Queen Mary Dark Harbor Interview Part 1: 2010 Preview

Queen Mary Dark Harbor, the new Halloween event making its debut this weekend in Long Beach, promises 160 monsters delivering 270,000 scares per night. There will be five walk-through attractions one in the Fishing Village, one in the Dome, and three on board the Queen Mary herself. The proprietors also promise to present a holistic environment that frays your nerves even when you are not walking through a maze; in a a sense once you enter, you are inside the Dark Harbor for the duration, trapped in a fenced area called The Barricade ("a battlefield of brutality) or Hell’s Bell Tower ("a stack of steel from here to hell).This all-new presentation is the brain-child of Tom Cluff, who worked at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt years ago. He and his partner, Robert Covalt, have provided entertainment systems for cruise ships and effects for other Halloween attractions, so they were the perfect pair to take over the Queen Mary's annual Halloween event, when the ship's new management company decided to strike out in a different direction, one intended to establish Dark Harbor as a rival to Knotts Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Below Hollywood Gothique interviews Cluff and Covalt.

What interested you in taking over the Queen Mary's Halloween attraction?

ROBERT KOVAL: We had always been intrigued by the idea of doing a Halloween event outside a major theme park – taking that to another venue. This was a perfect opportunity to do that – to take what they had, scrub it, and re-concept it. Tom was excited by that. It was a bit of kismet when they contacted us.

TOM CLUFF: Also, since we knew this was a corner being turned, we wanted to create the sense of something new. Before it was very segmented: there was the ship, and there was the Village. We really wanted to create an environment, with the ship as part of that – and the Village and the Dome. When we were brain-storming we went all the way through day-events like a harvest festival. We had grand plans, but the core idea stuck around the harbor, because it’s part of the Queen Mary as a whole.

We wanted that street fair quality because one of the things we want to push here is ultimately the art of Halloween. Our idea is not just the scare attractions like the 3D clown maze – which we don’t have – but the holistic environment. Have the food themed. In the daytime you can come and see the artwork of Halloween. Part of our evening effects will be some artwork that we place throughout the space. We have a food and beverage area with a stage around it, so it’s more of a lounge area.

So what we’re trying to do is address multiple levels, instead of thinking in the old theme park terms, which is ‘We have a park and we’ll dress it up.’ We’re trying to create an event that is a thing, that not only uses the ship and the area but will ultimately expand.

ROBERT KOVAL: It was important during the design stage that this not be, ‘Come up with five mazes, and go home.’ This is now, ‘Come and enjoy your evening.’ Spend the evening with us. You’re still going to have the attractions, but there is a lot more to experience. We’re going to have a decent bar and food area this year. It gives people a place to hang out; it’s not just a place where they can grab a beer. It’s designed to be an immersive experience so that, once you’re in, you’re in the back story. When you come to the event, you are living in that environment. It’s not, ‘Wait in line and do a maze; then wait in line and do another maze.’

What are some of the advantages of staging a Halloween event with the Queen Mary?

TOM CLUFF: No other place really has that space that you can massage and turn into anything you want. The ship is haunted; the joke’s there. So build an environment and a story that lends itself to that. Also, we are in a harbor area. One of the things was the original conceit was pushing the harbor area. We’re going to bring the port here, so that it has a contemporary flair, but when you walk in, all of a sudden the ills of the past come to play. So we have a space; we have a port; and we’re surrounded by large icons. It was like a chance to paint something new but still have something associated with the haunted side, the spirit side, of the  Queen Mary.

To a certain extent, you can't go wrong with walk-throughs on the ship - by virtue of the environment they are automatically scary. Did you have to do much work on them, or could they stand on their own?

TOM CLUFF: It’s definitely scary. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I know every trick there is, but I walk through this place and it feels spooky. So you have a natural thing there. With any event, you take the assets you’ve got, and you flaunt them. Where you don’t have an asset, you create a new asset. So one of the things we’re creating is a lighthouse with a flame effect, so it is the lighthouse of the damned. Even though we won’t have the ship down there, we will still have that weird metal, container world. In fact our entrance.

ROBERT KOVAL: Did we have to do a lot on the ship? Interestingly we went the opposite direction. A lot of the ship was covered up over the years, by the mazes. We felt that was what people were coming to see, this beautiful property, so a lot of what has been going on is, although we’re adding a lot of effects to the mazes, we’re stripping away what was there so you can see the ship more. We want to expose and use the ship more. For example, the story Tom came up with uses the boiler room – as a boiler room.

Had you seen previous incarnations of the Queen Mary Halloween event, so that you knew what worked and what didn't?

TOM CLUFF: Not the last few years. In my tenure with the competition up the road [i.e., Knott's Berry Farm] – and that was twenty years ago – I lost some employees to here, so I had to come down and see what was going on. I came back once or twice, and haven’t come back since. Yes, we did learn what worked. Also, part of the benefit of coming in with fresh eyes was stripping away things. Why didn’t they just show this wall? It’s rusty. These pipes are great! The bridge – the boiler – why aren’t we seeing these things? That was exciting to me, because you couldn’t built that stuff. It wouldn’t be cost-effective.

ROBERT KOVAL: It’s challenging to light the natural architecture of the ship, so we could understand why in years past they would go for a more traditional look. But we found people who could work with the architecture and make it interesting.

TOM CLUFF: And add the stuff. That’s one of the things we wanted to do on the ship. What’s one of the biggest fears everyone has on ship? Sinking. We’ve all seen TITANIC and all those movies, so what was the number one thing we wanted to have this year? A lot of water inside the ship itself. Part of this is not only the sheer effect of it but also…what’s inside the water? Just by saying the words, you start creating a visionary environment. So let’s embrace the aspects of this ship that you see when you walk through, when you walk across a platform and look down into a hole; you look into this space that people are not allowed to be in. There’s something great about that natural feeling. Then you add the sense of all these things that you don’t ever see on the ship.

ROBERT KOVAL: And frankly don’t want to! This is the only event that would embrace those elements. Many years ago, Tom and I build all the entertainment systems on cruise ships, so we would sail on them when they launched. So we’re used to cruise ships that are operational. The two things we were most paranoid about were flooding and fire.

TOM CLUFF: And they weren’t funny about it; they wouldn’t laugh if you made a joke. So here was the chance to make the ultimate joke. And it’s perfect for the event.

Was it limiting to work in a real environment, where you cannot cut out a wall if you need a place to hide a monster, where the architecture was fixed?

TOM CLUFF: Just like any other theatrical event: If you can’t hide it, decorate it.

ROBERT COVALT: Part of us decorating it is stripping away stuff that hid the natural scariness. Part of it was, we have some pathways we can’t change, but we were able to change by stripping out the non-essential things that had been put in when a piecemeal maze was added that didn’t really fit on a ship.

TOM CLUFF: Lighting is a funny thing. Some of the best lit stuff is not lit at all, because what don’t see – what you see only in your mind - is scarier. And it it’s too well lit, it rings the fakey theatre bell: Oh my god, it’s  a strobe! So one of the things we’re playing with is, ‘What would the lighting be?’ So how do you hide it? You don’t. You say, ‘This is what it is’ – which gives that verisimilitude – and then throw the scare in there.

ROBERT KOVAL: There were operational considerations: How do you get places that people can pop out of? Interestingly, when you reconfigure what they had down there, there are opportunities. You have to be creative about them, but there are those places where nobody would expect you could fit a body.

Is there any math to the number of squares per foot? How long can you keep someone walking down a corridor before something happens?

TOM CLUFF: Longer than you think, but for the person there, it’s interminable, because… you bring up an interesting point about the science of fear. In my book there are three versions: fear, anxiety, and dread. Fear is the classic ‘boo.’ It’s the thing that horror movies are very good at – the thing that jumps out – because they can hide anything. Anxiety is what you’re talking about [in this case] – which is that long hallway with a bunch of doors and portholes, and you know there’s something there and wonder, ‘How far down that maze do I go before it gets me?’ Honestly, as long as I can keep that feeling up before you turn away and go, ‘There’s nothing here.’ So: as long as it takes to reach the pay-off.

ROBERT KOVAL: I don’t think there’s a mathematical equation for us; since so many of the pathways are already delineated, you’re really looking from here to there – how long till I turn that corner? So it will be different here than on a maze that was constructed from nothing.

TOM CLUFF: We use that in the Dome – that fact that you don’t know how long ‘long’ really is.

TOM CLUFF: That’s part of what we wanted to do with the environment: I don’t want you to feel comfortable when you walk outside. Obviously there is a bar where you feel comfortable, but in the larger area, you never really feel comfortable. You do get those momentary respites, but always something is about to change. That fear is always building. That helps us make the rest of the stuff scarier.

ROBERT KOVAL: That’s a big departure from the past. You were not in that environment the whole time. I think that will really set us apart.

COME BACK FOR PART II