Creepy himself sent me on this junket to Southern California’s big haunt, Knotts, which I’ve attended since the ‘80s. So I’m offering up a second opinion from my visit on Saturday, September 29. Roll ‘em…
The Pre-Scare Boo-fet
Now, I’m gonna own up: I was very late to arrive at the park (thanks, Carmageddon 2012!) and was lucky to get a seating. But this year’s pre-Haunt buffet dinner had some surprising and alarming differences from previous years. To wit: Disposable plasticware instead of sturdy buffet dishes, bright normal lighting and no real decoration, no monsters, and a drastically reduced lineup of food options. (Not to mention the “collectible” Snoopy drink cups that we were given, rather than commemorative Haunt cups we got in the past. Beware: If you put carbonated drinks in these cups and then cap the straw, the next time you uncap the straw you will have a fountain of ice-cold soda spray you in the face and all over your clothing! Naturally, we ditched these couldn’t-sell surplus items as soon as possible.) On the plus side, the food was delicious as always and the staff was very helpful and courteous despite being obviously overworked and underpaid. Cedar Point management’s budget-cutting is showing already…
Before I go into the mazes one by one, I thought I’d mention something that’s odd. For several previous years, there was a trend of having “hot chicks in costumes vaguely writhing in a cage in one room of every maze.” Apart from one woman with a feather-stick in Dominion of the Dead and a desultory go-go bit in Endgames, that phase of the Haunt mazes is over! No more gratuitous female stuff anymore. Don’t know if you’ll notice, but I did…
Trick Or Treat
It’s bad and it’s good, appropriately enough. The bad: They promote this as “the maze you can really trick or treat in,” but they weren’t selling masks and bags when I went and there were no chances to do any candy-begging. The good: This is just a really delightful, classic Halloween-themed maze, with all the cool stuff you’d want. A bit scant on thrills, but here’s your chance to ring a doorbell and go inside the Green Witch’s haunted house and meet all her friends. I liked it.
It’s pretty much postapocalyptic MMA-meets-chop-‘em-up slaughterhouse horror… but even that is giving it a little too much credit. The theme is silly, the décor is a little bit rehashed, the cast members are few and tired, and it really comes down to this: If your maze has no charm, it better have scares. Endgames has neither.
Dominion of the Dead
This venerable old maze still puts on a good effort, but it no longer has any sexy decadence or very many scares in it. I’ll give it points for being quietly atmospheric, but it’s got that “played out” vibe from start to finish.
As you may have guessed, this review is in the order of the mazes as I visited them. So this was the fourth I saw, and it was the place where the Haunt finally built up some real scare-steam. Yes, at last, scares! The monsters had real energy and the whole setup (you’re walking through a nightmare dreamscape) offers up some queasy fun. I say thumbs up to Delirium.
Terror of London
Another returning fave, this one relies on both its top-drawer art direction and its slow-building storyline to make it a horror (not “all-out jump and scream”) maze. Plenty of energy in the cast here, though of course, most of them are playing Victorian prostitutes… which takes out some of the “boo” right there. (I suppose it adds “boobs,” though…) Anyway, Terror of London still “has it.”
Replacing previous years’ Doll Factory, Pinocchio Unstrung isn’t really all that different from that prior maze. Fairy tales are big nowadays, though, so here’s Pinocchio (he’s from children’s fiction, not fairy tales, but shhhh, keep it to yourself). The maze has style and a fair degree of energy, and the whole thing is sinister fun.
Dia de los Muertos
The 3-D effects don’t mean much to me, although the design on this one is beautiful—I found the cast to be wide-awake and ready to scare, but they felt unready to do the job (new, untrained, inexperienced). Overall, I’m afraid Dia de los Muertos wasn’t effective for many years, and it’s lost its staying power by now. Not recommended.
Uncle Bobo’s Big Top of the Bizarre
Widely reported as a step down from previous years, I found this a step up from past performances—not that that’s a lot of praise. I’ve never been scared of clowns at all, so that’s not working for me, and otherwise it’s just 3-D effects (which as I’ve noted elsewhere, also don’t work for me) and plenty of lame toilet humor. On the other hand, the cast had good energy and really tried to make it work. So… decent enough… but I think it should fold up its tent.
Virus Z with Carrie
You’ll “meh” with non-terror at this lifeless retread that’s got an actress stuck near the end in the thankless and nonsensical role of Stephen King’s character Carrie. (She just happened to go berserk at the prom with her telekinetic powers while the whole town was being turned into zombies by a virus outbreak. Yeah, that’s the ticket!) Walking through this maze this year was a waste of shoe leather.
Uncle Willy’s Slaughterhouse
Another uncle, another sillier scare maze, but this time it’s pretty good. It’s all due to the areas of deep darkness, the nastiness of the inbred mutant cannibal theme, and a good group of monster actors who seem to like their work. I don’t know how much longer this maze can last in terms of quality, but for now it’s good.
Very nice treatment of its postapocalypse theme—good sets and effective lighting, the right measure of “gross” and “jump” moments, and a committed cast. Walking through this one feels like you and the actors are both having Halloween fun.
…as for the premium maze Trapped ($60 for six people at a time), I can’t tell you anything because it was sold out before I could even consider getting a ticket. Other people say it’s good, so my second opinion is that other people say it’s good…
The Haunted Ride(s)
The Mine Train
Yes, you read right: Haunted “rides,” not “ride,” because the Mine Train IS haunted. There are no cast members inside the ride, but it’s an old-fashioned haunting, with spooky dummies (mostly non-animated) and creepy lighting—the kind you used to see in carnivals and rundown amusement parks all over the country. The Mine Train is part of the whole Green Witch mythology they’ve built up at Knotts this year, and if you ride it, watch the “Unearthed” show, go through the Trick or Treat maze and watch the Witching Hour (midnight) Hanging, you get a pretty good immersive story about the Green Witch. If you’re an easily bored teen of any age, this won’t be a thrill to you. But if you remember the way haunted attractions used to be, and want a taste of that old-timey stuff, then this is for you.
The Evil Dead (Timber Mountain Log Ride)
What a disappointment. Hardly any decoration, almost no cast members working inside it… and the ones who were there barely looked like they were in-costume (and they weren’t in-character). In a way, this is the flip side of the Mine Train: The bad side of the old-fashioned haunted rides, the ones that cheaped out and wasted your time with no atmosphere and no scares.
I saw four out of 10 shows at this year’s Haunt, and I think they did well. “Unearthed” was a standout in terms of pleasing everyone while advancing the Green Witch storyline they’ve added to the park. (Note to Knotts: Keep the Green Witch!) Unfortunately, shows are really not what you mainly come to the Haunt for, and so this isn’t as big a recommendation as you might think. (Note also: I’m pretty sure that the rest of the shows—Tonga Tiki Terror, The Hanging Games, Mephisto’s Mechanical Mayhem, Blood Drums, Cursed and Zamora’s Sideshow of Torture—also delivered the goods. Just not enough time in an evening to see it all, and I did try!)
At the Mystery Lodge, they’ve converted the show into this fun, breezy “origins of Halloween Haunt” production. It spins out the over-plot of the event very nicely, has some creepouts all its own, and it’s definitely audience-involving. Definitely recommended.
The Hanging (Standard)
…The usual garbage. I’m sorry, but the stunt show with potty humor and asinine pop culture references has never done it for me. I missed out on the original Witch Hanging from the ‘70s (I started going in the ‘80s, as noted earlier), so I’ve been forced to sit through parts of this awful spectacle for years… among a cheering crowd… wishing I could see “the real thing.” Speaking of which…
The Hanging (Midnight Witching Hour Hanging)
…at midnight only, you can see a modern version of the original Witch Hanging (with the Green Witch, naturally). It’s delightfully creepy, well-staged and well-acted. It doesn’t have any humor in it, it’s not a stupid stunt show with people dressed as Justin Bieber and the cast of GLEE, and this is why… the audiences stand in silent bafflement at the end, unhappy and uninterested. They don’t know what they’ve just seen. They don’t know why it isn’t “the funny.” A note for Knotts: Add some narration to tell these knuckleheads what this is and why you’re doing it. This is a great tribute to the roots of the Halloween Haunt, and it’s being buried in bad reviews and word of mouth because there are just too many saps who don’t get what it is.
This guy is a Haunt veteran, and his campy, outrageous comedy-magic show is a hoot. Always on the edge of the offensive, he certainly spares no one in his act and is pretty funny overall. There’s dancers and glitz and a cameo by Neil Patrick Harris, so you may just want to take some time out for Ed Alonzo. After all, he’s been a part of the Haunt’s entertainment (off and on) for many years—so you’re also honoring tradition!
The Scare Zones:
…A lot of fog in just a few places (basically, Ghost Town) and none at all elsewhere
…Most of the Halloween decorations are in Ghost Town, and little anywhere else
…Few sliders on the streets, and most of the monsters were spread out and low-key everywhere (even in Ghost Town)
So I’m afraid I have to pronounce the Scare Zones as lacking. Looks like Cedar Point just isn’t putting that much money or effort into this anniversary—and let’s face it, it’s not actually CP’s 40th annual Haunt, they just bought the place a few years ago. It doesn’t hold that magic for the corporate folks.
The 40th Anniversary Halloween Haunt Museum in Ghost Town
If you get chills looking at carefully preserved makeup appliances used on monster actors in 1973 (Haunt #2), photos of Seymour (the world’s greatest horror host, the late Larry Vincent, who hosted the earliest Knotts Scary Farm Halloween Haunts) and all that sort of thing—then don’t miss this lovely little tribute to times past.
I’m a huge fan of the Haunt. I’ve had great times there over the years, and I want everybody to do the same. But I’m not going to kid you about this—the 40th anniversary celebration is not really all there. It’s still worth going and seeing, believe me. But there’s a spirit missing (you’ll pardon the pun), and there’s a certain sloppiness to it all. Not to mention the corner-cutting, which isn’t a big surprise, but it shouldn’t hurt things as much as it seems to do. I saw a note on Facebook where they’re in the midst of hiring more monsters now. That… is particularly troubling. A drive for more monsters during October? They don’t seem to have their leadership on track to keep this event at its strongest, and as a lot of commentators have mentioned, Universal is pressing them hard here and on the east coast. So I’ll throw in my two cents: Knotts, this is your big event every year. Don’t cheap out. Stick with your guns regarding the Green Witch and the overarching storyline that unites the Haunt, because that’s good, creative and smart. On the other hand, when a maze is ready to cycle out, it’s time to cycle it out. We all know there was a big upheaval in the monster actors there a little while ago, and the fact is, you need a seasoned generation of cast members to grow up with this event and find their way. Like a Ren Faire, you can’t just grab anybody off the street and get the best possible results. Knotts Scary Farm Halloween Haunt needs to build quality for the long run, or they’ll end up being eclipsed by Universal and Queen Mary as the top dog in the amusement resort haunt space.