October. The season of screams. When the fog rolls in and the monsters come out to play. For the last 49 seasons, not counting the one we skipped, Buena Park, California has hosted the premiere Halloween fright night. The legendary Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt. This year marks my own 21st year straight, again not counting the one we skipped, attending the event. It’s my own personal yearly Mecca, as it were. You all know how much I love spooky things and there is no spooky thing that I love more than Halloween Haunt. My first major project writing here for the Gathering was chronicling my entire history of Haunt mazes, counting them down one by one in a truly epic undertaking. With the event’s 50th anniversary hot on its way in the Fall of 2023 I will be including an updated edition of that list at the end of this trip report. Why do that, even though I’m just going to have to do it again next year after the 50th? Glutton for punishment?
Last week I attended the 49th annual Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. It was a beautiful Wednesday evening when I arrived. I had an appetite for scares, but more than just that, I had an appetite…for food. I kicked off the evening with a true Haunt tradition, the Knott’s Scary Farm Pre-Scare Boo-fet! A delectable all-you-can-eat that includes a souvenir cup good for free refills throughout the night as well as early admission into the park with early access to 4 of the event’s 9 mazes. In addition to that I did have the Fright and Fast Lane pass, which allowed unlimited front-ish of the line access (think Disney’s fastpass, but scarier) to all mazes and (so far as I am aware) attractions throughout the night. Now, this was a Wednesday in the middle of October so I wasn’t sure just how necessary this was going to be, but as it turns out it was an absolute lifesaver that completely saved the trip (spoiler alert: it was PACKED that night). It should be noted that despite the $135 price tag, fright lane does not include entry into the park. Parking itself was an additional $30. The buffet a cool $45. Admission will vary from night to night and if you buy online ahead of time or not, but suffice to say, prices have gone up and getting the full package for one costs probably about as much as entry for a group did in days long gone. I do need to emphasize the difference that the buffet’s early entry and the fright lane pass made though. This would have ended up a very different trip without them.
So, tangent out of the way, just how was that boo-fet? You definitely get your money’s worth, especially with the souvenir cup that I foolishly tossed at the beginning of the night because I didn’t feel like carrying it. My rather parched mouth was really kicking me over that one later. It’s pretty standard buffet fare. You have a carving station, that admittedly has seen better days compared to previous years, an assortment of dishes ranging from Mrs. Knott’s famous fried chicken, cheesy mashed potatoes, shrimp cocktail, sausages (both Italian and vegan options available), deviled eggs, chicken enchiladas and more. The dessert bar was especially enticing and I helped myself to a slice of boysenberry pie (you know I am a sucker for boysenberry) and a slice of boysenberry cheesecake. Twice. I helped myself to two plates, as pictured below, the second being a bit of a lighter affair than the first. Some nights I can really pack it in, this was not one of those nights.
I will say, I definitely learned something this year. Pumpkin spice grits? Yeah, that should not be a thing.
After finishing my meal I made my way into the park, where I had a bit of time to kill waiting for the gate to the backstage, which hosts the 4 early access mazes, to open up. I watched Ghostrider go by a few times, browsed some of the brilliant articles hosted here on The Grand Geek Gathering, and just when I could take the waiting no longer…the fog rolled in and the monsters came out to play. Backstage this year are three returning mazes and one new maze, replacing my beloved Paranormal Inc. There are nine mazes in total at Knott’s this year, two of them new and two of them in their final year. I’ll be splitting the remainder of this review into three sections. One for the returning mazes, one for the retiring mazes and then one last one talking about the new stuff.
Returning Mazes: Waxworks, The Depths, Dark Entities, Origins: The Curse of Calico, Mesmer: Sideshow of the Mind
By and large the returning mazes this year are exactly what you got last year. Waxworks is still a gorgeously gruesome affair. I did actually try out the big red push me buttons in front of some of the displays, which I don’t recall if they were present before or not, but it’s still a cool bit of detail that provides some fun interactivity as well as giving you some info on the displays. Notably, the bee’s wax room was missing that distinct scented candle…scent both times that I went through the maze this year. Bit of a shame as, again, it was a great little detail. Dark Entities is still not really one of my favorite mazes, but it does continue to be better than it was its first year, which is usually not the case for most mazes so go Dark Entities. The Depths was, once again, one of the highlights of the event. I do think that it has hit a bit of that sophomore slump this year (even though this would technically be its senior year). I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to it, it still hosts arguably my all time favorite effect after all, but I feel like it needs some kind of refresher if it is going to be around for a couple more seasons. Origins was and remains an absolute love letter to the event, its history and its fans. I have nothing bad to say about this one except it could have used a bit more talent throughout, though I think that honestly held true for most of the mazes this year. I am still of the opinion that they could keep this one running all year long and I’d be happy to have it. Mesmer saw minor changes, namely ditching its pre-show scene in order to speed the lineup and because that’s what most mazes tend to do after their first year (Paranormal Inc. excluded). I actually feel like I was able to take a bit more in this time and built a bit of a better understanding of some of the story an what was being portrayed. I would still love to take a longer walk through just to listen to the full narration as I pass through each room, but that’s definitely not to be.
All in all the returning (and staying) mazes this year were all solid, enjoyable experiences. No real new surprises. They all have at least a couple of years under their belts. I imagine Mesmer will remain largely the same next year, hopefully the others get a few tweaks to shake them up a bit for the 50th and inject a little new life into them. The Depths and Dark Entities, which both debuted in 2018, in particular can use a little bit more love. I even have just the thing in mind for the latter, but we’ll get to that in a couple of sections.
Retiring Mazes: Dark Ride, Pumpkin Eater
And so the sun rises and we say goodbye to two mazes this year. Dark Ride and Pumpkin Eater. Two very strong mazes, both introduced in 2017. It’s actually kinda funny, kinda sad that I think this year was one of the best years for both mazes. The effects just seemed really on point with Dark Ride, the lighting and sound were superb, the starting up and stopping of the “ride” and its effects all just seemed more effective and just worked much better this year than I feel they had previously. Dark Ride was a really fun maze, it’s certainly gone on to be a fan favorite (there’s a reason its final season merch has been basically impossible to get in the park, I had to get my Legends pin ordered online) that will be missed. It was a really cool and different take on the traditional clown maze and they did a great job of making the on-stage and off-stage sets feel so distinct. It really did feel like you were walking through an old, crappy carnival house of horrors ride and occasionally ducking into the backroom and seeing the inner workings of it all, plus the soundtrack was top notch. Pumpkin Eater, on the other end of the spectrum, was a visceral and detail oriented experience. It evoked a sense of that Grimm’s Fairy Tale, folk lore horror and really got under your skin with it. From gruesome face carvings to pumpkin guts that dripped as you walked through them, Pumpkin Eater took what mazes like Cornstalkers started and took it to a whole new level.
Dark Ride and Pumpkin Eater may be long for this world, but they will not soon be forgotten.
New Mazes: Bloodline 1842, The Grimoire
I had the opportunity to go through most mazes this year multiple times. I went through Bloodline 1842, the highly anticipated maze that would be taking up residence in Paranormal Inc.’s old haunting grounds and using the groundwork paved by another fan (not mine, mind) favorite maze, Special Ops: Infected, a total of four times this year, this single trip. Did I go through it four times because I just enjoyed it that much? Oh, oh heeeeeeellllllll no. I went through it four times in one night just so I could feel confident in saying that it is one of the worst mazes I have been through in over two decades of attending Halloween Haunt. It is one of the single biggest disappointments in Haunt history for me. I cannot believe that the same building that hosted absolutely brilliant mazes like Paranormal Inc. and THE ASYLUM(!!!!!) now hosts an ill-conceived and poorly executed vampire shooting gallery. My distaste for Special Ops is no secret. I enjoyed it well enough its first year, despite the hiccups in how it was run, but it more than overstayed its welcome and it just never felt quite right to me as a Halloween Haunt thing. Call me traditional. So when I found out that one of the new mazes this year was going to be another shooting maze, but with vampires, yeah I was not exactly thrilled. But I wanted to give it a fair shot.
It was the very first maze I went on this year in fact. From the outside, honestly so far so good. The music was great, the entrance was…not as impressive as other mazes that had been in this location, but it sufficed. Then you go inside and everything felt so rushed and so half-assed. You are greeted and welcomed to the fictional land of not-Transylvania, introduced to the weaponsmith who rushes through his lines so fast all I really got out of it was aim and shoot at the bad guys. You go in, pick up your weapon (there are apparently three different types of gun, they all look the same but supposedly they fire differently, but you’re kinda just rushed into grabbing one so personal preferences don’t seem to matter) and are again rushed to a brief waiting area where a tv just sorta tells you to go. Then you’re off to the races. Honestly, the whole maze just falls apart and most of its issues come down to it being a shooting maze. Because of the extra time it takes for guests to pick up, properly strap on (well, put over their heads like a necklace) the gun and then return the guns at the end, they really do just sorta rush you through everything and whatever sort of story you’re supposed to have taken in is completely lost in this rush. The attempted accent makes it hard to understand the fantasy terms that are quickly thrown at you and when you’re in the maze itself it is just honestly hard to even care. There were nowhere near enough monsters present to make the shooting gallery aspect of it work, and of the monsters that were there not all of them even seemed to have the targets on them you’re intended to shoot (and I’m not talking about the ones that are supposed to be on your side, I mean ones actively attacking you). It made it hard to know if I was even supposed to be shooting them. Two of the four times I went through I also would just…die, respawn and then die again. I’m not trying to blame the game for me dying here, but it definitely took me out of the experience and, again, made it hard to care. There was a scene in a tavern with a monster that did have a target on but I was made out to be kind of a dick for shooting her as well, so maybe she wasn’t a bad guy? My best experience was probably my second time going through the maze, and not just because it was the one where I scored best. It was a bit busier and so there were points where they had to stop us in certain holding scenes (the aforementioned tavern, where we were invited to pull up a seat, the weaponsmith’s arsenal where he examined our guns, etc.) and those moments where we slowed down, interacted and got put into the story a bit actually really improved the experience. Every other time it was just right in and out, no stopping. It’s a real shame too, the set design is, mostly, really well done and there is great use of vertical space in the maze. The overall steampunk vampire aesthetic is really good, really evocative, it would be nice if they just had a good, well-staffed maze with an at least somewhat understandable narrative to carry you through it where you can actually appreciate it. As it stands though, I went through the maze four times and enjoyed it roughly one of those times. Could there be a good maze hidden somewhere in here? Maybe. If they ditch the guns and rework things a bit, flesh out the world and story and staff it a bit better maybe it could be seen as a bad experiment that resulted in a pretty good maze. I mean, it worked for Curse of the Spider.
You know what they should do with those guns that Bloodline clearly doesn’t benefit from? Ship ’em over to Dark Entities. There’s your refresh I promised you I’d get to.
On the other hand, The Grimoire was an experimental maze that took some serious risks and it absolutely stuck the landing. Originally planned to appear during an earlier Haunt season, but didn’t for obvious reasons, The Grimoire is a continued tie-in to the sort of overarching plot of Knott’s Scary Farm itself, delving into the connective tissue between mazes such as Origins and Trick or Treat as well as last year’s Invitation to Terror show. The first time we actually see the titular book is in the finale for Origins, which hints at its connection to Sarah Marshall (the Green Witch herself) and it plays a major role in the Invitation to Terror show that took place in the Mystery Lodge last year (where the maze is held this year, fittingly enough). I don’t want to spoil too many details. The maze itself takes a little bit to actually get going, with a couple of stopping points in the, thankfully air conditioned, Mystery Lodge area prior to the maze’s pre-show. It’s a fun little gag that takes an expectedly dark turn with a great transition into the maze proper (there’s also some fun easter eggs to keep an eye out for throughout). The maze’s use of color, or the lack thereof, as it were, is jarring and brilliant. The closest comparison I can make is some of the nightmare sequences within Delirium, which is a comparison to take pride in. You travel from era to era, seeing the horrifying effects that the grimoire has had as it unleashes literal hell on earth. The segment where you are walking through, what I believe is meant to be a World War I era trench as bullets are flying by features some incredible sound design and really puts you in a tense situation, it was very immersive. There’s some humor sprinkled in there as well, the very 1950’s nuclear family parody was great and also made good use of the black and white aesthetic. This was one maze I wanted to make sure to go through twice, both to absorb as much as I could from it, from my understanding it is going to be important going into the story for the 50th next year, and to make sure it still held up after that “new maze wow” wore off. And, yeah, it was just as impressive the second time, maybe even a bit moreso as more actors filled in and I was able to spot details I had missed before. This is definitely one not to be missed. My pick for Maze of the Year, easily.
Before wrapping things up here, just a quick word on the entertainment. The Hanging being gone still stings and it’s just not the same without it. Even if recent years had to play it safe to not risk offending anyone, it was a Haunt staple and I’m still sad that it is gone. Puppet Up has been a fun replacement for both The Hanging and Elvira, the improv nature does allow for even repeat viewings to offer something new and the crew are all really talented and fun to watch. I didn’t catch any other shows this year apart from little snippets of the new carnival act that took over The Hanging’s stage and it seemed quite impressive from what I did see. The log ride seemed to be down when I was there, so did not get to do Halloween Hootenanny this year, but from what I understand it’s the same as it has been, which is fine but again I do miss the old days of Red Moon Massacre and its ilk. Likewise, I miss my Black Widow’s Cavern and Army of the Underworld taking over the Calico Mine Ride. Present this year, as was last, was the Calico Candy Mine Ride. While a sweet and pleasant tour during the day, it takes a sinister twist for Haunt that is fun but nothing I would recommend actually waiting long in line for.
As I walk through that turnstile at the end of the night, a sense of sadness always falls over me, particularly if it is my last or only trip to Haunt, no matter how much I did that night. Knowing that I will be waiting another year to do it all again makes it the hardest thing in the world to do. All tallied up I went through a total of 19 mazes/haunted attractions this year at Knott’s (four of those being Bloodline, *sigh*). Definitely got my trip’s worth and I cannot wait to see what 2023 brings us with the event’s 50th anniversary. Here’s hoping we see some legacy mazes return or at least a maze that incorporates some of their more iconic scenes (I believe 25 Years of Fear did this for the 25th anniversary?).
Until next time, I’ll see you in the fog.
And before you go, as promised, my updated and current (as of 2022) Haunt maze ranking!
69. Lost Vegas in 3D (2006-2008)
68. Dia de los Muertos 3D (2009-2012)
67. Invasion Beneath (2011)
66. The Gunslinger’s Grave (2013-2014)/The Gunslinger’s Grave: A Blood Moon Rises (2015-2016)
65. Mirror Mirror (2013)
64. The Witch’s Keep (2013-2014)
63. Calico Candy Mine Train (2021-Present)
61. Temple of Sacrifice (2003-2005)
60. Bloodline 1842 (2022-Present)
59. The Evil Dead (2012)
58. Beowulf: Labyrinth into Darkness (2007)/The Labyrinth (2008-2010)
57. The Grudge 2 (2006-2007)
56. Special Ops: Infected (2014-2019)
55. Halloween Hootenanny (2017-Present)
54. Sleepy Hollow Mountain (2010-2011)
53. Cornstalkers (2008-2011)
52. My Bloody Clementine (2015)
51. The Dead of Winter (2015)/The Dead of Winter: Revenge of the Wendigo (2016)
50. Virus Z (2010-2011)/Virus Z feat. Carrie (2012)
49. Endgames: Warriors of the Apocalypse (2011-2013)
48. Lockdown: The Asylum (2009-2010)
47. Cavern of Lost Souls (2005-2006)
46. Killer Clown Kollege (2007-2008)
45. Pyromaniax (2007-2009)
44. Dominion of the Damned (2013-2014)
43. The Slaughterhouse (2008-2013)
42. Terror Vision 3D (2004-2006)
41. Red Beard’s Revenge (2004-2007)
40. Uncle Bobo’s Big Top of the Bizarre (2009-2012)
39. Hatchet High (2003-2006)
38. Malice in Wunderland in 3D (2001-2004)
37. Voodoo (2014)/Voodoo: Order of the Serpent (2015-2017)
36. Curse of the Spider (2002-2005)
35. Blood Bayou (2001-2004)
34. Feary Tales in 3D (2005-2007)
33. The Doll Factory (2007-2011)
32. Pinocchio Unstrung (2012-2015)
31. Club Blood (2008-2010)
30. Dominion of the Dead (2012)
29. Black Widow’s Cavern (2007-2010)
28. Fallout Shelter in 3D (2010-2012)
27. 13 Axe Murder Manor (2005-2008)
26. Forevermore (2013-2015)
25. Dark Entities (2018-Present)
24. Pumpkin Eater (2017-2022)
23. Black Magic (2013-2015)
22. The Red Barn (2016-2018)
21. The Tooth Fairy (2014-2017)
20. Trapped: The New Experiment (2013)
19. Trapped: Lock and Key (2014)
18. Dark Ride (2017-2022)
17. Trick or Treat (2012-2016)/Trick or Treat: Lights Out (2017-2018)
16. The Underground (1996-2003)
15. Lore of the Vampire (2001-2007)
14. Trapped (2012)
13. Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns in 3D (2000-2003)/Carnival of Carnivorous Clowns from Outer Space in 3D (2004-2005)
12. Shadow Lands (2016-2019)
11. Waxworks (2019-Present)
10. Army of the Underworld (2000-2004)
9. Origins: The Curse of Calico (2019-Present)
8. Elvira’s Red Moon Massacre (2001)/Red Moon Massacre (2002-2006)
7. The Grimoire (2022-Present)
6. The Depths (2018-Present)
5. Terror of London (2009-2012)
4. Mesmer: Sideshow of the Mind (2021-Present)
3. Paranormal Inc. (2015-2021)
2. Delirium (2011-2013)
1. The Asylum (2003-2008)