Knotts Scary Farm 2013: Review

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Can Knotts Scary Farm reclaim the bloody crown from Halloween Horror Nights this October season? Read on to find out...if you dare!

The Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt came roaring out of the grave this weekend, blazing a burning trail through the night landscape like a ghostly gunslinger blasting away with a double set of shooting irons. The multitude of ghosts and  ghouls lurching through the shadow and fog may be dead - or undead - but their spirits are lively, the reanimation process having imbued them with a malevolent energy guaranteed to leave you squealing with delight. The result is an exhilarating Halloween horror show that entertains from one side of Knotts Berry Farm to the other. In fact, it's almost a sure bet that you will run out of steam before the park runs out of frights to inflict upon your weary soul.

The 41st annual Knotts Scary Farm is a mix of old and new scares, with several novel touches, including Skeleton Key Rooms and a revised version of Trapped, the interactive, reservation-only maze that made its debut last year. However, the individual attractions are less important than the overall approach, which is much more intimate and personal than that seen in Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. There is an enthusiasm and a variety on display that energizes the frights from beginning to end, so that you can visit literally every maze and scare zone without feeling any sense of weary monotony. You will never think, "Been there, done that;" you will only want more.

Ghost Town
A malevolent monster haunting the Ghost Town

Much credit goes to the cast. Whether haunting scare zones or mazes, these putrescent prospectors know how to tap a vein, but not for gold; they are out for blood - yours! - and they know how to get it. Simple jump-scares are not enough. These actors know how to intimidate, threaten, and harass; they also know when to use a seductive stare or an alluring glance to throw you off your guard. Intimate eye contact is a rule, not an exception, and standing your ground does little good, because these monsters are not likely to give up and retreat simply because you do not flinch at their initial approach. Rather, they tend to block your path and/or pursue you relentlessly - in the latter case, driving you inevitably toward the next creature creeping around the corner.

The level of interactivity does not approach that seen in Delusion: Presented by Haunted Play, but it is far more than you expect from other Halloween theme park attractions, where the conga-line approach to moving customers in and out defeats any chance for a more personal scare experience.

New Mazes

Knotts Scary Farm offers six "new" mazes this year, but the designation is a bit suspect; in one or two cases, we are seeing new versions of previous mazes, rather than all-new attractions.  Old or new, all of the mazes feature a high density of paranormal activity; with two or three ghouls in each room, fleeing from one is likely to send you into the arms of another, destroying any sense of safety. In general, the problem of the "endless burlap corridor" has been eliminated; the scares have been condensed down to fit in smaller space, leaving few empty rooms in either the old or the new mazes.

fright pass skeleton keyNew for 2013 is the Skeleton Key, which comes included when you purchase a fast-pass ticket to avoid waiting in line. The skeleton key grants entry to a separate room at the beginning of certain mazes. Visitors enter in small groups, perhaps six, and experience some kind of brief scene that plays out specifically for them. This is a wonderful strategy for a theme park, completely eliminating the cattle-heard approach toward the crowds, and ensuring that the customer actually sees the scare (instead of missing it because it sprang on someone at the front of the line). Unfortunately, we experienced only one Skeleton Key Room on press night (for Uncle Willy's Slaughterhouse), but we will denote the mazes with Skeleton Key Rooms by using an asterisk, so you know which ones to look for.

This year's new mazes are listed below, more or less in the order that we enjoyed them. (The press were not allowed to visit Trapped: The New Experiment during media night; we will try to re-visit Knotts Scary Farm later in the season and report back to you.)

*Black Magic (near Xcelerator) takes you back to the 1920s, when Houdini was debunking spiritualists. The period setting - with its seances, magic shows, and escape routines - offers ample opportunity for authentic Halloween-style thrills, and there are a couple of spectacular special effects, such as the magician flying overheard near the end. The Skeleton Key room here involves a seance.

Dominion of the Damned
Dominion of the Damned

*Dominion of the Damned (near GhostRider) is essentially Dominion of the Dead from last Halloween – in tone if not specifics. Trust us: we are not complaining. With over a dozen mazes, rides, and scare zones, Knotts Scary Farm needs variety, and the ethereal, erotic allure of vampires within this maze is just what the mad doctor ordered. As in 2013, this Dominion is magnificently arrayed with the finest art and decor - sure to appeal to immortals with impeccable taste, even if they are damned for eternity. Expect few shocks here; enjoy the mood instead. We especially liked the room full of chained coffins, rattling as if the vampires inside were struggling to get out.

*Gunslinger's Grave (near Silver Bullet) perfectly exploits the Old Western Ghost Town feel of Knotts Scary Farm. The gimmick here is that you walk from building to building - sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors - so you are never quite sure when you are done: just when you think you have exited the maze, another ghoulish gunslinger emerges from the shadows to draw down on you. On press night, there was also a remarkable vixen who seemed merely alluring - if undead - as she reclined on a bed - until she stood up and towered over us, like some Western version of an Amazon.

ForevermorelogoForevermore is in Mystery Lodge, which served as the home to the Terror of London maze for the previous few years. To some extent, Forevermore recreates a little bit of the narrative thread of its predecessors: once again, you feel as if you are on the trail of a demented serial killer. This time, however, you are following not Jack the Ripper but a modern madman basing his crimes upon the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Several gruesome set-pieces from Poe's tales are rendered in three dimensions, including the body stuffed up the fireplace in "Murders in the Rue Morge" and - most spectacularly - the titular torture device from "The Pit and the Pendulum." The later is quite impressive, slicing through the vertical darkness with relentless regularity. Our favorite scene was the rave-nightclub near the end, whose garish violet light and throbbing music are interrupted by the appearance of The Red Death.

Mirror Mirror (near Necropolis) is, unlike most Halloween "mazes," an actual maze, with multiple corridors, some circling back or leading to dead ends. As the name suggests, this is a hall of glass and mirrors that fools the eye, making it difficult if not impossible to discern which is the correct path. Your struggle to escape is complicated by the presence of the maze's demonic denizens, who taunt you with suggestions about where to turn next. But do they speak the truth, or are they try to increase your torment?

We found our way out fairly quickly, but that was probably because the ghouls were helping the press get out in time to reach the next attraction. We heard that other visitors were lost in the labyrinth so long that the wait in line outside became interminable. If you want to try this one, head for it first thing when you enter, and be prepared to spend some time finding your way out. (Note: one or other members of the press seem to have fallen in love with this one. We think it is good, but you could get essentially the same experience at the Insane Reaction maze at the FrightFair Screampark.)

Old Mazes

Fortunately, at Knotts Scary Farm, old does not equate with boring. Many of the mazes are worth a second look; each fills its own niche, so that you always feels as if you are receiving a different kind of scare. Also, one or two of the old attractions have been revamped, so that they seem at least slightly new. In particular, Uncle Willy's Slaughterhouse appeared substantially different to us (we had not gone through during Halloween 2012, so the changes may have been made then).

Trick 1Trick or Treat (near GhostRider) made its debut for Halloween 2012. We enjoyed the concept but found the execution disappointing during our previous visit - because (we later found out) one of the set-piece highlights was not in operation that night we attended! Fortunately, everything was running perfectly this year, so we finally were able to experience the full impact of this maze, which combines Halloween themes with a fairy tale approach, as naive trick-or-treaters (i.e, you) wander into a witch's house full of tempting candy and other goodies. Needless to say, all manner of horrors await inside, in particular the Knotts Scary Farm's iconic Green Witch (who also shows up in the Calico Mine Ride and at the Hanging show).

The highlight is the spectacular final scene, wherein the witch looms high above you, reigning demented curses upon those foolish enough to have entered her domain - after which, a chandelier falls with a crash, and the witch takes flight, floating overhead on her broom! This magnificent haunt deserves a long life; hopefully, it will return next Halloween.

Note: there can be a bit of a wait to enter Trick or Treat, as guests are allowed inside only at ten-minute intervals. This pays off by insuring that all the special effects gags are reset before you walk through; you will never miss a scare because an actor was trying to get back into position after scaring the group before you.

Pinnochio UnstrungPinocchio Unstrung (in Wilderness Dance Hall) is an attempt to exploit the themes from the retired Doll Factory maze (which had occupied the same location for several years). Though an interesting variation, Pinocchio Unstrung did not live up to its predecessor back in Halloween 2012, at least as we recall. This year, however, the maze was remarkably effective - still not our favorite, but its demented approach to the childhood fairy tale offers a brand of horror with its own distinct flavor, unlike anything in the other mazes.

Uncle Willy's Slaughterhouse (situated in the Necropolis area) is an old favorite. We skipped it in 2012, because its gruesome horrors had become a bit too familiar, but we returned this year to experience the Skeleton Key Room. The scene takes place before a curtain, where one of the demented denizens chides and taunts you with the secret he wishes to show you, eventually pulling back the curtain to reveal a man trapped in a glass box, apparently being showered with acid (the effect is a filmed projection). It's a ghoulish start that sets a suitable tone for what follows. To our surprise, the layout seemed totally different this Halloween, and many of the scenes were new or at least revamped to such an extent that we did not recognize them. In fact, this maze seems almost as "new" as Dominion of the Damned (perhaps not literally so, but certainly in terms of the subjective impression it made on us).

Delirium (GhostRider) was a favorite of ours when it first appeared a few years ago. Unfortunately, little was new for Halloween 2013. We still appreciate the surreal nature of this maze, with its enormous eyes and gargantuan maggots, but its special brand of weirdness has lost some of its allure over the years.

Endgames Monster*Endgames: Warriors of the Apocalypse (GhostRider) was much improved last Halloween when it moved to a new location and condensed its post-apocalyptic gladiator show down, providing the same number of scares in a smaller space. Halloween 2013 sees the same strategy employed. This is an effective maze with a distinctive theme, but like Delirum, its time may have come and gone. There is a Skeleton Key room (which we bypassed), but it seems to consist of the traditional Halloween photo-book gag, wherein you pose for a picture - and then get blasted with air so that you look like an idiot when you see the image.

The Witch's Keep (Calico Mine Ride) is the equivalent of the Back Lot Terror Tram Tour at Halloween Horror Nights: the brand-name may change from year to year, but the ride remains essentially the same. Although this is being called a returning maze, our memory suggests that the Calico Mine ride was not given a specific theme last year, just a generic Halloween layover. Whatever the case, it's nice to see that the Knotts Scary Farm mascot, the Green Witch, has been incorporated here; a somewhat lengthy narration explains how she descended into the depths of the caverns, seeking an evil power that she could use to her benefit. Other than that, this is the usual ride through dark tunnels. There seemed to be few if any actors, with the emphasis on mechanical props. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is nice, and we welcome the opportunity to be scared while resting our feet.

Ghost Town Streets
A ghoul of the old west haunts the ghost town streets.

Scare Zones

Knotts Scary Farm features four scare zones for Halloween 2013. In general, they are nicely themed to match their sections of the park, providing an appropriate atmosphere for the mazes located nearby. And of course, we always appreciate the opportunity to enjoy frights even before we have waited in line to enter the mazes.

  • Ghost Town (Old West Ghost Town) is spooky as always, but it has seemed slightly truncated the past couple years - basically one foggy street with free-roaming ghouls. There is not a lot of Halloween decor (e.g., the phantom playing the organ on the balcony, which was seen in years past)
  • Necropolis (Camp Snoopy): creepy hooded maniacs with the fervor of religious cultists lurk here. They may not harm you physically; but they will sermonize you to death.
  • Fiesta De Los Muertos (Fiesta Village) keeps the Latin-themed horror thing going, in the absence of the Dia De Los Muertos maze.
  • CarnEVIL (The Boardwalk): clowns again? Please, stop.

Shows

Elvira Marquee
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, provides a "Sinema Seance" at this year's Knott's Scary Farm.

We usually do not bother with the shows at Knotts Scary Farm, because we are too busy getting to all the mazes. This year, thanks to our guided press tour (which not only took us straight to the front of every line but also took short cuts to get us to the mazes faster), we managed to spare some time to sit through Elvira's Cinema Seance in the Ghoul Time Theatre. It was about what we expected as the Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Petersen) gave a Halloween version of a Vegas dance review, lip-synched her way through a few songs, and delivered an impressive variety of one-liners all focused on a single punchline (her cleavage).

The second half of the multi-media show consists mostly of a filmed spook of memorable horror franchises, old and new. Not all the jokes work, but more than enough do. Ultimately, the real appeal of the Sinema Seance is Elvira herself, who turns out to be Knotts Scary Farm's most amazing - and enduring - special effect, appearing live on stage and looking almost exactly as she did thirty years ago when she was doing her television show on Channel 9. Surgery and physical training can only account for so much; this woman either has an aging painting of herself stashed under lock and key somewhere, or she sold her soul to the Devil.

Blood Drums
Blood Drums

We also got a glimpse of the Street Drum Corps performing their "Blood Drums" show in the Nectropolis area. They not only made the wait outside Uncle Willy's Slaughterhouse bearable; they almost made us wish the wait were longer. This is an industrial approach to percussion, using not only conventional drums but also unconventional objects - such as grinders against metal oil drums, to create an ear-splitting din while sending showers of sparks into the night sky.

This year's other shows include The Hanging in Calico Square; Carny Trash in the Bird Cage Theatre; and Cursed in the Gypsy Mine Camp.

Conclusion

This year, without a doubt, the Knotts Halloween Haunt wins the annual grudge match with Halloween Horror Nights. Universal Studios Hollywood still has the edge in terms of production value (makeup, sets, costumes), but Knott Scary Farm features far more variety and inspiration. Even the old mazes at Knotts seem fresher and less worn out than the "all-new" mazes at Universal Studios (which not only  recycle old props under new brand names but also recycle the same scare tactics from maze to maze). Both Halloween theme park attractions are worth the price of admission, but if can afford only one, make it Knotts Scary Farm.

Knotts Scary Farm continues its Halloween 2013 season on October 3-6, 10-13, 17-20, 24-27, 30-31, and November 1-2. Hours are 7pm to 1am on Thursdays and Sundays; 7pm to 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. The address is 8039 Beach Boulevard, Buena Park, CA 90620. More info: Click here.

Read our review of the 2013 Halloween Horror Nights here. Or read more Halloween reviews here.