Thursday, October 2, 2008

Knott's Halloween Haunt

I've already blogged about The Hanging at this year's Halloween Haunt, so I thought I'd take a look at the rest of the event.

We stayed at the Knott's Resort Hotel, which used to be a Radisson, and was actually better when it was, though only in mostly minor ways. First being, no free Internet. $6 for an hour, $10 for a night. I was fine without the 'net, but that sort of thing annoys me.

Far worse, though is that they've messed with the water flow to the rooms, so that there's very little pleasure in taking a shower and it takes forever to fill a bath. That's a pet peeve of mine.

Unlike most amusement parks, Knott's takes some care with their food. (The food inside the park is varied and while not exactly good and of course outrageously priced, it beats most of the other parks by a mile. They have a Johnny Rocket's and a Panda Express, for example.) Mrs. Knott's Chicken Kitchen, just outside the park, is rather good, on the other hand. But they don't take reservations and the lines are just enormous around Haunt time. Since we were at the hotel, a buffet is part of the deal, which is not quite up to Mrs. Knott's level.

Anyway, the big deal about the Haunt is the mazes and monsters. Lots of monsters wandering around the park trying to scare you. These guys are fun and good at spotting victims, whether screamy teen girls or people who are focused on other things. (They love coming up to me when I'm looking at the map.)

They have 13 mazes and a bunch of shows. On the first night, not all the shows are playing, but we managed to pack in four shows and see all the mazes (except for "Pyromaniax", which is the log flume, and my kids are weird about log flumes).

Besides the log flume, the other ride that gets converted to Halloween-style is the mine ride. If you've never been to Knott's, or its sister park Calico (out in the desert), the mine ride is one of those '50s era throwbacks where a slow-moving mine car takes you through some representations of historical mining practices. It's as thrilling as it sounds!

For years, this was turned into an Army of Darkness-themed ride called "Army of the Underworld", one of our favorites. Last year, I think it was, they changed it to become "The Lair of the Black Widow", a spider-themed ride. It was pretty thin, last year, as if often the case with the new mazes. This year, they had added a bunch of cool stuff, though they are quite constrained--as with the log flume--because of the structure of the ride itself. So, there's always a guy in this one box, and always an animatronic dealy-bob over there, etc. This year they had the animatronic dealy-bob lunge at you (as always), but then it spit out some slightly moist air, which was pretty effective.

By far the dinkiest maze in the park (due, as I say, to structural issues), and yet the only one that The Flower would absolutely not look at. The other mazes were gorier, disgusting, loud--and she was fine through them all. But apparently she draws the line at giant spiders.

Anyway, we always do the mine ride first, before the park opens to the general public, because no matter how light a day it is, there can be lines. (Because you do get to sit down for a few minutes, I'm quite positive.)

From there I work the park in a counter-clockwise direction. The trick is to get the heavy-walking done up front. Although I know The Boy is good for the whole time, this was only The Flower's third trip, and she wasn't sure she was going to come. (Last year we did the log flume, and--well, I told you my kids were weird about the log flume.) We actually hit all the mazes except one by 9:30.

Lost Vegas was the first maze we did. This is a potpourri (that's SO not an appropriate word here) of buffet gluttony, zombie strippers and Elvis impersonators.

13 Axe Murder Manor is the scariest maze on the lot. In non-Halloween times, it's the "ride" where the old Indian tells you a story and they make it look like the smoke from his campfire is making little cartoons. Before it was "13 Axe Murder Manor" it was a cajun-themed, mutant hillbilly deal--and still was the scariest maze on the lot. One year, they had a Leatherface-style chainsaw weilding maniac--cleverly using a real chainsaw without the chain, so it had the real sounds and smells--and my mom has never gone back to the park.


Part of this ride is a parody of The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, done in very grisly form. The one year we brought one of The Flower's peers, he freaked out.

The park gives you lots of warnings about not bringing kids, which is smart. Now, in practice, 95% of the monsters are going to respond in a friendly way to a child, if they respond at all. But there's always at least one who wants to scare the kids. Those seem to gravitate toward this ride.

Last year, they made The Flower very nervous, but she'll take The Boy's hand on one side and mine on the other, and she didn't even flinch.

Meanwhile, she loves The Doll Factory, because, you know: Dolls! This is another one of those rides that has its share of hot chicks in short skirts and stockings. (Hey, it's hard to be a guy sometimes: You're supposed to be scared, not leering.)

Although only in its second year, this has a nice, spooky theme and some great visuals. It's interesting how "anomalous imagery" (as HP Lovecraft might have styled it) can be created just by oversizing something a bit. The park can't be overly subtle when it need to move huge crowds through, but you can linger a bit on the first day and appreciate some of the finer points. (The Boy and I tend to be a little clinical in that regard: We like the special effects and aesthetics of the mazes.)

Two of the mazes are parked at the far west end of the lot, and are often pretty weak. They're good ones to get out of the way early on before you get too tired. If you come in the side gate "VIP" entrance (as we do), you're actually right there, and it'd probably be smarter to do those first than it is to run to the mine ride. (But, if you haven't gathered, I hate lines.)

The Asylum is, you know, what you'd expect. Crazy people and lobotomies, overenthusiastic shock therapy and the like. And this year it feeds into Club Blood. They retired the aged, highly-polished "Lair of the Vampires" (which was interesting if for no other reason than it was a kind of "vampire through the ages", besides being the repository for most of the hot-chick-type "monsters"--I mean, what self-respecting girl doesn't want to be a vampire these days?), and recycled bits of it for this dance-club themed vampire maze.

In a weird turn, the theme is more "morning after" vampire: You basically follow the story of women seduced by vampires who then get pregnant and give birth to demon babies.

Surprisingly strong for a first year maze. I wonder if it's related to that "True Blood" series on HBO that I haven' t looked at.

In The Slaughterhouse--the very theme makes me think of Motel Hell with Rory Calhoun--I discovered I do have a "rule" of sorts about mazes: I have my doubts about being made complicit in evil activities.

I've talked about this before, but the phrase "torture porn" gets thrown around a lot with regard to movies, without any sense of what means, or what it should mean. I like, for example, the Saw movies, the first Hostel movie, and a lot of other movies and stories that feature graphic violence.

But what they have in common is that you're not supposed to enjoy the violence. That is, you're not supposed to be a sadist. You're supposed to empathize--especially in the early Saw movies--with, "Wow, what would I do in that situation."

In the '70s, there were quite a few movies where the violence was sexualized, and these movies are nearly unwatchable.
So, in this maze, the idea is supposed to be that you're trapped by sausage-making madman who want to auction you off and make you into the daily special, but in fact, you're treated more as a knowing customer.

As I said, a little uncomfortable. But if horror isn't about some discomfort, what it is about? It's all in good fun? Right? This is the first time I can recall having this at the park--and it happened in a later maze, too.

Alien Annihiliation and Corn Stalkers: For years, Knott's--to get their thirteen mazes in--has tried to do something with this narrow stretch at the east end of the park. Since they first opened it has been a generic sort of maze called "Dark Passage", and they spiced it up a bit by making it a laser-tag game.

This year, they took the laser tag game in-doors and placed it on a spaceship full of aliens you could blow away. The Flower got herself a gun and shot them all--and most of them actually fell down, which was pretty cool given how long a night these guys have. The Flower was a little Ripley and even blasted the giant alien at the end.

Meanwhile, the area that used to be "Dark Passage" had been given a sort of evil-Wizard of Oz feel, complete with Tin Man and an assortment of scarecrows. The problem, though, is that the area is so small that even on the first night, you end up bunched up with a crowd trying to navigate through the tight turns. Plus it's just not quite "there" yet. It has a very generic feel still.

The other ride where they controlled entry--not because of crowds but because they were trying to get a particular effect in the opening room, was Quarantine. Movie-based mazes are usually lame: First of all, it seems to take a while to develop a good maze. "The Grudge 2" maze was quite bad the first year, and really excellent the second year, when it was no longer relevant. Second of all, there's often not that much in a movie that constitutes good maze material. Last years "Beowulf" maze was just sad.

Happily, this maze was quite effective, even if a little light. The opening room is large-ish and has story elements and a creepy atmosphere with a surprise effect. And what was particularly effective was that most mazes funnel you in a particular direction. You know where the side-pockets are, and the "scares" (such as they are) tend to come from this focusing of your attention in one place while coming at you from a different direction.

A room in "Quarantine" had you in the center of a room, with zombie-ish infected creatures all around you, slowly encroaching on your personal space. I don't know if they'll be able to keep it up when the park reaches "Mark of Gideon" crowd densities but it was definitely a worthy addition to the catalogue.

Also, I'm gonna hafta go see the movie just to figure out what the demon-baby thing is. I've not been paying much attention to the commercials but now that I've been through the maze, I've noticed a flash of the demon-baby image in the commercial.

"Quarantine" was the other ride where you were made to feel as an outsider who was not helping the victims. This wasn't so bad because the implication was that you were gonna be a victim, versus being a customer in "The Slaughterhouse".

Right around here, The Flower saw a show going on, so we sat down and watched Zamora do his thing. I'm not a sideshow guy, not since I was a kid. (I don't like the circus, either.) But the kids seemed to like the whole laying-on-bed-of-nails, arm-skewering and the like. Fire-eating is always fun. And at the end they had a bit where a woman sits on a tesla-coil-ish thing and shoots lighting out of her fingers. (They did a thing on that on the Discovery channel, but it's fun to see it live.) I have some pix of this that didn't come out well.

Replacing the old "Lair of the Vampire" was The Labyrinth, inspired by Pan's Labyrinth more than the muppet movie. This is the one maze we went through twice, because The Flower liked it so much. It's not really scary, but it's very cool: Lots of cute girls as faeries, with a bunch of guys dressed as satyrs. The Flower practiced her curtsey with the faerie queen, and it looked liked they stole Grendel's animatronic machinery to make a keen rock golem-thingy, reminiscient of Hellboy 2. It sort of petered out a bit at the end but was still enjoyable.

At that point, it was 9:30 and we had done all the maze but one, so we went to see The Hanging.

After the Hanging we ran over to Killer Klown Kollege, which seemed remarkably subdued this year. They did have bungee guy, which is cool: One of the effects they have is to make a big recessed area with a guy at the far end, 5-10 feet off the ground, and hooked to a bungee. They fill the area up with fog and the guy leaps at you.

So what you see is this guy flying out of the fog at you. Very nice. They also did this very effectively on "13 Axe Murder Manor", but everything's freakier with clowns.

We tried to see the Chipper Lowell experience after this, but he didn't show up (he was supposed to). But we did catch "Inferno", an apparently local group of 2 girls and three guys, plus a third gal with a fire-extinguisher. They did what's known as "fire dancing", which is sort of like rhythmic gymnastics if you set all the implements on fire.

The funny thing, to me, was the way the girls were smiling. I couldn't tell if they were doing a straight "pageant-smile"--that freaky, frozen thing that beauty pageant contestants do--or whether they had juiced it up with a little Jack Nicholson, pyromanic-type thing. (The fact that their faces were very close to fire may have added a certain demonic quality.)

They seemed like nice young, fire-eating kids. The Flower got her picture taken with them.

The Boy got hungry so he had a bit to eat and The Flower rode the nearby carousel a couple of times. You know, it's a bit of a challenge to take a picture of someone on a carousel at midnight, while it's moving? Just in case you were wondering.

We didn't have an opportunity to see the vampire show "Fangs". Those tend to be a bit racy, but--you know, it's funny. I took The Boy, in one of his first visits, to see Elvira's last show at the park, or possibly the one right after he last show, which was even racier. Kids ignore this stuff; I mean, it's tamer than what's on TV, and (at least my kids) are pretty content to stay in the Nick/Toon/Disney band.

Which is good, because the Bird Cage performance was basically "ball jokes". There was a little ball bath on stage and they went "South Park". The Bird Cage is usually so-so. If I were to bitch, though, I'd probably just complain that initially, audience participation and improvisation was a bigger part, and I've noticed they've gone almost totally scripted.

Still, it's cool to see where Steve Martin honed his chops.

The Boy discovered the knife and gun store and the Flower wanted, for her souvenir, a cigar box with John Wayne's picture on it. $40 seemed a bit steep, though, especially since she has no idea who John Wayne is. (She just like boxes.)

Then we mosied on out to the strains of "God Bless America", satisfied with the days shenanigans. All-in-all a good year and good job to the Knott's folk.


  1. Hi Blake - thanks for the HAUNT reviews! But I did want to let you know that the Chipper Lowell Experience! show is only scheduled for selected nights, unlike other past HAUNTS when his show was usually performing every night of Haunt. He's one of my kids' favorites, along with my husband and me, and we try to catch him every chance we can. For the first weekend, he is only scheduled to perform on Friday and Saturday. Trust me, we were just as bummed as you were to find that he wasn't scheduled for all of the Haunt days. (We actually CALLED Knott's to inquire about his shows for October.)

    Thank you again for a great post/blog about the Haunt!

  2. You're welcome and thanks for stopping by!

    The map they hand out had him performing on the day--and nobody IN the park actually knew, heh--so it's probably smart to call the park and ask if you have any doubts.


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