Midsummer Scream 2018: Sunday Panels

Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach, CA

Happy freaky Friday! We continue our Midsummer Scream coverage today by looking the presentations and panels that occurred on Day 2 of the successful 2018 Midsummer Scream conventionYesterday, we saw previews of this Halloween season from big names like Knott's Scary Farm, Winchester Mystery House, and Six Flags Magic Mountain, among other highlights.  Today, we have a mixture of big name presentations and less prominent but still impressive and positive panels that provided guests with inspiration and excitement for the presenting members.

Trapped: Unlocked!

The first panel of the day once again began on the Second Stage, located down the way from the Grand Ballroom.  Jeff Tucker and Gus Krueger discussed the history, design, and implementation of the infamous Trapped upcharge mazes that ran at Knott's Scary Farm over the course of three years.  The panel was entertaining and insightful, providing a fun peek into the sadistic minds of Knott's creative professionals--plus another Jeff Tucker impression, that of Knott's Scary Farm scenic designer, Daniel Miller (who was not present to judge the accuracy, though the audience certainly reacted favorably).


As Jeff Tucker explained, the notion of a more interactive maze that might require extra admission had been floated around Knott's for several years prior to Trapped coming to life, but Knott's personnel had always shot it down, pessimistic that guests who already paid for admission would want to pay extra for another haunted attraction.  But around the upcoming 40th anniversary of Knott's Scary Farm, new leadership provided the opportunity for Jeff to actually run a little further with his idea.  As the seed germinated, the collaboration of all of Knott's designers provided a product that ended up becoming a part of the early escape room culture of Southern California, since escape rooms had not yet gained the prominence they now enjoy in the area.

Designing Trapped was not as simple as crafting a challenging escape room, however.  Though guests would need to solve puzzles and discern clues in order to progress, the design team was aware of the challenge of cycling additional guests to maintain capacity, so the discovery of each gateway had to be manageable and reinforce the overall story being told by the maze.  Alternatively, the cast working Trapped would have to stay on their toes and be able to extend a scene as needed if the pace was running slow in the block ahead.


The panel also featured a first-eve reveal walk-through of the original Trapped maze.  Sound issues precluded a full viewing experience, but Jeff and Gus' commentary more than made up for the muted volume, providing a "behind the scenes" narration of many of the maze's most infamous moments.  The kitchen, for example, initially required guests to drink a mixture of warm buttermilk and cottage cheese playing the part of spoiled milk.  However, so many guests legitimately vomited as a response that they had to change the challenge to nacho-flavored insects a week or two in.  These fun accounts provided some fascinating insight into the background of this attraction now rooted in Haunt lore!

Queen Mary's Dark Harbor Presentation

I couldn't stay through the entire Trapped presentation, as entertaining as it was, however, because the Queen Mary Dark Harbor presentation was on at noon!  Each year, this has traditionally been the most entertaining and hilarious of the big haunted attraction panels, with Dark Harbor bringing a mix of its event heads and icon monsters to emcee and discuss the upcoming season's offerings.


This year proved to be no different, as The Captain and The Ringmaster served as hysterical hosts for the Dark Harbor panel.  Joining them were technical director, Adam Conger (participating in the panel for the very first time), talent director, David Wally, and executive producer, Charity Hill.  However, there was a sixth chair on the stage, reserved for a very special new "dark character" joining the Queen Mary haunt this year.  And that is when arguably the biggest surprise of the weekend was revealed: the announcement of new Dark Harbor production designer Jon Cooke joining the Long Beach crew!

Fans of local haunts know that Jon has been the public face and lead designer of Knott's Scary Farm's most successful new mazes and attractions the past several years, included Infected: Black Ops, Paranormal Activity, Shadowlands, and Dark Ride.  Earlier this year came the surprising news that he would be stepping down from his Knott's Scary Farm position and branching out as an independent designer.  That was soon followed by the premiere of his first project, the Murder Co escape room over in Upland, CA.  Though a pretty ambitious undertaking, crafting an escape room alone surely wouldn't warrant leaving a full time position, as Cooke has plenty of other side activities, such as fronting the symphonic metal band, Winds of Plague, as his alter ego, Johnny Plague.  Now we know the fuller story.  


Cooke and his company, Plague Productions, have been brought on to reimagine and revamp the Dark Harbor event, bringing a greater level of intensity, immersion, and interaction to a haunt that--as I wrote last year--had started to stagnate and lose direction.  The newer mazes lacked the thematic focus and extended execution that the original, Sinister Pointe-designed mazes featured when Dark Harbor first relaunched as the replacement for the prior Shipwrecked Halloween event.  And in recent years, it seemed like Dark Harbor was more focused on adding more bars and other sources of upcharge revenue (a fact they basically admitted through a series of self-deprecating and self-aware jokes throughout the panel), rather than concentrating on the actual frights.

The producers of Dark Harbor seem to have realized this, and as they spoke about this year's Dark Harbor, they reiterated the recommitment to reviving and reinvigorating the scares and storytelling of the haunt.  And what a great coup it was to secure the services of Jon Cooke to do so!


This year's Dark Harbor will feature a "choose your own adventure" motif that enables guests to customize their own path through the attraction and choose the level of immersion they would like to experience.  Casual guests can generally navigate the haunt like normal, hitting up mazes where they occur.  But those looking to sink deeper into the reimagined mythology will have the ability to engage hidden details, extra clues, and special interactions to further the story.


Dark Harbor 2018 will not have any new mazes this year.  In fact, the overall maze count is actually decreasing by one, with Soulmate going away (Graceful Gale will frequent the R.I.P. bar instead; she always did have a penchant for high rollers) and its location replaced by Feast.  But in a way, Dark Harbor is actually having all new mazes, because Cooke has brought a fresh vision and made slight tweaks to consolidate the backstories of the icons back to a more cohesive and intertwined front--one that is darker and even more sinister.


The Dark Harbor presentation played out like a miniature re-unveiling, with each of the maze icons being introduced along with an info banner of their now-modified histories and how those play into their mazes.  There was Half Hatch Henry and Deadrise, The Iron Master and Intrepid, Scary Mary with Lullaby, Chef in Feast, Samuel the Savage in B-340, and The Ringmaster in Circus.  Their background hasn't been changed radically, but Cooke and the creative team have made slight adjustments.

The larger excitement lies in the mazes themselves, which promise to be better and more detailed than before.  With Cooke on board and Plague Productions helping man the set design and production, the quality expects to take a notable step above Dark Harbor's traditional bar.  If Cooke can elevate the standard for Dark Harbor in the way that he elevated Knott's Scary Farm, this can only mean a terrific season for the Long Beach haunt!


LGBT+ Representation in Horror

One of the lower profile but arguably most impactful panels on Sunday was a discussion on the LGBT+ role in the horror community, both on film and in haunted attractions. 

Put together by our buddy Norm, from Horror Buzz, this very full panel featured a poignant discussion on the opportunities for representation afforded in the horror genre (a subset of media that has traditionally been more ostracized) for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer community (which has also traditionally been restricted from the general inclusion of society and has only made social gains relatively recently).  Horror, having long embraced the notion of "otherness," has frequently sheltered those in the LGBTQ community by affording them the ability of personal expression and comfort among people who do not judge them for being different, because everyone in the community is also different, and this uniqueness is celebrated rather than shunned.


This was the most crowded stage of the weekend.  Host and writer Tom Blunt moderated an at times sardonic and touching and times light hearted and hilarious talk with escape room producer Rachel Foti, filmmaker Michael Varrati,  film director Sam Wineman, actress and trans rights activist Julie Rei Goldstein, filmmaker Jackie Chessen, and drag superstar Alaska Thunderf*ck, aka Justin Andrew Howard.  Panelists discussed a variety of topics: overcoming their fears and challenges to attain success in their careers; the intertwining of an interest in horror and the sense of being an outsider; the fulfillment of attaining success and inclusion; the challenges of finding success without the safety net of the support network that non-marginalized people would have; and more.  

There's something to be said for the common horror theme of the fear of the unknown and the discrimination and mistreatment that many members of the LGBTQ community still face on a daily basis from other people who fear them, because they don't understand them.  Horror--be it in film, television, written, or interactive form, allows complex emotions and behaviors to be explored in a safe and controlled space, and it's not surprising that it has attracted the talents of the creative LGBTQ.  Additionally, horror has frequently provided an environment of acceptance and inclusion that is refreshing for those who do not have that luxury or privilege in everyday society. 


As the members talked about their lives growing up and their tribulations making it in new settings, often away from home, it became obvious just how important the simple act of inclusion played in their lives.  For anyone who is a member of a marginalized class, inclusion in media demonstrates hope and opportunity and reinforces equality.  It is motivational and inspirational, normalizing the daily life for people who've gone their whole lives being told that they were not normal and even bullied for it.  

Thus, for all the glitz and glam of the big name haunted attraction panels and big movie retrospectives, it was probably this panel that had the most social impact--showcasing the strength and perseverance of a community that has long fought for simple acceptance.  Perhaps fittingly, they've found it within another community that has also long been associated with "otherness," and the horror and LGBTQ communities have proven to be strong and nourishing supporters of each other's causes.  Kudos to all who helped with this panel and aided in further steps toward advancing such representation!

Horror Made Here: A Festival of Frights Presentation

One of the more intriguing panels of the weekend was the debut of Warner Bros. to the Midsummer Scream family.  For the past two years, the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank has hosted a seasonal studio tour event with Halloween flair--first with very minor offerings in 2016, then with more overt and traditional haunted attractions last year, including the It House and an attraction based on Annabelle.


This year marks a seminal moment for Warner Bros. as they toss their hat into the already crowded ring of Southern California Halloween attractions.  The Festival of Frights seeks to provide guests with a high quality, immersive, thrilling experience that can rival the big SoCal haunts that already command large market share.  Warner Bros. wants to compete with Universal Studios and Knott's Scary Farm and Dark Harbor and Fright Fest, and they're making strides to really up their game this year.

Horror Made Here: A Festival of Frights, will run on 13 select nights from Friday, October 5 through Sunday, October 28.  This year, the event will feature three mazes:

  • It Knows What Scares You is a reimagined It maze crafted to mesh with the upcoming sequel.  Last year, the Festival of Frights hosted the Neibolt House after the It Experience was relocated from its pop-up haunt location on Hollywood and Vine to the Warner Bros. lot.  This year's experience will be different, although Pennywise still haunts guests who dare enter.
  • Escape from Arkham Asylum brings the Batman video game franchise to life, mixing it with a fitting theme for a Halloween maze attraction.  The Joker leads a cast of villains looking to terrorize, and guests will have to navigate Gothan's most infamous mental institution to escape the dangers.
  • The Conjuring will serve as the IP basis for the third maze of the event.  Fans will encounter the insidiously creepy Annabelle doll and come face to face with the horrifying demon behind this fall's spinoff, The Nun.  For fans of this franchise, it should be a devilish time!

In addition to the mazes, there will be a tour through Freddy vs. Jason’s Camp Crystal Lake.  Guests will roll through the wooded part of the backlot in a tour cart.  They'll also have to escape an epic battle between two of the greatest horror villains in history, and survive their homicidal tendencies! 

The backlot area is being transformed into a scream park with the Devil's Drop Tower, a 90-foot tall drop ride, Stage 48: Script to Scream, a museum of Tim Burton props and costumes, The Lost Boys Arcade, and the Fangoria Bar.  There will also be a nighttime guided tour that explains beloved titles in horror entertainment and their location shoots, plus an 8-minute 4D Exorcist viewing experience that will bring some of the most terrifying moments of the classic film to visceral life.


It will be interesting to see how all of this shapes up.  The speakers promised an intimate experience crafted for true fans of horror.  While the event wants to expand market reach, it also doesn't want to become banal and come off as a "haunted conga line" (a not-so-thinly veiled at Halloween Horror Nights, no doubt).  It will be all the better for haunted attraction enthusiasts if Warner Bros. can make good on their aspirations.  We'll find out this autumn!

Next Generation Haunters: A New Breed of Terror

Another Second Stage panel focused on an upcoming generation of talented young haunters who are quickly changing the game with home haunts--not only because of their success despite their young ages, but also with the push and integration of new technology and overall haunt quality period.

TPA's Rick West hosted a small talk (the polar opposite of the room's preceding LGBT+ Representation in Horror panel) with Sam Kellman, mastermind behind the Opechee Haunt, and Aurora Persichetti, co-founder (with Kyle Warner, who was down in the Hall of Shadows overseeing their mini-haunt) of Murder House Productions. 


Over the past several years, Sam has gained a reputation as the "kid haunter."  But Opechee Haunt has accomplished achievements that would make any haunt--child or adult, amateur or professional--look amazing.  Sam and his assisting family and friends have done a different haunt and different kind of haunt in each of the past five years--a Pirates of the Caribbean maze in 2013 when he was only 11, a traditional multi-themed haunted maze in 2014, The Dollhouse of Death maze incorporating more high tech features in 2015, an Apparition Adventure maze in 2016 that utilized guest smartphones to provide an interactive tour and half maze experience, and last year's Jack's Halloween JamBOOree, a family-friendly full on show with projections, lighting effects, animatronics, and an inventive and entertaining story.

Murder House Productions, meanwhile, burst upon the scene last year with its Halloween Horror Nights-quality representation of the cult film Trick 'R Treat (which HHN is coincidentally making as a maze in both Hollywood and Orlando this year).  Although it did not have much build-up, word of mouth quickly spread on Halloween weekend of an incredibly detailed, high quality, professional level home haunt in far away Thousand Oaks that was worth visiting despite its distance from the main metropolitan Southern California.  This was after a detailed Evil Dead themed maze in 2016.  We stopped by last year to "Trick 'R Treat" ourselves and were highly impressed.


Sam, 16 as of this week, and Aurora, 21, both started haunting in their teens (well, Sam is still in his teens and technically began at age 10).  Both have leveraged the resources of the internet with easier availability of technical production equipment and mixed it with their passion for creating worlds and trying new experiences to produce some stellar haunted attractions.  The panel saw Sam and Aurora recount their childhood inspirations and motivations and also brought a bit of discussion of their plans this year.

The Opechee Haunt will produce a Donnie Darko tribute maze this fall and featured a preview of the maze in the Hall of Shadows during the Midsummer Scream Run.  Murder House Productions will create an original maze this year, with the theme centering around witches.  It should be exciting to see the final products, and it is inspiring and wonderful to see such impressive and enthusiastic work from such talented young creators!

Immersive Horror: New Trends Outside the Box

The absolute biggest and most popular panel of the day was a celebration of 25 years of the hit Halloween classic, Hocus Pocus.  It was so full that we weren't even allowed in by the time we arrived (check out this full video if you're interested), so instead, I stopped by the Immersive Horror panel for a spell.


If you've been paying attention to the haunt community recently (or even if you haven't), you've noticed a rise in an offshoot art known as immersive theater.  This genre is not always scary, but it first came to prominence through horror-inspired productions such as Delusion and Creep in Los Angeles and gothic acts like Sleep No More in New York.  It has since expanded envelope all sorts of themes, and My Haunt Life podcasters Mike Fontaine and Russel Eaton were on hand to curate a discussion on the new trends and inspirations immersive theater was providing.


On hand to commentate were haunted attraction designer and consultant Ted Dougherty, currently working with Murder Co., founder of Inside the Magic and producer of Pseudonym Productions Ricky Brigante, Horror Escapes LA founder Rachel Foti (pulling double duty after also being part of the LGBT+ panel earlier in the same room), and Just Fix It Productions owner and Creep and The Willows creator Justin Fix.  Each of the panelists spoke to how the concept of greater immersion was playing a part in the haunted attractions that they were creating--be it enhancing the drama of an escape room or crafting a three dimensional, dynamic theater experience.  Their notes pointed out just how quickly immersive theater has grown, especially in the horror business--and even outside of it. 

On a side note, attractions like Ghost Town Alive! utilize the same principles.  And back to topic, in the haunt community, the push for greater immersion into storytelling has proliferated commercial haunts like Knott's Scary Farm and Dark Harbor as well.  The panel provided for an insightful look into the thought process and creative side of these attractions.

Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights Presentation

Finally, a marathon day concluded with a marathon panel--the longest ever in Midsummer Scream history!  For the first time ever, both coasts of Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights joined forces, as Horror Nights Hollywood Creative Director, John Murdy, Horror Nights Hollywood Art Director, Chris Williams, and Universal Orlando Senior Director of Entertainment Creative Development, Mike Aiello came together on stage to discuss behind-the-scenes for Horror Nights inspiration and planning and provided a preview at a couple of eagerly anticipated mazes coming to both coasts' Horror Nights this year.  It was such a momentous occasion that the actual panel blew past its one hour allotted time slot and doubled the originally planned runtime, going two full hours!


After the three hugged it out in an adorable moment upon being introduced onto stage, the self-moderated presentation began simply enough, with Murdy and Aiello clarifying the difference between which Horror Nights Twitter account belonged to which person.  They also provided their personal Twitter accounts, just in case people were randomly curious.  Then came some Twitter-supplied "ice breaker" questions.  Why does Orlando call their experiences "houses" while Hollywood refers to them as "mazes?"  What was each person's favorite maze or haunted house from the opposite event?  What inspired them to their current career path?  How did their careers at Universal progress?  What movies make for good mazes, and what movies which are great as movies might make for terrible mazes?

Each guest recounted his childhood and what interests and motivations led him to his current position today.  For Murdy, it was visiting Universal Studios as a child and becoming enamored with movies.  For Aiello, it was seeing the magic of E.T. in the theaters as a young child, then the horror of Michael Myers in Halloween as a slightly older child.  For Williams, working Horror Nights was more an opportunity that fell into his lap when he was looking for creative work just as Universal Studios Hollywood was relaunching their Horror Nights event. 


Each creator also talked about their favorite maze/house they had designed, and creations that they couldn't believe they designed and in retrospect could not conjure again.  Murdy, being a relatively recent new father, remarked that he could never design the La Llorona maze today, since his perspective as a father would make the child-killing theme of La Llorona very difficult to overlook.  Aiello discussed his involvement with the Nightingales: Blood Prey haunted house, with its severely intense militaristic theme.

From there, the trio ran through each side's approach to working with intellectual properties to design a maze and the design process of creating a maze from concept all the way to finished production.  It was interesting to see where Aiello's team differed from that of Murdy and Williams, but also how often they effectively came up with the same product--if not in detail then at least cadence and major beats.  The group ran through examples from a gamut of Horror Nights mazes and houses through the years, displaying concept art, computer renderings, character sculpts, props fabrication, set dressing, costuming sketches, and special effects studies and designs.

It was an exhaustingly impressive amount of work, even for just one attraction!


The second half of the presentation focused on what fans could expect for 2018.  Both Horror Nights are building mazes to Trick 'R Treat and Stranger Things, and after Horror Nights Orlando debuted Trick 'R Treat as a scare zone last year, Hollywood will be doing the same this year (Murdy let slip, seemingly accidentally).  Although each park is taking a slightly different approach to their mazes, with Hollywood and Orlando differing on the order and content of select scenes, there are understandably a lot of similarities between the versions of each IP.  

Just as they did earlier, Aiello, Murdy, and Williams detailed the process of developing a treatment for the maze, the scenes taken for inspiration and targeted for recreation, and the props and characters and figures to be made to bring the movies to life.  In Trick 'R Treat, for example, the werewolf transformation scene will be derived from the movie but shown in greater, more explicit detail.  Figuring out how to convey this from a maze medium provided a significant challenge!

Creating the ambiance of Stranger Things proved difficult as well.  Simply fabricating the mouth and teeth of the Demogorgon was exhausting, and each park took a different approach to addressing anticipated repairs and replacement of elements such as teeth mid-run.  Seeing how the creators tested and settled on how to bring the Upside Down to life was also interesting.  A mix of video projections, effects lights, and some practical elements will be used to immerse maze guests into this world, and it will hopefully provide an unforgettable moment for fans.  

At 7:00pm, an hour after the scheduled close of Midsummer Scream, the Horror Nights panel finally wrapped up.  Those remaining straggled out of the Grand Ballroom, tired but excited about the upcoming Halloween season.  Before the Universal presentation, the convention producers had once again taken the stage to thank everyone in attendance and express their appreciation.  And the crowd reflected it back.  David, Claire, Rick, Johanna, and Gary poured their energy and souls into crafting the greatest Midsummer Scream yet, and the popularity and massive crowds of the weekend convention is a testament to the success of their hard work.


Midsummer Scream will return to the Long Beach Convention Center next year, on the first weekend of August rather than the last weekend of July.  Chalk it up to how the calendar just happens to shift.  But it was an exciting weekend with so much news and fruitful discussion and great exhibits and reveals.  If only that was the content of Midsummer Scream, it would already be an enjoyable event.  But there was so much more, and we'll get into my personal highlight--the spooky Hall of Shadows mini-haunts area, in our next update!


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