13 Floor Entertainment Group’s Christopher Stafford explains the strategy behind setting the popular Los Angeles haunt in a mythical town where every day is Halloween.
Since its 2009 debut, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride has occupied a unique space among local Halloween haunts – it is, after all, a hayride tucked within the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Beyond that, its approach to horror was always stylish. Yes, there have been chainsaw-wielding maniacs, but more often the characters evinced a demented sort of artistry, like mimes escaped from a circus of horrors. Coupled with spectacularly memorable set pieces (a hellscape belching smoke, a devilish figure growing several stories high), this distinctive approach kept L.A. Haunted Hayride going while other independent haunts shuttered their doors, felled by competition from the Southland’s Halloween theme parks.
After celebrating their tenth year of haunting in 2018, owners Melissa Carbone and Alyson Richards sold their company, Ten Thirty One Productions, to 13th Floor Entertainment Group. Since then, instead of changing theme every Halloween (“Echoes from the Rift,” “The Bogeyman”), L.A. Haunted Hayride has stuck with Midnight Falls, a small town in middle America where every night is Halloween. It’s a cool concept – sort of a Halloween version of Brigadoon – that sets the hayride and its mazes inside their own fantasy world, but it’s also a gambit. Retaining the setting makes it harder to distinguish the event from one season to the next.
So far, this has not been a problem. Midnight Falls made its debut in 2019. The following year, the haunt transformed into a drive-in experience in a different location, far from its home in Griffith Park. Halloween 2021 saw the event return to Griffith Park but in a different area, with a new route for the hayride attraction. These changes shook things up, creating a little variety, but Halloween 2022 sees Midnight Falls for the first returning to the same location, in the same form, two years in a row. Can L.A. Haunted Hayride walk the razor’s edge of retaining its popular elements while also adding something new?
To answer these and other questions, Hollywood Gothique interviewed 13 Floor’s Christopher Stafford. L.A. Haunted Hayride was the company’s first acquisition in the Los Angeles area, joining their countrywide roster of haunts. Since then, they have joined forces with Jon Braver on Delusion Interactive Theatre, and this Halloween they are launching a new event at the Queen Mary, Shaqtoberfest. What made L.A. Haunted Hayride a worth addition to 13 Floor’s haunted horse of Halloween properties? And what are the challenges of competing in the L.A. marketplace, which has sent so many seasonal attractions to the grave? Read on to find out…if you dare.
L.A. Haunted Hayride: Christopher Stafford Interview
This is the final installment of our three-part interview with Christopher Stafford. Previous installments cover the debut of Shaqtoberfest and this season’s presentation from Delusion, Valley of Hollows. As time permits, we will update this post with video.
Hollywood Gothique: L.A. Haunted Hayride was 13th Floor Entertainment Group’s first entry into the Los Angeles Halloween Marketplace. What made it appealing as an acquisition?
Christopher Stafford: I was a big fan of Haunted Hayride before our company acquired it. I had been several times when I’d been in Los Angeles during the season, and I remember the first time and just feeling like I was in New England during Halloween or or even the Midwest during Halloween – some place where you can kind of smell it in the air. When I walked, I went, “Oh, I get why this works,” because it definitely feels different than Los Angeles. So when we acquired Hayride, the goal was to lean in further on that. Instead of just making it like you were transported to another place, we gave the place a name and gave Hayride a home – the town of Midnight Falls, where you can relate to everything being relevant to small town America.
Hollywood Gothique: I like the concept of Midnight Falls a lot. However, one thing the old Hayride did to be different from year to year was pick different themes, and yet you’ve been doing pretty well with returning to Midnight Falls every year. So how else do you keep it fresh from year to year?
Christopher Stafford: We’re able to change up the attractions but still maintain that know small town theme right. Last year the the new attraction was Dead End Diner – that old vintage style diner that you went through – and this year’s new attraction is a play on words, It’s either Slaughterhouse or Laughterhouse depending upon how you want to say it. It’s the Midnight Falls meat-packing plant. Each year, even though we’re sticking with the theme of Midnight Falls, there’s so many different types of businesses and attractions that would be in the town that we can be used to introduce new attractions.
Hollywood Gothique: What can you do to vary the Hayride? You’ve got a a template: tractors are going to go a certain distance and pass a certain number of things you swap in and out every year.
Christopher Stafford: Each year we try to add some new features. I mean, there was a very conscious decision in bringing the town of Midnight Falls to life that this is the 13th annual Halloween festival, and it happens every night because every night is Halloween at Midnight Falls. And a part of that festival is the Haunted Hayride, so we’re able to be like, “Well, if you were residents of Midnight Falls, you would be going on this Haunted Hayride along with them,” and that opens up the Haunted Hayride to a lot of different themes. But, yeah, we try to change it up every year and move things around, add some new sets add some new effects and props. In the mazes, it’s more overlays and treatments. In specific, the Trick-or-Treat maze is such a fan favorite that we struggle with ways to make it new, because if we changed it too much or eliminated it, there’d be mutiny on our hands. So we let that one do its thing, and it’s a fun kind of Halloween scare.
Hollywood Gothique: One question I like to ask about Halloween haunts is adding new stuff. By their very nature of – they tend to be dark, and a certain percentage of your audience is going to have their face buried in the back of the person in front of them is – is it difficult to make changes that people actually notice? Case in point: the 2013 Haunted Hayride claimed to be based on real-life historical events, and the crowd swarming the tractor included characters like someone dressed as a victim of Jack the Ripper, but in the dark all we could see was silhouettes with glowing red eyes, which looked exactly like the “Thriller” dance mob from the previous year. So, do changes have to be big if you want the audience to notice them?
Christopher Stafford: That’s an interesting question. I think by nature the Hayride’s sets are larger and more pronounced. I think one of the difficulties with Hayride is, depending upon where you’re sitting in the wagon, there’s not really a 360 view, so you’re always looking around and trying not to to miss things, but sometimes you will. But I think everybody’s different. You’re looking probably a little little further behind the curtain, and and some folks don’t want to see it at all. I laugh all the time at the people that come through and when I ask what their favorite part was, they say, “I don’t know – I had my eyes closed the whole time!”
Hollywood Gothique: The reason I ask is that I think of L.A. Haunted Hayride as its own kind of animal. I don’t think anyone goes and says it was better or worse than Knott’s or whatever. They’re just looking at whether it was better than last year? Was it as good as my favorite year? And obviously, people miss things, so even if you don’t change anything, they’re gonna go, “Wow, I like that new thing you added,” and it’s like, “Oh, that’s been there for two years!”
Christopher Stafford: Exactly what I was saying. I think sometimes the whole thing is is new to people. Referencing my wife, I’ve I’ve gotten her to go through very, very few scare mazes in our lives, but each time she opens her eyes a little bit further and sees a little more – experiences a little more. I don’t think we’re ever going to get her to convert over to be a fan, but maybe each year she’ll do a little more.
Hollywood Gothique: Finally, did 13th Floor Entertainment Group have any concerns about conducting a Halloween Haunt in Los Angeles, where there’s huge competition from places like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt and Universal Studio Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights?
Christopher Stafford: I’ve never really seen competition. I think every event is different. I think people like to mix it up. Our statistics show that our customers visit our events once every two to three years, and in the in-between years I’m sure they’re visiting other events and and getting a different flavor for things, But when you say events in the marketplace like Knott’s, Universal, I would answer that Universal and Knott’s are very different than Hayride and very different than Shaqtoberfest. I’m all about people getting out and seeing as many different attractions and different approaches to Halloween entertainment as they can see. I never really viewed that as any different than any other market that we might be in that has other Halloween attractions. I think Hayride is unique, because it’s a haunted hayride in the in the middle of a giant city. We bring you out to Griffith Park and transport you to the town of Midnight Falls and put you in another world and get you out of the element for a few hours in an evening and put you on that Haunted Hayride. So I think that makes it definitely stand out from the other things in town.
More: Christopher Stafford Interviews
Hollywood Gothique's review of L.A. Haunted Hayride 2022
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Like Delusion Interactive Theatre, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride can only ever be compared to itself. By this high standard, a mediocre year for the Hayride can rank higher than a good year for other Halloween haunts. That said, this year’s presentation delivers enjoyable scares for first timers or those have been away for a while. If you have experienced the past three years of Midnight Falls, there is not much new here, and the returning attractions are underwhelming.
We love the Midnight Falls concept, but the only area that feels like a small town is near the entrance. The short, foggy tunnel, decorated with Jack O’ Lanterns creates a sense of transitioning to a Halloween world, and as you pass the Midnight Falls general store there are plenty of local characters to welcome you. Some are silent stilt-walkers of demonic aspect or taciturn clowns whose painted smiles hide sinister intentions; others, like Miss Midnight Falls, are loquacious in a delightfully demented sort of way. Our favorite this year was the helpful handyman warning us about the treacherous terrain (a real thing on the grounds of L.A. Haunted Hayride), which was filled with “pot holes, rat holes, and a-holes.” The costumes, makeup, and prosthetics here are truly wonderful. Another highlight is the frequent loudspeaker announcements, emanating from local radio station MFAM, which report outrageous local developments in a comically bland tone.
On the downside, local mayor and resident rock-and-roll lounge singer Monte Revolta cannot sing, which is supposed to be funny but is not. The joke was supposed to be even more hilarious when he abandoned simple rock tunes to croak his way through a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s sublime “Hallelujah” with dreadful results.
The Haunted Hayride itself offers a shorter ride than it did in its days at Griffith Park’s Old Zoo. This worked last year: the ride seemed just as eventful, so it felt as if everything had been squeezed into a smaller area, creating a more condensed experience with less waiting between scares. This year, it feels less densely packed and somewhat uneventful. You drive by some nice sets, and the scare-actors come at you with all they’ve got, but the ride lacks the sort of spectacular set-piece that would jack up the experience to truly memorable levels. Much of the decor consists of inflatable tentacles and spiders, and there is not much in the way of animatronics or special effects (there is a giant set of spider fangs that seems as if it should lunge at the hayride, but it doesn’t). The result feels less like the L.A. Haunted Hayride than the now-defunct Los Angeles Live Steamers Ghost Train. A couple of new elements have been swapped in, but our favorite bit is a leftover from last year: right at the beginning a pumpkin-headed giant unexpected comes to life and lunges for the passengers.
There are two returning mazes, Trick or Treat and Midnight Mortuary, and one newcomer, S/Laughterhouse. The latter is essentially a rebranding of last Halloween’s Dead End Diner, with a new facade and opening scene but recreating the lengthy and mostly empty outdoor section. There are a few cool creatures lurking about, so it is not without its charms, but the zig-zag outdoor walkway from the main building to the barn (presumably where the slaughter takes place) is too long, and the incessant strobe lights reduce visibility to near zero – not a pleasant experience on uneven terrain with lots of hay bales blocking the path. Oddly, despite a pun-ish name implying a humorous tone, we saw little or no clowning around inside this maze.
Trick or Treat and Midnight Mortuary have been slightly adjusted to prevent predictability. The entrance of the latter has been moved to the left side of the facade, and the interior lighting is dimmer, making it easier for the monsters to hide in shadows. Trick or Treat seems more reliant on actors hiding around corners to deliver jump scares instead of emerging from their houses to deliver candy. Consequently, the interactive aspect is diminished: in the past, the appeal of the maze was that you summoned the creature by ringing the doorbell, so it was your fault if you were creeped out by the “friendly” neighborhood creatures that emerged, eager to interact with you. The scares are a bit more conventional now.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with conventional scares, especially when so few of them are available this Halloween. Except for a few theme parks and fundraisers, this season offers almost no traditional, professional haunted house attractions in the Los Angeles area. So if you want to enjoy some scary mazes and a ride without spending exorbitant amounts of money on Halloween Horror Nights and Fright Fest, the L.A. Haunted Hayride is not a bad deal. Our recommendation: if you are looking for something new, look elsewhere; however, if you want to revisit the same old scares, purchase a general admission ticket for the Haunted Hayride and the mazes on a slow night, when it should be possible to enjoy all the attractions.
L.A. Haunted Hayride continues at Griffith Park on weekends, select week nights in October, and Halloween Night. Tickets start at $29.99 for Hayride only and $39.99 for the hayride and the mazes, with higher prices for VIP access. The address is 4730 Crystal Springs Drive in Los Angeles. For more information, go to: LosAngelesHauntedHayride.com.