When Knott's Halloween Haunt attraction designer Jon Cooke pitched the idea for a haunted maze set inside a theme park ride, everybody had the same response: "How have we not done this already?"
The new Dark Ride haunted maze at Knott's Scary Farm takes "trespassers" inside the abandoned Castle of Chaos attraction populated by the carnies, clowns and freaks who lost their jobs when the theme park went belly up. With no other place to live, society's outcasts defend their home from any and all intruders.
"I think there's something off-putting about something that's supposed to be happy and smiley that is falling apart and deteriorating." Cooke said.
Cooke gave me a preview tour of the self-referential maze ahead of Thursday night's opening of the 45th season of Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.
During past Haunts, Cooke designed the Shadow Lands, Paranormal Inc. and Infected haunted mazes. This season, he worked on nine of the 12 Haunt attractions, including the new Dark Ride maze.
Trespassing visitors enter the new maze through the loading dock entrance of the dark ride where cast-off characters have taken up residence. Just inside the door, a security guard lies crumpled on the floor with an ax through his skull, a foreboding warning of what lies within.
A dark ride track leads visitors through a vampire's crypt where vagrants are living, a castle foyer taken over by freak show performers and a Depths of Hell finale overrun by clowns.
"What I really like is that we're using a clown theme but not in a clown setting," Cooke said.
Along the way, visitors step into backstage areas of the dark ride that feel eerily authentic. More than once, I thought I'd slipped out of the maze and into an off-limits area of Knott's, only to be startled by a janitor or hobo "scareactor" during a dress rehearsal.
The maze's maintenance shop is modeled after the real one in the Timber Mountain Log Ride, right down to the paint colors and the work benches. On the walls are schematic drawings of Knott's former Kingdom of the Dinosaurs dark ride and a ground plan for the Dark Ride maze. Keen-eyed fans may notice actual props from the Calico Mine Ride and other Knott's attractions throughout the maze.
The marquee scene of the Dark Ride maze: a duel between a malfunctioning animatronic wizard and a partially disassembled dragon.
Glitchy intermittent power causes the erratic animatronic figures and overhead lights in the maze to turn on and off without warning.
"We wanted this to feel like it's all being affected by the pulse and the energy in the building," Cooke said.
The spooky Danny Elfman-style soundtrack is synced to the manic action inside the maze.
"As you're listening, it's cutting out and slowing down and blasting back up really quick," Cooke said.
Visitors find out what's causing the power outages in the electrical room. I won't spoil the surprise, but it isn't pretty.
The finale takes place in the biggest room ever created for a Halloween Haunt maze, Cooke said. A dozen clowns run amok in the dark ride's climactic Depths of Hell scene. Cooke persuaded some of the top Knott's "scareactors" from season's past to work in the Dark Ride maze this year.
"I'm trying to make this an actor-driven maze, as opposed to some sort of show moment," Cooke said.
Halloween Haunt opens Thursday night at Knott's Berry Farm and runs on select nights through Oct. 31. Knott's Scary Farm is not recommended for children under age 13 due to the explicit and frightening nature of the event.