Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt's 40 Years of Fear
As you step into the night fog, there's no turning back. You don't know what lurks ahead. Out of the mist, shadowy beings emerge, their grunts amplifying as they stomp your way. You look around—there's nowhere to run. Your body clenches as they hobble past you, and when they're finally out of sight, you exhale. You're safe. Just then, there's a cold hissssss in your ear. You turn around slowly. Staring at you is a hunchbacked old woman, her fangs dripping with blood.
"Boo," she says.
Kids, if you're looking for Camp Snoopy, you're a few hours too late. This is the Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt, a dark, twisted place where the world's most gruesome creatures roam. A place where horror junkies from all over the county line up in droves for one glorious thing: to be scared shitless.
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Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Knott's Berry Farm's 24-night event remains the granddaddy of all Halloween parties, filled with mazes, live shows, age-old rituals and more than 1,000 monsters creeping through the Buena Park theme park. (It's reported that during the month of October, the Haunt generates more than half the revenue for the park's fiscal year.)
In these pages, we hear from those who made the Haunt the beast that it is, from the early pioneers to stars such as Elvira to the monster trainers, maze designers and die-hard fans of today.
Enter, if you dare.
* * *
THE HALLOWEEN HAUNT SPELL BOOK (OR, HOW TO CREATE THE WORLD'S LARGEST HALLOWEEN PARTY)
START WITH A TV SHOW
"The master of the macabre, the epitome of evil, the most sinister man to crawl across the face of the Earth, SEEEEEEEYmooooourrrr!" the television announcer howled in his introduction.
In the 1970s, Southern Californians tuned into Fright Night, a late-night horror show that presented low-budget, B-rated slasher films with titles such as The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. The host was Larry Vincent, a.k.a "Sinister Seymour." Clad in a tuxedo, cape and wide-brimmed black hat, he would pop in throughout the movies, making sarcastic quips.
To promote the show, Vincent and the crew took it on the road. They hosted live events at local movie theaters, where fans would line up to watch him in action. In 1972, producers decided to put on a Halloween movie fest at Magic Mountain in Valencia. Vincent did his usual spiel while kids got to play special games throughout the park. The following year, they wanted to do it again in a more controlled environment.
They had heard Knott's Berry Farm had recently opened the indoor, 2,100-seat John Wayne Theater (now called the Charles M. Schulz Theater). "It was absolutely perfect timing," says Ted Dougherty, who, since 2000, has been chronicling the history of the Haunt on his fan site UltimateHaunt.com. "Seymour was looking for an improved venue, and Knott's Berry Farm was looking for an event to increase revenue during the off-season, and the two just came together."
Vincent's manager, Gary Blair, pitched the idea to Bill Hollingshead, Knott's then-director of entertainment. Hollingshead and his team loved it and wanted to give the entire park a spooky theme. A presentation was made to the Knott family, though their approval didn't come instantly. (Hollingshead once told UltimateHaunt.com that one of the Knott grandsons, Daryl Anderson, believed a Halloween event "implies the devil, Satan, hell and evil spirits.") But they eventually got the go-ahead, and the Halloween Haunt was born.
For that first event, the Knott's staff decorated the streets of Ghost Town with cobwebs and smoke, had a maze built inside the Haunted Shack, found monster costumes for the 10 or so street characters who worked at the park, and played some eerie music. The Haunt ran for three nights in October 1973. Tickets were $4 in advance, $4.75 at the door.
"It wasn't nearly as developed as it is today, but what we did develop worked," said Gary Salisbury, a production assistant at the time. "I'd never seen so many people line up at the park in my entire life."
Mike Hansen, who's now known at the Haunt as "Uncle Mike," begged his mom to take him to that first event after seeing an ad in the newspaper. He was 10. He remembers riding the Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Train and noticing cardboard witches and skeletons taped to the wall. Monsters would jump out at guests and spray them with Silly String. "It was very low-tech, but it was so new," says Hansen, an algebra teacher in Mission Viejo who has attended just about every Haunt since then and now even works there as a monster called the Toymaker. "It was an experience that I just totally fell in love with. Today, whenever I go back, I think, 'This is what I want it to be like forever.' My blood pressure goes down, and I feel at home."
* * *
ADD IN A CAST OF CHARACTERS
Some voices from the Halloween Haunt's past . . .
John Waite, who was in charge of decorating the log and mine rides, on getting ready for the very first event: "We only had six weeks to get everything done. I would go to Hollywood to rent spooky props, but all the good props were already reserved, so I just had to take what I could find. The only item that was available was an 8-foot-tall gorilla, so we used that, and then I got some old suit jackets at Salvation Army and filled them with newspaper to make them look like hunchbacks and deformed people.
"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."
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."
* * *
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."
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."
As Knott's area manager of live entertainment, it's his responsibility to select the monsters that will roam the Haunt's "scare zones"—Ghost Town, Necropolis and CarnEvil. And every year, there's a massive pool to choose from. On an early morning in August, hordes of hopefuls line up for the chance to join what many see as a legacy, a band of dedicated freaks.
"I love scaring the crap out of people," says Aaron Frame, who'd been anxiously waiting for his 18th birthday so he could finally audition. "As a monster, you get to be someone you're not—without being put in a mental institution."
Those who make the cut are sent to Knott's Scare School, where they learn the basic rules (including never touch or strike a guest) and various scare techniques (such as use your entire body, not just your voice). Within the group of 1,000 monsters, there's a known hierarchy. Rookies usually start off working the mazes, hiding in dark corners and waiting for guests to pass by. A more prestigious role is being assigned to the streets. There, each monster takes on a complete persona (an angry horse breeder put under a spell by a gypsy, for instance), which he or she develops and perfects for months or even years. More veteran monsters can also be certified to be "sliders"—those who get on knee pads and slide up to guests to scare them.
For the monsters who come back year after year, the thrill of scaring the living daylights out of complete strangers is something that never gets old. "It's like getting off a roller coaster, and you've got that high, and you just want to get on the next one," says Roger Ricalde of Cypress, a 43-year-old grocery-store clerk who has been working at the park for 26 years. The monster experience often extends beyond Haunt hours. They meet up regularly for social events such as bowling nights and themed parties, and after Halloween is all over, they hold an awards ceremony at which trophies are doled out for Best Monster, Best Rookie, Most Creative and Most Dedicated. In the past, monsters have made jackets that read, "Haunt monster: It's not something you do, it's something you are."
"These are the people who spent their childhood scaring their little brother or sister," says Jeff Tucker, entertainment supervisor at Knott's, describing the growing subculture. "It's a lot of work, but once guests come rushing in, and they enter the fog, and you start hearing the screams, it's all worthwhile."
This article appeared in print as "Forty Years of Fear: Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt is still scary after all these years."
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