School is back in session and while most students are groaning over the excessively long reading list, those partaking in Knott’s Berry Farm Halloween Haunt are groaning and shrieking and shouting for an entirely different reason. Did you know that the actors working in the mazes and scare zones at Knott’s Scary Farm must first attend Scare School before they are full-fledged ghouls and monsters? Well the folks at Knott’s granted me access to take a look behind-the-scenes of the world oldest theme park Halloween Haunt!
Arriving at the back gate of park I review my evening syllabus and first period is “Dominion of the Damned” Scare School. We are escorted down the backlot and as we turn a corner I see two lines of “scare-actors” getting debriefed on the specific character they’ll be playing in this particular maze. I overhear one of the new students ask what a “Vampire Monk” is and the Director describes it as a “religious fanatic responsible for keeping vampires fed.” If it wasn’t already clear, this is not your typical classroom discussion, a point that was especially driven home when the director exclaimed, “…at the end of day, everyone wants to kill human beings…your ultimate goal is murder.”
It was time for the first activity and the students were asked to meet and greet one another as their character. Still a bit timid, most of them gave each other odd looks or offered an accented “hello.” The show director pointed out that the mazes are very dark so the best method of ‘communicating’ is by making noise. So in the next activity the students are asked to do just that and they erupt into a cacophony of cackles, growls, shrieks and hisses. As a final exercise the student morph their bodies, some hunching over while other curling their fingers and they take on the physical gestures and begin to walk about as their creatures.
We are asked to wait a few minutes as the creatures enter the maze and get into place. By this time the sun has gone down and they’ve switched on the maze’s lighting and sound. Without much warning we are ushered in while ominous tones play and lights flicker. Keep in mind that none of these scare-actors are in costume or make-up, yet they still manage to give me several good scares. ‘Dominion of the Damned’ is a Vampire themed maze and was an absolute thrill to walk through.
Next on the syllabus is a stop in the Wardrobe and Makeup Department. We meet Tim Barham, costumer designer working on his 20th Haunt. First item of discussion: laundry. With a staff of 12 it takes 8 hours and 500 dryers to do laundry every night. I’m not at all surprised when I see the rows and rows of neatly organized costume racks. In order to get everyone dressed in under 2 hours, a dewey decimal-like system had been devised where every costume has an alphanumeric color code. The lifetime of a costume is 2-3 years and it takes one full year to design costumes for an entirely new maze. Once a maze is retired the costumes for it are either sent to a sister park or the last person who wore that costume can purchase it.
Moving over to the makeup room, Bill Meier, another one of the directors, breaks it all down by numbers. It takes 37 artists to make up 335 makeup monsters each night with 102 monsters wearing full prosthetics. Each prosthetic lasts about 3 night before they’re unusable so over the course of the entire Haunt, 816 prosthetics are used. All of them are designed, sculpted, molded, and painted in house. Needless to say, that’s a lot of foam latex.
Next on the syllabus is History of the Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt but first we make a quick stop at the brand new Knott’s Roadside Stand Food Truck where I grabbed a cone of Boysenberry Soft Serve Ice Cream. Ted Doherty is Ghost Host for the evening and is the preeminent documentarian of the Knott’s Halloween Haunt.
Starting in 1973, the Haunt is the longest running halloween event in the world. It began by transforming the Ghost Town “Peek-Ins” to a Halloween themed. In the following years, live actors where placed inside the peek-ins to jump out and scare guests. It wasn’t until 1977 when an actor was mistakenly locked out of the Sherif’s Office peek-in so he started scaring from the outside that the idea to hire performers just for the halloween season came about. It was this same year the Marianne Knott came up with the idea for the first ever maze, “10 Chilling Chambers.” Since then mazes have become a staple of Halloween events everywhere.
Knotts Scary Farm Halloween Haunt Opens September 25.