We were thoroughly terrified (in an entertaining sort of fashion) by last year's Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm. However, with only a few new additions for 2005, Knott's Scary Farm got a low setting on our priorities list while we explored unfamiliar Halloween attractions of a more recent vintage, such as the Thousand Oaks Haunt, Seaside Haunt (reviewed here), and the Old Town Haunt. We finally made it out on Wednesday, and now we're here to tell you all about it.
Trying to avoid traffic, we did not arrive until shortly after 8:00pm, just as the roller-coasters and other rides were getting started. Per our usual custom, we opted for the Western entrance (sort of the back way into the park), on the theory that this one is usually less crowded. Unfortunately, this night turned out to be an exception: we had to wait half-an-hour just to get into the park, and that was with tickets already in hand.
After the long wait outside, it was a relief to see that the crowds inside were merely thick -- annoying but not insufferable. Our priorities for the evening were the three "new" attractions: 13 Axe Moon Manor (in the Mystery Lodge), Cavern of Lost Souls (in the Calico Mine Ride), and Feary Tales in 3D (near the Ghost Rider roller-coaster). Nevertheless, we took advantage of the slightly thinner crowds near the west end of the park and chose the nearby Carnival of Carniverous Clowns from Outer Space as our first maze of the evening, knowning that the 3D glasses we purchased (for $1) would be needed for the Feary Tales maze later, anyway.
The clown maze seemed much the same, but we did notice some details we did not see in 2004 (either new innovations or simply things we overlooked last year, we can't say). There was the de rigeur "blacklight room," with an actor in leotards painted to camoflage his/her body with the background. What we noticed for the first time this year was that parts of the wall were molded to suggest other human forms in disguise, making it harder to spot the one that would actually spring to life.
This set a tone for the rest of the evening. In 2005, the park seems to have learned the value of using strategically placed dummies and statues to distract attention from the actual actors. As often as not, the actors themselves wore full-face masks rather than makeup, and stood perfectly still, making themselves indistinguishable from the mannequins -- until they lashed out, striking terror into the frighened hearts of feeble haunt-goers.
Our next stop was the Cavern of Lost Souls. This was our longest wait of the evening, nearly an hour, but the nice thing about Knott's Scary Farm is that there is usually something to see even when you're stuck in line. In this case, an alarming-looking ride called "Screaming Swings" was nearby, and we were within easy sight of the Hanging, the outdoor comedy-stunt show that pillories celebrities and recent events. Whether you regard this as an advantage depends on your sense of humor, because the jokes are usually crude and unfunny, like something cooked up by high school sophomores after drinking their first beer.
For Halloween 2004, the Calico Mine Ride was redressed as "Army of the Underwold," with decor suggesting inspiration from Sam Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS (complete with a glimpse of the Neconomicon volume seen in that film). This year, renamed Cavern of Darkness, the decor seemed to stick closer to the actual mine ride as it usually looks, emphasizing western-looking miners at work -- they just happen to be dead miners. The ride itself always has a slightly spooky feel (set inside a darkened mining cavern), and the Halloween version used this setting to good effect, adding some nice ghoulish touches (including spider webs in pitch-black tunnels that invisibly brush your face). The ride also featured a good use of mis-direction, with scares coming from unexpected angles.
Next up, we found ourselves in 13 Axe Murder Manor, situated in what is called the Mystery Lodge the rest of the year. (If memory serves, this was the setting of Blood Bayou for Halloween 2004.) This maze comes closest to providing a traditional "haunted house" experience. Some of it has the temporary feel of wooden flats, but many of the rooms were quite impressive, especially an Exorcist-inspired tableau with a possessed woman (actually a dummy) rotating ten feet in the air, with lamps and objects spinning around her. There was also an abundance of ghouls, who did a good job of lurking out of sight around corners -- this is one of the few mazes in which we were frequently taken by surprise.
After that, we set off in search of Feary Tales in 3D; unfortunately, this one (along with its companion, Asylum - Revisited) is tucked inconspicuously in a corner behind the Ghost Rider roller-coaster. Even afer consulting a map, we ended up at Red Beard's Revenge instead, one of a dozen mazes we enjoyed last year.
As the name implies, this is filled with ghostly pirates, which gives it a flavor different from most other Southland-area Halloween mazes. There is a dark, claustrophobic ambience to much of it, with ghouls lurking in cabin bunks, using feather dusters or other tools to reach out and touch you unexpectedly. The line was short -- customers seemed to be busy watching a nearby magic show -- and the maze was fun, but it seemed to lack the pirate wenches that sparked a slightly erotic charge last year. On the plus side, this maze was one of at least two that featured the return of a favorite gag: the bungee-jumping ghoul who leaps from a high ledge, pouncing on unsuspecting passersby.
Finally, with the help of a helpful member of the Knott's staff, we found our way past Ghost Rider to Feary Tales and The Asylum - Revisited. We should perhaps note here how much more successful our inquiries were than similar ones at Magic Mountain Fright Fest a couple weeks ago, where our request for directions yielded only a blank stare from an utterly clueless employee.
We should also mention that, because of their isolation, there is a good chance that these mazes will not be as crowded as the others, so if lines for the Red Moon Massacre or the Curse of the Spider seem daunting, seek out Feary Tales and the Aslylum instead. Even if there is a line, the wait is somewhat ameliorated by a nice little display about halfway along, with a mechanical skeleton hanging (and shaking) from a tree and a full-sized coffin that rattles around off the ground as if something inside is forcing its way out.
Feary Tales is a 3D maze, although the use of gaudy flourescant colors to create an illusion of depth was not quite as alarming as that in the Carniverous Clowns attraction. Feary Tales emphasized the surreal and the bizarre over the outright frightening; with lots of heavy music and psychedelic imagery, it almost seemed more inpsired by Jefferson Airplane than the Brothers Grimm. Our favorite moments were an impressive mechanical dragon (in a brilliant shade or orange) guarding its egg, and Humpty Dumpty, who kept repeating, "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" There was a minimum of ghouls lunging at you here, but the sights and sounds were worth the trip.
The exit from Feary Tales leads directly to the Asylum. This was our favorite maze at last year's Halloween Haunt, but this year the fright factor was not nearly as intense, perhaps because it's later in the season. Nevertheless, Aslylum still had its moments. The outside seems redone: it resembles a castle or an ancient mansion rather than a hospital (complete with a shadowy silhouetted hand grasping inside a red-lit window). Iniside it is frequently dark and dank, with lots of clinical scenes, blood on dingy white walls, and ghoulish patients in isolation chambers with glass walls.
Haivng hit our three targets (Cavern of Souls, Axe Manor, Feary Tales), we decided to call it a night. Heavy crowds and long lines precluded any opportunity for hitting every maze in a single evening (an accomplishment we proudly achieved last year, on one of the preview nights early in the season). However, no trip to the Knott's Scary Farm would be complete without a visit to Lore of the Vampire, which was conveniently close to our route toward the exit.
This venerable maze aims for -- and achieves -- an atmosphere of decadent horror, emphasizing the erotic allure of the undead, which is then counter-balanced with a spicing of grue. You'll see skull-faced wretches and ghouls made up like Rob Zombie, but most of the monsters seem inspired by Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. We walked through just behind a group of Goth teenagers who absolutely loved the place, stopping at practically every room to pose with the vampires (despite prohibitions against flash photography). Although mostly the same as its previous incarnations, we did notice one or two new details, such as a final vamp in a darkened recess near the end, who was apparently positioned atop some kind of pnuematic arm that lifted her up, making her appear to float off the ground. The effect was so remarkable that it brought a group in front of us to a dead stop -- and who could blame them? -- while a staff security man popped out of nowhere, urging them to keep the line moving. On the way down the steps out the exit, one could easily hear them repeating over and over, "That was the best! Absolutely the best!"
Overall, we were impressed by the high level of enthusiasm displayed by the haunters this late in the season. Inevitably, the mazes suffer from a cattle herd approach to the customers, who are forced through continuously, with little or no opportunity for the actors to reset after each scare. Nevertheless, the ghouls do their best, often affecting a disinterested attitude -- walking by as if ignoring you and then suddenly raising a gloved hand toward your face, metallic fingerpads snapping together with a startlingly audible clack.
The Knott's Halloween Haunt still outdistances its most obvious rivals, the Queen Mary Shipwreck and the Magic Mountain Fright Fest, partly because its expanse (the mazes are so long that you will sometimes spend more time walking through them than waiting in line), but mostly because the park is such a perfect location for a haunting, being a replica of an old ghost town. Redecorated for October, it truly feels like a "Halloween Haunt" the minute you cross the thresshold (unlike Magic Mountain).
More than that, Knott's Scary Farm is loaded with free-roaming ghouls in several "haunt zones" throughout the park, so even if you don't get into all the mazes, you will experience the fun of being frightened almost every moment you are there, and as we mentioned above, there is often lots to see, even when you're waiting in line. Sometimes it's the same stuff you saw elsewhere in the park, but who's complaining? (We noted at least two vomiting mannequins that evening, a handful of electrocutions, and we lost count of how many hangings -- all achieved with mechanical dummies either in or around the mazes.)
In the end, our impression of the evening confirmed our earlier predisposition to avoid the Halloween Haunt late in the season when the crowds make if difficult, even impossible, to enjoy all the park has to offer. The great thing about Knott's Scary Farm is that it features an abundance of Halloween-themed entertainment: ten mazes, two haunted rides, plus magic shows and other live entertainment. But the number of attractions is not much of an inducement if you only have time to enjoy half of them. With a ticket price at the gate of $48, it's questionable whether you will get your money's worth on a busy night -- unless you have a discount coupon -- in which case, we highly recommend you go for it!