Review: Knotts Scary Farm 2004

After more than thirty years, the annual Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt remains the unbeatable champion of Southland seasonal attractions. This year's event is as good as any the park has ever put on. If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out; if you've seen it before, you'll want to see it again.

We attended on Sunday, October 3, one of the "Bare Bones Nights," when some of the shows are not open. If you're not interested in seeing the "Psycho Circus" stage show, we recommend you attend on the remaining Bare Bones Night, October 6. You'll be glad you did.

This early in the season, crowds were light; in fact, it sometimes seemed as if the ghouls outnumbered the guests. There was almost no waiting in line, allowing us to see everything we wanted, with the option to revisit some attractions if we wanted. Also, the performers were not burned out from weeks of haunting; they were all extremely enthusiastic, putting on an excellent scare show that had us leaping out of our skins from almost the minute we entered the park.

One of the great things about the Knotts Halloween Haunt is that the park has "Scare Zones" haunted by lurking monsters. Filled with blinding fog, these areas are not mazes or rides but just sections of the park that have been decorated for the season and filled with actors in make up and masks ready to jump out and scare you, so that you can enjoy the Halloween horror even before waiting in line to walk through any of the scary mazes.

This year features four Scare Zones: the traditional Ghost Town (the old west section that modeled after Calico Ghost Town in California), the Swamp, the Gauntlet, and CarnEVIL. Like the Ghost Town, the Swamp and the Gauntlet are close to the main entrance, located in dark sections of the park that are conducive to excellent haunting. CarnEVIL is located near the Boardwalk, a brightly lit section filled with roller coasters and other rides, so the scare factor is considerably diminished; nevertheless, it is nice to see that even that festive section of the park has been transformed to fit the season to some degree.

Most of the regular rides (like Kingdom of the Dinosaurs) are open for business, if that's your cup of tea. If you've just come for the Halloween stuff, there is plenty to keep you busy all night. This year, Knott’s has ten walk-through mazes: The Asylum, Hatchet High, Blood Bayou, Malice in Wonderland, Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns from Outer Space, Army of the Underworld, Red Moon Massacre, Terror Vision in 3D, Curse of the Spider, Lore of the Vampire, Red Beard's Revenge, and Jaguar, Temple of Sacrifice. Also, two rides have been customized for the season.

We took the Halloween Haunt's mazes in clockwise order, starting from the front entrance. With the light attendance, we had to wait in line only twice. In most cases, guests are allowed into entrances continuously, instead of being forced to go through in groups of ten. (Most haunted houses make their guest go through in groups so that the monsters have time to reset. Knott’s has so many monsters in each maze that this isn't really necessary; there's always somebody waiting around a corner to jump out at you, no matter how many people are in front of or behind you.)

The Asylum was the most intense. The inmates were running the sanitarium, doing best to make visitors jump.

Hatchet High was more satirical - a high school gone mad, with many ghoulish sight gags (a skeleton making a graduation speech, a classroom marked "Home Eeeckonomics," etc). With its emphasis on the comical, there were fewer scares.

Blood Bayou - with a backwoods setting filled with deranged residents - was not quite as good as Asylum and Hatchet High.

Malice in Wonderland - one of the park's 3D attractions - required the purchase of special glasses for $1. The wall decorations, inspired by Lewis Carol, seeme to float in midair, and the monster makeups practically leaped off the faces of the monsters. The overall effect was less shocking than the Asylum, instead emphasizing the bizarre.

Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns from Outer Space was another 3D attraction. As with Malice, the emphasis was on colorful decor and makeups. The demented clowns were fun, honking horns in and generally intimidating guests with their ghastly faces.

Terror Vision in 3D was the third 3D attraction. The effect was less striking than in Malice and Carnivorous Clowns, but the maze benefited from a satirical edge similar to the one in Hatchet High. The various rooms represented horrific take-offs on old television shows ("Killigan's Island" and so forth). One of the funniest was "Star Tracheotomy," which featured Halloween's Michael Myers on the bridge of the Enterprise. Of course, as fans all know, the mask worn by Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN was a slightly retouched William Shatner mask, so it made sense to put him in the Captain's chair.

Curse of the Spider was one maze that required visitor to enter in groups. This was so that the mechanical effect in the first room could be reset, which lowers a giant spider down from the roof. Sadly, this year's spider seemed noticeably smaller that the one seen in previous Haunts. The rest of the maze was still enjoyable, with numerous scary things lurking in the web-covered tunnels.

Jaguar, Temple of Sacrifice added costumed spirits to that inside the Aztec-looking temple through which guests walked on their way to the Jaguar roller coaster. The result was less a stand-alone maze than than a mildly scary prelude to the roller coaster.

Lore of the Vampire - by this time a relatively long-standing favorite - de-emphasized masked monsters in favor of actors in makeup playing the living dead. The cast conveyed haunting elegance and the overall atmosphere was beautiful in a moody way. Not required to hide behind pullover masks, the actors made intimidating eye contact with guests; the vampires haunting these halls emphasize beauty and eroticism, which lulled guests and set the stage for the occasional jump-scares.

The final maze, Red Beard's Revenge, replicated a pirate ship loaded with the ghosts of dead sailors. The presence of a few attractive pirate wenches lent this maze some of the feel of Lore of the Vampire, but in general the emphasis was on a more traditional kind of monster.

The two Halloween-theme rides, Army of the Underworld and Red Moon Massacre, added seasonal overlays to the familiar rides. In the former, costumed ghouls lurked in the train tunnels, and there were some impressive flying ghosts illuminated with black light, along with a menacing dragon. Sam Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS was apparently a source of inspiration, with one scene clearly depicting that film's version of the ancient evil book Necronomicon.

As you would expect with this many mazes, they vary somewhat in quality. But even if some stand out in memory more than others, the most important point to make is that they are all distinctly memorable in their own right, each tailored to its theme in a way that makes it different from the others. This is a remarkable triumph: even after going on the first ten, you're not going to be thinking, "Oh, I've already seen this," while walking through the last two.

As for the park's other Halloween attraction, The Hanging (the show that takes place at the gallows in Calico Square), we skipped it. From the glimpses we caught, it seemed on par with its previous spoofs of celebrities and pop icons. This year's cast of characters included Bill Clinton and the Bride from the KILL BILL movies. The swordplay and action stuff didn't look too bad; otherwise, the show was the usual collection of tasteless, juvenile jokes. It's okay to watch if you're stuck standing in line, but if you're pressed for time you'd be better off enjoying one of the many mazes rather than standing and watching the whole show.

One minor note: Once you're inside, Knott's Berry Farm, your dining choices are mostly limited to fast food (burgers, pizza) and snacks (popcorn, cotton candy). You can get a drink at the saloon in Ghost Town, fortunately. Also, there is a midnight breakfast buffet available at the Chicken Dinner restaurant on your way out, but there are no re-admissions, so make sure you've seen all you want to see inside the park before you go to eat.