It’s not often that one gets private tours with the Maze Designers of one of the greatest haunted theme parks of all time. Daniel Miller and Jon Cooke provided the behind-the-screams tours through Knott’s Scary Farm’s newest haunted mazes, Pumpkin Eater and Dark Ride. Both of these new mazes had already been conceived of by last year’s Halloween season, and as I was guided through each of them, just prior to the park’s seasonal opening, all each essentially required was a few extra coats of paint.
Miller, who designed his first Knott’s maze, Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns, back in 1998, began my tour by escorting me through his latest creation, Pumpkin Eater. The maze is based off of the nursery rhyme “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” and Miller explained that the idea of creating a scary attraction out of something “good gone bad” (familiar nursery rhymes, children’s stories) or in some cases “bad gone bad” (the nursery rhyme is, itself, macabre) is that guests will be able to instantly relate to it.
As we walked through the set, hustling crew members exclaimed, “Don’t step there, I just painted that!” Naturally, there was more than one way to negotiate a giant pumpkin; for that’s what we walked through. The maze is basically a giant pumpkin monster, who has consumed human beings — many of whose faces and limbs pierce the pumpkin-flesh walls in various states of grotesqueness. Even in the light of day, the level of design detail is astounding. While turning corners and pushing aside dangling pumpkin guts, Miller pointed out the varying points from which performers will scare the guests. He indicated the oddly pitched floor, which will disorient guests as they are seemingly digested inside the pumpkin monster. Down another corridor, bedecked with thorny pumpkin vines, he indicated where animatronics will provide the maze with its own menacing aspects of life.
Exiting Pumpkin Eater, Miller explained that the experience extends beyond the confines of the monstrous pumpkin walls. Both Pumpkin Eater and Dark Ride share aspects of the scare zones adjacent to their locations. Pumpkin Eater is located in the scare zone called The Hollow, an area of the park where roving scarecrows, undead soldiers, and even the Headless Horseman will terrorize guests as they make their way between attractions or lounge near a concession stand.
Walking through the park to our next destination, Miller discussed another new facet to this year’s haunted theme park: interactive flashlights. For the returning Trick or Treat maze, individual guests will be given special flashlights, which have the power to send and receive signals. Throughout the course of the maze, the flashlights, developed by Gantom Lighting, will respond to programming and enhance the maze experience through a number of unique adjustments to the environment.
Maze Designer Jon Cooke took the tour reins from Miller after we arrived at Dark Ride. This attraction shares a clown motif with the CarnEVIL scare zone, wherein it is located. Cooke’s new maze is basically a postmodern homage to haunted attractions. The maze depicts the site of a former, cheesy, carnival ride. Ride cars off to the side of unused tracks lie scattered across the floors of rooms bedecked with campy skeletons and designs. Naturally, this is only the backdrop for the real scares. The storyline for this maze is that the former employees of the haunted attraction, having become displaced in society, have returned as squatters. Both vagrants and demented clowns will protect their home from the invading guests, who will traverse derelict and malfunctioning haunted attraction apparatus as well as shopping carts and various detritus. For one of the final rooms of the haunt, Cooke proudly admitted the design was a direct nod to the film The Funhouse by the late, great horror filmmaker Tobe Hooper, whose film was, itself, an homage to old school haunted attractions.
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During the final moments of my private tour, Miller revealed that all of the mazes had been updated in some way to keep them fresh. He specifically mentioned that the Voodoo maze has been reversed, so that the former exit (through the swamp) is now the beginning of the maze, which eventually leads up to the voodoo hut, where the attraction had previously begun. The design of the waiting area, he said, had been revamped accordingly as well.
It was particularly enjoyable to see how enthusiastic the designers were about their work. Miller had joined me for Cooke’s tour, and when I inquired about the function of a particular apparatus, Miller expressed his surprise and delight at Cooke's description of the feature. It is testament to Knott’s commitment to creating enjoyable, original haunted attractions that its very spook meisters enjoy surprising one another with their continuing innovations.