By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
* * *
Daniel Miller has learned that if a maze is good, guests will walk out of it laughing, smiling, perhaps even turning to their friends and uttering, "Oh, my God." But when a maze is great—and we mean truly haunting—they'll walk out in dead silence.
"There are the 'boo-shock-gore' scares, and then there's a type of eeriness that affects you for weeks afterward," he says. "You don't know how to react. It really scrapes at your soul."
8039 Beach Blvd.
Buena Park, CA 90620
Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks
Region: Buena Park
As a design specialist at Knott's Berry Farm, it's Miller's job to create the mazes at the Halloween Haunt, those chambers of terror that fans wait all year to experience. In a dungeon-like studio tucked inside the theme park, he works alongside entertainment-design manager Todd Faux and maze designer Brooke Walters to come up with the concept, flow and details of every walk-through production.
The three masterminds, who all have backgrounds in theater design, start with brainstorming sessions in which they throw out different themes and concepts—twisted Las Vegas! An evil dollhouse! A deadly slaughterhouse in which humans are slathered with barbecue sauce and served for dinner! Of course, there are some boundaries—rape, religion and tortured babies are all off-limits. "One year, we had a post-nuclear-war-themed maze with mutant babies in incubators," Miller explains. "We got so overloaded with complaints that they made us cover it up after the first night."
Fun facts: In the late '70s and early '80s, mazes contained live rats and snakes. A 1980 maze, "Trail of Terror," featured a real, mummified corpse named Count Demonicus, a spectacle on the carnival circuit.
Next in the process comes storyboarding, script writing and deciding on ways to utilize props, special effects, lighting, audio, costumes and talent. The three make detailed lists of every chain saw, severed limb and decapitated head that needs to be incorporated.
Faux believes the best mazes are the ones that hit all your senses. "It's the music you hear, the things that you're feeling, the ground that you're walking on, the people around you," he says. With today's technology, there are more ways than ever to interact with fans. Last year, in "EndGames: Warriors of the Apocalypse," TV monitors showed live footage of guests being scared in various parts of the maze, while cameras streamed that footage online for at-home viewers.
One of the most anticipated mazes this year is "Pinocchio Unstrung," created by Miller. The premise is that the beloved wooden boy Pinocchio is now 20 years older and bitter that he never got his wish from the Blue Fairy to become human. He gets revenge on all those who wronged him by killing them, skinning them and building an army of puppets using the shells of their bodies. (Warning: Watching your favorite Disney movie may never be the same again.)
"It's a little Silence of the Lambs," Miller says proudly. "It's really gross, twisted and hopefully truly terrifying."
For the 40th anniversary celebration, the Haunt will also bring back the midnight witch hanging, the most requested show of all time. The hangings had been featured until the 1980s, when local witches complained the presentations perpetuated a stereotype that witches were "cackling old hags with green skin who want to eat little children." Knott's Berry Farm officials, however, have said their decision to remove the hangings had nothing to do with the protests.
Each year on opening night, Walters says, she stands outside the doors of the mazes and listens to the screams. "It's so amazing," she says. "I love coming up with an idea and seeing it through the entire process and having it finally come to fruition. It's really neat to know that an idea that was once in your head is now being enjoyed."
* * *
Standing in the center of an airy storage room, a young man in a plaid shirt and jeans does his best interpretation of a creepy carnival worker.
"Step right up! Step right up!" he shouts. "I need one brave volunteer. One brave volunteer! Your job today is to escaaaaaape."
Craig Harreld shakes his head. "That's not gonna scare me," he says, sitting next to his colleague Ian Barnette. "I need to see crazy. Off-the-wall. I need to see spooky."
Another auditioner is called in. Her name is Michele Vera; she's 26 years old and works at a Jiffy Lube in Anaheim. She wears a newsboy cap and is chewing gum.
Harreld gives her a scenario. "You're a creepy clown with multiple personalities on a road trip with yourselves," he instructs.
Vera thinks to herself for a moment and begins her scene. She pretends to be four different people riding in a car. Her voice changes with every line.
"Hee hee hee heeeeeeee!"
"Why are you talking to me like that?"
"Pant, pant, pant, pant."
"Oh, there's a bird?"
"Pant, pant, pant, pant."
"Are you hungry?"
"Let's go eat!"
She has effectively embodied a psychopath, and Harreld hires her on the spot. "She's got a lot of energy," he says. "We're looking for people who can come in here and wow us. Guests pay an admission price. They want to be scared."