Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA
Happy Shrieky Sunday, folks! We’re continuing on with our Halloween season coverage, and today, we’ve got our first impressions from opening weekend of Knott’s Scary Farm! Headlined by two new mazes and the smash success of the Puppet Up: Uncensored show at the Charles Schulz Theater, the 47th annual Halloween Haunt kicked off this past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with a dazzling line-up of mazes, scare zones, and entertainment that might very well add up the strongest in Knott’s History.
Though there were some operational issues endemic to the nature of the beginning of a season during our visits on the first two days, our overall thoughts on the “Grandaddy of Them All” were thorough amazement and deep appreciation. Once again, Knott’s has shown the haunted attraction field how to marry cohesive storytelling, technical execution, visual excellence, passionate talent, consistent quality, and new innovations.
Its nine mazes all range from solid and beautiful to overwhelmingly stunning, and its four scare zones brim with energy and screams right from the start. After years of inconsistent or limited entertainment line-ups, this year’s shows are bookended by the wildly hysterical and always unique Puppet Up and a solidly proficient Hanging that tie into the Ghost Town mythology woven into the scare zone and the new Origins maze. From the dramatic opening moment that sets the narrative for this year’s event to the last knells of the night, Knott’s has plenty to offer for haunted attraction fans looking for immersive experiences or simply content to people and monster watch.
This year’s Scary Farm brings guests deeper than ever into the event’s Green Witch backstory. The character, who originated from the first, completely serious Hanging event back in 1979, has always been an icon of sorts over the park, but it wasn’t until the 40th Halloween Haunt that she really started to become a PR face for Haunt. With her roaming scare zone squad, the Tricksters, and a dedicated maze that finally ended its run last year, the fiend originally known as Sarah Marshall has been carefully laid as the impetus for why the veil descends over Knott’s Berry Farm ever fall, and horrific and frightening creatures unveil themselves from their deathly slumber to wreck havoc on unsuspecting guests.
Through an inter-related story illustrated in the Ghost Town Streets scare zone, the Origins: The Curse of Calico maze, and The Hanging show, Knott’s has developed their backstory to lay bare just exactly how the Green Witch originally came to this dominion, and how she condemned its citizens to an eternity of supernatural damnation. Uncovering just how that played out this year turned out to be a devilish pleasure that really had us raving about the 2019 Knott’s Scary Farm!
Although Knott’s once boasted up to 13 mazes, in recent years, the park has emphasized quality over quantity. Pushed by a diverse range of professional haunt competitors like Halloween Horror Nights, Dark Harbor, the 17th Door, and many others, Scary Farm has transformed its production to highlight technological advances, incredibly detailed and enveloping sets, and stunning artistry while maintaining its creative and original storytelling, variety in scare design, and a legion of passionate and devoted monsters that balance the line between storytelling and terror delivery.
So where Haunt used to have two or three stellar mazes every year, maybe four average to solid mazes that varied depending on timing of visit and presence of scare actors, and then a few mazes that were consistently sub-par and underwhelming, nowadays, that really isn’t the case. Even middling mazes are strong contenders that would be highlights any other year but fall to the middle simply because they aren’t quite as new. And oh, those new mazes… they are magnificent, and together, they form a potent 1-2 punch… like a baseball team with two elite ace pitchers who anchor the rest of the roster.
This year, the most popular and exciting maze has been the new Origins: The Curse of Calico attraction located in the Wilderness Dance Hall between the Schoolhouse, Boot Hill Cemetery, and Calico River Rapids. This maze, designed and co-produced by Jon Cooke and Plague Productions, is a tribute and love letter to the history of Knott’s Scary Farm, and it mixes in some of Knott’s more recent immersive theater endeavors like Ghost Town Alive! It is, without a doubt, the most incredible maze Plague Productions has ever created, and it is arguably Knott’s Scary Farm’s best maze of all time (this obviously depends on how long one’s been visiting the event, since there have been some truly amazing mazes over the years). Even if it’s not the number one, it’s already established itself as an instant classic by way of how it has put all aspects of a modern Halloween maze together into a brilliant piece of storytelling.
The use of multi-media to narrate the transformation of both Sarah Marshall into the Green Witch and the townspeople of Calico into the horde that haunts Ghost Town Streets today is seamless and excellently done. The lighting, audio tracks, and video effects blend in exceptionally well with the immaculately detailed theming. The sense of placemaking and ambiance is overwhelmingly powerful. The talent is phenomenal. And the references and callbacks… absolutely wonderful for everyone who is a fan of Knott’s and of Haunt. This maze has taken the best aspects of Jon Cooke’s previous Scary Farm mazes—Special Ops: Infected, Paranormal Inc, Shadowlands, Dark Ride, and The Depths, and combined them into an absolute masterpiece.
The other new maze on the block is no slouch either. Daniel Miller’s Wax Works might have initially felt like a mash-up Tooth Fairy and Pinocchio Unstrung when it was first announced, but it is much more than that. It’s really a disturbing art gallery for the creatively and cruelly murderous psychotic with a penchant for DIY organic sculptures.
Located in the backstage area, in the home of Trick or Treat, next to Ghostrider, Wax Works is set in an abandoned wax museum that features the horrific creations of Dr. Augustus Scratch, a disfigured medical professional driven insane by his accident and desperate to showcase his deviant brand of art that no one else seems to understand.
Daniel Miller’s mazes have always been explicitly bloody and gory and incredibly disturbing. His twisted mind is the exact opposite of the genial grandfather his appearance would suggest, but his mazes have always thrilled Scary Farm guests. In Wax Works, though, there’s a level of sophistication that has been elevated from even his best previous works. Wax Works seems to have really unleashed Miller’s full inventiveness and artfulness. The Doctor’s appalling works of human art were all designed by Miller himself, and approaching these models with the mind of an artist who just happens to be unimaginably depraved has lent a gruesome elegance to the entire maze.
That, coupled with its surprising length (Trick or Treat always did feel a bit short, mostly because the warehouse in which it was built was smaller than the other backstage warehouse buildings), makes Wax Works an exceptionally strong maze in and of itself. And though its technical complexity is also high on account of its numerous literal moving parts—the maze opened a little later on Thursday and Friday nights and did go down at some point in the middle of the night on opening night—Wax Works is worth the wait. It is Daniel Miller’s pièce résistance.
Wax Works sets the new generation of the Backstage Four into place, and its neighboring mazes are a vicious combination as well. Last year’s two new mazes, The Depths and Dark Entities, return with new enhancements and the same excellent quality. For The Depths, a new mine elevator scene acts as a half-reshow and also serves as line control to pulse guests through the maze. The staff was still working through the kinks of how many people to best send through at a time, resulting in longer average wait times than last year, but they were making progress as the weekend progressed. Dark Entities features additions lighting and minor scene additions that layer richness to a maze that also features an exceptional cast of ardent and high energy monsters. The Gus Krueger-designed maze is by far his best work, and the maze suffers no signs of any sophomore slump.
Paranormal Inc, now a veteran maze, is still as powerful and chilling as ever. The cast of that maze remains some of the best in the park, doing that location justice to its history and past attraction (it was formerly home to the all-time great, Asylum, and its sequel, Lockdown: Asylum). There are no changes to Paranormal Inc this year after last year’s new and improved ending, but it’s still not a maze to be missed.
Take advantage of early entry through experiences such as the Scary Farm Boofet to hit up the Backstage Four before Knott’s Scary Farm officially opens!
Back up Ghost Town and right across from the exit of Origins is Special Ops: Infected, operating for the final year before its retirement. This maze behind Mystery Lodge continues to be an enjoyable zombie laser tag that happens to also have lower capacity than the other mazes and thus the longest lines. There are two new scenes for the maze’s final year—both fun little adjustments that bring a bit of freshness to the maze. But unless one has a Fright Lane front-of-line pass, this is still a maze that guests should hit up early on in order to avoid waiting a while once the park starts filling up.
Meanwhile, over in the Boardwalk area, across from the Boardwalk BBQ, Dark Ride remains a delightfully complex and layered experience that serves as a tribute to those classic and corny carnival rides of our youth. This maze has also been tweaked this year, with a new control room located near the end of the maze and a hilarious gift shop with a profane souvenir photo display located right at the end of the maze before guests exit. The nostalgia, schizophrenic soundtrack, and dedicated cast of this maze make it another top tier maze for the park.
Over behind Xcelerator, another Jon Cooke maze, Shadowlands, is also in its final year before retirement. Scary Farm’s first Japanese-themed maze continues to be eerily gorgeous, but it’s more creepy than scary, with a finale that is not quite as climactic as previous Cooke mazes. It’s a maze that has run an appropriate course, and we’re definitely excited to see what replaces it next year.
Finally, Daniel Miller’s Pumpkin Eater returns for its third year, over in Camp Snoopy. Much like Dark Ride ties right into the theme and aesthetic of the Boardwalk’s Carnevil scare zone, and Origins now ties into Ghost Town Streets’ story directly, Pumpkin Eater is wrapped with part of the mythology of The Hollow. The maze is unchanged from last year, and it is still a great maze. It’s only because our walkthroughs seemingly happened to coincide with some cast breaks that our experience wasn't quite as grand as some of the first seven mazes. On the other hand, when a maze like Pumpkin Eater—which would have been a #1 maze five years ago—is middle of the pack or even lower in the rankings, this means the overall quality of the Scary Farm maze line-up is pretty dang amazing.
Of course, if guests want to be scared without waiting in line for a sometimes-claustrophobic storytelling experience, there are also the park’s four scare zones: the venerable Ghost Town Streets, the wild Carnevil, the mysterious Hollow, and the moody Forsaken Lake.
Ghost Town is the scare zone that started all and has traditionally harbored the most respected and iconic talent. This year, the theming throughout the land seems a little more amped up, and (at least on weekend one), the lighting and fog seemed extra theatrical. This is great for photographers like myself, who can capture the scare zone in all its glory (especially compared to previous years, when the lighting could be incredibly dim).
Ghost Town also returns some of the most memorable street characters in all of Scary Farm. The Bride is back, of course, seeking souls and chasing startled guests. Otis and Gecko are still terrorizing souls and being a bit antagonistic when they do it. Lovely Lucy and Billy patrol the streets as a pair of Calico’s cursed schoolchildren. Screech, Dr. Death, Slither, Echo, Bo, and Sequel are just some of the ragged beasts who have been transformed by Sarah Marshall’s incantations. Morti, Merrick, and Lucio are some of the lost and mad souls who prowl Ghost Town. Beware of the monstrous version of the spirit of Cordelia Knott and her unnerving human meat pie. And there are countless other monsters who lurk in the fog and the shadows who do an amazing job of eliciting shrieks and screams throughout the night!
There are also characters who play more atmospheric roles as well. The Conductor and an Undertaker are two examples. Souls like these add another layer to the storytelling that Knott’s Scary Farm continues to push and evolve.
The Boardwalk continues to be the zaniest and most entertaining of Scary Farm’s scare zones. There is no cover of fog or dark ambiance or obstructive obstacles to shield the talent. Instead, they rely on two things: being terrorizing and unstable clowns to prey on people’s phobias, and sheer force of personality. Character-wise, the clowns of Carnevil may be the most creative bunch, because they have to. The complete lack of ambiance otherwise (other than the festive Boardwalk vibe at night, and the very enjoyable dark clownish soundtrack) requires them to compensate through their interactions with guests.
Spend some time just watching these interactions. It’s free entertainment. Someone like Threade might be unhinged and stabby stabby. Others might just be psychotic and unstable. Da Twins will simply creep people out with their Shining act. But through the scares also comes hilarity. The clowns are not above mocking people or latching onto the visceral discomfort and playing psychological warfare. The bright lights also enables a lot of chases to occur in a relatively safe manner, and that always results in great laughs from everyone not the victim.
On the visual side of things, HangTime continues to feature a fun lighting package synched to rocking Halloween songs that dazzles and electrifies. It all adds up to a really fun party for everyone involved!
The Hollow was sort of Knott’s first deep dive into connected storytelling across a more expansive and immersive level in Scary Farm’s recent trend of tying different parts of its mythology together, and its continued to excel with a diverse cast of creatures, witches, scarecrows, and faceless men tramping through the woods of Camp Snoopy. This area takes on a much more sinister feel at night, and the use of theatrical lighting and fog creates a simply effective and haunting atmosphere that’s ripe for its monsters to operate in and still allows daytime operations to remain relatively unimpacted by less kid-friendly theming.
The reds and oranges and yellows conjure up imagery of autumn and harvest, and also of fire, which is appropriate, given the Burning of the Wicker Man show that culminates an entire evening of unscheduled mini-shows that narrate the tale of the Witch Hunter and the Three Sisters. This show debuted two years ago and has attracted a nice following of fans, and it’s a great example of the little things that Scary Farm has done to enhance the guest experience and bolster the storytelling.
Of course, the monsters are fantastic as well. Don’t miss Doink and Boomer, two literal trolls who will ambush guests with slides, then mock them with biting words. The numerous scarecrows are always unsettling, while the faceless men are intimidating and barbarous. There is also a morbid menagerie of other creatures that each bring their own flavor to the land, and it’s all absolutely fantastic.
Finally, rounding out the scare zone factory, there is Forsaken Lake. Located around the former Reflection Lake, underneath the shadows of Silver Bullet, Forsaken Lake features more set pieces this year and an expanded footprint for its souls to lurk. The moodiest of all the scare zones, it carries a ghostly and ethereal ambiance, and those cursed specters that wander its grounds seem to be the most dramatic of spirits.
Forsaken Lake also returns its Funeral Procession mini show near the tail end of the night, an ode to the spontaneous tradition that Camp Snoopy monsters did way back in the day when the area was The Gauntlet scare zone. It’s another unscheduled show that promotes the storytelling emphasis that Haunt has taken on in recent years.
Like last year, there are four official shows at Knott’s Scary Farm this year. And they’re even of the same ilk as last year. The Hanging is the traditional pop culture lampoon. Awake the Dead is a dance party in Fiesta Village. Conjurers brings magic and mirth to the Bird Cage Theatre. And there’s even an improv show in the Charles M. Schulz Theater. And with that, one might think that this year’s entertainment line-up is about the same as last year’s.
And that would be a mistake.
Though last year’s Hacks: Cutting Room Floor was an admirable improv show, it was the wrong show in the wrong venue. It had much more success in the small, pent up space of the Bird Cage. This year, however, the improv scene has gone grander with help of Henson Alternative, as Puppet Up: Uncensored has taken over the main theater and produced an immediate hit.
For those who are not familiar, Puppet Up can best be described as inappropriate Muppet improv. Performed in the Henson Studios and in venues all around the world, this show has actually been going on for years. But this is the first time they’ve done a dedicated residency at a specific out-of-house venue.
Much to audiences’ delight, the show has indeed been uncensored. Guests who might have been turned off because the Scary Farm Announcement Event’s exhibition of Puppet Up seemed rather tame need not fear. They definitely drop F-bombs, incorporate inappropriate sexual innuendo, and go to twisted and hilarious places with audience suggestions. And if the first weekend is any indication, the audience is embracing the show and developing a fandom that the talented puppeteers very much deserve.
Highlights from the Thursday and Friday showings that I caught included a tiki bar fire that heavily lampooned Disneyland and Annual Passholders, a mother and son stealing viagra that quickly turned incestuous and almost pornographic, a mountain climbing sketch that almost involved goat fornication, and a James Bond-style musical interlude that featured the villain, chlamydia. If that doesn’t entice you to see what the hubbub is about, I’m not sure what will.
For the first time, The Hanging was tied into the narrative of a scare zone and a maze. Playing off the curse of Sarah Marshall brought to life in the Origins maze and played out in real time on the Ghost Town Streets, this year’s Hanging also continued the apparent odd year trend of providing a cohesive, cogent, focused, and more comedically risky show that had a lot of Disney bashing and some pretty great quips and punchlines (though the Friday early show audience didn’t seem to really react to them as well as I expected).
The show places the timeline in 1899 and highlights a feud between the surviving sisters of the recently executed Sarah Marshall and the town’s Lawman and Hangman. Somehow, contemporary pop culture references are able to appear, thanks to the appearance of Satan, who channels his inner Genie from the outset and crafts a Mephistophelian identity that blends the camp of The Hanging with the kayfabe sinister threat of the story.
While not quite as strong as 2017’s gem (the best Hanging in at least a decade or longer, in my opinion), this year’s Hanging nevertheless delivers a pretty entertaining and cogent presentation, including a twist ending that most people will not see coming until it happens!
Rounding out the entertainment line-up is Conjurers, bringing a line-up of various Magicians to the Bird Cage, and Awake the Dead, the Fiesta Village EDM party. Unfortunately, neither seemed particularly appreciated when I stopped by on Friday night. Awake the Dead was practically empty, perhaps owing to a water spill that made the dance floor slick and full of puddles. Meanwhile, magician Eric Buss seemed to have a hard time getting the late show crowd to react to his wisecracks and illusions. It might have just been chance and timing, though I will say that the magicians from last year seemed to have more complex acts.
Those who love the Halloween Hootenanny overlay on the Log Ride should be pleased to know that its’ back this year. During the day, it’s more family friendly without monsters. By night, the ride get a little bit scarier.
Knott’s Scary Farm has been improving each year for the past multiple years, so it’s no surprise that 2019 has brought another round of success for the event. But I think that this year may be the best yet! The maze line-up is arguably the most comprehensively excellent in history, and the scare zones continue to get grander and better. One might argue that the shows have overall been better in the past (especially when there were five or six diverse shows scattered throughout the park), but The Hanging and Puppet Up have delivered the best headlining entertainment duo in recent memory. That’s my opinion, of course; don’t send me hate mail, Elvira fans!
Of course, there will be nights were things don’t quite go as well as planned. Opening weekend certainly saw its share of operational issues such as down mazes and inconsistent lines. As the season progresses, Friday and especially Saturdays will bring longer waits, more hectic crowds, and greater unpredictability. We always recommend going on a Thursday or Sunday evening if guests can, because even though those are school/work nights, the much lower crowds means that attendees can work through the attractions much more quickly than on a peak night. Of course, if cost is not an issue, get the Fright Lane pass, which provides unlimited front of line access to all mazes and select rides.
Knott’s Scary Farm 2019 is an absolute winner, and the event continues Thursdays through Sundays and Halloween night from next weekend through Saturday, November 2. Purchase tickets at Knott’s.com, and go get your spoopy on asap! You’ll have a ghoulishly good time!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.