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Scariest haunted houses are right in your neighborhood

With their big-budget promotions and ubiquitous presence, Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream and Universal's Halloween Horror Nights would seem to be the only game in town when it comes to scaring the pants off everyone with a haunted house and ghoulish creatures lurking about.

But more and more, scare zones are popping up at your neighbor's house, at fire stations and even in the woods. And we're not talking just a couple of skeletons and bats thrown up. In many cases, these home-grown haunted houses have elaborate themes, realistic makeup and costumes, and whirring, scary props.

We've scouted out some of the more talked-about ones and tried to list as many as possible. Here are some that caught our eye, both free and with paid admission (albeit much cheaper than a trip to a theme park). And keep in mind that some of these are in actual neighborhoods, so be respectful and courteous about where you park.

FREE

Radley Haunted House

Now in its sixth year documenting the travails of the unfortunate Radley family, this year's haunted house focuses on poor Morton. As the story goes, Mort Radley inherited his grandfather's mortuary and a curious object: a camera that could wake the dead momentarily. It doesn't take foreshadowing to figure out that things go horribly awry. This astonishingly real set of a moldering funeral home was built by Cody Meacham, 23, who will be assisted by friend Jessie Savilla, 23, as well as others who will inhabit some of the rooms. Meacham, who works at Home Shopping Network as a set builder, has created a slowly building scenario that will have you looking over your shoulder from the very beginning. Be sure to watch the video (filmed in a sepia tone by friend Sean Malloy) that sets up the story, because you'll want to be prepared for what could happen inside the fiendish labyrinth. Moody music, dim lights and incredibly realistic props help create this theme park-worthy experience. It's conveniently located off the 38th Avenue N exit at I-275, and a park across the street helps with the flow of people. But be sure to adhere to the warnings not to park on the grass. Meacham says 8 and up should be okay with the intensity.

3900 19th St. N, St. Petersburg; runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. through Monday. It's free, but donations are appreciated. (As Meacham noted, "I don't do this for the money, but it would be nice to get it back.")

Hellview Cemetery

What started out as a simple yard decoration has grown into a full-blown temporary attraction at Halloween time. Since 2002, the caretakers of Hellview have been building elaborate props to reinforce the notion of a mythical cemetery with its dead (or are they?) pirates. Think this won't be intense? Read what they've written on their website: "Some theorize that the graveyard itself is actually its own pocket dimension that is trying to keep the evil forces trapped in its own walls."

510 49th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; runs nightly at 7 through Monday; free (donations appreciated).

The Boneyard

This trick-or-treating zone proclaims it's been "terrorizing the neighborhood since 2005." The neighborhood is called South Fork, and this haunted back yard is strictly for the enjoyment of the trick or treaters who make their way to this elaborate set-up, created by artist Damon Wilde and his wife, Eva. He handcrafts props using wood, plastic foam, paint and other inexpensive materials and has created detailed tombstones, life-size statues, rotting corpses and skeletal remains. Parents should accompany children under 13.

11163 Summer Star Drive, Riverview; runs at 7 through Saturday night; free.

PAID ADMISSION

Haunted Fire House

Themed rooms feature crazy Capt. Bludzwurth, who has returned to wreak havoc. Strobe lights and intense fog machines add to the professional look of the production. Children under 13 will not be admitted without an adult because of the intensity. Benefits East Lake Fire Rescue awards banquet and honor guard.

East Lake Tarpon Fire Station 57, 3375 Tarpon Lake Blvd., Palm Harbor; nightly at 7 p.m. (except Sunday) through Monday; regular admission $5, limited wait pass $15, fire, police and military personnel $3 (cash only); eastlakefirerescue.com

ScareCo Haunted Attraction

ScareCo., a volunteer-run community production, was recognized last year as one of the Top 10 Haunted Houses in the nation by Rand McNally. This year it has prepared two radically different houses. In Degeneration, you'll find out why you don't go shopping for taxidermy at night. The Funhaus is a crazy 3-D trip through a demented funhouse. A "very scary" attraction; children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult.

105 E Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs; runs nightly at 7 through Saturday; $9 one house, $15 both .

Twisted Woods

Nestled among the foreboding trees sits a small town, hidden from society. Back-woods folk reside here, and rumor has it, they don't take well to outsiders. But wait, there's also an abandoned military base where medical experiments took place. And just for good measure, a circus came to the woods and never left. Truly the stuff of nightmares. Just an hour south of Tampa Bay.

23810 53rd Ave. E, Myakka City; runs nightly at 7:30 through Monday; $13, $20 RIP Pass

Haunted Angelus House

This PG-13-rated, handicapped-accessible haunt features a 40-foot pirate ship and pirate haunt with realistic hangings, hayrides, a balloon trail, a 1-mile haunted trail and a haunted cemetery. The Hudson facility for severely disabled adults also offers a glow stick to kids who might be frightened easily; when ghouls and zombies see the stick, they know not to jump out and scare the little ones.

12413 Hudson Ave., Hudson; runs nightly at 6:30 through Monday; $9 one haunt, $16 three haunts, $25 unlimited, 4 and younger free.

Lots more, too

Find more scare zones and trick or treating areas by clicking on the Haunted Houses link under Quick Links at tampabay.com/thing-to-do.

Scariest haunted houses are right in your neighborhood 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 7:18pm]

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