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These theme park workers will give you the creeps

Scaring the living daylights out of people around Halloween is big business, and teams of experts work year-round to create mazes filled with gore and bedlam.

October 24, 2012|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • David Wally, the talent director for Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, says he looks at the Halloween maze as "a big continuous performance piece." Above, he oversees the cast members' makeup.
David Wally, the talent director for Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, says… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Even before the fake blood and plastic skeletons are put away after Halloween, Todd Faux is already thinking of new ways to dispatch his 1,000 or so monsters to scare the living daylights out of you next year.

As entertainment design manager at Knott's Berry Farm, Faux has unleashed vampires, a deranged butcher, zombie cannibals and a homicidal Pinocchio on park visitors during its annual Halloween Haunt event. His task now is to come up with something even creepier for next Halloween.

"The research is the fun part of the job," he said. "Oh, yeah, I have to watch horror movies."

Faux is among a handful of fear peddlers at Southern California theme parks who create and manage the gore- and bedlam-filled mazes that draw thousands of horror fans in the weeks leading up to Halloween. It's a ghoulish enterprise that started in Southern California nearly 40 years ago.

Such jobs have evolved from temporary posts to crucial full-time gigs, held by professionals with training in theater or filmmaking. They oversee hundreds of actors, technicians, wardrobe experts and set builders. And now big money is at stake.

Across the country, Halloween attractions such as haunted houses, theme park mazes and festivals bring in about $300 million in revenue each year, according to the trade group Haunted Attraction Assn.

Attraction designers now trade notes at annual gatherings such as Transworld's Halloween and Attractions Show in Missouri and Monsterpalooza in Burbank.

Maze design has also become a high-profile job. Just ask John Murdy, the creative director at Universal Studios Hollywood. He starred in a recent meet-and-greet event that drew more than 500 horror fans to a theater in the park.

"People are walking up and asking me for autographs," said Murdy, who created his first haunted house at his Whittier home when he was 10 years old. "That is really weird to me."

In the not-too-distant past, Halloween scares were primarily offered at haunted houses or hay rides operated by nonprofit groups such as the Boy Scouts of America or the local chamber of commerce, said Patrick Konopelski, president of the Haunted Attraction Assn. And the scares, he said, were created by high school students with latex masks and plastic knives.

Halloween attractions at theme parks now feature infrared sensors, multi-channel audio tracks, animatronics, 3-D technology and movie-quality makeup. Konopelski estimates the cost of building a maze at as much as $150,000, including equipment, props and lighting.

"The days are gone of the black hallway and props on a fishing line," Konopelski said. "We now have designers, sets and technicians all taking part in the attractions."

Knott's was the first major theme park in the country in 1973 to remodel its park with ghosts and monsters and open it after dark for Halloween. The park added the first walk-through maze in 1977.

Since then, Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Disneyland and the Queen Mary, among other theme parks across the country, have invested millions of dollars to draw Halloween revelers.

Theme parks won't disclose attendance numbers, but officials at Knott's say the park's annual Halloween Haunt has brought in about 8 million visitors since it started and is responsible for about 15% of the park's annual attendance.

The main attraction at such Halloween events are the mazes, temporary labyrinths decorated in blood, gore and creepy movie props and teeming with costumed actors who jump out from behind hidden doors and curtains. The mazes carry names such as "Black Out," "Village of the Damned" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Ticket prices to enter the parks after hours range from $24 to $99, depending on the park and added features such as passes to zip to the front of the line.

For designers of such mazes, the biggest challenge is coming up with new creepy themes and ways to frighten jaded teens and adult horror fans.

"We are trying to make it amazing every year and keep within the time and budget that we have," said Faux, who worked as a theater designer for musicals and dinner theaters before starting at Knott's in 1994. He said his love for horror grew from watching the television series "Dark Shadows" when he was a child.

Many maze designers at Southern California theme parks have a background in theater or movies, including David Wally, the talent director for Queen Mary, who previously worked as executive producer on "Hostage," starring Bruce Willis, and co-producer of "Meet Joe Black," starring Brad Pitt.

Wally likes to compare Halloween mazes to nightly shows. "The way I look at it is as a big continuous performance piece," he said.

Murdy, a theater major who began designing theme park rides before taking over at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in 2006, has the advantage of using Universal Studio's connections in the entertainment industry to borrow stories and characters from popular TV shows and horror flicks, such as "The Walking Dead" television series.

"I want the guests to feel like they walked into the screen of a horror movie," he said, adding that he has even borrowed sound effects from horror movies for his mazes.

At Universal Studios Hollywood, the lights, sounds and animatronics for each maze are managed from individual control rooms. "We go to ridiculous lengths to get the effect," Murdy said.

The hours can be long, particularly during maze construction when the designers might put in 12- to 16-hour days. J.J. Wickham, the creative director at the Queen Mary, said she has slept onboard several nights during maze production.

Although they work in the world of gore and horror, the designers are not immune to the terrors of the mazes.

"When I first got the job last year," Wickham said, "I was scared to enter the mazes by myself."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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