Knotts Scary Farm 2014 review

"Whatever you're imagining, it's here," promises Knotts Scary Farm. Does it deliver? Read on to find out - if you dare!

The Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt opened its 2014 season on Thursday, September 25. As usual, it packs more monsters and mazes than any other Halloween theme park attraction in the Southland, but can it deliver the thrills in an era of extreme haunts, interactive horrors, and more personalized scares? The answer is: yes! In fact, although it tends to lag behind Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood in terms of elaborate production values and prosthetics, Knotts Scary Farm does a far better job of staying competitive with current trends, offering an impressive variety of scare experiences, including many that one associates with smaller, more intimate Halloween events.


OVERVIEW

The Fiesta Dance Party at Knott's Scary Farm
The Fiesta Dance Party at Knott's Scary Farm

Our general rule for Knotts Scary Farm is that, unless you are a hardcore fan, you probably need to visit only every other Halloween, because of the slow pace of swapping in new attractions for old. This year would seem to support the wisdom of that strategy: most of the attractions are holdovers from Halloween 2013; there are only two new mazes, and one new scare zone. However, the holdovers are strong enough to warrant revisiting, and two of the new attractions are absolute must-see events that will undoubtedly show up in Hollywood Gothique's Halloween Haunt Awards for 2014.

As you wander through this year's Knotts Scary Farm, you may be struck by a slightly more festive aura than usual, with brightly lit skulls suggesting a Day of the Dead celebration, especially when you reach the Fiesta Dance Party. This contrasts nicely with the darker elements hiding in the park, emphasizing the enormous variety that Knotts offers.

Black Magic and Trapped are ensconsed near the Carnevil scare zone
Black Magic and Trapped are ensconsed near the Carnevil scare zone

If you are trying to hit every attraction, plan your visit and read your map before wandering off at random. The Camp Snoopy area has been totally taken over by the new Special Ops Infected scare zone, so don't expect to find any mazes in that area, except for Gunslinger's Grave. Black Magic is tucked into a corner of the Boardwalk, which houses the Carnevil scare zone; it's easy to miss the maze if you do not know where to look for it. The nearby Trapped: Lock and Key is also a bit inconspicuous, though not quite as easy to overlook.

The greatest density of mazes is near the Ghostrider rollercoaster, to the left of Knotts Berry Farm's main entrance and through the Gypsy Camp scare zone. There you will find the new Voodoo and Tooth Fairy mazes, along with Dominion of the Damned and Trick-or-Treat. This is a good place to start.

fright pass skeleton keyWhile we're on the subject of expediency and efficiency, be aware that to get the full impact of Knott's Scary Farm, you will need both a Fast Pass and a Skeleton Key: the former gets you to the front of the line; the latter grants you access to special rooms with additional scares.

However, the two work somewhat at cross purposes. The Skeleton Key rooms obtain their impact by allowing in only small groups of people, five or six, at a time, for scenes that may last five minutes or more. Consequently, while waiting for your chance to enter a Skeleton Key room, you may find non-Fast-Pass holders marching into the maze ahead of you. Be patient - your wait will be amply rewarded.

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NEW ATTRACTIONS

New for this year are Voodoo, The Tooth Fairy, and Special Ops Infected. The first two are mazes; the latter is broadly defined as a scare zone, though it is unlike other scare zones in significant ways. All three are entertaining, but we found Voodoo and Special Ops Infected to be amazingly effective, in quite different ways, easily ranking among the best Halloween attractions we have ever experienced.

Voodoo (Skeleton Key Room)

VoodooNear Dominion of the Damned stands the facade of what looks like an old New Orleans hotel, with eerie projections suggesting the shadows of unseen foliage. Enter the Skeleton Key Room, where you are confronted by a priestess who forces you and your companions, one by one, each into his or her own upright coffin. After a nervous wait in darkness, you will hear a spectral voice bellowing a curse, while red light flairs through the cracks of the shaking coffin. Exit out the other side, and enter the maze proper...

Voodoo excels in an area that is supposed to be the forte of Halloween Horror Nights (or perhaps Disneyland): Illuminated in shades of blue, and inundated with shrouds of fog, the sets are fantastic, creating an utterly convincing sense of being in an outdoor swamp. The sense of a supernatural atmosphere is almost palpable - so much so that the action contained therein is simply icing on the cake; simply being inside Voodoo is entertaining enough.

Yet, there is more. Your path takes you into huts and through trees, past pools of water with drowned victims and a life-sized crocodile. Various spectral figures lurk in the shadows and fog, most notable of which is Baron Samedi, who stands at the crossroads, entreating you to choose your path through the swamp.

That's right: the gimmick here is that there are two paths you can take: the first sends you into a room where an exorcism is taking place; the second leads you to a human sacrifice perpetrated by a figure who may be a masked priest or a monster - hard to say as the frantic action plays out before your eyes so quickly that the details blur.

The only drawback to Voodoo is its brevity. The forking paths is a good gimmick - there is a mythological precedent for meeting the Devil at the crossroads - but the split nearly cuts the maze in half. To get the full effect, you really need to go through twice, choosing a different path each time. And of course the Skeleton Key Room is a must.

Special Ops Infected

Special Ops_Infected

Knott's Scary Farm gets into the zombie kill-zone business with this attraction (previously seen at Haunted Hollywood Sports). Unlike other scare zones, this one requires a wait in line. You check in at one of two entrances, Alpha or Bravo, and are given a reserved time to return; show up ten minutes early to join your group and enter, whereupon you will be equipped with an infra-red "rifle" and given instructions on your mission.

The premise is that Camp Snoopy has been overrun by zombies, and you're on a mission to look for survivors. Your squad leaders will take you on a break-neck race through the area, which is indeed infested with the living dead. Fend them off as best you can - and try to stick together!

Inside and out you run, dodging your pursuers. Sometimes the zombies dot the area here and there; at other times, they seem to swarm all around you. Occasionally, the squad leaders will separate you into groups, forcing you over a rope bridge one at a time, creating a sense of isolation from the group - which spells potential vulnerability.

There is also a section where some of the team members check out a camper, surrounded by zombies, with a victim hiding inside. Rescuing her may seem noble, but it has unfortunate consequences when her frightened screams attract the attention of the walking corpses at a later point.

The event ends with a sort of Custer's Last Stand, as you and your team empty your guns at a final swarm of the undead - who seem peculiarly resistant to your ammo (or perhaps you aim is simply not good enough to get the required head shot).

Special Ops Infected is an exhilarating adrenalin-rush that will leave you covered in perspiration. It's unlike anything other Halloween theme parks have to offer, putting you up close to the monsters in a unique way. The sense of participation - of fending off attackers instead of simply screaming and wondering why they don't lay claws on you - adds a level of excitement that cannot be underestimated.

Our only problem with this zombie kill-zone is one we noted at Haunted Hollywood Sports as well: unlike a laser-tag game, it is perhaps a shade too apparent that one's ability to aim and fire is pretty much irrelevant to whether the zombies drop in their tracks. Basically, no matter what you and your compatriots do, the moving corpses will get within arm's reach before staggering back - and then lurch forward again. Only then - and only maybe - will they succumb to gunfire.

The Tooth Fairy

The Tooth Fairy - new for Halloween 2014
The Tooth Fairy - new for Halloween 2014

The Tooth Fairy is this year's Slaughterhouse - the gruesome maze that reaches for the jugular and does not let go. The lengthy walk-through is loaded with disturbing tableau, including piles of pulled teeth and piles of coins left in their place, all of which should unnerve anyone who fears a trip to the dentist (whose whining drills you will hear echoing in the corridors).

The result is effective enough, but at times the attempt to shock exceeds the boundaries of the theme implied in the title. There is a graphic scene of a victim being disemboweled, which is as good as anything dreamed up by the crew at Universal Studios Hollywood, but what exactly does that have to do with the Tooth Fairy or teeth in general?

Also, The Tooth Fairy is set in the location that housed Delirium the past few Halloweens, and a few of the set decorations appear to have been refurbished from the previous attraction. The recycling is not horribly obvious, nor does it particularly detract from the maze; however, since we routinely decry recycling at Halloween Horror Nights, we feel honor bound to hold Knotts Scary Farm to the same standards.

As creepy as we may feel about dentistry and tooth-loss, The Tooth Fairy herself is not a particularly apt character for a Halloween maze; there is little interesting mythology on the subject, no darker version of the tale from which to draw inspiration. Consequently, despite the maze's title, The Tooth Fairy leaves no indelible impression upon the mind, and the maze winds up feeling slightly generic - a grungy house of horrors inhabited an ephemeral fantasy character instead of cannibal crazies.

Trapped: Lock and Key

Unfortunately, Hollywood Gothique was not invited to partake of the horrors hidden within Trapped: Lock and Key. However, a little after 1am on press night, we did run into a frantic Rick West, who paused in the midst of trying to finish all the mazes before closing time, and told us that this Halloween's incarnation of Trapped is excellent - even better than the 2013 version. When the man behind Theme Park Adventure speaks, Hollywood Gothique listens!

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RETURNING ATTRACTIONS

For 2014, the Knotts Halloween Haunt resurrects several memorable mazes from seasons past. We have reviewed all of these before but overlooked the Skeleton Key rooms. Read on to see whether they warrant the up-charge for the extra scares.

Black Magic (Skeleton Key Room)

Black Magic at Knott's Scary Farm
Black Magic at Knott's Scary Farm

This was our favorite new maze at Knotts Scary Farm from Halloween 2013. The 1920s setting is intriguing, and the subject matter (seances and Harry Houdini) is perfectly themed for the season (the escape artist and debunker of paranormal activity died on October 31, 1926, and for years afterward, his wife tried to contact him every Halloween).

The aura of necromancy and the supernatural permeates Black Magic, rendering an attraction that deserves the often mis-applied term "haunted house." There are several nice visual gags, and the climax is a truly impressive physical special effect that makes the maze worth seeing.

Black Magic also features the best Skeleton Key Room. Groups of four enter and take part in a seance, attempt to contact Houdini, whose spirit manifests, first by moving a chandelier, then by appearing in a mirror, angrily denouncing the medium for disturbing his eternal slumber. Lightning flashes and the room goes briefly dark - and when next our vision clears, Houdini is physically in the room, attacking the medium! Better run for the doors before he vents his rage upon you! Excellent stuff.

Dominion of the Damned (Skeleton Key Room)

Knotts Scary Farm 2014 Dominion of the DamnedLong-time readers of Hollywood Gothique are probably tired of hearing us rave about the vampire mazes at Knotts Scary Farm, but we simply cannot help ourselves. As much as we love shock tactics and jump-scares, what really arouses our adrenalin level is an erotically charged encounter with the undead. Dominion of the Damned contains some demonic vampires, to be sure, but overall the emphasis is on mood, with monsters that are more hypnotically fascinating than gruesome.

Fear not, fans of gory horror, for your needs will be satisfied as well - if you enter Dominion of the Damned's Skeleton Key Room. Inside a sweltering greenhouse, the mad vampire's assistant Renfield tends not only to plants but also to his own special creations: disembodied heads, growing on the vine, which require human plasma for sustenance. You may be invited to feed the starving creatures, squeezing blood from a body part, but beware: too much food may lead to a negative reaction.

Expect to be doused in regurgitated blood as the lights extinguish at the climax. We ended up spending five minutes on the sidelines, cleaning both our glasses and our camera lens, while a security guard looked on, thinking we were too afraid to proceed. In fact we were all too eager. And we do not begrudge Knotts for the delay; the effect was worth every sticky drop!

Pinocchio Unstrung (Skeleton Key Room)

Knotts Scary Farm 2013: Pinocchio UnstrungRemember that little puppet who wanted to become a real boy? Well, it turns out that, thwarted by his wooden body, he has decided the method for achieving his goal is to encase himself in human skin - taken from unwilling victims - and beginning with his creator Geppetto!

Pinocchio Unstrung is housed in the location for the defunct Doll Factory, and it echoes the feel of its predecessor, taking a symbol of childhood innocence and joy (in this case a puppet instead of a doll) and transforming it into something malevolent. We do not enjoy this maze as much as The Doll Factory, but it fits the location perfectly, with little to suggest that anything but Pinocchio Unstrung ever belonged there.

The Skeleton Key Room offers an interactive experience for half a dozen or so visitors at a time, who enter to find themselves confronted by the titular puppet. Pinocchio forces one guest to don puppet strings (actually rubber wires) in order to understand what it's like to be a puppet. Pinocchio then performs a little puppet show explaining his back story, which climaxes with the revelation of Geppetto's body. The overall effect is more one of demented parody than horror; Pinocchio verbally abuses his guest like a monstrous Don Rickles, but there is little sense of threat.

The Gunslinger's Grave (Skeleton Key Room)

Knott's Scary Farm: The Gunslinger's Grave entranceKnotts Scary Farm is modeled after the Calico Ghost Town, so why not have a Halloween maze based on the old west? As obvious as the idea sounds, it was not implemented until 2013. We enjoyed the Gunslinger's Grave at the time, but it did not make a lasting impression, so going through this year felt almost like new.

We had heard that the ending was improved to provide more of a climax (the 2013 version just petered out with visitors walking away from the final building), but the conclusion here is still not particularly strong: a roaring, bucking mechanical ghost horse. The prop used to reside outside, where it would go off at regular intervals - a nice touch for visitors walking on their way to other attractions but not quite so startling as to provide a breathless finish to a maze.We like the concept for the Gunslinger's Grave, but this attraction could use a little more pizzazz.

The same should be said for the Skeleton Key Room. You and your compatriots are herded into a small cabin where a bandit is holed up. There is a confrontation, a fight, and a shooting; outside a posse sets fire to the structure to flush the villain out. It's all very interesting, but it's all conventional Western stuff, without any hint of the supernatural. Presumably, the idea is that we are seeing the back story - how the Gunslinger ended up in his grave - but if the idea is that his ghost haunts the rest of the walk-through, it never becomes manifest in what we see afterward. Weak.

Forevermore

One of the Poe-inspired killer's unfortunate victims, adorned to resemble a raven
One of the Poe-inspired killer's unfortunate victims, adorned to resemble a raven

This was another favorite from Halloween 2013. Just as the previous Terror of London maze had set visitors on the trail of a Victorian serial killer, Forevermore has its guests following in the footsteps of a modern maniac, this time one whose crimes are based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The soundtrack echoes with the author's words, echoing in our ears as they no doubt echo in the killer's brain, inspiring his homicidal depravity. Raven imagery abounds, and there is some gruesome scenery; fortunately, the Poe theme results in some distinctive tableau, avoiding the generic "house of horrors" approach we sensed in The Tooth Fairy.

Also like the Tooth Fairy, the sets are somewhat grungy, but that seems appropriate for the unsavory scenery. The maze climaxes in a garishly lit nightclub, where a decadent party succumbs to the Red Death, but as vivid as this scene is, for many the most memorable setting is the Pit and the Pendulum, whose massive swinging scythe conveys a lethal momentum that will inspire you to duck when you see it slicing in your direction.

Trick or Treat

Knotts Scary Farm 2013: Trick or Treat ExteriorThis is the third year for this maze, which truly should become a perennial. Though far from the most frightening, Trick or Treat conveys the spirit of the Halloween season far better than the more visceral and shocking mazes. Situated in a colorful house that tempts young children with a promise of "Trick or Treat," this maze houses Knotts Scary Farm's resident mascot, the Green Witch, who appears at several junctures, most notably at the end - riding her broom high above our heads!

Trick or Treat is slightly short, but the settings are beautiful, creating one of the most splendid haunted house environments of any Halloween attraction. If you recall what it was like to be a child going door to door on Halloween night, excited by the promise of candy but fearful of spooky stories and rumors regarding that one suspicious house on the block, this attraction will evoke those wonderful memories in all their glory.

On the other hand, if you're just looking for a cheap shock, go somewhere else.

The Witch's Keep

The Green Witch in the Calico Mine Ride
The Green Witch in the Calico Mine Ride

The Calico Mine Ride does not change significantly from one Halloween to the next. Different themes may be swapped in and out, resulting in cosmetic differences, but the essence remains the same: a trip into the dark underworld, haunted by strange creatures glimpsed in the dark. That's more than good enough, because the Mine Ride's underground setting is spooky any time of year; any halfway decent Halloween overlay will yield satisfying results.

Once again, this year's theme is The Witch's Keep, featuring The Green Witch (seen also in Trick or Treat and The Hanging). As for the past few years, there are no live actors inside, only mannequins and effects, including a giant hand seen in the larger cavern. Though lacking jump-scares, the Witch's Keep offers a shuddery excursion into the lower depths, not to mention a chance to rest your feet after walking through all those mazes.

This year, we also sensed a great visibility. Whether this was due to redesigned lighting or simply to our riding in a car with an unobstructed view, we cannot say for certain. Either way, we felt as if we were seeing more than we had ever seen before - more than enough to make this ride worth a return trip.

Elvira's Big Top

Elvira_Seance12Per our usual custom, we avoided The Hanging because the vulgar pop-culture humor, though occasionally amusing, is not strong enough to overcome our anxious rush to get through the next monster-filled maze. However, we did decide to cool our heels for thirty minutes or so at Elvira's new stage show. Practically a regular fixture at the annual Halloween Haunt, the Mistress of the Dark is back in Elvira's Big Top, and yes, she has some new  jokes to tell about her cleavage.

The Vegas- style show is packed with singing and dancing, and Elvira acts almost like a master of ceremonies, appearing at strategic intervals to deliver a song and a few one-liners before introducing the next act. In this case, there is an insane sword-swallower and a female contortionist whose bodily manipulations will give you the creeps.

It's all good fun and more than entertaining enough to distract us from the mazes for a half-hour, but the most amazing feature is Elvira herself, who seems as preternaturally young as the inhabitants of Dominion of the Damned. Still wearing the familiar costume (when she's not in a tight bodice), she reveals a figure that belongs on a much younger woman, and it's almost a relief when an occasional flash of light reveals the hint of imperfection on her skin, confirming that she is indeed human, not a damned soul masquerading in artificially preserved human flesh.

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SCARE ZONES

Ghost Fog Alley
Ghost Fog Alley

The Knotts Scary Farm Scare Zones seem slightly diminished this Halloween. With Camp Snoopy housing Special Ops Infected, there is little room for free-roaming ghouls in that area. The Gypsy Camp was so under-populated on press night that we suspect the monsters were taking an extended break. The old western Ghost Town has been trimmed back the past few seasons (no phantom organist overlooking the street below), but Ghost Fog Alley is just as mist-enshrouded as ever, hiding numerous shadowy figures eager to make your acquaintance in the dark.

Ironically, considering our antipathy for Halloween clowns, we were impressed by Carnevil on the Boardwalk, which was the most densely populated scare zone, with some of the most persistent pursuers of screaming victims. Clowns may not be our thing, but they suit the Boardwalk,with its bright lights and whirring rides, and what other kind of Halloween haunter works well when not hidden in shadows and fog?

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CONCLUSION

A Clown in the Carnevil Scare Zone on the Boardwalk
A Clown in the Carnevil Scare Zone on the Boardwalk

Once again, the Knotts Scary Farm tops Halloween Horror Nights. Though Universal Studios Hollywood has the edge in production value, Knotts offers greater originality and imagination, with a variety of Halloween horror experiences that are impossible to top. Despite the relative dearth of new attractions, the Knotts Halloween Haunt offers at least two must-see events, Voodoo and Special Ops Infected. On top of that, the personalized scares of the Skeleton Key Rooms are unlike anything one expects to see at a crowded theme park attraction. Not everything is perfect, and some of it may be disappointing, but the sheer size and number of attractions guarantees that you will sate your appetite on more than enough Halloween horror at this year's Knotts Scary Farm.

Knotts Berry Farm is located at 8039 Beach Boulevard, Buena Park, CA 90620. Remaining dates for the Halloween Haunt are October 9-12, 16-19, 22-26, 29-31; and November 1. Hours are 7pm to 1am on weekdays and Sundays; 7pm to 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. Ticket information is available at the official website.

Looking for Halloween events in Los Angeles? Check out our pages for Halloween Haunts and Halloween Haunts: Theme Parks!

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