Hail and well met, intrepid readers! I can barely make you out through all this fog, but for a moment I thought you were some grisly monstrosity sliding up on all fours to spook me. This edition finds me returning to the granddaddy of all haunts, a place so choked with exhaled fog juice that I’m sure I’ve gone home with my clothes smelling faintly of the stuff for some time after.
It’s hard to picture anything that’s had the longevity of Knott’s Scary Farm, and that’s likely because it is the progenitor of these kind of events. Having started in 1973 and only upping the ante ever since, Knott’s Scary Farm transforms America’s oldest theme park into a dark haunting ground every Halloween season. It’s a first in so many ways, especially for me: I finally faced my inherent aversion to jumpscares in 2013 and crossed the threshold into haunted attractions here; from that night onward I’ve never looked back. It certainly gave me a benchmark for what a quality haunt should look like, and having survived that, made me feel brave enough to visit other events around it, immersing me in even more Halloween goodness.
I will do my best not to be biased, but I’ll be honest right away: Knott’s has consistently been my favorite of all the haunted attractions I’ve visited, and this year (so far) is no exception. I’ve already been multiple nights, and will probably go a few more. It’s hard to top what Scary Farm offers, and the offerings are good this year.
Come nightfall on select nights, Knott’s Berry Farm transforms into a murky landscape that contains nine mazes, four scare zones and several live shows. Consider that many of their rides and roller coasters are open and running during the event and there’s a lot to do here. Thankfully I’ve never found it overwhelming, but knowing what you want to prioritize before you go is definitely helpful, especially if you’re only going one night.
Meanwhile, the Timber Mountain Log Ride gets a Halloween makeover, the Halloween Hootenanny. The Scary Farm version used to have live actors hidden among the animatronics and props, but that hasn’t been the case for the past couple years, most likely due to safety concerns. Still, the ride is fun and the overlay is well-done, intended to be creepy and silly rather than scary since it also runs during the day. You will get wet, so ride at your own risk!
The Scare Zones
Moreso than any other haunt I’ve been to so far, nothing beats Knott’s in terms of its unique scare zones. One thing you will find just about everywhere is atmosphere. As I noted before when I wrote about Dark Harbor, I’m a sucker for anything that keeps a consistent theme and Scary Farm delivers. With the exception of the Dia de Los Muertos-themed dance party in Fiesta Village - which I imagine is a welcome reprieve for some who need a break from the scares - every part of the park is dripping with mood and tension, keeping the tone throughout even as the overall theme changes with each scare zone. Lighting, background ambiance and music, fog (of course there’s fog), spooky decor and, naturally, the prowling street monsters all contribute to the immersion. It does help that Knott’s utilizes the existing themes of its lands and gives them a Halloween overlay, but my hat’s off to them for eschewing the party vibe that Dark Harbor has with its exterior, because this is what I prefer.
The classic Ghost Town Streets is a mainstay of the event and the harbinger of so many haunt firsts that have since spread to other parks across the country, from the area itself to the innovation of “sliders” - monsters that glide across the ground on metal knee and elbow pads and suddenly spring up out of the fog at you. An aspect I really appreciate about this year’s Scary Farm is the commitment to an overarching story, which is something I crave at these events. Tying the Streets, the new Origins maze and Scary Farm’s icon, the Green Witch, all together is the legend of a witch hanging gone awry, leading to the town of Calico being cursed and its citizens transforming into hideous monsters or rising from the grave as wretched ghouls. You’ll find Wild West archetypes roaming the byways of the misty town, each with their own macabre transformation.
Another unique take on a scare zone comes with The Hollow over in Camp Snoopy. Haunted by scarecrows, goblins and shades dressed in Revolutionary War attire, there’s a definite Sleepy Hollow vibe to this area despite the lack of a Headless Horseman (who did occasionally appear in previous years along the Stage Coach trail). What sets this zone apart is the interactive portions, where during the night an ongoing battle between the resident coven and a group of witch hunters hits various story beats and ends with a final confrontation and the burning of a wicker man. Guests can be pulled into this conflict and can play agents for the hunters or the witches, in some cases earning small trinkets for their efforts. While the outcomes of the overall story is the same, it’s genuinely fun to have some face-to-face encounters and to play with these characters.
The newest scare zone, Forsaken Lake, enters its second year with macabre gusto and an expanded footprint. You’ll find a half-flooded cemetery full of Victorian undead and elegant Angels of Death, who every so often congregate into a funeral procession to the tune of “The Hearse Song.” This is a beautifully Gothic area and one with a lot of great talent, standing on its own among its older established peers. Even with no maze in its jurisdiction, its absolutely worth passing through or staying to watch the funeral when it happens. I know I often stop there to pay my respects.
Last but not least, CarnEvil takes over the Boardwalk. It’s all clowns here, and I know a lot of people think scary clowns are a tired attempt at scares, but these clowns are way funnier and more entertaining to watch than any other clowns I’ve seen. Well-lit as the Boardwalk is, they have to work extra hard to get the frights across, and every time I see them they go at it with a mixture of creative aplomb and genuinely funny antics. My hat’s off to them.
There used to be a running joke among older folks I know, people who have attended Scary Farm throughout the years, about the dubious quality of Knott’s mazes. Those days seem to be long gone, no doubt due to Knott’s hoping to keep up with its other theme park competitors, and the quality of the mazes just seems to elevate with each batch of new mazes. And it’s hard to beat the number - 9 in total, with two brand new mazes.
I certainly appreciate the way Knott’s handles its mazes each year, which stick around for 2 to 4 years at most before retiring to make room for something new. This gives them a healthy longevity without them overstaying their welcome, building anticipation for the handful newcomers each season. Interestingly, this is the first year I’ve been to Scary Farm where hasn’t been a maze I went in on my first night in 2013. My personal favorite, Trick or Treat, finally vanished last year after a staggering 7 years running!
As before, I’m running the list of mazes from least to most favorite in my humble opinion.
9. Special Ops: Infected
Now in its confirmed final year, Infected presents a different experience compared to the other mazes. You are given a electronic gun and, in something like a one-sided laser tag, are sent running through a zombie-infested city, shooting at the undead and earning points as you go. You’ll need to stay far enough away from the zombies that you don’t get take damage, and must find the source of the infection after hustling through several ruined buildings, a metro rail and a toxic sewer.
To be honest, this one has never been very high on my list from its inception. I understand the concept of being able to fight back against the monsters is exciting, and the gaming aspect definitely appeals, Infected falls flat for me for a number of reasons. Zombie apocalypse themes are an incredibly dull trope for me at this point, and it doesn’t help that I’m constantly being yelled at to move by Special Ops personnel, never giving me the time to properly take in the frankly impressive set design of the ruined city and the places you battle your way through. If you plan on doing this while at Knott’s, do it early in the night and get it done, because it also backs up very badly as the night goes on.
All of these factors come together to make it a maze I’ve never been a fan of. I’m glad this is retiring so we can see what new innovations take its place.
8. Dark Entities
You are part of a reconnaissance team teleported aboard a derelict starship to find out what happened to the crew. Naturally some alien virus has breached quarantine and is rapidly mutating the surviving life forms on the ship into grotesque abominations. Now your goal is to get back off the ship before you go down with it and its tainted cargo.
While perhaps a little on-the-nose with its homages, being a sci-fi maze with elements evoking Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dark Entities is well-designed and has memorable moments and scares. The gore factor has been turned up in the maze’s second year, with a lot more grisly details around the ship and especially in the medical bay scene, positively dripping with entrails and tendril-infested cadavers. There’s also some very impressive lighting design in Dark Entities that is utilized to give the scenes the feel of a spaceship, particularly in one corridor where a series of traveling, strobing wall lights make it feel like the lift hill in Space Mountain at Disneyland. The only reason this is as low on the list as it is comes less from its presentation and more from my general feelings about this kind of sci-fi horror.
Japanese myths and ghost stories inspire this maze, which is also in its finale year at Scary Farm. In previous years a preshow made the case that you were on the trail of a doomed samurai whose path you followed through a shadowy afterlife, though now its a little less clear, as you simply enter a nighttime forest of hanging corpses and, from there, journey through bleak villages, shrines and temples occupied by various bakemono and evil spirits.
Shadowlands is a beautiful maze, much quieter and more subtly haunting than its neighbors, which makes the sudden scares all the more startling. I’ve really enjoyed this maze through all of its seasons, though I feel its starting to show its age. I hope this kind of low-key eerie atmosphere can be replicated in whatever comes next, because it’s fairly unique and something I feel the event needs to break up the more intense mazes. Still, Shadowlands had a good run, and it will be missed.
6. Pumpkin Eater
Tying in with the story of The Hollow, you enter a Colonial village where the murderous Peter has been wreaking havoc, having killed his wife and buried her remains in his pumpkin patch. Now transformed into a creature for his deeds thanks to the resident coven, Peter continues to haunt the ruins of the village, harvesting pumpkins (and people) to make his pies.
I think this might actually be the creepiest of the mazes. The darkness, surreal atmosphere and amount of hanging stuff you have to push through lend a nightmarish, lurking tension to the experience, and I love it. The Colonial Gothic and Halloween vibes in this maze are strong, the latter being important to me since at least one of the mazes should feel like Halloween. I mean, what other maze has you walk through the cavernous innards of a giant rotting pumpkin, pushing stringy bits and dangling seeds out of the way as jack-o’-lantern-faced horrors lie in wait? Very, very good.
5. Wax Works
One of the two new mazes making its debut this year, Wax Works sends you through a burned-out wax museum where its curator, Dr. Augustus Scratch, has been very busy trying to perfect his wax creations with a little help from the hapless people who enter. Looks like the doctor’s pieces are truer to life than anticipated, since they’re keen on helping him make his masterpiece.
The one of the new mazes for 2019, I was presently surprised with how detailed Wax Works was considering. I’m not sure what I expected, but the execution made it clear to me that this was not just an homage to Vincent Price’s House of Wax. It’s visually impressive, from the facade to the interactive museum displays (there’s buttons you can press in the maze that bring up pre-recorded messages about what you’re seeing - a nice touch, if you’re not too worried about a waxen thing getting all up in your grille), the room with the bees and the inner wax works themselves with the giant cauldrons. It’s grown on me very quickly and I look forward to seeing what little tweaks happen here and there as it settles into its new mold.
4. Paranormal Inc.
Drawing inspiration from those hokey Ghost Hunters-esque reality shows, this maze puts you in the abandoned Hayden Hill Sanitarium for a live taping of Paranormal Inc. An elaborate and impressive preshow sees all Hell literally break loose as the team disturb the spirits of the asylum, forcing you to flee through the dilapidated halls as angry ghosts and demons make their presence known.
As a complete self-contained narrative, Paranormal Inc. is a real feat of haunt storytelling, using its setting, preshow and cues throughout the attraction to help tell the story cleanly and concisely all while managing to pack in branching paths, taking you through different parts of the asylum before meeting up again. It also has a fantastic intense energy to it, making it feel like the finale of a supernatural thriller ala the remake of House on Haunted Hill where the evil is there, present and furious. Furthermore, it has some of the most creative scares of the mazes and an absolutely phenomenal ending that I won’t spoil here (at least, not this year).
3. The Depths
The Night’s Watch mining operation might have dug too deep in the sea caves, because they’ve opened a path to an ancient, aquatic world no surface-dwelling being was meant to know. Eldritch abominations from the darkest oceans lurk here in the meandering tunnels, an ancient temple where you wade through waist-deep “water” (an impressive effect of lasers and fog) and a long-forgotten pirate ship wrapped in the arms of a gigantic octopus.
This maze has been in my Top Three since its debut and has not been shaken yet. Fans of Cthulhu mythos and nautical horror are going to get a kick out of this maze, and seeing as I very much enjoy both, this is a double-win. It’s worth it alone just for the absolutely gorgeous set design, with enough varied rooms and chambers to keep one guessing what sea-based horror they’ll meet next while keeping the path consistent. The aforementioned octopus and swaying shipwreck are major highlights in themselves. I’ll dive back in anytime I can.
2. Dark Ride
The centerpiece of the Boardwalk (and CarnEvil) is the Castle of Chaos dark ride, long abandoned and non-functional. That hasn’t stopped a group of enterprising carnies from setting up shop inside to enact their depraved antics, and they’ve opened the place up so you can walk along its track and through its backstage areas to see what nightmares they’ve cooked up.
Holy Hell do I love this concept. I’m the guy that always hopes that the Haunted Mansion will break down so I have a chance to walk through the ride, and Dark Ride plays that sort of morbid curiosity up, with a healthy bit of evil clowns and circus horror thrown in to keep you on your toes. What impresses me most is how easy it is to suspend disbelief that this isn’t just a temporary seasonal thing, but that you are walking through a real (albeit cheesy) dark ride that’s on the fritz. On top of that, the finale room looks like a total joy to play in if you’re one of the scareactors, as they seem to be able to leap, slide and clamber all over the place thanks to some well-placed ramps and scaffolds. I hope Dark Ride hangs in there as long as possible.
1. Origins: The Curse of Calico
Years ago, Sarah Marshall was dragged to the gallows by the citizens of Calico on suspicion of being a witch. In retaliation, before she cheated death she laid a curse on the town, transforming the townsfolk into beasts and cadavers. This is the story that’s been told for Ghost Town as a scare zone in the past, but this year Origins aims to reveal the whole story and put its visitors in the role of a posses looking for the Green Witch as she sows her wicked magic throughout the damned town.
The other new maze of 2019, and easily the one I was the most excited about, Origins delivers on so many levels it’s not even funny. From the queue line you’re immersed, meeting various non-transformed citizens who help lay out the story and encourage you to help them find the witch, and then on into the maze that I cannot believe they worked into its space in the Wilderness Dance Hall - one scene that has you walking along a dusty covered porch while rain hammers a tin roof above you and drips visibly off into the street, across which stands a saloon where a one-sided gunfight is taking place. It boggles the mind! Not to mention the huge love letter this maze is not only to Ghost Town, but to Scary Farm history as a whole; I mean, you walk through a loose replica of the long-gone Haunted Shack at one point, and there’s a very surprising place for the Catawampus in here.
But really, the care and focus given to the overall unified theme of this maze and Ghost Town is what endears it to me. Knott’s has never shied away from embracing its heritage, and I really enjoy that there seems to be more and more of this mythos-building every year. I hope this trend continues, because Origins is an absolute flavor win and a delight on all fronts, from design to scares. Easily my new favorite.
I tend to prioritize the mazes and zones, but Knott’s as a whole does seasonal live entertainment very well, and Scary Farm is no exception. Their shows tend to have a wackier bent with crude comedy at the heart, so if that’s your thing than you have a couple of places to sit back and cool your heels, maybe get a couple laughs in.
I’m generally not a huge fan of The Hanging, which annually lampoons the events and pop culture of the last year before sentencing the worst offender to the noose, but I can appreciate the effort that goes into it from a performance standpoint, as there’s a lot of stunts and a ton of burst blood packets that go into it. I think I enjoyed it more this year than I have in the past, but that’s not saying much as I don’t get much out of a show that dates itself very quickly. I usually skip this. More power to you if you enjoy it, just not my cup of tea.
New this year is Puppet Up: Uncensored at the Charles M. Schultz theater. I think the improv aspect keeps the show fresh with repeat viewings, and seeing improv done with puppets is something else entirely, showcasing the skill of the puppeteers. Again, the show can get pretty raunchy (it’s called “Uncensored” for a reason), but overall I laughed more than I groaned, so that’s a start. I’d say this is worth a visit if you want to sit down for a bit and see something fun and unique.
Conjuring over at the Birdcage Theater is dependent on who’s performing on a given night. Since it’s a magic show, you’ll want to check the schedule and see which magician has an act at what time. The variety is cool, but I stress once more that your mileage may vary.
My first and still favorite haunt, it’s hard to top Knott’s. They continue to innovate and explore each year, bringing in some new things while improving what’s already been established. It’s really no wonder, since they have a reputation as the birthplace of modern haunts and are quickly approaching their 50-year anniversary. The scare talent is the longstanding strength of Knott’s, both in the mazes and in the zones, and they deserve all the respect in the world for the grueling work they do night-in, night-out. But I also want to stress that the design of the mazes is getting to the point where I feel they can rival and even surpass Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights in some places with the quality. So far Knott’s has been the only event I’ve attended more than two nights in a season, with the season pass offer being well worth picking up if you can get it.
I’ve still got a couple more places to visit and the bar has been set fairly high, but more haunts are a good thing, no matter what their budget. Thank you for reading my fairly robust take on Scary Farm (I promise not to ramble this much about it next time), I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the fog.
Knott’s Scary Farm runs Thursday to Sunday nights throughout October and the first two days of November. More details and tickets can be found here.