Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt's 40 Years of Fear

Buena Park's after-hours attraction can still scare your pants off

"We had six live monsters scaring people the first night. Three hours into the event, [ride creator] Bud [Hurlbut] got on the walkie-talkie and called a meeting with all the operation managers. He said, 'We need more live people.' They asked him, 'How many do you want?' Bud said, '35.' They said, 'When do you need them by?' He said, 'Tomorrow night.' Bud realized that live people are what scare people.

"At one point, Bud was wearing an elaborate Phantom of the Opera costume and told a monster, 'Hey, look, I'm gonna show you how to scare people.' So he went up to this girl and scared her. Her boyfriend punched him in the face!

"During those first years, when it was so brand-new, you could almost just look at people and they would scream. When you're in those rides, there's no place to run. It was common to look at the trains and not see anybody. They'd be crouched on the floor below their seats! That's when we knew we were doing something right."

A hopeful Haunter
Matt Oliver
A hopeful Haunter

Location Info


Knott's Berry Farm

8039 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90620

Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks

Region: Buena Park


Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 220-5200; Every Thurs. & Sun., 7 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.-2 a.m.; Oct. 30-31, 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Through Oct. 31. $36-$48.


Diana Kirchen (formerly Diana Kelly), who played the first green witch, the Haunt's most legendary character of all time, on developing her role: "We were all working as street characters at Knott's when directors gave us our assignments for the Haunt. They went around and said, 'You're gonna be a mummy; you're gonna be the bride of Frankenstein,' and then they pointed at me and said, 'You're gonna be the witch.' I thought, 'Yes! That's great!' My favorite movie in the whole world is Wizard of Oz, and I always loved the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton. I developed my voice partly by watching her character and also by watching the 1970s children show H.R. Pufnstuf. There was a character named Witchy-Poo, and I'd stand next to the TV with a cassette set and record her voice. Then I'd practice and practice. Everything I did at Knott's was fun, but the Haunt topped them all. It was like being a little kid again and going out to play."

Gary Salisbury, who managed the talent at the Haunt and created the first street shows in Ghost Town, on trial and error: "We learned a lot in those early years. We found out that if you're yelling all night, you'll lose your voice. So we developed a can with nuts and bolts inside that monsters shook and rattled when they jumped out of dark corners. It made this horrible sound that had a huge scare effect. We also discovered that monsters should travel in pairs so guests wouldn't attack them.

"In the late '70s, I noticed that some monsters weren't of the caliber we wanted. Some would just stand there and congregate amongst themselves. So the following year, I decided to hold monster auditions. I'd have five people go onstage and give them different scenarios—for instance, 'You're sitting on a hill of biting red ants.' If they jumped all over the place and started hitting themselves, I'd tell them to stand on one side. If they didn't do that, I'd say, 'Thank you for coming.' The auditions became a real fun thing in the '80s, and all the TV stations came to watch."

Del Langdale, a former art director for the Haunt, on dressing the park: "It was an awesome responsibility to put on the world's largest Halloween party, though it was very daunting at times. We'd spend endless days and nights making tombstones, graveyards and ghosts. We dressed every square inch of that park, using 500 pounds of beef tubing [netting] to create cobwebs and stringing erosion-control jute netting from building to building. The basic rule: Make it scary and make it look like Halloween, but no devils of the occult.

"We learned some really good lessons along the way: Bales of straw look very natural, but they are impossible to flame-proof. If you use real pumpkins, people will throw them and break them. One of the funniest things I was asked to make was a bouquet of flowers that needed to wilt on cue when it was handed to Elvira.

"During the Haunt, I would walk around as Dracula and monitor the response of our guests. I would just step back and analyze everything from the sound effects to the lighting. The whole thing came together as theatrical production. I had the time of my life."

Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, the host of Halloween Haunt from 1982 to 2001 who performed a nightly musical revue, on getting approved for the show: "When the Knott family owned the park, they were very conservative. Marion Knott [the last surviving child of Knott's Berry Farm founders Walter and Cordelia Knott] always had to come see the show before it opened, and the show was pretty provocative, so we'd always be very, very worried about what she would think. So we actually built in some things that we knew she would cut just so she would have some things to cut. But as she got older, she became more accepting of the crazy things we were doing. I wore a lot of risqué outfits, but there one time that my outfit was just incredibly risque. After we did the show for her, her only comment was that my outfit was cute. Maybe she had seen it all and just threw in the towel, thinking, 'They're never going to change.' Or maybe her eyesight was going and she couldn't see what I was wearing."

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