As always, the theme park's annual Halloween event has something for everyone; even better, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The 2015 edition of the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt, which opened last night, succeeds at what the theme park event does better than anyone else: providing such a variety of haunted houses, scare zones, mazes, and rides that every visitor will find something to scream about. Whether or not the individual attractions always achieve their full potential, the cumulative impact borders on sensory overload. Even the hungriest haunt-seekers should be able to sate their appetite for horror.
Knotts Scary Farm offers only three new haunts this Halloween: two mazes (Paranormal Inc. and Dead of Winter) and a re-themed Calico Mine Ride (My Bloody Clementine). However, the theme park's returning walk-through attractions have been substantially revised: skeleton key* rooms have been added or switched; paths have been reconfigured; endings have been changed.
With only three new attractions at bat for Halloween 2015, a grand slam home run is (metaphorically) impossible. However, the new players hit a triple, a double, and a single, scoring a couple of runs in the process.
The highlight of the new attractions at Knotts Scary Farm, Paranormal Inc. is the kind of Halloween haunt most near and dear to our heart - one that simulates a haunted house. It's loaded with ectoplasmic atmosphere and buttressed with a patina of scientific credibility. The premise is that some reality-show ghost-hunters are running a sophisticated experiment in a haunted asylum, which inevitably goes bad, unleashing the denizens of doom upon the audience.
Paranormal Inc. explodes like bomb of psychic energy, beginning with a jaw-dropping opening set in the experiment's control room: after a brief intro with a live actor interacting with a colleague via video monitor, lights flash; alarms ring; and a ghost manifests in the most spectacular way imaginable, appearing first as a diaphanous wraith and then bursting physically into the room, flying overhead like a proverbial bat out of hell.
In effect, this is a "Skeleton Key Room," though no skeleton key is required: it sets the scene in a dramatic way for a captive audience, offering a memorable vignette before the traditional jump-scares start.
After the opening, the audience is quickly stampeded out of the room, split into two different directions that converge after a few scenes. The maze portion of Paranormal Inc. represents your panicked attempt to escape the chaos unleashed in the haunted house; there's a convincing sense that all hell has erupted, as you race through corridors inhabited by demons; you also encounter a hapless human whisked upward by unseen forces.
After you pass through one of those haunted house "birth canals" (the cushions were not fully inflated opening night, so it was not necessary to squeeze through blindly), Paranormal Inc calms down in its second half; it's an interesting gambit, but it doesn't quite pay off. The concept seems to be that you have entered a more ethereal landscape, but the calm after the storm does not fully imbue one with a sense of being lost in limbo. What this section needs is a gradually fading voice, futilely calling visitors back ("No, you're going the wrong way... you're losing contact... come back before it's too late), in order to suggest more clearly that you are leaving the physical world behind.
Fortunately, Paranormal Inc. ends with a pair of massive mechanical monsters (apparently demons from the pit), sending visitors out on a climactic note.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter features a great Skeleton Key Room: an octagon of mirrored walls, from behind which the Snow Queen's face appears (via projection), shifting continually from mirror to mirror, while some kind of Yeti creature (also a projection) attempts to smash through the glass surfaces.
The remainder of the attraction takes you on a path through chilly rooms (the air-conditioning is on full) of stark white, etched in angular shapes, suggesting architecture carved out of ice. Corners and crevices have been artfully crafted to hide creatures that do not have the benefit of shadows to conceal them. A giant rock monster (perhaps intended to be a snowman?) roars as you pass, and the Snow Queen herself appears in person at the very end - an alluring seductress.
For all its visual novelty, Dead of Winter seems a bit short. Perhaps that merely means we liked it so much that we wanted more, but we did leave feeling slightly unsatisfied. We fixed that problem by going through a second time to savor the snowy scares once again - a solution that works only for those with a Fright Lane ticket, which allows you to bypass the general admission lane.
My Bloody Clementine in the Calico Mine Ride
The Calico Mine Ride is the Knotts Scary Farm analog to the lengthy corridors of the Queen Mary Dark Harbor: the very nature of the location is so conducive to haunting that almost any Halloween theme will work. This year's variant is My Bloody Clementine, which turns the familiar ballad into a spooky ghost story, enhanced with video mapping and live actors (long absent from the theme park's annual Halloween version of the mine ride).
The result is effective visually, but the attempt to convey Clementine's story does not really come off. Basically, there's a ghost girl haunting the caves - that's all you really need to know. (Perhaps the back story will be clear to those who listen carefully to the recorded dialogue, but that's quite a challenge inside the echoing caverns, especially when you're in a train car full of chattering, screaming patrons.)
The actors, strategically placed at irregular intervals, added a few scares, and we were awestruck by the ghostly images of of Clementine - a towering phantom projected onto the wall of the enormous main cave. However, we found My Bloody Clementine to be a less memorable central figure than the Green Witch was in years past, and we were not as blown away by the spectacle as we expected.
Knotts Scary Farm is famous for swapping in only a few new attractions every Halloween, but usually the holdovers deserve to be resurrected. That is certainly true this year: all of the old mazes have proven their effectiveness in the past, and most of them have new features that make them worth seeing again.
The Tooth Fairy
This grim and grizzly maze - which made its debut in 2014 - begins with a new Skeleton Key Room, in which a frantic boy raves about his brother having been taken from him by some unseen thing. The floor rumbles; walls shake; and the boy himself is taken, clearing your way to enter the maze. It's a short vignette - not outstanding, but it sets the tone without over-staying its welcome. The maze itself hits the same notes as last year (mixing the tooth fairy with dentist drills to gruesome effect), and unlike some of the other attractions at Knott's this year, The Tooth Fairy ends on a memorable climax, with a crying child begging for help - before the windows smash open and a monstrous, mechanical tooth fairy flies in.
Voodoo: Order of the Serpent
Another 2014 debut, the new version of Voodoo replaces its original Skeleton Key Room (in which you stood inside a closed coffin while recorded voices threatened you with supernatural dangers) with a much more impressive opening. This time a Voodoo priestess welcomes you to her shop, then leads you to a room where the lights go out - then flash back on to reveal a female serpent-god (a live actress) inches away from you. The effect is well-timed, and the makeup withstands close scrutiny (it has to - like all of the Knotts Skeleton Key Rooms, the point is that the scare is up close and personal for you and a few other guests).
The path that follows features the same spectacular sets from 2014, but the maze-like feature has been deleted: you no longer encounter Baron Zamedi at the crossroads, gesturing for you to choose which path to take; instead, you run up against a security guard with a flashlight, making sure that you go in the only direction available. On the plus side, this means you can enjoy the entire maze without having to go through twice, but we miss the evocative crossroads encounter. Also, the ending seemed a little anti-climactic this year. Perhaps that is merely so because this was our favorite from 2014, and it's hard for Voodoo to live up to our memories of its debut, now that the novelty has worn off.
Forevermore in the Mystery Lodge
Based on the murderous stories of Edgar Alan Poe, this memorable walk-through has also had a Skeleton Key Room added. You find yourself in a morgue-like setting, where a masked figure removes a bloody piece of viscera from a body and hands it to a member of your group, urging him or her to replace it. Should you be the unfortunate impromptu surgeon you may be in for a surprise - for that corpse may not be as dead as it looks.
The maze that follows features the familiar highlights from previous years, but as with Voodoo, we the ending (a masked "Red Death" rave scene) seems to lack the punch we recall from before: there was no crimson-cloaked figure of Death to instill awe, just a few crazed dancers.
This walk through the past, filled with magic and illusions, dispenses with a Skeleton Key Room this year. The opening séance scene remains, but it is staged as a flow-through rather than a sit-down. The dramatic impact is gone, but the new imagery is great: a trio of headless bodies levitating a table with a crystal ball in the center. The rest of Black Magic retains the old thematic elements: Halloween, Houdini, and over-sized rabid rabbits (apparently escaped from a magician's hat); there's even a place where you can pause to watch a card trick. Unfortunately, the ending is a let down: the purported fiery conflagration is a red light and some mist passing for smoke, along with red hanging draperies. It's no match for the old ending: a demented magician flying overhead. (We suspect this was omitted because a similar effect is used in Paranormal Inc this year.)
Gunslinger's Grave: A Blood Moon Rises
Like Black Magic, Gunslinger's Grave omits its old Skeleton Key Room, which is fine with us since the scene from 2014 was short on scares, instead serving as a lengthy and unnecessary back story. This year's variant of the maze features spirit walkers and werewolves along with the ghostly cowboys and saloon girls. Gunslinger's Grave is the perfect Halloween haunt for Knott's Berry Farm, which is fashioned after the actual mining town of Calico, but again, we felt the finale was a minor let down - not bad, just nothing special.
Trick or Treat
This delightfully demented tour of a witch's house has been a favorite of ours since it made its debut - a rare Halloween haunt actually themed to Halloween, its colorful exterior inviting you to ring the doorbell for treats, only to enter and encounter the Knotts Scary Farm mascot - the Green Witch - in a domicile haunted by all manner of evil spirits. In the past, the only problem was that the walk-through experience was a bit short, leaving some visitors unsatisfied - despite an amazing conclusion with the Witch flying overhead on her broom.
The 2015 version reverses the formula: a new scene or two has been added to expand the length of the maze; unfortunately, the broom-flying conclusion has been deleted - yet another example of an ending that falls short of standards set in previous years. More time inside Trick or Treat is good time, as far as we're concerned, but if Knott's Scary Farm is going to drop a memorable ending, the theme park needs to offer an equally memorable replacement.
Of all the returning mazes, Pinocchio Unstrung seems to be virtually identical to previous incarnations, beginning with the same Skeleton Key Room and taking visitors through the same twisted variation on the childhood fairy tale of a puppet boy who wants to become human - in this case, by covering himself in the skin of flayed victims. Knotts Scary Farm has always been good at fashioning creepy mazes from childhood themes, and Pinocchio Unstrung is no exception. The Skeleton Key scene goes on a bit, but the maze is creepy, and unlike some of the other returning attractions, this one leaves no room for disappointment at the conclusion, ending with a giant Pinocchio skeleton that really is the stuff of children's nightmares.
Knotts Scary Farm has three returning scare zones scattered around the park: Fiesta de los Muertos, CarnEvil, and the Ghost Town.
It's no secret that we are not a big fan of killer klown Halloween attractions, but CarnEvil's malevolent jesters achieve the impossible: they manage to make an effective scare zone out of the brightly lit Boardwark area of the theme park. Got to give credit where credit is due.
The Ghost Town is thicker with fog than ever before and haunted by a seemingly endless supply of old western ghosts. This year, the scare zone officially extends from the Ghost Town area of the park to the GhostRider roller-coaster, but the latter portion feels like a separate section to us, inhabited by a malevolent Doll Maker, working out of a tiny shop with some rusty tools. His significance is probably lost on most visitors, but long-time fans of the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt will correctly surmise that the character's handiwork was on display in the The Doll Factory years ago.
Fiesta De Los Muertos offers some colorful contrast to the shadowy scares in the rest of Knotts Scary Farm; as the name suggests, the scare zone is more Dia de los Muertos than Halloween. The star attraction for us is La Llorona ("the Crying Woman"), who wanders the area moaning for her lost hijos (in the legend, dead because she drowned them, fueling her guilt). On Thursday night, she was accompanied by a pair of female ghouls who flitted around with apparent concern and seemed to be trying to either comfort or exorcise her (it was all in Spanish - or possibly gibberish - so we can't be sure). It's interesting to see characters act like characters - that is, interacting with each other - instead of simply looking for the next opportunity to yell "Boo!" at a customer.
WHAT WE MISSED
We did not go on a mission through Special Ops Infected: Patient Zero. There were problems with line management and/or a late start. Visitors are supposed to check in to get a ticket with a specific start time for their mission; when we arrived for our appointed time at 9pm, the attraction was still letting in people scheduled for an hour earlier, and the line was moving so slowly that after a half-hour of no progress we gave up. Unfortunately, the wasted time prevented us from having a moment to spare for Elvira's Asylum, her new stage show. We also missed The Hanging: Straight Out of Calico, which abruptly cancelled the performance schedule to take place when we were in the area.
While on the subject of time management, we should mention that, unlike Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt is near impossible to navigate without front-of-the-line privileges, especially if you want to watch one or two of the shows.
We should also note that the Skeleton Key tend to cancel out the Fright Lane advantage: cutting into the front of line helps only so much when the line is leading to a Skeleton Key Room that offers a five-minute scene to only half a dozen people at a time. For what it's worth, we skipped some of those rooms early in the evening on Thursday but found that the lines had considerably diminished after midnight: in the case of Pinocchio Unstrung, the line monitors were simply letting people enter the room mid-scene in order to clear the line as soon as possible; at Forevermore, there was literally no one in line for the Skeleton Key Room, except a couple of cast members who had shed their makeup and now wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side of the scares.
So, the lesson is: it's not necessarily a good idea to hit all the mazes on an unbroken circuit around Knotts Scary Farm. The lines for the mazes near Ghost Rider tended to be a little shorter, especially for Trick or Treat. Get to them, then go back to other mazes later in the evening.
We felt that Knotts Scary Farm was a notch down from the impressive heights of haunting seen in 2013 and 2014. The new attractions ran the gamut from good to great; the old mazes were different but not necessarily improved, though the changes and additions did make them seem fresh the second or third time around.
Since we have often called out Universal Studios for recycling old props in their Halloween Horror Nights mazes, we should play fair and note that the Rock Monster in Dead of Winter has been seen before - in 2008's Labyrinth maze. Some of the other giant mechanical beasties are also familiar from previous appearances, as were bits and pieces of set decor. We certainly do not expect each of the theme park's Halloween attractions to be "all new," but in this case the recycling was not always as seamless as it might have been (the enormous mechanical creatures at the end of Paranormal Inc. did not particularly seem like denizens of an ethereal limbo-land). The resulting sense of familiarity might have contributed to our sense that the mazes, old and new, were not always fulfilling their potential. As noted above, the aerial gag from the ending of Black Magic has been recycled for the opening scene of Paranormal Inc., but its use is so different - and so perfect - that it gets a special exemption from criticism.
Whatever our misgivings, after the Witching Hour had passed, and the lines dwindled, and the monsters retreated, and the final screams faded to silence, a profound depression settled upon our soul. Suddenly we realized how much fun we had been having, and we shrank in horror from the thought that it was ending all too soon. Knotts Scary Farm always offers so much; it's a miracle that it can leave us wanting more.
The Halloween Haunt continues at Knotts Berry Farm on September 25-26; October 1-4, 8-11, 15-18, 21-25, 28-31. Hours are 7pm to 1am on weeknights and Sundays, 7pm to 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. The website is www.knott.com/scaryfarm.
- Skeleton Key Rooms are an up-charge feature. At the beginning of certain mazes, customers pay extra for a Skeleton Key can enter rooms in small groups and see a brief vignette play out.
More in this series:
- Knott's Spooky Farm to debut for Halloween 2015
- Knotts Scary Farm 2015 preview videos
- Knott's Berry Farm previews 2015 Halloween Haunt attractions
- L.A. Times quantifies Paranormal Inc. maze at Knott's
- Special Ops Infected: Patient Zero promo video
- Knotts Scary Farm 2015 review
- Photo Gallery: Knott's Spooky Farm 2015 debut
- Video: Knott's Spooky Farm 2015
- Knott's Scary Farm: Elvira marries 2 people (to each other, not to herself)