Sliders Unite: Breaking the Stigma

Queen Mary, Long Beach, CA

It’s an unmistakable sound for almost any guest who’s ever visited a haunted attraction.  From somewhere in the fog, or beyond the shadows, or even in open space just out of vision, it comes.  First, the patter of rushed steps, then the hurtle of a monster cutting through air, and then that scraping screech of metal on concrete as a blur slides at ground level toward and just past the startled and paralyzed victims.  And almost inevitably, a shrill scream of fright from the ambush, or a stifle of laughter as the mind processes what just transpired. 

For decades, sliding has been used as a scare tactic at haunted events all across Southern California.  Originally developed and honed at Knott’s Scary Farm, the “Granddaddy of Them All,” sliding has spread across the country to haunts both large and small.  It has grown from just a method of startling into an art form and a sport, with sliding troupes now formed to take shows on the road during the off-season and perform at conventions and special events.

This past Wednesday, a unique confluence took place at the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, as sliding groups from Knott’s Scary Farm, Dark Harbor, and Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights converged for a one-night-only special sliding show entitled Sliders Unite: Breaking the Stigma.  Although the subtitle might sound peculiarly dramatic for something that effectively amounts to a recreational Halloween-related activity, there is actually a backstory to it, and to understand the reference, it helps to understand the history and evolution of haunted attractions and sliding.

Dark Harbor, the setting for this past Wednesday's Sliders Unite special show.

The legend starts at Knott’s Berry Farm, where over one fateful Halloween weekend in 1973, the park initiated a holiday event entitled The Halloween Haunt that would change the face of theme parks and autumn forever.  From the beginning, Haunt had street monsters roaming around to interact with and scare guests.  In the early days, this was limited to Ghost Town, and the first monsters, who were also stuntmen for the park during daytime operations, kept to traditional scaring techniques such as jumping out from hidden corners or chasing terrified guests with their horrifying visages or prowling through a crowd in search of a suitable prey.  Back then, there was no precedent to how to run such an event as there is now, and actors were constantly improvising their approach, probing methods to figure out what worked and what didn’t. 

As fate would have it, the monsters discovered that one of the more effective ways of scaring people was to throw oneself upon the ground and lunge at them.  Being scared at eye level was relatively common, and guests anticipated that.  What they didn’t expect was to encounter a horrid fiend clawing at their knees.  The early days of sliding were nothing like what we see today, however.  Actors donned volleyball kneepads and work gloves and wrapped themselves in fabric to pad their fall, and their “slides” were more like short-distance belly flop baseball slides than the sleek, fast-moving cuts with which today’s haunted attraction guests are familiar.

All of that changed in the latter half of the 1980's thanks to one man: Todd Stubbler, affectionatelly known as “Slider 1.”  Armed with a skateboarding background, Todd introduced the idea of using skating kneepads and hand accessories to enable longer distance slides, and he helped lead the first pioneering generation of sliders in the form of sliding that hundreds of thousands of guests see today.  Todd may not have been the literal first person to have ever developed the concept of a more athletic-based manner of sliding, and he won’t even claim to be the original inventor of the slider accessories people see and emulate today, but this humble former Haunt monster definitely played a pivotal role in popularizing the activity and pushing it beyond just a scare tactic and into a sport and art form.

The Captain, the Iron Master, and the Ringmaster, greeting visitors entering Dark Harbor.

In the decades since, sliding has proliferated into beloved tradition at many Halloween events that combines scaring with acrobatics.  In the 90’s and 2000’s at Knott’s Scary Farm, sliders would figure into unscheduled entertainment at points in the night, performing “Slider Olympics” shows to demonstrate their athleticism and entertain the masses.  Today, not only are there sliding monsters at places like Knott’s Scary Farm and Dark Harbor and Fright Fest and Halloween Horror Nights, there are also coalitions of such monsters associated with these properties.  Decayed Brigade, for example, comprises Knott’s Scary Farm monsters and performs slider showcases at Halloween conventions such as Scare L.A. and Midsummer Scream.  Slider Nation, affiliated with Queen Mary talent, features their own collection of talented sliding monsters and their own style of sliding.  These dedicated individuals gather and train during the off-season and push themselves and others to continuously innovate new tricks and techniques to incorporate into both shows and in-park acting.  

Dark Harbor's Slider Alley: where all the action took place.

As with any sort of growth of a sporting activity and development of alliances, rivalries naturally arise, and such is the case with haunted attractions.  From a broad overview, there has always been a healthy competition among the major haunts like Knott’s Scary Farm, Horror Nights, Queen Mary, and Fright Fest.  Speak to designers and creatives of any of these events, and they’ll hold to a sincere respect and appreciation for their counterparts in other parks and destinations in pushing the envelope for new mazes, new stories, and new designs.  But such competition has also spawned passion and bitterness in the past, with factions treating each other with judgmental disdain.  Much like sports, there would be a minority of parties who would instigate disagreements or arguments and generally behave immaturely in support of their particular haunt monster affiliation. 

“For years, there's been the stigma that sliders from different venues had a lot of animosity towards each other,” explained Scott Dieterman—Cast Lead at Knott’s Ghost Town Streets and former sliding monster and legendary Halloween Haunt character, ‘Pyro’—in an interview.  “Of course there's always a sense of healthy competition, which raises the level of sliding as whole, but we really wanted to break down that wall of animosity.”

Lee Cooper, ‘Evil’ at Dark Harbor and leader of Dark Harbor’s sliding team, elaborated on the rift between park factions.  “Back when Queen Mary was under the Shipwreck management, the powers that be really encouraged the competition aspect with Knott’s, to the point where they’d support their talent in engaging in activities such as going to Knott’s Scary Farm and plastering stickers for their event all through the park.  It actually became rather antagonistic.”  Given his own history of working at Knott’s Scary Farm during the 90’s into 2003, Lee always felt a little awkward about the less-than-friendly rivalry.  “That never really sat well with me.”

The Iron Master, with a drink vendor.

Wednesday night was a moment that had been building for years.  As Dieterman elaborated, “Lee and I have been trying to make it for a decade.  He left Knott's and a few years later, we started discussing it.  It seemed to be put off as a thing for ‘next season.’” 

Added Cooper, “I first brought up the idea of having Knott’s monsters over a few years into working at Shipwreck.  But management always shot it down.  Because of the heated rivalry culture that they fostered, they didn’t want ‘enemy’ talent coming to their territory.” 

Legendary Knott's Scary Farm monster Spats came out of retirement for this unique night.

Knott’s continued to have its own almost impromptu sliding exhibitions during Scary Farm hours, and as Queen Mary developed its own haunted attraction in the 90s with Shipwreck, which was transformed into Dark Harbor in 2011, it too incorporated slider shows into its entertainment lineup.  But these demonstrations were specific to each venue.   Even after the regime change at the Queen Mary that transformed Shipwreck into Dark Harbor, coordinating schedules still proved to be a challenge.

“Once we became Dark Harbor, I broached the idea of a unity slider show again to [Dark Harbor Talent Director] David Wally,” Cooper recalled.  “He was all in for this, because he firmly supports the idea of one, unified haunter community.  But we could never make it work, because there was never really a day when we were operating and they weren’t, other than our November 1st date, which just didn’t pan out one way or another.”

Dieterman also changed into his haunt alter ego to participate.

As it turned out, the introduction of the informal slider groups that started working outside of haunted attractions served as additional stimulus to bring the sides to a mutual stage.

“There [have] never been shows done, outside of haunted attractions, like at haunt industry conventions, until the last few years, like what Decayed Brigade does today,” Dieterman reflected.  “I think that because of these shows they do, it's helped give the extra push we needed, to finally have it come to fruition.  They have brought the art of sliding more into the foreground than it was before.  The talent level of the younger generation that are doing this now is ridiculously incredible, and they keep raising the bar.” 

“We keep pushing each other,” Cooper said.  “Decayed Brigade does things that we [Slider Nation] don’t do, so they challenge us to continue to innovate.  And some of the things that Slider Nation does are things that Decayed Brigade doesn’t do, so we challenge them too.”  

Crowds lined the midway, filling up space 45-60 minutes before the show even began.

But whereas the rivalry in in the previous decade could be mean-spirited, the competition in recent years has remained friendly.  Both groups espouse the idea of “One Team, One Scream,” referring to the haunt community as a whole.   As this spirit of fraternity spread, it eased the once-tense relations between the factions.  Earlier this year, when Dieterman and Cooper realized that Knott’s would be dark the last Wednesday of October this year while Dark Harbor would be operating, the wheels were finally set in motion to make a pitch ten years in the making into a reality.

“We knew we could definitely have Knott’s and Dark Harbor come together to make this happen,” noted Cooper.  “I reached out to some Horror Nights friends so that they could be represented as well.”  He added, somewhat sheepishly, “I would have liked to have Fright Fest guys here too, but I don’t really know anyone over there.”

And so, as night fell upon Dark Harbor on Wednesday night, a buzzing and surreal atmosphere enveloped the Queen Mary grounds.  As a testament to the devotion and support of haunted attraction fans, throngs of visitors arrived early (and continued to arrive) to experience the unique evening, yielding crowds far in excess of what a Wednesday night operation would normally attract.  By some reports, Dark Harbor was sold out—an incredible feat for a mid-week evening—and if it wasn’t actually so, it still was quite busy.  Prior to gate opening, The Captain, one of Dark Harbor’s icons and emcee to the first rush of guest entrants, made reference in his hype spiel to the upcoming special slider performances of the night, eliciting multiple cheers from the crowd.  Once guests were let in, they found the usual cast of Dark Harbor street monsters joined by familiar faces from Knott’s Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights.  Talent ranged from young, current generation sliders to longtime veterans to retired monsters making a one-time appearance for the occasion.  Even Pyro laced up the slider boots for a scare down memory lane. 

“I thought it would be great to see Knott’s, Decayed Brigade, Dark Harbor, and Horror Nights monsters out together,” Cooper mentioned, “each in their recognizable looks, but all working in union, to show that even though we all might wear different colors, we were still one and the same.”

An impressive preshow featuring acrobats on the hoops provided a spectacle for both guests and sliders, who sat with attention.

The energy around the first special sliding performance was palpable as fans gathered around Slider Alley 45 minutes to an hour in advance—far in excess of the normal waits for such shows.  As monsters from three different haunted events mingled with the crowd, it was clear just what a special night this was.  Many in attendance were current or former haunt monsters across multiple venues, and there was a general feeling of family reunion across Dark Harbor’s carnival grounds.  Monsters who had crossed over from one event to another over the years were able to reconnect with old comrades.  As envisioned, the haunt and slider community came collectively in one show of unison and support for each other.

Much as the organizers had hoped, there was very much a cooperative and collaborative atmosphere.  Through the night, Queen Mary monsters could be seen teaming up with Knott’s monsters and Halloween Horror Night monsters to initiate scares.  During the run-up to each shows, sliders from all sides engaged in entertaining shenanigans and scares jointly.  It was very much “One Team One Scream.”

Sliders from multiple venues mingled together.

The two shows themselves were a showcase in the athleticism and artistry that sliding has become.  Slider Nation demonstrated their assortment of quick paced, fast synchronization slides, as well as their handless jumping.  Decayed Brigade showed off their athleticism with distance jumping and spinning tricks.  All three parties of sliders engaged in probably the longest tunnel slide anyone has ever witnessed and also engaged in tag team and near-collision stunts and spectacles.  The crowd was thrilled at the disparate styles coming together for what proved to be a relatively cohesive and exciting show.  

Pyro and Evil pose after the shows, the two leaders of the evening's special event.

The scene after each show was one of nostalgia and community love.  Fans came out eagerly for photos with their favorite sliders, while the sliders themselves interacted and reflected on the surreal nature of the night and reminisced on old times.  Todd Stubbler himself was in attendance as a guest, and the Dark Harbor sliders were quick to pay reverence and respect to the original monster slider innovator.  For Dieterman and Cooper, the night went about as well as could be desired.

“I'd like to thank [Dark Harbor’s] entire cast and crew for their hospitality.  We all felt very welcomed there,” Dieterman relayed.  “I'm very honored to have been a part of such a great event. It was awesome to work side by side with old friends again.”

“It was great,” Cooper concurred.  “The outpouring and support we received was fantastic.  Everyone worked well with each other.  Even in the break room between shows, we were just talking and catching up about the old days and now.  Especially us old guys, we really appreciated the moment.”

All the sliders pose for a group photo.  And also a couple of friends in the background.

To say the stigma is broken would be to simplify things too much.  Firstly, for most of the newer generation of haunt monsters, there really isn’t much of a stigma anymore, thanks in part to the efforts of the old guard to foster a cooperative atmosphere that still maintains a spirit of competition.  And secondly, there will always be some form of rivalry across various factions simply because that is how human nature behaves.  But Wednesday night’s event certainly cemented a new era of togetherness.  It presented a great message for the future of the Halloween community.

“I'm sure there will be a lot of people thinking that this type of show isn't a big deal,” Dieterman acknowledged, “but it is in the haunt/slider community.”

As for an encore?

“I would love to make this a new tradition,” Cooper asserted.  “Would we welcome everyone back for another unity show next year?  Absolutely.  And I hope it happens.”

Video of the performances can be found below:

First Show

Second Show

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.