Long Beach Convention Center, Long Beach, CA
Welcome to day 2 of our week-long Midsummer Scream coverage. Today, we’re focusing on the numerous panels held during the two day event, spread across multiple stages, featuring deep-dives and announcement from haunts and horror theater productions both big and small!
One could spend the weekend only going to the panels, gaining insight from creators and hearing the latest Halloween season news first, do absolute no other attractions and still not have enough time. Our dip into the panels we checked out is only just a taste of the depth of features one could find at Midsummer Scream. There were the big guns making their usual dazzle dazzle, of course. Knott’s Scary Farm, Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, and Dark Harbor were the stars of the weekend. But longstanding medium sized haunts like Winchester Mystery House and L.A. Haunted Hayride had their packed houses too.
Those interested in hearing the creators’ side of things could duck into talks from JFI Productions, John Braver, some of home haunters at CalHauntS, Plague Productions, and more. Meanwhile, outside of the haunted attraction world, there were some wildly entertaining presentations by celebrities like Charles Phoenix, Christine McConnell and the creators of her quirky Netflix show, and Buzzfeed Unsolved. Looking for nostalgia? Retrospectives on the Haunted Mansion (ahead of its 50th anniversary this Friday) and Tales from the Crypt (celebrating 30 years this year) provided some fun insight and backstories into the creations of both iconic franchises.
There was plenty to check out, so lets jump right into this!
Halloween Horror Nights
We’ll start with the big three haunt names of the weekend. Main eventing Saturday afternoon was the Halloween Horror Nights panel from Universal Studios, which has traditionally provided a wealth of behind-the-scenes information and a couple of new announcements for the upcoming HHN season.
On this day, Creative Director, John Murdy was solo, because Art Director, Chris Williams, was unfortunately ill and unable to attend. Nonetheless, Murdy was able to pack an amazing amount of information and previews in his allotted one-hour time (which was also probably a relief to those who sat through the marathon two hour panel that Horror Nights presented last year to close out the event).
The immediate business was the announcement of another new maze for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. And in keeping with an apparent throwback trend this year, John Murdy, with the help of Greg Nicotero via recorded video, revealed that Creepshow would be making its HHN debut this year! The sixth announced new maze so far, this maze would be devoted to the 1982 cult hit and the new television series debuting later this year on Shudder.
The maze will take guests through five chapters in the anthology-based series, with the first three coming from the movie and the last two coming from the new show:
“Father’s Day” – Years ago Nathan Grantham, the cruel patriarch of the wealthy Grantham family, was murdered by his long-suffering daughter on Father’s Day. Now Nathan’s maggot-infested corpse has risen from the grave to take revenge on his inheritors…and finally claim his Father’s Day cake.
“The Crate” – An unlucky janitor finds a long-forgotten shipping crate under the stairs of a science hall in a small east coast college. Little does he know, the crate contains a ravenous beast that’s been hibernating for over a hundred years…and it’s just woken up.
“They’re Creeping Up On You” – Eccentric billionaire Upson Pratt lives in a hermetically sealed “germ proof” penthouse apartment in Manhattan but he still has a bug problem. When a citywide blackout cuts his power, Mr. Pratt’s pest problem is about to get a whole lot worse.
“Gray Matter” – Ritchie Grenadine, an alcoholic former factory worker, unknowingly ingests a strange mutagen after guzzling a can of cheap beer. Now an alien fungus has taken over his rundown apartment and his body…creating in him an insatiable hunger that can’t be quenched by his favorite ale.
“Bad Wolf Down” – The surviving members of a decimated American army platoon in the North of France during World War II are holed up in a small village jail awaiting the German army to overwhelm them. The clever lot, however, have an ace up their sleeve that the German’s won’t expect; the men are all werewolves and tonight is a full moon.
Working with Greg Nicotero, perhaps better known to modern audiences as the executive producer of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and bringing this franchise to life was an honor for Murdy. This was considered one of Murdy’s bucket list properties that he had always dreamed of bringing to Horror Nights, and the resulting maze will marry the comic book aesthetic and episodic nature of Creepshow to bring thrills and chills to the audience.
John Murdy brought plenty of artwork and costume mock-ups to share with the audience, giving guests an almost overwhelming about of knowledge into the effort it takes to create even just one maze. Conceptual writing treatment from Murdy is turned into sketches from Chris Williams that gets refined into set drawings and elevations—all done by hand! This is eventually converted into models for the maze set design and construction and into molds and physical models for masks and costumes.
Creepshow will be located in the Metro Lot, in the triangular plot of land to the right of the main entryway, where Horrors of Blumhouse: Chapter 2 was last year, and American Horror Story was the year before.
Beyond the focus on the new maze announcement, John Murdy also went into the ideas behind the Holidays in Hell maze that will be located adjacent to Universal Plaza, where Universal Monsters was last year. This maze, spurred by the massive popularity of last year’s Holidayz in Hell scare zone in the Metro Lot, is inspired by those creepy vintage postcards that always seemed a little unnerving to Murdy. Each holiday features its own time period and aesthetic, from New Years in 1929 to creepy classic Peter Rabbit-gone wrong Easter to explosive and limb-mutilating 4th of July to Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving—except the turkeys exact their revenge on the humans and reverse the roles. All of this leads into Christmas and a reimagining of the original cult-hit scare zone-spawning-a-maze, Dark Christmas. Although the execution of Horror Nights mazes often results in one-dimensional scares and repetitive startle tactics, there is no denying that the breadth of the design work and artistry is absolutely stunning and in-depth and quite extravagant!
The HHN panel also presented an abundance of information on the scare zones coming to this year’s Halloween Horror Nights. In paralleling the art-centric concentration of this panel, Murdy provided plenty of conceptual art, sketches, fake posters, inspiration pieces, and in-process character costumes and masks to show the Horror Nights fans. The incredible amount of work and the detail and quality for each was incredibly impressive.
Guests entering Horror Nights this year will have to pass through the Fallen Angelz, so-named with a Z because Murdy just liked to piss fans off. All joking aside, it’s actually to secure copyrights for Universal. But Murdy’s official story was to anger that one Twitter fan who always hates the Z’s.
The primary scare zone in the center of the park, across from Universal Plaza and in Universal Studio’s Streets of New York area, will be Beasts and Demons of the Far East. For the first time, Murdy and Co. are crafting a scare zone based on the mythology and superstitions of East Asian legend, mixing Chinese and Japanese creatures and lore to inspire some revoltingly fantastic designs. There will also be more stilt walkers than ever, include a four-legged ghoul.
Guests exiting Holidayz in Hell will merge into a one-directional scare zone named Christmas in Hell in the park’s French Quarter area. This is similar to how Universal Monsters concluded last year, and the continuation will recall echoes of HHN’s Dark Christmas scare zone from prior years.
Down in the lower lot area, Toxxxic Tunnel will once again connect pedestrians between the Lower Lot and Metro lots. It’s a tunnel, and Murdy acknowledged that there was only so much one could do here. This year, the Tunnel will feature 3 X’s, which some may find titillating, as well as a hot rod mechanics theme. The creature design will imagine that mid-century greaser role, except horrifically disfigured and mutilated.
Finally, in the Metro Lot, All Hallow’s Evil serves as the gauntlet scare zone for guests headed toward the three mazes in that area (the aforementioned Creep Show, plus Ghostbusters and Universal Monsters: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman). This brings an Irish-inspired interpretation of Halloween and the festival of Samhain (apparently properly pronounced more like “salm” instead of “sam-hane”). Pagan witches, druids, a wending scarecrow and a crow monster are among the terrifying monsters who will stalk guests. Love this sort of Paganism? Horror Nights will be the place for you!
Want to relive the Horror Nights presentation? Check out this video of the whole thing, thanks to our friends at Park Journey!
The folks from the Queen Mary have always put on the most entertaining panel at Midsummer Scream, and this tradition continued this year with by far the most raucous and wild panel of the weekend—one that constantly poked through the fourth wall and also developed into a plug for the new Florida haunted attraction being put on by the same production crew of Dark Harbor, Dark Horizons!
Emceed by The Captain, the Dark Harbor Panel was initially interrupted by Marty Roberts cleverly plugging his seance events this fall at Dark Harbor. Once that was aside, The Captain used some Game of Thrones comparisons to welcome Dark Harbor Executive Producer, Steve Sheldon; Executive Producer, Charity Hill; Production Designer, John Cooke; Technical Director, Adam Conger; and Talent Director, David Wally. The antagonizing was at a high level this year (“You really wrote me as a dick this year, didn’t you?” the Captain asked at one point), but the fun part was trying to figure out which parts were on-script and which of the Captain’s witty and sharp-tongued lines were off-script.
Once the pleasantries (if one might call them that) were dispensed, the panel quickly jumped into what was coming to Dark Harbor this year. First off, the non-maze things:
There will be more bars than ever (surprise surprise). Unlucky number 13, in fact!
2 maze bars: the Seance Lounge and the Broken Compass
4 secret bars: The Line-Up, Sideshow, Fathom 6, and Overboard
7 themed bars: Gallows, The Last Drop Pub, Barrell Room, Rusty Nail, Carousel Bar, Crime Scene, and RIP Lounge
One of the hidden bars, Fathom 6, will take guests down to the deepest depths of the ship, never before allowed to public entry, all the way into the Queen Mary’s engine room!
Entertainment will include the fire performance, sideshow acts, aerial ring performances in front of the Rusty Nail this year, and the return of the ever-popular Slider Olympics by the Dark Harbor sliders.
But guests were mostly here to learn about the mazes this year, and to that end, Dark Harbor announced five returning (but modified) mazes plus one brand new maze!
Feast, featuring Chef, will feature more crawl spaces, a new ending, take guests through the actual Door 13 that inspired the legend of Half-Hatch Henry, and feature the Broken Compass maze bar. Plague Productions has taken the layout into newer and more sprawling lengths this year, although poor Half-Hatch Henry continues to be the least featured of all the Dark Harbor icons, moving from the Deadrise maze to this one.
Circus, featuring the Ringmaster, will feature a new layout, alternate paths to confuse and confound, and more interaction with the zany inhabitants within. Last year, Circus was reimagined as an experience of guests stumbling upon a haunted Bohemian carnival camp, and this year’s iteration takes that story deeper.
Intrepid, featuring the Ironmaster, was the comeback hit of last year, with a huge improvement put forth by Jon Cooke and his team, and will feature more enhancements on the back half of the maze, including enhanced scares and more development of the bog and crypt areas.
B340, featuring Samuel the Savage, was absolutely terrific in its first half, but its second half saw the limitations of time, as the story sort of fizzled out. This year, the reimagined crazier serial murder story with a film noir twist will feature a new ending that carries the intense story through, and of course, more blood and guts than ever.
Lullaby, featuring Scary Mary, is being transformed into a prequel story this year, with a reversed layout and a focus on Scary Mary when she was alive and the secretly horrific acts she committed. The highlight of the maze will allow guests to enter a recreation of the swimming pool scene where she drowned, and with guest going “into” the pool themselves!
Rogue, featuring a younger version of The Captain, replaces Deadrise this year and feature a truly ambitious ambiance. Set aboard the Grey Ghost as it was transporting troops across the Atlantic, this maze tells the true story of a rogue wave that nearly capsized the ship—an act that could have changed the course of World War II. Guests will wander through a maze that is entirely off-kilter, housed within a domed set that will utilize projection technology and special effects to recreate the notion of the ship listing side to side and angling through the stormy seas. At one point, the waters will actually flip the ship! It should be interesting to see how this gets pulled off, but given Plague Production’s embrace of technology in the mazes the team creates, this promises to be spectacular!
Needless to say, the announcement that Deadrise would not be returning brought shock to the audience, not to mention dismay and anger to the Captain. David Wally even had to separate the Captain from a near physical attack on Adam Conger, all while Scary Mary merrily laughed and clapped in glee at the impending violence. Fortunately, Jon Cooke was able to sell the panel emcee on the new changes, earning him a secret bar tokens that was promptly tossed into the crowd.
As the mood settled down, however, the Voodoo Priestess made a dramatic appearance, rechristening her self as Mambo Cécile, and steering the panel to its second half and a dramatic announcement for those who missed the official press release from a few weeks ago. To the audience’s disappointment, the Voodoo Priestess announced that she would only be at Dark Harbor during its first weekend. Afterwards, she would be taking her some of her fire troupe to Orlando, to help headline the new Dark Horizons haunt coming to the Sunshine State. Much to the crowd’s discouragement, she asked the Captain to join her.
As the Captain pondered the offer, the team announced the three mazes coming to Dark Horizons:
Vodou, featuring Mambo Cécile, will feature an island village, loa spirits, and a trip to the underworld as it explores the Haitian ritual and mythology. Themes of ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism pervade through the maze, which should be right at home in the humid Florida night.
Murder Island, featuring Bloody Watson, hinges on Florida’s first serial killer, a sugar cane plantation owner who employed workers on his farm but killed them at the end of the season and fed them to his gators rather than pay them their fair share. Plenty of vicious man-eating creatures feature to star in this macabre maze.
Ghostship, featuring Lady Mary Killigrew, the most famous female pirate in history, completes the trio. The maze takes guests through her pirate ship, into secret passages, shark infested waters, and heinous crewman infected with flesh-eating bacteria and botulism!
The last announcement brought out Lady Mary Killigrew herself. A high class lady born into privilege, she lived a double life as a pirate when her husband was away on business. And her charismatic introduction brought her into conflict with Mambo Cécile when she nominated herself as the ringmaster, er, ringleader of the Florida trio. All the while, the Captain could only look on in confusion as he tried to figure out the differences between the two events (DHa vs DHo—though a suggestion of DHor was quickly self-nixed) and how the creative team of Dark Harbor and Plague Productions could also work on and oversee Dark Horizons.
As Mambo Cécile, Lady Mary, and Charity Hill each responded, “I am woman. I can multitask.” The feminist rallying cry brought a rancorous conclusion to a most excitingly entertaining panel.
Thanks to Fractured Compass Productions for their recording of the full presentation, which was an absolute riot!
Knott’s Scary Farm
The originator of the Halloween event, Knott’s Scary Farm, closed out Midsummer Scream in the Sunday headlining position. Although there weren’t any major announcements this time around (those will come at the Knott’s Scary Farm Announcement Event on Thursday, August 29th), Knott’s Vice President of Entertainment, Ken Parks; Live Entertainment Producer, Eric Nix; Creative Designers, Jon Cooke and Jon Asperin; and Audio Designer, Dan Bieranowski joined moderator Jeff Tucker in going through a couple of deep dives on the Dark Ride and Special Ops: Infected mazes.
On the news front, Knott’s confirmed that Dark Ride and Special Ops: Infected would be returning this year. This wasn’t much of a surprise, but this year was also confirmed to be the final year for Infected. In addition, Knott’s Scary Farm is starting up a commemorative pin line for its most iconic mazes that will fit into a collector’s “grave yard” display pad—all fun mementos for Haunt fans.
With that done, the team focused first on the inner workings of designing and bringing back Dark Ride, including new additions this year to plus and accent the popular maze. New this year will be a Surveillance Room and a Gift Shop. The first will feature some interactive Easter eggs that guests can trigger if pushing the right button or switch, plus a surprise scare or two. the latter will bring a more cohesive ending to the maze after the big finale room, bridging the maze and the outside park space together.
In their amusingly redacted slides, Knott’s did their best William Barr impersonations and showcased sketches, design axonometrics, inspiration artwork, and character treatments for these spaces. “Smiley Sam” and “Baby Fool” are two monsters that guests will encounter in Dark Ride. The panel also gave Dan Bieranowski a chance to show some behind-the-scenes of the intricate audio mixing for the soundtracks and sound effects that help unify each maze together. Dark Ride, in particular, is known for its dueling overlay tracks—one that plays while guests are wandering through the actual ride itself, and a broken version when guests are “backstage.” The countless audio tracks that merge together are all produced from scratch, and they’re a showcase of Knott’s increasing sophistication in the ever-competitive haunted attraction design world!
For Special Ops: Infected, the team went through the long history of this attraction, starting with its initial and controversial takeover of Camp Snoopy for a few years, before moving over to the area behind Mystery Lodge for its current location. Designers Jon Cooke and Jon Aspirin are fanboys at heart, and they cited influences like The Goonies and Dawn of the Dead and Call of Duty and Contra as contributing factors to the original interactive scare zone and later maze. The technology in the laser guns also evolved as the attraction did, innovating new infrared techniques to increase gameplay and reliability.
The final year of Infected will feature the transformation of the department store scene into a more intimate Calico Convenience Store (yes this maze takes place in a modern-day city of Calico; who realized that?) and a meat packing house scene. The latter will bring the zombie horde intensity into a much more intimate setting, dividing each group into two and sending them on two parallel tracks for a brief period of time. As with Dark Ride, a couple of new monster designs were unveiled. These little additions should make for an explosive final year for this infamous maze!
Video of the Knott’s Scary Farm presentation from Park Journey.
Winchester Mystery House
Winchester Mystery House has been a part of the first three years of Midsummer Scream, and year 4 was no different, as General Manager, Walter Magnuson and Donovan Friedman of newly brought-on production group Theme Dream Productions took the floor at the Second Stage on Sunday noon to talk about the new changes coming to the Winchester Mystery House this fall.
The first half of the brisk, half hour presentation included a recap of some of the recent additions to the house, serving as a promotion to those who may not be as familiar with the venerable San Jose institution. The redesigned House Tour, the Explore More Tour, a summer seance series with Aiden Sinclair (who also has a residence at the Queen Mary), and a new axe throwing attraction are among some of the recent additions. Afterward, it was over to Donovan Friedman to discuss Unhinged, the new attraction coming this Halloween season to the Winchester Mystery House.
Unlike the Hallowe’en Candlelight Tours of past seasons, which featured a guided tour and a moody but generally quietly gothic experience, Unhinged will be a more intense, “hard scare” event featuring live actors and immersive experiences. The attraction will feature a new and more convoluted route through the house than ever before, including passage through several rooms not stepped through by the public before. The event still aims to retain the creepy and ghostly vibe of what is one of the most haunted locations in the country, and as such, there will not be blood and gore. But this suspenseful paranormal thriller promises to feel more like an active, traditional haunted house experience than prior years. No word yet on what the storyline will be, though.
Outside the house, there will be a nighttime show of sorts for the first time in Winchester history. The House has enlisted the services of Philippe Bergeron of PaintScaping to create a 3D projection mapping show that will run every half hour starting at 7:30 on the house’s iconic facade. Featuring skulls, lighting effects, fire, and earthquake scenes, the animated show will provide a bit of entertainment for those waiting around the house for their turn to enter Unhinged.
Also announced was a collaborative effort with Christine McConnell, who will create an edible version of the Winchester Mystery House to be on display at the house from September 6 through October 31st. Given McConnell’s talent in the kitchen, this should be a delightful treat!
Los Angeles Haunted Hayride
Longer readers might remember a couple of years, ago, when we reviewed Dark Harbor, and noted that while the event is still fun, it could use an infusion of creative energy and an increase in detail and quality, since the event had started to grow a little stale. As though in response, the following year, the event operators hired then-newly free agented Jon Cooke to provide that injection of a fresh creative look, and the result was a well-improved and more impressive event last year.
Our visit to the L.A. Haunted Hayride last year also resulted in a comment that the event could use a reboot of original content, since it had definitely gotten a little stale in its offerings and execution. As it turned out, the Hayride was purchased by Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group, a conglomerate that operates multiple haunted attractions, hayrides, and escape rooms across the country, prior to the fall of last year. The transaction occurred much too close to the event to impart any actual change, so the new owners simply sat back, observed, took notes, and… promptly hired Jon Cooke and Plague Productions to reimagine the event this year.
Yes, the L.A. Haunted Hayride is getting a completely brand new look this year, with 100% new sets and maze production, and a new storyline and all-encompassing theme. A packed house in the Second Stage (perhaps spurred by the recognition of Plague Productions, or perhaps bribed by the offer of a free general admission ticket to the event for those sticking around through the end) offered a full audience to the speakers of this panel, which featured representatives from the Hayride, Thirteenth Floor Entertainment, and Plague Productions.
Guests visiting the Old Zoo in Griffith Park this year will be welcomed to the town of Midnight Falls. As the 80’s seem to be all the rage right now, the year is, appropriately 1985, and guests are visiting on the night Midnight Falls’ annual Halloween festival. Beneath the innocent and whimsical facade, however, lies some dark and twisted secrets. So it will be no surprise to find that horror will descend upon Midnight Falls.
This year, Town Square will be the hub of activity, serving as a more cohesive scare zone and offering guests the chance to interact with the town’s more… colorful characters. Midsummer Scream’s exhibition floor featured a sprawling photo op set from Midnight Falls featuring a gas station and radio station and fair feel to it, and if that is indicative of the quality to expect at the Hayride this year, it should be a very exciting season to come.
The line-up quantity will be the same. The Hayride remains the star attraction, and it will tie into the Midnight Falls storyline (clues of what guests may expect are broadcasted over a radio transmission that will play at various places throughout the venue). Meanwhile, the event will retain its ever-popular Trick or Treat maze but construct brand new sets for the setting. Up on the hill in the opposite end, Midnight Mortuary will serve as the second maze. Owned and operated by a strange family in town, this facility houses some deep and dark secrets that may be responsible for the terrors that strike Midnight Falls. Sinister Pointe will be helping and assisting in this haunted house attraction, offering a cool partnership.
A decade in, the L.A. Haunted Hayride has reinvented itself with new ownership, a new story, and a new ambiance. It’s immediately launched itself back to the top of the most anticipated Halloween attractions this season, and it should be fun too see how it all shakes out!
Check out the full presentation thanks to, once again, Park Journey.
30 Years of Tales from the Crypt
The first Grand Ballroom presentation on Sunday featured a behind-the-scenes retrospective of one of the enduring and campy horror series in popular culture, Tales from the Crypt, a show that captivated plenty of young horror fans—this writer included.
Featuring actor John Kassir, the famed voice of the Cryptkeeper; special effects supervisor, Richard Edlund; filmmaker, Ernest R. Dickerson; director, William Malone; and production designer, Gregory Melton, this panel, moderated by post-production supervisor, Robert Parigi, featured a fun look at the genesis, set design, and storytelling behind the popular television show.
Some of stories told were quite entertaining, including Kassir’s recounting of trying out for the role and his evolution of the character, which was actually initially limited by the technology used in creating the puppet, then grew to be sharper tongued and quick witted as the design evolved to allow for faster-moving components. The change from a more serious horror host to a more beloved and sarcastic personality also helped endear the icon into horror history.
The Curious Creators of Christine McConnell’s Show
Many people who didn’t already know her from her fantastical creations featured on her Instagram were introduced to the talented stylist/photographer/baker/general creative, Christine McConnell, via her Netflix show, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, a straight-faced dark comedy featuring the help of some perverse Muppet co-stars from the Jim Henson Company .
Joined by Colleen Smith (Rose and Cousin Evie on the show), Darcy Prevost (set designer), MIck Ignis (Edgar, suit performer), Michael Oosteron (Rankle), and moderated by co-creator and executive producer, Kirk Thatcher, Christine took part in an hour-long discussion in the Grand Ballroom of the stories and behind-the-scenes of her popular series.
The actors and puppeteers on this show all hail from the Jim Henson Company, and though many many associate the group with the family-friendly innocence of the Muppets and Sesame Street, they also have participated in more mature productions such as The Happytime Murders and the improv hit Puppet Up series.
It was fascinating to see the character design, sketches, and fabrication, and the layering of details to transform skeletal puppets into the fully-formed puppeteered characters on the show. The set production of the house and the creative process behind Christine’s inspirational sketches and the remarkably matching final sets was also fantastic to witness. In between clips from the show and snippets of tales about writing changes and character development and the cohesive work that everyone poured into the show, the panel was a great glimpse into the technical challenges of a most unconventional program!
Here’s a look at the entire panel.
Charles Phoenix: Halloweenland
Charles Phoenix is known for his kitschy love of all things Americana, and his Midsummer Scream panel was an energetic, rapid fire, non-stop, riotously hilarious showcase of weird creations—not always related to Halloween! Rocking a loud, orange suit (not as loud as Jon Cooke at the Knott’s Scary Farm Announcement Event two years ago, though), Phoenix brought his brand of humorous commentary to the Grand Ballroom audience on Sunday afternoon. From curious food creations to holiday theming gone wrong, Phoenix kept the audience in stitches with one zinger after another. And if guests didn’t carry anything else with them, at least they learned how to make a most disturbing “rat” meatloaf for Halloween this year!
Buzzfeed Unsolved with Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej
Although the big haunts bring the largest crowds at Midsummer Scream, Buzzfeed Unsolved’s panel has been inviting huge throngs of eager fans as well. This past Saturday was no different. Ryan and Shane regaled the audience with stories of their investigations, layering in wit and humor to bring a twisted sense to their adventures. Revisiting some of their past episodes, Ryan and Shane shared insights and stories behind the scenes of their experiences. The audience was kept laughing throughout the panel as Ryan and Shane delighted the crowds with their captivating tales.
Here’s a video of the full panel.
From Creep to The Willows and Beyond: JFI Productions
Just Fix It Productions is renown in the immersive theater community for their lavish and eerie productions, such as their Creep series and the recently-wrapped The Willows. Mike Fountaine and Russell Eaton of the My Haunt Life podcast hosted Justin Fix (founder), Daniel Montgomery (Writer/Artistic Director), David Ruzicka (Artistic Director) and Stephanie Turek (Creative Supervisor/Choreographer) on a talk of how the company puts their productions together, the inspirations for the stories being told, and what to expect next.
Westcoaster has loved its Creep visits the past two years, so it was definitely a treat to gain some insight behind how these shows are put together. In addition to the discussions of their theater challenges and successes, the panel also announced that The Willows is coming to a VR platform, to be consumed by the general public! It was great news for those who haven’t been able to make this ambitious and ever-unique production.
World Building: Creating Alternate Realities and Immersive Experiences
Those who wanted to learn more about the immersive theater industry and how to become creators themselves did well to attend the World Building panel, hosted on Sunday afternoon on the Second Stage. Featuring big names in the Southern California immersive theater scene such as Jon Braver (Delusion), Justin Fix (Creep and The Willows), Bonnie Hallman (Mycotoo and contributor to Dark Harbor, Horror Made Here, and the Westworld and Game of Thrones activations at South by Southwest), and Aaron Keeling (The House on Pine Street).
This panel was focused on how start up and craft such productions. Challenges such as the business side of things and the day-to-day operations were less discussed. Instead, the talk centered moron the creative and artistic side of the craft, and how to harness ideas and energy into launching an experience or production. It was great having such brilliant minds share their wisdom and advice for aspiring creators in the audience!
Tales From the Fog Podcast: So, You Want to be a Haunter? featuring CalHauntS
Aside from the formal panel stages, guests could glean knowledge from haunters at some of talks taking place in the Podcast Stage on the second floor of the Convention Center. Our friends from Tales from the Fog podcast (highly recommended for some great conversations and stories with some great minds in the haunt industry) had a chance to interview some prominent members of CalHaunts on Saturday. Diane and Preston Meyer from Rotten Apple 907, Greg Packard of Restless Souls Manor, and several other members of CalHauntS shared their knowledge and experience in crafting home haunts and even some professional haunted attractions to audience members interested and inspired to create their own.
CalHauntS is a group of Halloween enthusiasts who meet monthly to discuss prop making, set creating, and general tips and tricks on the various elements of producing a haunt. Featuring members with haunts throughout Southern California, it has been a decades-long resource and family of passionate and energetic creators of amateur haunted houses, but don’t think they’re not resourceful. Many CalHauntS members have been responsible for some of the most impressive haunted attractions in the area, with quality that competes and sometimes surpasses the professionals.
As such, it was tremendously valuable to hear their stories and their advice for those who want to get into the craft but lack experience or wherewithal on how to start. From sharing tips on cheap and simple props that get the most scare effect for the buck to history on the development of their own haunts to inspirations and idea collection, this podcast session was a wealth of knowledge!
Parks and Cons Podcast: Plague Productions
Shawn and Carmelle of Parks and Cons kicked off a Gold Bat exclusive on Sunday morning with an iteration of their popular podcast interviewing Jon Cooke and Ted Dougherty of Plague Productions. This was actually the first of four appointments that Jon Cooke had on this day (the remaining three we’ve already covered), so it was quite a busy day for the former Scary Farm designer.
The quartet discussed how Plague Productions has fared since Cooke branched out on his own. It was interesting, for example, to learn the facets of how Ted handle the story-writing and conceptual creative side of things, which has allowed Jon to focus more on the execution, technical, and production side of the business. The pair shared lessons that they’ve picked up in their endeavors together so far, such as their realization that handling the operations of a haunted attraction was not their forte. Hence, their sale of Murder Co. to an interested buyer.
Plague Productions has also grown rapidly the past two years, as the outfit has picked up more and more projects. This year alone, they are supporting big names like Knott’s Scary Farm, Dark Harbor, Dark Horizons, the L.A. Haunted Hayride, and several independent creations around the country and internationally. Ted and Jon also touched on the challenges of maintaining work and business over such growth. Ultimately, it was a nice talk from two minds behind the company that appears to be taking over all the big haunted attraction names in Southern California!
A Chilling Legacy: 50 Years of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion
Our final panel was actually one of the first of the event—the 50th Anniversary retrospective on the Haunted Mansion. Disneyland’s home of 999 happy haunts turns 50 this Friday, and Midsummer Scream brought one some huge names in Disney Imagineering lore to talk about various aspects in the creation of the ride and its evolution in subsequent versions around the globe.
Before the panel officially kicked off, the audience was serenaded by the velvety voices of Bank of Harmony, a barbershop quartet that crooned a “Grim Grinning Ghosts” rendition that delighted the crowd. These gentlemen also performed at the night’s Ghostly Gala afterparty and provided a fantastic a cappella performance.
Once that was done, Imagineering legends Bob Gurr, Tony Baxter, and Tania Norris joined Don Hahn, producer of Disney’s animated The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast (and also the live action Haunted Mansion movie, which everyone openly acknowledged fell short of expectations) and Tom Morris, former creative executive at WDI, in a panel that only had one hour to tell their stories but could have been equally interesting over multiple hours. Moderated by Doug Barnes of The Season Pass podcast, the presentation focused around stories that each member had to tell. There weren’t elaborate slides or exclusive photos. Just experiences that each person had in relationship with the Haunted Mansion.
Bob Gurr kicked things off by noting how the Omnimover—popularly credited with being invented for the Haunted Mansion—was actually created for Adventures into Inner Space and co-opted into the evolved version of the Haunted Mansion after the walk-through version was nixed. Disney’s legend of all things moving vehicles also joked about how Disney officials quickly discovered the alternate use for an Omnimover on Disney rides, much to the audience’s chuckle.
Tony Baxter recounted his early days as a Disneyland employee, including sneaking into the ride to just take it in during his breaks. Fortunately, getting caught by security didn’t put a damper on his Disney career, as Baxter was able to eventually move on to create Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, a decidedly different take on the Haunted Mansion. In describing the attractions overall consistently macabre mood, Baxter explained that while the French love horror, and they also like comedy, did not appreciate horror mixed with comedy (representative of the two halves of the original Haunted Mansion, with Marc Davis’ free-spirited and light-hearted adventure and Claude Coats’ moodier, more sinister vibe). As a result, the gothic side won out, resulting in Phantom Manor’s more sinister ambiance.
Tom Morris shared a wealth of old photos and research he had worked on for the ride. Apparently, one of the earlier iterations of the walk-through had twin identical experiences, one on each half of the Mansion, with exits into identical graveyards. One of them became the one that guests queue through today, and the other side would have landed on the Splash Mountain territory. And apparently, the real reason for why the Haunted Mansion show building was constructed and stood unoccupied for years before the actual attraction was installed an opened may have been simply because the designer of the building used sheer force of will to get the structure built, so that it could be featured.
The most touching stories, however, came from Tania Norris, who actually had a considerable amount of mic time to talk about her experience as a young interior decorator just a few years removed from arriving in America from Europe, ushered into working for one of the most iconic men of his time. A few days prior to interviewing, she visited Disneyland as a guest so that she could say that she did. And fortunately, she nailed that interview.
Norris was responsible for a lot of the furnishings, the original iconic wallpaper, and the interior aesthetic of the house. And although a lot of her contributions to the house have been changed or even replaced over the years (something that she reminisced upon with an air of nostalgia, though not overtly negatively), she was pleased at the overall general attention to story to drive the evolution of the ride. Recounting how Walt Disney generously treated her was also a heart-warming account. And just recently, she visited the park again, fifty years after her first visit, for apparently the first time in many, many years, and greatly enjoyed her time.
There could have been so much more tales to recount, but the panel was limited to only one hour. What a gift that hour was!
Take a look at the entire presentation from our friends at Parks and Cons.
That wraps up this VERY comprehensive look at just some of the many panels that took place this past weekend at the fourth annual Midsummer Scream. We’ll continue later this week with a look at the Hall of Shadows, the entertainment, people, and exhibition floor. If you can’t tell already, there is an avalanche of things to see at Midsummer Scream, making it the perfect kick-off for the Halloween season. If you’ve never been before, mark your calendars for August 1st and 2nd of next year, and go check it out!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.