After a disappointing first time visiting the famed Knott’s Berry Farm Halloween Haunt – best known as Knott’s Scary Farm – a few years ago, I decided to make a return to give it another shot. And fortunately, all of my worst fears of duplicating that disappointment dissipated within minutes of the event beginning, leaving behind a night of nothing but enjoyable entertainment.
It’s been decades since Knott’s Berry Farm first pioneered what has turned into today’s typical theme park Halloween event. Though they didn’t invent haunted houses, Knott’s did tie them together with energetic street performers and spooky stage shows to create what ultimately become known as Knott’s Scary Farm. Years later, Knott’s still thrives, packing in big crowds while developing interesting new ideas not seen in any other park, separating this particular Halloween event from the rest.
We already took a brief look at Knott’s offerings this year from opening night, but below are my personal thoughts and opinions on each of this year’s haunted houses, shows, and other experiences, including extensive video throughout.
Each haunted house, scare zone, and show is categorized reviewed below into one or more of the following categories: Screamer (scare-filled), Gut Buster (comedy-packed), Eye Popper (visually-stunning), and/or Mind Blower (overall best in show). And in the case of a complete dud, I refer to it as a Grave Digger.
Now, here is my review of Knott’s Scary Farm 2013…
Knott’s Scary Farm 2013 Haunted Houses
Knott’s presents and impressive lineup of mazes with more than any other theme park around. Quantity does not always guarantee quality and Knott’s does retain many of its walk-through haunted attractions for 2-3 year cycles. But since I hadn’t been there since 2010, everything was new to me this year. In fact, even the shows were all new to me as rain had ruined much of the evening I was there. So this was indeed a completely fresh start.
I have no connection to the nostalgia many southern California residents possess for Knott’s Berry Farm, as I hadn’t ever been there until that 2010 visit. This time my only memories were poor ones, so I went in with the high hopes of something better – and I was rewarded. I purchased a front-of-the-line pass to ensure I saw everything, including the new Skeleton Key rooms, all of which are reviewed below.
On with the rankings…
1. Trick or Treat
RANKING: Eye Popper, Mind Blower
REVIEW: I’m a sucker for classic Halloween experiences and Trick or Treat practically perfects the concept. My absolute favorite part of this maze is at the very beginning, just outside its creepy house facade. Guests actually have a chance to ring the doorbell before stepping inside, a wonderful tribute to the maze’s namesake tradition. Immediately inside, a staircase of Jack-O-Lanterns make it clear that this house embodies Halloween in its most basic form. Trick or Treat takes guests through gorgeous scenes that feel like a real house, haunted by all sorts of ghouls. The scares are clever, often coupled with special effects, particularly in the maze’s grand finale – a moment worth stopping for. If there’s anything wrong with this maze, it’s that it’s far too dark to see all the intricate details that decorate its halls.
Video: Full walkthrough of Trick or Treat
2. Black Magic
RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer
REVIEW: Harry Houdini has never been more scary as inside this new Knott’s maze, basing each room around bizarre versions of classic magic tricks. The outside features a great use of projection mapping, creating feats of magic on the building itself. The maze begins surprisingly creepy with a room of creatures in strait jackets, followed by a series of gruesome tricks inspired by Houdini himself. Guests are made to follow in Houdini’s footsteps through many of his most famous tricks, such as escaping from watery depths – while water streams from overhead in what may be the wettest scene I’ve ever seen in a theme park haunted house. And it seems all of the haunted houses of Knott’s Scary Farm end with a bang, this one featuring Houdini himself high overhead.
Black Magic is one of the five Skeleton Key haunted houses, a new feature for 2013 that adds an extra room at the beginning of each of those mazes in a much more intimate setting. This particular Skeleton Key room is the most unique of the bunch, gathering a small group to sit around a seance table while a psychic summons the angry spirit of Houdini, loaded with special effects. It’s a surprisingly long mini-show that’s a wonderful change from the endless lines of people that flow through the maze itself and it sets up the story nicely. (It’s worth noting that no video or photos are allowed inside the Skeleton Key rooms.)
Video: Full walkthrough of Black Magic
3. Pinocchio Unstrung
RANKING: Eye Popper, Screamer, Gut Buster
REVIEW: A clever take on the classic Pinocchio story, this maze gets all twisted up as actors seem to pop out from every dark corner – or sometimes even surprising in plain sight. There’s a bit of humor mixed in with with scares in this Pinocchio retelling, offering an overall enjoyable experience. And actors seem to be free to roam, following up on their own scares by literally following guests around, or playing off of each other throughout. The large animatronic figure near the end of the maze has been at Knott’s for a few years, fitting in better than ever in this experience.
Video: Full walkthrough of Pinocchio Unstrung
RANKING: Eye Popper
REVIEW: Having been through two other Edgar Allan Poe-inspired haunted houses in the last few years (at Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa), I was pleased to see a modern take on his tales, following a killer that has drawn inspiration from Poe in plotting his crimes. There are immediate comparisons to be drawn to the TV show “The Following” starring Kevin Bacon, though Knott’s insists they came up with this idea before ever learning of that show. True or not, I’m not a fan of the show but I did thoroughly enjoy this maze, particularly its grand finale that, if timed right, features a big surprise moment with a tremendous amount of actors suddenly descending on unsuspecting guests inside. There’s a lot of variety in each of the scenes and most are actually recognizable as specific Poe tales, though reworked in a contemporary setting. And it’s a very long maze, but never dull or repetitive, interesting from beginning to end.
Video: Full walkthrough of Forevermore
5. Gunslinger’s Grave
RANKING: Eye Popper
REVIEW: This maze features surprisingly big, open spaces, taking guests through a believable western town and even into nearby mines. There are gruff western types roaming each scene, though none are particularly scary. While not terrifying, this maze is quite entertaining as there are great actors fully embracing their roles, even talking with guests to keep them immersed the environment. This maze’s Skeleton Key room also presents an incredibly long scene featuring several actors who are quick to improvise with guests to keep it lively and quite humorous, though ending with a bang.
Video: Full walkthrough of Gunslinger’s Grave
RANKING: Eye Popper, Gut Buster
REVIEW: This maze has been around in various forms for quite a few years and yet it still seems to be entertaining. There’s just something enjoyable about the dark humor of humans being barbecued. Yum. As the name suggests, it’s quite a gory house with lots of startles but the comedy holds up well too. The Skeleton Key room presents an opportunity to see first hand just what goes into the BBQ sauce… and it’s not pretty. For its age, Slaughterhouse has held up well.
Video: Full walkthrough of Slaughterhouse
7. Dominion of the Damned
RANKING: Eye Popper
REVIEW: A recycled concept from the past, Dominion of the Damned feels rather old. It has some really nice original artwork throughout the maze and a clever concept of repeating scenes, one fairly normal followed by an alternate version that’s over-the-top. But for the most part this maze never quite hits, with flat textures and angled walls winding through a series of uninteresting vampires. Even its finale fails to impress. Its Skeleton Key room is actually better than the rest of the experience, with a big startle scare leading it off.
Video: Full walkthrough of Dominion of the Damned
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: This haunted house is described as the junkyard of Knott’s Scary Farm, where old props go to die. It’s a hodge podge of concepts that barely fit together amidst a theme and story that never come across clearly, even after the Skeleton Key room explains it – easily the weakest of the five of such experiences. The concept of including video monitors throughout the maze showing guests wandering through is distracting more than anything and while there are a few decent startles, the overall flow leaves much to be desired. This maze’s saving grace is its actors, who are definitely in it for the scare, doing their best to compensate for an otherwise lackluster experience.
Video: Full walkthrough of Endgames
9. Mirror Mirror
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: A carnival fun house gone horribly wrong, Mirror Mirror attempts to be novel by pulsing small groups of guests into a haunted house that is literally a maze of nothing but mirrors and actors wearing gold masks. The challenge is for guests to find a way out, which is fun on its own, but fails as a Halloween experience. After a few minutes, the lights begin to strobe and flicker which makes it just a little bit spookier, but mostly just frustrating. I managed to find my way out fairly quickly by going against the crowd flow, then hung around afterward to see how long it took for someone to make it out behind me. Several minutes later, I gave up waiting as no one else emerged. It’s a tough maze to get through, but not because it’s ever scary.
Video: Full walkthrough of Mirror Mirror
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: This haunted house simply made no sense to me. I was confused as to what I was looking at throughout, never able to get a firm grasp on what any particular scene was supposed to be. There’s a bit of a demonic element to it, I suppose, but it’s never clear. I was amused when an actor jumped across a doorway right in front of me, a startle I wasn’t expecting. But beyond that, I was not entertained. Moreover, for some reason, the staff of this house was insistent that I not record any video, despite Knott’s having no such restrictions. But don’t worry, you’re not missing much.
11. Witch’s Keep at Calico Mine Ride
RANKING: Grave Digger
REVIEW: Witch’s Keep isn’t exactly a haunted house, instead a Halloween overlay of the classic Calico Mine Ride – which is in desperate need of an update. The Halloween portions of this experience are rather embarrassing, with better decorations available at Party City. Fortunately, this ride is due to get a major upgrade soon, much like the park’s log ride recently did (which looks fantastic, by the way). Hopefully it will get a Halloween facelift next year too.
Knott’s Scary Farm Scare Zones
REVIEW: The streets of Knott’s Scary Farm are fun, though there aren’t necessarily specific scare zones. There are themed characters in certain matching areas of the park, such as presumably undead western types in Ghost Town and hoards of evil clowns in the brighter, more carnival-like areas. The actors seem to have a lot of fun with what they do, not just aiming for scares (which they certainly do) but also providing interesting entertainment, actually performing specific characters instead of just general ghoulish beings. I frequently saw them band together to act out little scenes, though I was never able to tell how much of it was spur-of-the-moment versus pre-scripted.
And then there’s fog street, a stretch that is so densely filled with fog that guests literally cannot see two feet in front of their faces. And, of course, it’s filled with monsters ready to pounce. Now that’s quite an experience. I’m surprised I didn’t bump face first into someone after passing through there many times throughout the night.
Video: Calico Hanging Moment
Video: Fog Street
Knott’s Scary Farm Shows
There are more shows at Knott’s Scary Farm than can possibly be seen in a single night, with a variety of entertainment in each one. They have an interesting mix of comedy, action, stunts, singing, dancing, acting, and even a few scares.
REVIEW: The most famous of the Knott’s Halloween shows is “The Hanging,” most often compared to Universal’s annual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, though the Knott’s show has been around for many more years. It’s a pop culture roast that focuses largely on stunts and sight gags. Overall it was only okay for me, with far too many pre-recorded lines and predictable jokes. It’s clear the performers are stunt men and women first, performers second, as the action sequences were among the best parts, loaded with blood bursts exploding from nearly every punch – a signature component of the show. The show’s standout moment this year comes in its rather funny Disney parody, the only portion worth sharing in video below.
Video: Disney / Star Wars parody in “The Hanging”
Elvira’s Sinema Seance
REVIEW: It’s Elvira. In the flesh. And lots of it. Need I say more? Simply, Elvira is always amazing. Her presence is unique and delightful, a perfect PG-13 blend of everything that makes Halloween fun. Seeing her in person is easily a highlight of the entire night at Knott’s Scary Farm. The show features decent dance numbers along with plenty of sexed up humor. The middle portion is a little odd as the audience watches Elvira take part in a series of horror movie parodies on a big video screen. More Elvira in person would have been nice, but given that she’s in her ’60s I’ll cut her some slack. But she certainly doesn’t look her age, with her presence just as big and commanding as it ever has been.
Video: Elvira’s Sinema Seance introduction
REVIEW: Knott’s Mystery Lodge is put to fantastic use in this new show for 2013 featuring a classic Pepper’s Ghost effect used perfectly. The story surrounds a child in an institution who doctors feel is a bit off, claiming to see people who aren’t there. But it quickly becomes clear that there are indeed spirits present – one menacing ghost in particular, who has her sights on wreaking havoc on all who are part of the show, the audience included. Its ending is a wonderful surprise moment that sends the audience shrieking in terror.
Video: The Possessed show
I didn’t see this magic show myself, but Inside the Magic writer Jeremiah Daws did, offering his take on it:
I was expecting a sideshow freakshow type of thing but instead found a charming old man telling stories of working on the midway as a young boy while he performed magic. He’s a member of California’s famous Magic Castle and his act was similar to a performance you’d see there on any given night. The show was a family-friendly affair complete with his college-aged daughter helping him with props. He even spoke to her in a secret carney language that only they understood. (Or so he said.) After the show he invited guests to come up and look at his hand-made gags and magic tricks that he sells out of a charming case for a few bucks each.
The act fit the park’s Birdcage theater nicely because of the venue’s history – one of Steve Martin’s early gigs – but doesn’t fit the overall Haunt event very well. It’s definitely the most old-fashioned element to Knott’s Scary Farm. If I used the word charming too much for you, then you may not like the show. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t shocking. It was just… charming.
Fiesta De Los Muertos
This high-energy dance celebration is definitely the party spot of the night, featuring vibrant colors illuminating a glowing backdrop of skulls and similarly dressed dancers with a DJ. It’s a nice Halloween-style twist on a typical theme park dance party, a place for guests to blow off any extra energy they might have. It’s not what I personally enjoy at Halloween events but there were plenty of people having a good time there.
Gypsy dancers emerge with swords, belly dancing the evening away. The dancers arrive on stage wearing rather skimpy outfits, not afraid to show off their bodies of all shapes and sizes. Their moves are meant to be hypnotic and with the placement of their stage located between two haunted houses (Endgames and Dominion of the Damned) they offer nice entertainment for those waiting in line. But I wouldn’t go out of your way to see them.
Knott’s Scary Farm Tips and Tricks
Knott’s Scary Farm 2013 continues on select nights for the rest of October. You can buy tickets now and find more information at Knotts.com.
Check back soon for a behind-the-scenes, lights-on look at several of the newest mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm as well as peek inside the costuming and make-up department!
More photos from Knott’s Scary Farm 2013:
(Photos by Ricky Brigante and Tyler Rowe)