For the 15th year running, Knott's Berry Farm is dressed up for Halloween: The mild-mannered home of the boysenberry has transformed itself into Knott's "Scary" Farm, temporal haunting ground for hundreds of ghastly and horrific creatures. And that's just the teen-agers.
For the three weekends worth of Knott's "Halloween Haunt" (it ends Nov. 1), thrill rides become chill rides. A simple roller coaster, for instance, is converted into a nightmarish journey into hell. And usually courteous, fresh-faced employees are transfigured into ghouls whose sole job is to exploit the primal fears of their customers. Kinda like life insurance agents.
From the beginning, the Haunt was designed as a place to go for a good safe scare. Yet, despite the best efforts of various spooks, goblins and monsters skillfully created by Knott's makeup department, this year's opening night struck me as all too tame. The chill is gone.
When Knott's started the Haunt in 1973, it was an elaborate, high-budget extension of that one eccentric homeowner on every block who really got into Halloween, draping his whole house in black crepe paper and blaring Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor out the windows. Other than those Campus Life haunted houses at local colleges, Knott's pretty much had the commercial fear 'n' fun market to itself.
Lately, though, it seems that Knott's is being done in--at least in terms of its goose-bump quotient--by that cornerstone of America's free-market economy: competition.
No, it's not that individual entrepreneurs have gotten into the act, wildcats like the group of Orange County horror movie buffs who convert a house in Anaheim each year for their no-holds-barred "Nightmare on Lime Street."
Nor even is it that Knott's has to battle such high-tech, multimillion-dollar space fantasies as "Star Tours" and "Captain EO" just a few miles down the road at Disneyland (though it is pretty frightening to think that the lackluster "Captain EO" cost $20 million).
Quite simply, Knott's biggest adversary for shocks is real life. And the way things have been going, Knott's hasn't got a ghost of a chance.
At first I thought maybe it's just me, since it's no easy task to scare anyone further who's single in 1987. But then I realized that the specters of daily life play no favorites.
For instance, one of Knott's most elaborate customization jobs this year is the Auto Race Maze. Pulling out all the stops, Knott's has completely recast the ride in a quasi-Mad Max, post-apocalyptic setting where mutant beings brandish lethal-looking hand weapons and terrorize the roadways. Nothing most commuters haven't faced on the Santa Ana Freeway.
Even with additional Halloween characters leaping out of dark recesses of the Log Ride, what's to fear in a few minor bumps and shakes for those of us who just weathered a 6.1-magnitude roller coaster of an earthquake?
The "Scary Farm" crew didn't even feel the need to spook up the Parachute Sky Jump, which promises to send guests' hearts into their socks with its near-free-fall drop of 20 stories. But that fright pales next to this week's horror of watching the stock market plummet 500 points in one day.
There is "Weird Al" Yankovic's musical revue in the Good Time Theatre--a truly harrowing experience. The show dares audiences to endure the shock of hearing rock's premier pun meister turn Hall and Oates' "Maneater" into "Spam-Eater," James Brown's "Living in America" into "Living With a Hernia"--ouch!--and Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" into "Addicted to Spuds" (potatoes, that is, not the Budweiser party animal).
But other than that, how do you jolt people--especially today's teens who have absorbed a steady diet of "Friday the 13th" and other blood-soaked slasher movies? Not to mention all those years of psyche-damaging exposure to Michael J. Fox.
As kids, my friends and I were genuinely terrified watching the hokey monster antics in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein." But even Mary Shelley's Modern Prometheus can't hold a candle to such latter-day Hollywood creations as the acid-salivating "Alien" or Freddy, the razor-fingered menace of "Nightmare on Elm Street."
Indeed, Knott's resurrects Freddy for its big laser light show-musical production. Freddy, representing the forces of rock 'n' roll to music by the likes of Van Halen, engages in an epic battle for world control with The Mummy, who moves and grooves to the dance-rap music of the Beastie Boys and others.
The fate of the world resting on a choice between Van Halen and the Beastie Boys? Now that's my idea of nightmare.
"Knott's Scary Farm" continues at Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1 from 7 pm to 1 am and on Halloween night from 7 pm till 2 the next morning. Tickets: $15.95 in advance, $17.95 at the gate. Information: 827-1776.