Can Knott's Scary Farm 2012 keep up with the competition at Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights? To find out, read on...if you dare.
The 40 anniversary incarnation of the annual Knott's Berry Farm Halloween Haunt is a blast. The Green Witch is back, prowling the grounds, appearing in a maze or two, and haunting the midnight hanging show. But as much fun as it may be for old-timers to see the return of a familiar mascot, the real thrill lies in the new frights. There are four new mazes of various shapes and sizes - five, if you count the EVIL DEAD log ride - and all of them are frightful fun in an amusing variety of ways, and the returning mazes are all worth revisiting.
As usual, the big advantage of Knotts Scary Farm is its size: the annual Halloween Haunt has room enough to resurrect numerous perennial favorites without short-changing new ghostly thrills - including the much-ballyhooed Trapped maze. With its promise of a uniquely personal horror experience, Trapped alone was more than enough to draw us down to Buena Park on Saturday, October 2, the Halloween Haunt's second night of operation in 2012, for a chance to participate in an event that sounds truly novel and terrifying.
The most eagerly anticipated descent into darkness at this year's Halloween Haunt is Trapped, a reservation-only walk-through attraction that allows you and a small group of friends inside, where you spend 15-20 minutes trying to find your way out. The fear-factor here is actually rather minimal; the emphasis is on solutions rather than shocks, but there are a few good pop-scares. You enter a series of rooms, none of which has a visible - or at least an obvious - exit. You fumble around, searching for a way out, sometimes aided or impeded by creepy characters who berate you for your inability to move on. (Hint: trying anything, and if a sign says "Don't do this," maybe you actually need to do that.)
Trapped includes a supremely spooky roomful of mirrors, in which ethereal images of Bloody Mary appear, her whispering voice encouraging you to repeat her name in order to escape; this sort of supernatural scare is far too rare at haunted house events in Los Angeles, and its use here is cleverly applied to send shivers up your spine before paying off with a more conventional jump-scare. There are claustrophobic cages, a rotted restroom, and a crazed cook who insists you eat an insect before proceeding (thanks to nephew Nick here for stepping up to the plate and taking one for the team).
The penultimate exit is a literal show-stopper, guaranteed to leave your party reluctant to proceed: the only escape is to willingly climb onto a sliding metal morgue slab that is then pushed inside its confined space; the door is sealed, locking you into claustrophobic darkness, with no visible means of escape. Just when you think you have escaped to the safe light of day (well, artificial light, but still soothing), there may be one more little surprise in store...
Our only complaint? Trapped is too short to realize its full potential. Although it is billed as a 25-minute experience, an adroit group with a little luck could make it out in not much more than ten minutes.
Update: Since Trapped requires a separate ticket, with an additional cost of $60 (allowing entrance for a group of up to six people), we wanted to come back and give a bottom-line assessment of whether the maze is worth the extra blood money: Yes, if you have a group of five or six, the extra $10 or $12 per person is worth the expense. Four people only ($15 each) is borderline. Two or three people (an extra $20 or $30) - definitely not.
Update 2: Another element that could improve Trapped would be a great sense of danger. Visitors should feel as if they are being pursued through the maze - as if they need to open each succeeding exit before a monstrous horde of zombies catches up to them.
Other New Mazes
Trick or Treat is a great way to start your haunt experience at Knotts Berry Farm (it is listed as #1 on the Knotts Scary Farm map you pick up at the entrance). Visitors are allowed to enter in small groups, like trick-or-treaters being invited inside a house. Inside, you encounter a variety of costumed characters in the traditional Halloween mode (black cats, vampires, etc). The scares are mild; the maze is short - definitely not a satisfying climax, so do not save this one for last. Fortunately, it is situated at the beginning of a four-maze sequence that includes Delirium, Endgame, and Dominion of the Dead, allowing you to jump quickly from one type of Halloween horror to another. As such, it is a great mood-setter that will whet your appetite for the more intense scares to come. It's also the perfect maze if you have young children who insisted on coming along with you; they will enjoy it with a pleasant thrill that will not traumatize the tykes for life.
Dominion of the Dead resurrects the vampire theme formerly seen in Lore of the Dead. This time, the vampires seem to be patrons of the arts, poised before canvasses or lithely fingering violins. The Gothic ambiance and aura of artistry distinguish this maze, which is evocative without being overtly shocking. This one is for horror connoisseurs who prefer to see something fascinating, rather than simply being assaulted by monsters in masks jumping from around corners. Well, there is a little of that, too, in particular a bungee-jumping vampire who lurches unexpectedly from overhead. (Maybe too unexpectedly - it's easy to miss his presence altogether.) A ghoulish highlight of this year's Halloween Haunt.
Pinocchio Unstrung is set inside the location that housed The Doll Factory the past year Halloweens. Although this is a new maze with new props, there is a certain thematic continuity here. Once again, objects associated with childhood innocence (formerly dolls, now a puppet) are twisted into demented caricatures that seem all the more disturbing because of their childish associations. This is not the most intense maze you will ever encounter, but it fills its own weird little niche quite nicely.
The Evil Dead is not really a maze, being situated within the Knott's Berry Farm Log Ride. Unfortunately, the lines were too long (a bit surprising since the park was not overly crowded on Saturday night, and most of the waiting was short).
Virus Z, the amusing maze about an Eisenhower-era town thrown into bloody chaos, returns with a modern twist: the maze now climaxes with a prom scene inspired by the upcoming remake of CARRIE. Sadly, the word "climax" is a bit of an overstatement. The prom scene features no actual action; instead we see rather mild scenes of the aftermath of destruction, with a blond and rather buxom Carrie, demanding to know who is responsible for the prank that bathed her in blood. Not much happens, unfortunately.
Endgame: Warriors of the Apocalypse has moved to a new location on the Knott's lot for 2012. It features the same kind of scares, which suggest that the post-apocalyptic wasteland will resemble the World Wrestling Federation gone mad, but the violent vignettes seemed packed tighter together this year, creating a more satisfying scare experience.
Dia De Los Muertos - featuring La Llorona and the Chupacabra - remains as colorful as ever, its vivid 3-D presentation providing a badly needed change of pace from the more gruesome scares in other Knotts Scary Farm mazes. The maze has been slightly revamped: the layout of the cantina has been rearranged, and the makeup of the dancing girls features clever makeup that changes their appearance as they step in and out of the black-lights focused on the stage. (See video of the mazes 2009 debut.)
Terror of London is an old favorite, located in Knott's Bery Farm's Mystery Lodge (video). There is nothing new here, but it is always fun to take another walk down the foggy Victorian streets, following in the steps of Jack the Ripper. And Delirium is just as demented as when it made its debut at last year's Halloween Haunt (see video of last year's version).
Update: One point we forgot to make is that, in general, the returning mazes seem to have been revamped and condensed. We say "condensed" rather than "shortened" because for the most part the scares have been retained and stuffed into a smaller area, reducing the long stretches of empty corridors sometimes seen in previous years. In the case of Terror of London, this is a definite loss - you lose some of the sense of pursuing the elusive Ripper down the cobblestone streets, but in Engame and others, it is a benefit.
For more information on last year's mazes read our review of the 2011 Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm.
With crowds light early in the season, it is possible to enjoy every haunted attraction that Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt has to offer (especially on a Friday or Saturday evening, when the theme park runs from 7pm to 2am). That's more than enough Halloween horror to satisfy voracious fright fans - truly worth the drive down from Los Angeles.
The scare zones seemed a bit thinly populated to us, but that probably had much to do with the light crowds - without many victims to scare, it was nearly impossible to build the adrenalin level to the point where it would reach critical mass. It certainly was not for want of trying. Some of the aggressive and abusively humorous inhabitants of the Carnevil scare zone even had us re-thinking our aversion to Halloween clowns.
Although Trapped left us wanting more, it provides an experience unique among Halloween theme park attractions: a focused scare experience, undiluted by the presence of herding crowds. Over the course of the last two nights, we have lost count of the number of times we were cheated of scares that were sprung on victims either before us or behind us, leaving us stuck in the middle of an unwanted safety zone. That will not happen in Trapped, and that alone makes this year's Halloween Haunt at Knotts Berry Farm worth the sojourn into Orange County.
On balance, as much as we enjoyed Knott's Scary Farm's new mazes, we are going to call 2012 in favor of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, just because its technical excellence was applied to a satisfying variety of scares this year. Still, you really should see both theme park events. Why deny yourself a double-dose of fear this year?
Remaining dates for the Halloween Haunt are September 27-30, October 4-7, 11-14, 25-28, 30-31. Knotts Berry Farm is located at 8039 Beach Boulevard, Buena Park, CA 90620. Advance tickets start at $36. There is an extra charge for the Trapped maze: $60 in advance for a group of up to six people. View our page on the haunt here, or check out their official website.
Note: this review has been expanded since initial posting.