Knott's Scary Farm pushes themselves to dominate Halloween theme park game!

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After 41 years, it would be easy to forgive Knott’s Scary Farm if they decided to coast on a proven formula.  After all, if it’s not broken, why fix it?  Well, not only is Knott’s not coasting, they have once again pushed themselves to domination in the Halloween theme park game.  There were a few years where the event was becoming stale, the mazes cheap and the shows tacky.  But recently, Knott’s began a sort of Halloween renaissance, experimenting and evolving this already successful event into something terrifyingly progressive.

Granted, experimentation is not always successful, and there are a few flaws this year.  Taken as a whole, however, this is hands down the Halloween event of the year.  The mazes are genuinely scary, dripping with atmosphere and narrative momentum to keep participants feeling as if they are living through the reality of the experience.  Unlike other parks, none of the mazes are designed to promote a pre-existing intellectual property, but rather to transport guests into a new reality of fear.

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The most interesting development of the event is something called the Skeleton Key.  It does cost a little extra, but it’s definitely worth it.  With this key, not only do you get to skip the sure-to-be long lines, but you get an additional, personal experience.  Of the eight mazes, five of them have Skeleton Key access.  Before starting the maze, you are taken into a room to participate in some piece of backstory that is not only terrifying in it’s own right, but will provide a greater context for the maze itself.  This one-on-one encounter elevates the maze beyond a simple walk-through into something far more memorable.  Some have elaborate special effects and set pieces, some are predicated on the actor’s performance, and some utilize both.  While they aren’t all necessarily scary, they’re definitely unnerving and fascinating pieces of performance art.

The other new development is incredibly ambitious, but still very rough.  Unlike the Skeleton Key, Special Ops: Infected is a free experience, open to all guests.  The story involves a zombie outbreak, and with your squadron of approximately 12 people, you are led by a squad leader through the infected zone in a mission to find the cure.  Armed with an infrared rifle, you attempt to accumulate as many zombie head-shots as possible while being led through the encounter.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of bugs to be worked out, both technically and narratively.  Not only did the majority of the guns break during our mission, the scoring was incomprehensible.  Making matters worse, it just wasn’t scary.  I was hoping to face a zombie swarm, but instead found myself being led single file through wide open spaces with lone zombies periodically lunging.  You’re never allowed to break away from the group, and at no point is there ever a sense of danger. I commend the attempt, and hope they are able to fine tune this into something special.  As of right now, I’m sad to say this was the most disappointing event of the night.

(Check-out a teaser video from Voodoo Maze)

As for the mazes themselves, Knotts has thankfully gotten away from the cheap and tacky feel that had dominated their mazes for several years.  Almost every maze is now filled with genuine atmosphere, and never attempts a cheap gross out gag.  The absolute highlight is “Voodoo,” a masterpiece of set design and production.  While entirely indoors, this simulation of an outdoor bayou takes Halloween mazes to an entirely new level of immersion.

“The Tooth Fairy” is an increasingly surreal, demented journey into the world of the Tooth Fairy itself.  I was particularly impressed with the sound design, as the subtle whirring of a dentist’s drill gradually becomes more and more pronounced, until the shrieking of the instrument overpowers the scene in a incredibly uncomfortable way.  What starts as a journey through a demented dentist’s office eventually progresses into a twisted journey into a supernatural realm of surrealist teeth-based imagery.  This maze was probably one of the most disturbing just for the sheer audacity of the character and set designs.  Overpoweringly original, this is another maze that can’t be missed.

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Returning mazes include the classic “Trick or Treat,” an enthralling journey through the house of the Scary Farm mascot, the Green Witch.  While a little short, this is the most indicative of the season itself, with Halloween serving as the theme of the maze.  “Dominion of the Damned” is an entertaining journey through vampire lore, but comes across as one the more generic of the current batch of mazes.   While a lesser maze based on the current standards, it’s still an entertaining experience.  “Pinocchio Unstrung” is a twisted retelling of the Pinocchio story from the perspective of a dementedly evil version of the titular character, hellbent on revenge against those who have wronged him.  Using the iconic imagery of the story against itself, this is a highly creative creation.  “Forevermore” is one of the few mazes without a supernatural component.  This simple concept of a killer inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe is a terrific journey through the most iconic of the prolific author’s creations.  This is one of the mazes that is truly scary just by virtue of the source material.  “Black Magic” is another terrific experience, inspired by the work of famed magician Harry Houdini.  Manipulating his famed tricks into twisted variations of themselves, this maze is another creative highlight of the park.  Finally, “Gunslinger’s Grave” is a western themed maze, perfectly situated in the heart of Ghost Town.  It seems obvious for a Western themed maze to be at the park, and while not the most successful of the group, it’s a welcome presence.

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Unlike prior years where there were tons of shows to choose from, there are only two this year.  Elvira’s Big Top returns to the park, along with the classic pop-culture skewering gorefest that is “The Hanging.”  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to Elvira, but there was no way I was going to miss The Hanging.  An iconic presence in the park, this is a raunchy celebration of all things pop-culture over the previous year.  There’s a primal joy to be found in seeing these household names get skewered one after the other.  The narrative was a little clumsy, and many of the jokes obvious, but the performers and fight choreography were top notch.  It wasn’t the best show they’ve ever had, but it was entertaining, and definitely worth checking out.

Speaking of performers, credit must be given to all the performers working so hard night in and night out to make this event as terrifying as possible.  There seems to be a renewed passion over these last couple years towards the art of the scare, and it was fascinating to watch these creatures at work, seeking out targets and finding clever ways to startle, stalk and scare.  Both in the mazes and the scare zones, I never saw a creature break character, and they all were on top of their game, terrifying everyone possible.

Overall, this was a great event, with Knott’s really outdoing themselves in almost every way.  The mazes are better, the shows streamlined, and the atmosphere all-encompassing.  I’m holding out hope that Infected is the start of something truly special down the road, but other than that one misstep, I cannot recommend this event enough. Whether you’re easily scared or not, Scary Farm is unsettlingly good and Southern California’s best Halloween attraction.

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