "Who you gonna call?" 

Egon's lab contains the dancing toaster and brainwave reader. Braver guests can stick their hands in a tub of ectoplasm that, I can tell by scent, is the same stuff from the old Real Ghostbusters toys.

This is the family-friendly half of the attraction. The other side of the building hosts Ghostbusters Live, a more conventional, adult-targeted haunted house based on the 2016 reboot. The claustrophobic path guides you through locations from the film, using mist curtain projections and disguised video screens to create the ethereal specters, while employees in makeup perform jump scares. It's effective and frightening, but still overshadowed by its shooting gallery neighbor—because in Asia, haunted houses are increasingly about interactive technology.

Hong Kong imported Halloween for one reason: capitalism. Thirty years ago, the expat-heavy bar district of Lan Kwai Fong started a small Halloween event to draw expats in the Fall. By 2000, the event had expanded into a full-fledged street party as more locals joined the fray. Soon street vendors in Pottinger Street—the traditional place to buy costume party and holiday supplies—were cashing in on the action. Small Halloween sections sprouted at grocery stores, and local theme parks Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland launched competing events mimicking Universal Studio's long-running Halloween Horror Nights. The celebration gets larger every year.

Halloween's explosive growth in Hong Kong is at once entirely predictable and totally surprising. While J-Horror and Anime have made Japan famous as a source of bizarre ghosts, the entire continent is awash in both traditional and modern specters.  In the 1980s and '90s, Hong Kong churned out tongue-in-cheek vampire movies featuring the jiangshi, a reanimated corpse so stiff it could only move by hopping. Urban lore holds that certain colonial buildings here—used as torture chambers or execution halls during the Japanese occupation—hold tormented souls. With a landscape full of dark alleys and abandoned rural villages, Hong Kong might as well have been built for horror.

Yet despite this fertile ground, traditional beliefs about death and spirits could've stopped the foreign holiday dead. In Chinese culture, spirits are to be respected, placated, and avoided wherever possible. Each Fall, the city celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival, where locals leave out food and stage operas to calm the tormented souls who briefly return from hell. While it has clear parallels with Halloween's predecessor Samhain, the Hungry Ghost Festival never lost its sense of threat, and is primarily ritual rather than revelry. 

Belief in spirits runs so deep that apartments where tragic deaths took place—known as hongza or "calamity houses"—are actually catalogued on real estate websites. While westerners can see hauntings as desirable or even titillating, Hongkongers look at it as a health risk like black mold. These cultural forces were so strong that Hong Kong Disneyland decided not to bring The Haunted Mansion to the city, instead replacing it with a new attraction where a cursed music box brings inanimate objects to life. 

Yet despite these sensitivities, the foreign nature of Halloween means people don't take the ghoulishness seriously—letting Hongkongers party on the dark side without fear.
Given these strong cultural forces, it's not surprising Hong Kong has adapted Halloween to fit local tastes. Many of Ocean Park's haunted houses take place in familiar locations, like public housing estates, antique stores, and K-pop nightclubs. 

This year features "School of Shadows," a house incorporating famous schoolyard legends about toilet ghosts and student suicides. "Club Blood" depicts a vampire nightclub lorded over by real-life Taiwanese pop star Danson Tang, who appears on mannequins via 3D facial projection. Another features Chinese acrobat contortionists who pop joints and run their bodies through tennis rackets. These haunted houses, though properly scary, often have an element of wink and nod to remind guests that they aren't serious. It's a theatrical campiness familiar to anyone who's seen classic Hong Kong horror.

But one of the new strains in this cultural adaptation is technology. All over Asia, theme parks are competing to have the most technologically impressive or novel haunted experience. Universal Studios Japan has a long-running Resident Evil haunted house called Biohazard: The Real, where guests fight off zombies with pistols. In last years' version, the experience got upgraded with augmented reality glasses that displayed a HUD of each guest's health and ammunition. This year also sees the fourth iteration of Yo-kai Watch: The Real, an attraction where kids use Bluetooth watches and a tablet to hunt down yokai holograms in Sakura New Town.

Ocean Park has their own version of this: a free app called Halloween Ghost Hunt that contains a full suite of games and augmented reality features. In one kid-friendly haunted house, guests can use the app's "Third Eye" function to see cartoon ghosts on their smartphone, and (of course) take selfies with them. Another function called "Radar" deliberately parodies Pokémon Go. In it, guests walk around the park while looking at a brass compass, which spins wildly when one of the costumed park performers gets close. You then "catch" the ghost by taking a photo (or yet another selfie) and sharing it on social media. All this photo-taking nets the player points they can redeem for coupons—though glitches meant I only caught a single ghost, and got nowhere near the 11,000 points needed for a prize.

But the simplest addition the most welcome. The app includes three mobile games intended to keep guests engaged while standing in line. Unfortunately, all three are clones. In Soul Jumper (Doodle Jump) you control a jiangshi trying to bounce out of the underworld. Push the Ghosts is Fruit Ninja with traditional spirits flying out of a well. Vampire Escape recasts Pac Man as a Taoist priest battling jiangshi. None equal the originals—but I don't care. Halloween is all about mood, and when I'm queuing up for a Taoist death temple, I want to play a game about hopping vampires.

And if you want a slice of this Chinese Halloween, you're in luck. Ocean Park's promotional campaign includes a YouTube-based 360° VR version of School of Shadows—and it runs fine on a handheld smartphone. But leveraging technology pre-visit isn't unique to Ocean Park. This year Universal Studios Singapore launched a horror-themed point-and-click adventure game to promote its own Halloween Horror Nights. It's not quite VR, but it's close.

And that may be the future of Asia's haunted houses. With VR events becoming common at parks—from the virtual reality experience Ghostbusters: Dimension at Madame Tussauds to VR roller coasters at Six Flags—it may only be a matter of time until Asia's haunted houses consist of fully digital experiences, or ones that muddle the digital and the real.

Whether they'll turn out as seamless experiences like Biohazard: The Real, or partial misfires like Halloween Ghost Hunt remains to be seen—but either way, Asia remains on the bleeding edge of Halloween.

Critical Intel is a weekly column by Robert Rath that examines the overlap between video games and reality. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com​​ or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp​​​