By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo courtesy Knott's Scary FarmIt's disconcerting to be early at Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt, when the monster-to-guest ratio is 10 to 1. Cue the gag-reflex smoke, and out of the mist a dozen horrifying beings hobble toward you.
Among them, the Swamp Monster. A small mountain of green fuzz, his "monster" name is Freak, and he spent two months hand sewing bits of green fun fur into cammo netting purely for your amusement. Now, a slight, shadowy figure curls itself around you, whispering boo in your ear. Accompanied by the thump-thump of a short bullwhip on your buttocks, you've just met Bob the Vampire.
Knott's began its Halloween Haunt 31 years ago, the first time an amusement park realized it could make something on the side from the second biggest holiday in America. A handful of seasonal workers donned fright wigs and greasepaint and scampered around Ghost Town. Gaunt Seymour the Vampire, the Elvira of his day, put on a show. Orange County greeted this display with enthusiasm, and since then a Halloween shindig has become theme park de rigueur.
Knott's now makes more money in October than the rest of the year, and hires an additional 1,000 workers for the month. Many of those live and breathe the Haunt, making it more of a symbiotic relationship than one of employee/employer.
"As a monster, you get people to like the fact that you're crazy," says Ron, who sells DJ equipment and club lighting 11 months of the year, but holds court as the Vampire King in Camp Snoopy, which transmogrifies in October into the Gauntlet, a medieval theme camp, replete with knights and jesters. "It's like a family, but at the same time you're respected for being an outcast, almost."
There's a notable difference between the daylight hours' Camp Snoopy contingent, whose locker room is festooned with community theater headshots and books on how to be a better cheerleader, and the creatures of the Haunt.
"The freaks come out at night," says Buddy, who looks like he stepped out of a Ruebens study on pirates. A body piercer, bouncer and amateur wrestler, he can be found uttering "pillage and plunder!" in Red Beard's Revenge, one of the many mazes Knott's erects. Despite the fact that a guest broke his nose last year and the special effects smoke gave him bronchitis, Buddy would "work the Haunt for free."
"It takes a certain demented spirit to want to scare the living daylights out of people night after night," says Riff, an unassuming computer marketer who has worked the Haunt for four years. His jacket proclaims, "Haunt monster: It's not something you do, it's something you are."
"I get paid in screams," he says. "Every penny that we make goes back into the Haunt, whether it be a jacket or a new mask, anything that can help you with your character."
Among the ghouls you may bump into are doctors, lawyers and CEOs. The Vampire King likens the Haunt to church. Monsters represent "the whole spectrum of professions, but they have this same interest and they're drawn together for one purpose. They have this whole other side of themselves which they normally don't get to release."
"This is the 22nd year for two people in Ghost Town," says Monstar (AKA Jeff Long), a mainstay as Ghost Town's rodeo clown. Long helped to create AHAB (Annual Haunt Awards Banquet), which doles out trophies each year for best monster, best rookie, most creative and most dedicated.
Dedication figures into presentation of the best slider award. According to the Vampire King, sliding originated at Knott's and happens when a monster gets on their knees and slides up to a patron. If it sounds simple, it's not. You can find monsters cooking up pots of wax before the Haunt to apply to their kneepads so that they'll slide farther. Also, there are methods to make a monster spark while sliding—many involving metal doohickeys—although Knott's does not endorse these. Though most of them seem impervious to pain, sliding monsters have metal toe-caps to prevent toe breakage when sliding.
Beyond a wrap party, AHAB is a way to "create some initiative" and keep the family together. AHAB and all other extra-curricular events are paid for out of the monsters' pockets. With the newsletter Duct Tape Post and countless websites, Haunt monsters are family. "All my friends are from there, all the people I've dated. It's the family atmosphere that keeps me coming back," says Kane.
After a decade in the music business, Kane turned to mortgages, but as a jester can be found at the mouth of the Gauntlet. "I get to become somebody that I'm not for a month, so I use that month to let everything out," he says. "I'm exercising a part of my psyche which may not be acceptable otherwise."
"Freud would say that the monster character is a way to displace the superego," says Timmy, a novelist whose only lapse at the Haunt was due to grad school in Ohio. "The superego is no longer complaining or reprimanding, because you're not interacting in a social setting. Your character is interacting, and the superego doesn't apply to him."
Yeah, that and it's fun.