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Don’t Break Character! Knott’s Berry Farm Prepares For Haunt

Pinocchio Unstrung Knott's Scary Farm
Photo By: Aaron Zamora/M.U.S.E. – Music Unty Sports Entertainment

As dusk approaches there is an unfamiliar calm in the atmosphere. No screams. No laughter. The ambient noise of roller coaster cars whooshing through twists and turns are nowhere to be heard. Behind the scenes is a different story. The back lot is its own miniature city with workers coming and going though the employee security gate. For many their day is done and they can go home. No more guests to entertain and assist. No rides to run.

For others, their day is only beginning. They are not entertaining guests, rather they are preparing and working together to put on the best Halloween attraction in Southern California. Their practice run takes them well into the middle of the night, but it is all part of the hard work and dedication that ensures continued success—and scares—for Knott’s Berry Farm’s signature fall attraction: Knott’s Scary Farm Haunt.

Everyone is familiar with the final product produced by Knott’s Berry Farm when they unveil haunt in the beginning of fall. It is a celebration of everything that scares and horrifies during the Halloween season. Haunt includes terrifying mazes, horrifying rides that leave you helpless and vulnerable, and an unsettling feeling while trying to get from point A to point B without being stalked by a ghoul sliding on kneepads.

What we end up taking for granted is all of the hard work and preparation that goes into making Knott’s Scary Farm Haunt the legendary horror experience everyone has come to know and love. Fortunately we were able to get a glimpse into how much time and practice is required to make Haunt successful.

We began our tour at the lot entrance behind the Knott’s Hotel, walking past various buildings housing props and costumes that have adorned Knott’s Berry Farm at one time or another. Our first stop was the maze End Games: Warriors of the Apocalypse, located behind Ghost Rider at the southern edge of the park.

As we arrived the Haunt coordinators were getting scare actors and blackouts into their designated areas throughout the maze. Scare actors, dressed in everyday clothes, were instructed to begin their performances for the coordinators who were about to enter the maze. I along with our guide, Knott’s Berry Farm Public Relations Representative Leidy Arevalo would follow behind them shortly to get a preview of both the rehearsal and the maze.

Upon first stepping into the maze I got a slight chill down my spine as old high school memories of attending Haunt ran through my mind. The ominous and loud music was blaring, the lights were dimmed, and the animatronics were fully functioning. True the actors were in t-shirts and jeans, but scaring is more than wearing intimidating garb—and this was the crucial point of emphasis the coordinators relayed to the scare actors. While navigating through the darkness with my camera, I knew it was only a rehearsal. And it was even more obvious that the inhabitants of the maze were not real monsters because everyone was in plain clothes. That didn’t stop them from giving their every effort to try and scare me while I walked through. I didn’t want to admit it to my editor—who was waiting outside while I had gone in—that their efforts were successful and I gotten a little jumpy. I could only imagine what would happen if they were in full dress and makeup and I didn’t have the luxury of hiding behind my camera.

After our first walkthrough, the coordinators went back in to continue with their instruction. They gave feedback to the scare actors on how to improve their body language and timing. It was then time for the coordinators, followed by myself and our PR guide, to walk through End Games again. Going in back-to-back did not stop a few butterflies from accumulating in my stomach, and once again they still managed to get me.

As we exited the maze all the scare actors who had just tried—and succeeded—to scare me followed us to the entrance of the maze.  They gathered around the maze like a giant family as they received additional instruction from the coordinators. The biggest point of emphasis relayed to the actors: Don’t Break Character!

After the quick talk, the blackouts were sent back into the maze to practice evacuation protocol using the scare actors as simulated guests walking through the maze. Leidy explained that it was their job to be prepared to escort guests out of the maze immediately in case of emergency, one of the many safety precautions that Haunt proudly practices and emphasizes to all its personnel.

By now it had pretty much gone from dusk to night as the scare actors gathered again one last time. They were nice enough to pose for a large group picture and one of the scare actors, Jose Cardenas, gave us some insight into the motivations and experiences working with Knott’s Scary Farm.

“This is my fourth year doing it,” Jose explained. “My little sister did it first for two years and she told me what its about and I’ve always loved to scare people on Halloween.” When asked about what he enjoys about Halloween Haunt the most, he replied, “getting paid to scare. You make a little kid piss his pants, you get praised! I’ve gotten teenagers that sit in the corner screaming and urinating themselves!”

Before we left, we had to ask Jose his most memorable experience from his years working Haunt. Apparently, he is so talented that he sent a girl running and screaming for the exit in such a fright that she hurt herself. “The girl clotheslined herself,” he recounted to us, “she actually did a whole flip.”

Once the actors departed from End Games we had some time before going on to the next maze in the park. Our guide was gracious enough to take us to the employee cafeteria for coffee as we chatted about Knott’s events beyond Haunt. Despite the park already being closed for several hours there were plenty of workers going in and out dressed in their Knott’s work attire. Clearly their night was barely starting too as they poured generous amounts of coffee for themselves.

After waiting a while for the next maze to be prepared, we made our way through the actual park. Walking through Ghost Town in order to reach Pinocchio Unstrung was in itself an eerie experience. No one was on the streets, most of the lights were out, and it was unimaginably quiet. While by no means an official Haunt attraction, it certainly felt like one. I found myself picking up my pace as we walked to the barn where the maze was located. Ghouls stalking me on sliding kneepads were not necessary.

We arrived at Pinocchio Unstrung and the maze was empty, so our guide gave us the opportunity to walk through the maze with the lights on and space vacated of scare actors. I walked through with the expectation that the light would take away from the nuances that make a maze so disturbing. I was wrong. As we walked through you could see up close all of the amazing detail that is put into the construction of the maze, from the walls to the decorations. This twisted fantasy felt absolutely real.

Knott's Scary Farm's Daniel Miller
Knott’s Scary Farm’s Daniel Miller creator of Pinocchi Unstrung. Photo by Michael Sandoval/M.U.S.E. – Music Unity Sports Entertainment

After our illuminated walkthrough we met with Daniel Miller, the designer for Pinocchio Unstrung, Delirium, and new maze Black Magic. These are just a few among the many others he has designed in his past 15 years working for Haunt. It was the perfect opportunity to ask him about Pinocchio Unstrung.

“We originally envisioned this as a 3-D maze,” Daniel began, “but we’ve been slowly phasing that out. It is much darker and scarier when we don’t have the 3-D paint on this. And Pinocchio in itself is just creepy. People don’t realize that they watch the movie as kids and its great. Then they revisit it as adults and there are just so many scary things about it. The idea of this is pretty dark and twisted,” continued Daniel, “Pinocchio, after twenty years, is seeking revenge because he never became a real boy. He becomes a homicidal maniac. He kills all these people and strips them of their skin and puts it on his own self. “

We also got to ask Daniel about what originally got him interested . “When I was a kid, I would come to Knott’s Scary Farm. I was a local kid. And my mom used to love taking me to horror films. I was watching Friday the 13th when I was twelve. Nothing really phased me and I was getting into Halloween.”

Of course I had to ask Daniel the all-important question about Pinocchio Unstrung: does Pinocchio get his revenge?

“You’ll have to walk through. In the very final scene, you will see.”

After our interview the scare actors began to arrive as one big group. They gathered together outside of the entrance while Daniel explained the narrative of the maze. The coordinators then had everyone line up and proceed into the maze to be assigned to their spots. Meanwhile my editor and I waited outside with Daniel and our guide Leidy, chit chatting about various aspects of the horror genre. It was interesting to hear Daniel’s thoughts and interests about classic horror movies, literature, and television. It was clear that he was truly passionate about anything and everything that would give someone like me nightmares for weeks.

After an initial walkthrough the scare actors came back out. The coordinators had to work out some technical issues and Daniel went over to speak with them. It was then that we had a chance to speak with another scare actor.

“I’ve been a monster for four years. I’ve been a painter those years as well,” explained Faun Hutchinson. “I had quite a bit of family that has done it. When I was younger than them, I definitely looked up to it and saw how much fun it was. And I wanted to do it myself.” Faun was also kind enough to give us some insight into the mental preparation of being a scare actor. “Once you know what the venues are and you have an idea of what you want to do you kind of prep yourself mentally ‘these are the positions available to me’, ‘what do I think I can mentally fit into’ and really pull out of the maze so its more 3-D instead of 2-D.”

Perhaps most indicative of what it is like to be a part of Haunt was Faun’s elaboration of their communal spirit. “The family. Each monster is a member of your family and we all come together because we love one thing and that’s Halloween.” She continued, “It’s amazing. It’s a chance to be somebody else for a night. It’s magical.”

After our interview the maze was up and running. The scare actors went in and took their places for the rehearsal walkthrough and once again I would be going in with our guide to preview the terror brought upon by Pinocchio Unstrung. The coordinators went in and we slowly followed them, and like last time the scare actors managed to get me despite the fact that they weren’t in costume. It also didn’t help that all sorts of haunting doll imagery was placed throughout the maze. It was bad enough in the light, so you can only image how much more disturbing it was to see them swinging at me in the dark.

After the first walkthrough the coordinators once again went in to give feedback and coaching to all the actors. Then once again we found ourselves walking through what I can only describe as a surreal sociopathic madness. If it weren’t for the fact that I needed more photos I would have probably just ran through the maze as opposed to my somewhat brisk pace.

As my guide and I walked out of the maze the scare actors soon followed. They gathered around in a group one last time in front of the maze and got a final pep talk from their coordinator. And just like End Games, they emphasized the same main point.

Don’t Break Character!

After their pep talk, it was time for my editor and I to leave. It was already past 11pm and we were told that the scare actors were not done with their training for the night. They had to go through more scare school before their night would be over and had a dress rehearsal scheduled several days later. It became clear to me that this is not an endeavor for the faint. This is dedication and hard work at its finest and I found a new appreciation for all those actors who scared the pants off of me back when I was a teenager in high school.

The long walk through the lot was dark and quiet. The entirety of the park was a ghost town as the full moon shown brightly in the night sky. We reached the security gate from where we entered and bid our guide Leidy goodnight. Our day had ended.

The most incredible part about seeing these individuals go through scare training was the hard work and enthusiasm they put into their performance. It didn’t matter that it was late and they probably had come from a long day at work. And it didn’t matter that they weren’t in full attire or just scaring a couple of fearless Haunt coordinators or a measly little reporter. They gave their all. It was clear they loved what they were doing and they were developing a strong bond with their fellow monsters-to-be.

So when you visit Knott’s Scary Farm this Halloween season and walk through Pinocchio Unstrung or End Games, think about the months of preparation that went into the design and construction of the sets. Appreciate the long nights of practice that all those actors put in to make sure you scream a little louder. They are the heart and soul that make Haunt the decades old success and fun it has always been.

So don’t forget to say thank you for all their hard work by screaming as loud as you can.

Knott’s Scary Farm begins next Thursday, September 26 and will run through November 2. Tickets are still available by visiting https://www.knotts.com/haunt.

Knott’s Berry Farm Scare School Images:

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Aaron Zamora

Aaron grew up in Whittier, California and is currently finishing his master's degree in Human Communication studies from California State University, Fullerton. His interest in journalism began in high school where he served as the Editor-in-Chief for his school’s newspaper and participated in their inaugural broadcast journalism program. An avid world traveler, Aaron has a wide array of interest that include a passion for cinema and television. He is also a sports fanatic.

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