Now that fall is finally here, it’s once again time for Knott’s Scary Farm, the originators of haunted attractions, to enter the fray. This year, Jeff Tucker and Co. present what will be the 46th iteration of the event, complete with a handful of new mazes, a litany of shows, and not a single square inch of the park in which to hide.
Carnevil is a longtime classic of Knott’s scare zones, and for good reason. For one thing, it boasts some of the most eye-popping scenery in the park, simply by virtue of the brightly colored Boardwalk area. Augmented by the brand new Hangtime coaster, the multi-colored lights already suggest a carnival-type atmosphere, but that is all secondary to the incredible cast of scareactors inhabiting Carnevil. These clowns live and die on their interactions with guests, which is one of the things that has always set Knott’s apart from other major haunts. Where places like Halloween Horror Nights creates an atmosphere of passively watching scareactors do their work, these clowns will talk directly to guests, interspersing jokes with scares, crafting a uniquely personal scare zone experience.
While much was made in the weeks leading up to Scary Farm of the brand new Forsaken Lake scare zone, it was hindered by its small footprint and a skeleton crew of scareactors. The atmosphere is definitely there, but outside of the occasional musical procession, Forsaken Lake seemed deserted for much of the night, in stark opposition to its fellow scare zones.
GHOST TOWN STREETS
Ghost Town Streets is itself an icon of haunt history, the very first scare zone ever and an area that is inextricably linked with Knott’s Scary Farm. Bearing that in mind, it’s still the best “total package,” so to speak, of any scare zone around, blending a cast of well-traveled veterans with some of the best fog and lighting effects seen at a major haunt. Even for Scary Farm pros, it’s hard not to feel a palpable sense of dread when stepping into the fog, which makes it worth a trip to Knott’s all by itself.
Returning for 2018 is the excellent Hollow scare zone, occupying the Camp Snoopy area. Debuting in 2016 and filling the shoes of zones like Necropolis and the legendary Gauntlet, The Hollow has consistently been one of the highlights of Knott’s Scary Farm. Dimly lit and almost always uninhabited by the teeming masses that invade other areas of the park, it’s the perfect area for true scares, even for those who might know where to look. Scarecrows loom close behind hapless guests, while undead soldiers drum away as they march in formation. Similarly to Forsaken Lake’s procession, there are occasional theatrics to be seen in The Hollow, as a trio of witch hunters carry out their mission all night, culminating in a midnight show. This type of interactive and immersive storytelling is a welcome addition to an already loaded scare zone.
AWAKEN THE DEAD
The Fiesta Village area of Knott’s Scary Farm has always been a tough row to hoe for the park. Once home to classics like Quarantine and Virus Z, the ensuing years of Fiesta de los Muertos never quite clicked for some reason. The scareactors were talented, but the zone didn’t seem to get the same attention or care that others did. Occupying this space with the same general Dia de los Muertos vibe is “Awaken the Dead,” another attempt at creating a dance floor for younger haunt-goers. While it occupies a strange sort of limbo, not being a maze, a scare zone, or a proper show, there is something to be said for the variety it provides guests.
Knott’s has a long history of showcasing comedy magic at Scary Farm, dating back to names like Ed Alonzo when he occupied the Charles M. Schultz Theatre. The mileage of this particular brand of performing may vary from guest to guest, but inside the Bird Cage Theater, “Conjurers” is a fantastic break from the doom and gloom that is Ghost Town Streets. The night that Haunting attended featured the hilarious Dana Daniels, but the rest of the season will employ several other performers, depending on the date.
Inhabiting the Charles M. Schultz Theatre for 2018 is “Hacks! Cutting Room Floor,” featuring short-form improv comedy from the titular troupe. Between this, “Conjurers,” and “The Hanging,” it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Knott’s is one of the only haunts around to place such a heavy emphasis on comedy. While scares are important, having an opportunity to sit and laugh for an hour provides a well-rounded experience, and “Hacks!” is a fantastic chance to do so. The show alternates between performing scenes based on audience suggestions and dubbing riffs over classic horror footage, so the connection to Halloween isn’t completely lost, but with a relatively brief runtime, the show also doesn’t wear out its welcome.
There isn’t much to be said about “The Hanging” that hasn’t been said for years already. The choreography of the dancing and the fighting is stunning, aided by impressive pyrotechnics and special effects, but the content, on the other hand, is slightly less consistent. While it doesn’t drift into territory quite lazy or offensive enough to get it axed, a la Universal’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure,” it’s still not much more than a pastiche of fart jokes and pop culture references, some of which are already long-since dated by the time fall rolls around. Either way, iconic as it is, “The Hanging” is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon, so at this point, it’s a necessary evil.
One of two brand new mazes for 2018, Dark Entities is Knott’s first attempt at an outer space-themed maze since 2008/2009’s Alien Annihilation. The house is one of the most visually impressive of this year’s lineup, using an array of screens to not only simulate the spaceship’s operating systems, but also to create the illusion of port windows looking out into the galaxy. Clever use of lasers and a dryly funny android-gone-wrong makes Dark Entities fun, but not necessarily earth-shattering.
The maze that had everybody talking last year is back for 2018, and while nothing noticeable has changed in the interim, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still one of the best mazes Knott’s has hosted in years. The clever theme provides a perfect excuse to employ delightfully cheesy animatronics at the beginning of the maze, before descending into sheer terror on the backside. Scares are plentiful with an enthusiastic cast, and the final set piece is one of the most ambitious and impressive in recent memory.
Many bemoaned the departure of beloved maze designer Jon Cooke, as he left Knott’s to take the reins at the Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor. Luckily, however, he remains a contractor, and his presence can surely be felt in his latest creation, The Depths. Using a classic “sea monsters” theme, but bordering on Lovecraftian horror, the animatronics and prosthetics on display in The Depths are unparalleled, with something jaw-dropping around nearly every corner. One room even tilts and sways, as guests make their way through a sinking ship to the briny deep below. The Depths doesn’t look like much from the outside, replacing the old French Quarter of Voodoo with a single, ominous lighthouse, but inside lies the highlight of the 2018 season.
It’s hard to believe that the once shiny and new Paranormal, Inc. is now staring down the barrel of its fourth consecutive season. It still packs the same punch that it once did, with a creative storyline blending both classic spirits and more gruesome demons, and featuring some truly effective scares. However, time comes for all mazes at some point, and it can’t be ignored that Paranormal, Inc. has been surpassed by its younger, more effervescent brethren.
Pumpkin Eater debuted last year, and while it’s still the same maze, it still deserves a spot amongst the top three or four of Scary Farm’s offerings this year. The tale of Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater is a unique path to take for a maze, to say nothing of the creativity of taking guests inside a giant pumpkin, replete with disgusting, hanging seeds.
The idea of murderous hillbillies is obviously well-trodden ground for Knott’s Scary Farm, but Red Barn does more with it than, say, Slaughterhouse might have, adding a cultish twist. Taking a page from the playbooks of Dark Harbor and Halloween Horror Nights, Knott’s has stationed the leader of the cult above the queue, preaching to the masses and looking for potential converts. This one decision makes all the difference, and turns Red Barn from just another run-of-the-mill cannibal maze into something more creative and immersive than that.
Shadowlands, Jon Cooke’s horrifying take on feudal Japan, remains one of the most unique mazes that Knott’s Scary Farm has ever seen. However, after three years, it may be getting a bit long in the tooth; scenes once featured what seemed like an army of samurai, tethered such that they can fly through the air, beheading animatronics and coming within arm’s reach of terrified guests. Now, the cast seems a fraction the size of what it used to be, perhaps distributed to newer mazes. Shuffled off into the corner of the park, beneath Xcelerator, it’s easy to miss, so lines aren’t much of a concern, but if it does return in 2019, hopefully Shadowlands can get the shot in the arm that it needs.
SPECIAL OPS: INFECTED
Infected makes its return once again, this time for its fifth season at Knott’s. The idea of integrating laser guns wasn’t necessarily new even when Infected debuted, as Alien Annihilation had featured a laser tag gimmick, but still, it’s tough to keep the adrenaline at bay when clutching a facsimile of a machine gun. As cool of a trick as it is, though, there’s no avoiding the dreaded “conga line” effect for such a popular maze, and while that may simply be annoying in other houses, it’s a death sentence when guests are constantly having kills snatched from them by the person directly in front. Minus the guns, Infected would just be another zombie maze, so it could be worth replacing with something more original in 2019.
TRICK OR TREAT: LIGHTS OUT
Having been birthed all the way back in 2012, with a soft redesign last year, Trick or Treat is now the elder statesman of Knott’s Scary Farm. It might seem too pedestrian to have worked, but simply shutting the lights off and sticking a flashlight in the hands of guests actually did wonders for the home of the Green Witch. RFID technology allows for different rooms to affect the flashlight in different ways, which amplifies the scares to huge degrees. That in mind, however, seven years is an eternity in haunt years, so it may still be time for something new to take up space underneath Ghost Rider.
Hidden inside a shop near the bumper cars, it’s incredibly easy to miss the Bizarre Bazaar, but fans of Knott’s Scary Farm and its history should definitely not skip out on it. Part museum, part art gallery, the Bazaar features a number of incredible art pieces inspired by different elements of Scary Farm, including relics of years past.
TIMBER MOUNTAIN LOG RIDE: HALLOWEEN HOOTENANNY
While Halloween Hootenanny sadly seems to have done away with loading the ride itself with live scareactors, it still remains a ridiculous, fun time. The queue can fill up quickly, but luckily it’s a quick one, and almost always worth it. A band filled with cryptids of all sorts, followed by, apropos of nothing, a talking bear, is the best kind of silly to sandwich in between terrifying mazes.
Located in the arcade across from the Charles M. Schultz Theatre, Time Zombies is an upcharge VR experience, priced at $5 per person. A foggy Victorian backdrop is the only scenery, but the thrill of shooting time-displaced zombies is somehow just as fun, even if it requires standing back-to-back with a partner and not moving from that position. It’s nothing that can’t be skipped, but for $5, one could do worse for a diversion after enjoying “Hacks!”
CONCLUSIONS – KNOTT’S SCARY FARM
Knott’s Scary Farm remains a legend in the haunt industry decades later, as it should. What it might lack in the production value of Halloween Horror Nights or the shock of something like The 17th Door, it makes up for with its own charm. It’s a place to not only scream, but to laugh as well, stocked with characters and scareactors that will focus on individuals just as much as couples or groups. Falter as it might with some of its choices, it’s still a must-see attraction for haunt fanatics.
Knott’s Scary Farm takes place on select dates through October 31st. Information can be found at www.knotts.com/play/scary-farm.