IT SOUNDED LIKE a good idea. That's why I volunteered it.

"Look," I said, "every year at this time we get all kinds of phone calls from readers wondering which one of the big haunted houses is the scariest, which is best for little kids, which is worth the four or five bucks it costs - not to mention the long wait in line. And every year we have to rely on heresay and press releases in giving out recommendations."So why don't we send someone to all of the Salt Lake-area scare palaces to go on the record with answers to all the questions? It would probably be one heck of a public service."

Actually, my motives weren't quite so noble. My 8-year-old son was starting to bug me about taking in one or two of the fright factories for his birthday later this month, and I was wondering about all those questions myself. Some first-hand information from someone I knew and trusted would be most helpful in making a decision.

And the boss agreed. "Great idea," she said. "When do you want to go?"

Hold it. That's not what I was trying to say. I mean, I don't want to deprive someone else. . . .

The boss looked around the table. "Anyone else want to go?" she asked. Some of the best communicators in the state of Utah were suddenly incapable of coherent expression.

My editor shrugged. "Looks like it's all yours," she said.

So last weekend I found myself shuttling from the March of Dimes' "Your Nightmares" to the Haunted Old Mill to the Institute of Terror to Wheeler Farm's Haunted Woods. The following is my report (and I hope it helps you as much as I was hoping it would help me):

THE MARCH OF DIMES PRESENTS "YOUR NIGHTMARES," 4225 S. Fifth West; Mondays-Thursdays from 7-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 7-11 p.m. through Oct. 31; $4 (discount coupons available at Wendy's, Little Caesar's Pizza and Smith's Food and Drug).

Our first attempt to visit the old warehouse where this year's March of Dimes spook alley is located last Wednesday night ended in disappointment. A huge crowd milled about the dirt parking lot chaotically, kicking up dust and generally looking out of control. Unable to make sense out of things, we left. When we returned on Thursday the crowd was almost as big, but rope barricades had been set up to make the ticketing and entry process surprisingly orderly and brisk (as it is at all of the other houses; plan on standing in line for a while, but the lines do move along pretty well). Helping to take the edge off the wait here are costumed characters who roam through the crowd, setting the mood for the evening with their axes and chain saws (which have been rendered harmless, of course, but still are plenty noisy).

The first few moments inside the warehouse are exciting, with sudden spooky appearances by many of the characters who haunt your wildest nightmares - from Jack the Ripper to "Friday the 13th's" Jason. Freddy Krueger even puts in an appearance eventually, as do a host of other ghoulies and goblins. But don't worry - it's mostly pretty tame, without very many gruesome scenes to look at and only a few really frightening characters. After a while even 8-year-olds will get used to the routine of walking through darkened hallways and having semi-scary creatures jump out.

Bottom line: This is probably the best house to bring your 8-12-year-olds to, but older thrill-seekers may find it a little unsatisfying.

THE INSTITUTE OF TERROR, 4788 S. State, Mondays-Thursday from 7-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 7-11 p.m. through Oct. 29. Tickets are $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for children under 12. Bring a can of food for Utahns Against Hunger and receive a $1 discount.

There's more technology at work here, with more masks, more intricate makeup and many more scenes and displays to look at. The intensity of the experience is up, too, because you can get distracted by a bloody tableau and leave yourself open to a good scare from one of the prowling characters. I know - it happened to me more than once.

Most memorable here are some of the monster creations, a huge Tesla coil that emits some four million volts of electricity and a suspended bridge sequence that really throws you off balance. There are some fairly gory depictions, enough special effects fog to gag a werewolf in a couple of spots, and the characters have a tendency to wear out their welcome by hanging around and pushing their schtick too far. But no one gets obnoxious, and I never saw anyone push a child to tears.

Bottom line: It doesn't look like much on the outside, but once you get inside the Institute of Terror you're in for some thrills and chills and a few good jolts - especially if you get too close to that Tesla coil. I'd think twice about taking a child younger than 9 or so, however.

HAUNTED OLD MILL, 6900 S. Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, Mondays-Fridays from 7-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 7-11 p.m. through Oct. 31, tickets $4 (99 cents off on Oct. 17 and 24).

There isn't a better setting for a haunted house than this huge old structure, set off as it is by trees and surrounded by brush. And there isn't a better haunted house in the valley, provided you aren't squeamish about stylized glop and goo.

Presented as a benefit for the American Heart Association, the Haunted Old Mill takes the scenic approach to fright, presenting a vast assortment of vignettes that range from the surgical to just plain butchering - all to the constant, steady rhythm of the Old Mill's "heart." This is pretty grisley stuff, but it's presented with such a non-terrifying spirit of campy fun that it's hard to take it too seriously. And the technical work - including makeup, props, costumes and mechanical sets - is really quite good.

Bottom line: This was my personal favorite among the houses we visited. We really had a good time here. But the 6- or 7-year-old boy ahead of us clearly didn't. It was all a little too much for him, and there were tears in several settings. I'd recommend it for 10-year-olds on up - and even then only if they're up to dealing with gruesome scenes, intimidating characters, challenging tire walks and lots of strobe lights.

WHEELER FARM HAUNTED WOODS, 6351 S. Ninth East, Mondays-Thursdays from 7-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 7-1 p.m. through Oct. 31, tickets $4.50, $3.50 for children 3-11 (Meadow Gold discounts available Oct. 17-20 and 24-27).

Technically, this outdoor production may well be the best-executed (if you'll pardon the expression) and scariest adventure of them all, with excellent makeup, costume, lighting and technical effects. It's also the longest event, at 45 minutes, and it's the only one that really tries to tell stories - "Wolves in the Woods" - while it scares. But it's also the only one that I felt approached overkill (again, please pardon the expression), with scenes and special effects that come on too strong and performers who don't seem to know when to back off. More than once I saw children in tears, and the characters kept pouring it on. One mother told me she had to speak harshly to a couple of performers to keep them from harrassing her children as they tried to hurry through the maze near the end of the show.

But the folks at Wheeler haven't forgotten the children. Recognizing the fear factor they generate outdoors at night, they have instituted a popular Tot Walk daily except Sundays from 3-5:30 p.m. This gives kids a chance to experience the tour without having to deal with the dark.

Bottom line: Definitely not recommended for kids or the feint-hearted of any age. Suggested only for those who like their thrills bloody and disgusting.