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Theme Parks Are a Scream

Family

Knott's Scary Farm started it all, and now fright nights are a Halloween staple.

October 05, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somebody's created a monster--a monster of a holiday in Halloween.

Over the past few years, huge crowds have been swarming into Southern California theme parks for their Halloween fright nights. Like the zombies in "Night of the Living Dead," they just keep coming.

With a concoction of eerie sets and special effects mixed with gruesome creatures lurking in every shadow, Universal Studios, Knott's Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and the Queen Mary have all concocted what might be called "extreme fright zones." These events--which begin this weekend at three of the four parks--are not for the faint of heart.

Universal Studios, home to some of the classic monsters in horror film history, uses its resources as a working film studio to dazzle and frazzle audiences with its "Halloween Horror Nights," opening next week on Friday the 13th. For the past three years, Universal has unearthed "celebrity auteurs" to create harrowing walk-through mazes packed with gobs of gore and ghastly special effects.

Author-filmmaker Clive Barker--who's made a few memorable characters of his own with films such as "Candyman" and "Hellraiser" and literary works such as "The Books of Blood"--is back for a third go as the creative force behind a maniacal maze.

With this year's "Harvest," based on one of Barker's actual nightmares, he promises to "really push the disgust button, [with] things oozing down the walls and running around your feet."

Barker believes that it is his duty as a maze designer to "commit to the most troubling, disturbing experience you can give."

And the public devours it. The reason, Barker says, is because it's all in good fun: People love to get the daylights scared out of them while knowing they'll walk away physically unscathed.

"I watch all these people going in, smiling and laughing," he explains, "then you hear them screaming their heads off. Then they come out again laughing."

One of the ghoulish figures popping up in "Rob Zombie's American Nightmare" maze is likely to be Zombie himself. The rock musician (formerly of White Zombie) is back at Universal for a second year, with his skewed view of the all-American dysfunctional family.

"My only goal is to scare people," says Zombie, who got such chills getting into disguise and hiding in his own maze last year that he plans to do it again.

Other "Horror Nights" auteurs with backgrounds in the macabre are WWF superstar the Undertaker, whose harrowing history will be revealed in the maze, and Joss Whedon, creator of TV's "Angel" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

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The fans for this sort of thing are primarily young people--the ones who inspired a whole film genre: the teen horror flick.

The idea to haunt a theme park--a traditional bastion of family entertainment--was conceived 28 years ago at Knott's Berry Farm. For one night only, the Ghost Town was transformed into a graveyard, with monsters, cobwebs and a creepy maze.

"It was a way to get a bit more business," says Bob Ochsner, Knott's spokesman. It worked so well that crowds for Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt now rival those for the summer tourist season, he reports.

Held over 19 nights, beginning tonight with a preview, Knott's Scary Farm offers 1,000 live monsters and other loathsome lugs lurking among 11 mazes and five scare zones. Ghoulish stage shows include "Elvira's Monster Rock Revue," returning for its 14th year, and "The Hanging" in Calico Square, featuring the Cryptkeeper.

Knott's mixes new attractions and old favorites to keep the hordes of horror fans coming back, says Ochsner. At least 50% of the Scary Farm visitors are returnees, he says, and half are older than 22.

"For years we were the only one [doing this]," Ochsner says. "Only in the last five or six years has there been any competition. But Halloween has really taken off."

Indeed. Knott's, the Queen Mary and Magic Mountain all have new 3-D attractions this year, in an attempt to keep the gruesome entertainment fresh.

The 3-D House of Hallucinations brings the number of mazes to six in the haunted hull of the Queen Mary. Three other mazes are constructed on board the ship, and two in the Queen's Marketplace on shore.

The Queen Mary's Shipwreck attraction set sail six years ago, with a single maze in the eternally creepy engine room. That event, according to ship president Joseph Prevratil, boosted normal attendance by about 17,000. With the attraction growing to include five mazes last year, he says, attendance was up 55,000 above the norm.

One thing that he hopes will entice even more visitors to the ship, Prevratil says, is the price. "We are in direct competition with the theme parks," Prevratil says, "but [at $23] we are less expensive."

Also, unlike any of the other Halloween attractions, Shipwreck guests can follow up their tour of terror with a Top 40 dance party, which is included in the admission price. (But Shipwreck is a separate attraction from the Queen Mary's Ghosts & Legends, which opened earlier this year on board the ship.)

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