The difference between Knott’s Halloween Haunt and Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights has always come down to quantity versus quality.
Knott’s Berry Farm has always been about more, more, more: More mazes, more monsters, more nights. After inventing the theme park haunted event, Knott’s dominated the competition for decades.
Universal Studios Hollywood is known for its movie studio-quality set designs, special effects monster makeup and heart-stopping theatrical scares. The ghastly crosstown upstart now sets the bar against which others — including Knott’s — are measured.
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Knott’s has stepped up its game in recent years with the thrilling Trapped escape-room maze and the expansive Special Ops: Infected zombie-killing laser-tag experience. But capacity issues dogged both the upcharge Trapped maze and the highly interactive Infected experience, which were as good or better than anything offered by Universal’s Horror Nights.
Now, Knott’s is applying the lessons learned over the past few seasons to the more traditional Paranormal Inc. haunted maze — which at first glance appears to have the quality sets and top-notch talent of Trapped as well as the in-depth storytelling and in-your-face action of Special Ops: Infected.
I recently walked through Paranormal Inc. with Halloween Haunt scenic designer and maze maker Jon Cooke and found the new maze to be the best I’ve seen at the Buena Park theme park in nearly a decade.
Cooke worked on my favorite new maze of last year, the atmospheric and evocative Voodoo, as well as the pulse-pounding Special Ops: Infected experience. A heavily tattooed, muscle-bound, fast-talking, hard-working, no-nonsense kind of guy, Cooke also moonlights as singer Johnny Plague in the deathcore band Winds of Plague.
The Paranormal Inc. maze features a team of ghost hunters from a cable television show who investigate a haunted mental hospital where patients have been tortured for decades by deranged doctors. The story line follows the crew from the fictional “Paranormal Inc.” television show on its first investigation: the Haunting of Hayden Hill. The journey begins as the ghost hunters try to contact an asylum doctor, a head nurse and their young daughter, who haunt Hayden Hill Sanitarium.
While the design aesthetic at Knott’s has improved markedly in recent years, Paranormal Inc. takes the quality quotient to the next level with a well-conceived back story, three-dimensional sets and branching maze paths. Add to that misdirection scares, actor-level talent, sophisticated animatronics, aerial stunts and puppeted effects and you have a level of commitment to craft and showmanship in Paranormal Inc. not seen before in a traditional Knott’s maze.
The tone for the Paranormal Inc. maze is established in the first scene, set in the day room of an abandoned asylum where mental patients spent their free time. Without giving too much away, the two-story space features aerial stunts, video mapping, moving walls and hidden entrances where parties of 20 are split into two groups before departing along branching maze paths.
“You’ll actually see the blacked-out demon shadow people,” said maze maker Cooke, describing the spirits who inhabit the hospital. “They kind of herd the guests into the two sides of the maze, and they also repeat throughout the maze.”
One of the best scenes was a patient room that appeared empty except for a shaking hospital gurney. The twist occurs when visitors catch a glimpse of a TV screen that turns the invisible visible and shows what’s really happening in the room: A patient on the gurney is being mistreated by the ghost of the head nurse. A blast of air startles the onlookers as the nurse turns to attack them.
Some of my favorite elements in Paranormal Inc. are simple yet effective, like the hidden doors rigged with sound effects and strobe lights that are triggered by the maze monsters and allow for repeatable scripted scares. I particularly loved the light switches, fire alarms, telephones and elevator buttons cleverly positioned next to the hidden doors as an “Easter egg” enticement to unsuspecting visitors.
“I like to try to put an object in the room that I know guests will want to mess with,” said Cooke, demonstrating one of the Easter eggs. “Every guest is going to want to touch this, and when they do, they get the scare. I try to set up a lot of the scares like that.”
In a utility room divided by a chain-link fence, a stilt-walking Jackyl character in a straightjacket will terrify visitors as an electrical panel emits sparks next to a rack of 55-gallon oil barrels.
“We’re going to send the barrels rolling forward and crashing into the chain-link fence,” Cooke said. “The barrels auto-reset constantly.”
The most amazing scare of the maze should come in a pentagram room that looks like a demonic set from a 1980s Motley Crue music video. A terrified Paranormal Inc. investigator begging for our help will suddenly be hoisted skyward by a hidden harness.
“I wanted it to be like I was talking to you, and I just got pulled through the roof,” Cooke said.
The last part of the maze travels through a purgatory-esque demon world known as The Veil. At one climatic point, visitors must cross a rope bridge spanning a video-mapped lava pit — with one major animatronic complication.
“There’s going to be a large 20-foot demon that’s hand-sculpted in-house,” Cooke said. “He’s shaking the bridge the whole time you’re trying to walk across it.”
My expectations are high for Paranormal Inc. despite the maze’s seemingly pedestrian ghost hunters back story. If all the pieces come together as planned, Paranormal Inc. should be the best traditional maze in Knott’s Haunt history. I’m excited to see the finished product and hopeful the new attention to detail continues with future Knott’s mazes.
Southern California is fortunate to be home to two of the best theme park haunted events in the world. Undoubtedly, the rivalry between Knott’s Haunt and Universal’s Horror Nights has made both events better — which is good for both parks and great for Halloween fans.
The 43rd annual Knott’s Scary Farm starts Sept. 24 and runs on select nights through Oct. 31. The granddaddy of Halloween events features 11 haunted mazes, three scare zones and two shows scattered throughout the park.
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