Quality is as important as quantity in any self-respecting haunt, but sometimes the numbers speak for themselves. In 2010, Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights had four scratch-built mazes. That same year, Knott’s had eleven, not counting grisly overlays to the historic Calico Mine Ride and Timber Mountain Log Ride.
With the competition never fiercer, Halloween Haunt turned its limitations into strengths. With few exceptions, Universal’s studio-quality mazes only lasted one season. Knott’s kept theirs for four or more years, justifying a deeper investment into their design. Plywood sets became lush environments. Off-the-rack masks turned into custom prosthetics. B-movie loglines developed into carefully crafted stories. Scares that didn’t work could be refined, replaced, or removed entirely, salvaging what could’ve been remembered as a bad one-off maze. As a result, Halloween Haunt consistently, organically grew from year to year. Not always bigger but, in theory, always better. It might not inspire as much repeat business as Universal’s annual slash-and-burn, but it did allow for more experimentation.
Knott’s Halloween Haunt celebrated its 40th anniversary with Trapped, one of the earliest “escape room” attractions in the United States. For an additional fee, groups of up to six people could test their mettle through a gauntlet of personalized nightmares from eating creepy-crawlies to summoning Bloody Mary in a hall of mirrors. The success of this experience would inspire the Skeleton Key pass, which allowed access to secret rooms in select mazes. These upcharge experiences could be as simple as a brief stay in a closed coffin or as involved as a mock séance.
Even if both practices were abandoned by the end of the decade, the distinct theatricality remained. Paranormal, Inc. starts with an effects-heavy preshow before guests are let into the maze proper. A simulated elevator ride into the Earth’s crust was eventually added to The Depths. The churning process wasn’t always smooth - some mazes wore out their welcome, others had the misfortune to last until more elaborate designs outpaced them - but it gave Knott’s a new lease on the afterlife.
If you want to walk through the latest silver screen slashers, go to Universal. But if you want handcrafted, homemade terror in your theme park haunt, there’s no better place to go than where it all began.
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