A new haunted maze aboard the Queen Mary this Halloween season will use the purported tale of a World War II chef's unsavory demise on the historic liner.
The creative team behind the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor event unveiled the new Feast maze Saturday at the Midsummer Scream haunted expo in the Long Beach Convention Center. The ship plays host Satuday night to the expo's inaugural Sinister Circus Costume Ball.
Dark Harbor executive producers Charity Hill and Steve Sheldon gave me an exclusive preview earlier this week of the still under construction Feast maze aboard the retired ocean liner.
The new maze draws inspiration from the story, which may be apocryphal, of a chef said to have been killed by his kitchen staff during World War II when the Queen Mary was called into military service.
Upset with the chef's inept cooking and imperious attitude, the galley crew supposedly shoved their boss into a walk-in oven and left him there to roast.
Expanding on the tale, the Feast back story brings the chef back from the dead with a taste for vengeance. After killing his traitorous crew, the chef sets out to prepare a feast in the ship's opulent dining room. Queen Mary passengers are the entree.
"It's really cool to have a little piece of history to always tie everything in," Hill said. "Even though we veer quite a bit from reality."
It doesn't take much to make the Queen Mary feel spooky. During our tour of the ship, we passed doors blocked by caution tape and signs that warned "Danger: High Voltage" and "Area Closed: No Access."
More than once I confused the real ship for creepy set dressing and vice versa. Sloping floors combined with twisting corridors added to the disorienting atmosphere.
The maze travels through a re-creation of the ship's galley. "Passengers" pass through dry storage, a meat locker and the kitchen, where ghostly prep cooks, dishwashers and servers wait to kill and cook the evening's meal.
Visitors must crawl on their hands and knees through a hot oven filled with surprises.
"You have the option to bypass the oven," Hill said. "I wish you didn't, but for legal reasons you can bypass it."
The maze ends in an opulent dining room where the ghostly kitchen crew dines on the recently deceased passengers. After heading down a grand staircase, a butcher shop reveals that the visitors are the next items on the Feast menu.
The real kitchen and oven where the chef was purpotedly killed are not part of the maze, but the current Queen Mary kitchen crew still uses the galley to prepare food for hotel and banquet guests. The walk-in oven is still operational and used daily to make cookies, cakes and pastries.
I stepped inside the coffin-sized oven and had my hosts lock me inside. The round-the-clock kitchen crews would have been able to see someone through a small window in the door.
After the tour, I sat down with Hill and Sheldon in the ship's Observation Bar and Art Deco Lounge to talk about the advantages and challenges of creating a Halloween event on the Queen Mary, dubbed by Life magazine as one of the world's most haunted places.
"Most of our characters are based on the ship's spirits," Sheldon said.
The challenge is to strike a balance with the storytelling — keeping the setup simple enough for casual fans to enjoy while providing enough details for hardcore devotees who always hunger for more.
Dark Harbor's die-hard loyalists often report seeing the Queen Mary's best-known ghosts — the Man in Black and the Woman in White — wandering through the haunted mazes.
Maze monsters have quit because they're convinced the ship is haunted. Construction crew members are said to insist on working in pairs because of unexplained phenomena aboard the ship.
"The crew got really freaked out last year," Hill said. "They were hearing growling and voices. Who knows if they were doing it to each other, but they were starting to freak themselves out."
For their part, Hill and Sheldon have never seen any poltergeists in any Dark Harbor mazes. But the ship's haunted history is another matter.
"Do I believe the ship is haunted?" Sheldon said. "One hundred percent. Without a doubt."
"When you're here long enough, stuff happens," Hill said. "I've seen some things that I cannot explain away."
As far as the guests are concerned, Dark Harbor has found an antidote that steadies the nerves and loosens the inhibitions of visitors rattled by the Queen Mary's haunted history: alcohol.
"One of the things we realized that was setting us apart a couple of years ago was our party atmosphere," Hill said. "After going to so many haunts ourselves, you spend the majority of your night standing in a queue line.
"So we really focused on what you can do while you're waiting. So we added bars and entertainment to every queue."
Besides the mazes, Dark Harbor features music, aerialists, freak show performers, pyrotechnics and 13 themed bars. The wave swing ride from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch attracts long lines.
This Halloween season, Feast will be joined by six returning mazes, each with a historic connection to the ship.
Intrepid will be set in the Scottish shipyard where the Queen Mary was built.
Deadrise takes place aboard a sunken escort ship that guided the Queen Mary during World War II.
Lullaby is haunted by Scary Mary, a little girl said to have drowned in a pool onboard the ship.
Soulmate features Graceful Gale, the ghostly Woman in White who reportedly haunts the luxury cruise ship.
B340 takes visitors inside the cabin where a passenger suppposedly went mad during a 1948 voyage.
The clown- and sideshow-freak-filled Circus draws inspiration from a painting onboard the ship.
Dark Harbor will run on select nights from Sept. 28 through Nov. 1 at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.