For the first time in the event’s history, attendance for Knott’s Scary Farm’s Halloween Haunt was catching up to the summer crowds. Universal’s star-powered Halloween Horror Nights revival didn’t last a year into the new millennium. Freed of its biggest competitor, bolstered by record ticket sales, the Haunt had nowhere to go but up. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long to become the event’s most tenuous decade.
Elvira’s long tenure with Halloween Haunt came to an end in 2002 as a cost-cutting measure in the post-9/11 tourist recession. It might’ve been the biggest penny pinched, but it was far from the last. Sold-out crowds started showing up later and later into the season, leaving day-of discount tickets to lure in curious stragglers. Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Fright Fest kept some Californians north and the Queen Mary’s Shipwreck kept others south.
After trying it briefly at the end of the ‘90s, Knott’s made another play for name-brand popularity with mazes based on recent releases like The Ring 2 and Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf. The limited-time licensing, however, didn’t fit with the event’s new rhythm of running each maze for four or five years before replacing it with something new. The legally dubious workaround was mazes merely inspired by recognizable horror films. Not Army of Darkness, but Army of the Underworld. Not Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but Carnivorous Clowns from Outer Space. Haunt’s pursuit of Hollywood synergy would largely come to an end in 2009, when a planned Zombieland scarezone was cancelled by Sony Pictures less than a month from opening night.
With the 2006 resurrection of Halloween Horror Nights, this time to stay, Knott’s adjusted its aim. The park that started as a fried chicken restaurant couldn’t compete with Universal’s century-old backlog of famous, frightful faces. But Haunt had something Universal didn’t - homemade heritage. Soon enough, that would make all the difference.
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By 1990, Knott’s Scary Farm’s “Monster College” was training over 500 ghouls a year. Sold-out weekends were more rule than exception. The event had bested local imitators before, but now every regional park in the country seemed to have its own take on Halloween Haunt. Without the celebrity guests that exemplified the ‘80s, the decade would be about standing out in an ever-busier industry.
What the competition ultimately couldn’t reverse-engineer out of Knott’s was its sense of humor. The signs were there with Elvira and “Weird Al” Yankovic. The Hanging’s turn to pop culture parody made it official. Halloween Haunt wasn’t just teeth-grinding terror - it was also black comedy only a wink, nudge, and fake corpse away from bad taste. The Timothy L. Eerie Time Machine maze mixed ‘60s psychedelia with zombified casualties of the Vietnam War. One XXXXXL Elvis jumpsuit later, Kingdom of the Dinosaurs became Kingdom of the Lounge Lizards. A murderous Santa Claus moved into the Timber Mountain Log Ride for a few years.
As Universal armed itself with known quantities like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Six Flags Magic Mountain enlisted the dark arts of Alice Cooper, Knott’s beat them both on sheer attitude, let alone craftsmanship. Fan-favorite mazes returned with annual revisions and reimaginings. Not one to be left behind, Knott’s started recruiting famous faces for its mazes, too. Only a year after his last appearance at Halloween Horror Nights, the Cryptkeeper moved down the 101. Construction had already started on a tie-in maze for Bram Stoker’s Dracula when the rights fell through and it hastily became Dominion of the Dead.
By 1999, those 500 ghouls out of the “Monster College” swelled to well over 1,000. Over 25 years after its debut, Knott’s Halloween Haunt showed no signs of slowing down.