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Thursday, December 8, 2022

How a campy 1970s TV host changed Calif. theme parks forever

On an October afternoon in 1973, Knott’s Berry Farm was engulfed in thick fog. Its historic grounds were invaded by terrifying monsters. But this wasn’t some horrible experiment gone wrong…it was the first ever Halloween theme park event. And it all started with a cheesy horror TV personality.

Today, ghosts and goblins go hand in hand with coasters and churros, and visitors can’t get enough of the spooky haunted mazes and terrifying characters. It would be hard to find an amusement or theme park without a special event during the spookiest time of year, from Disneyland’s oogie boogie party to Universal’s Halloween horror nights to (this year) Great America’s tricks and treats. Nearly 50 years ago, it was Knott’s Berry Farm that introduced the masses to the marriage of terror and theme park fanaticism, forever changing the industry as we know it and inspiring countless imitators.

As one of the nation’s first themed amusement parks, Knott’s Berry Farm’s roots go back to the 1920s, long before disneyland open and even served as inspiration for the mouse house. In many ways, the historic park was a quiet innovator in the theme park industry.

The Wax Works Maze at Knott's Scary Farm.

The Wax Works Maze at Knott’s Scary Farm.

Courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm

By the early 1970s, Knott’s Berry Farm had become much more than a bustling chicken restaurant and growing park. Entertainment was the centerpiece of everything he did, and also a driving force behind the first theme park event, which is now Knott’s Scary Farm. This year marks the park’s 49th season of scaring its guests with monsters and a terrifying immersion in haunted hellscapes.

“I boil it down to one person: Larry Vincent,” Ted Dougherty told SFGATE. A writer, director, and author, Dougherty is one of the creative masterminds behind Knott’s Scary Farm and countless other spooky events, including Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights.

Vincent portrayed sinister seymour, the master of the macabre, well-known horror television presenter of the time. After booking a live appearance at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1973 in promotion of his “Fright Night” television show, an event developed around the appearance: Knott’s Halloween Haunt.

That first Halloween event, which lasted just three nights, featured plenty of live entertainment acts, and something theme park guests had never seen before: scare actors. These actors, dressed as monsters, terrified guests throughout the fog-filled park and inside three attractions: the Calico Mine Ride, the Timber Mountain Log Ride, and the now-defunct Haunted Shack. While there were no haunted houses like the ones Knott’s Scary Farm has today, there was the first scare zone.

The Hollows scare zone at Knott's Scary Farm.

The Hollows scare zone at Knott’s Scary Farm.

Photo by Sean Teegarden, courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm

“Those people were the first monsters from Knott’s Scary Farm Ghost Town,” Dougherty said. Ghost Town is still very much a focal point of the event today; Dougherty himself once worked as a freak there in the early 2000s.

“I have always been a fan of funny monster movies, Halloween and theme parks. But I had never seen anything like it. I was terrified,” Dougherty said of his first visit to Scary Farm many years ago. He continued to write “Knott’s Halloween Haunt: A Picture Story” which led to a career of creative work with Knott. Dougherty’s roles vary by project, but include everything from original story concept to directing and writing the screenplay.

Today, scary events like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights are more common, but in the early days of Scary Farm, this level of immersive entertainment was groundbreaking. During the 1970s, charity haunted houses they were becoming popular, but customers had never experienced anything on this scale.

“What’s interesting is that the first Knott’s Halloween Haunt completely sold out before the event even started,” Dougherty said. “It was as if the world was waiting for an event like this.” Knott’s took immediate steps to develop it.

CarnEvil's scare zone at Knott's Scary Farm.

CarnEvil’s scare zone at Knott’s Scary Farm.

Courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm

One of the biggest thrills would come from 1976: a public hanging. The dramatic introduction, almost unfathomable in today’s climate, saw the staged execution of an outlaw in Calico Square before a captivated live audience. The show introduced a new character in the early 1980s who has been a part of Knott’s Scary Farm mythology ever since: the green witch Sarah Marshall.

In the show, Marshall was sentenced to death, but when the noose began to tighten around her neck, she mysteriously disappeared and cast a curse on the city. “That’s why there are monsters in Ghost Town, it’s part of the curse,” adds Dougherty.

The Sarah Marshall tradition lives on today, most recently with the 2019 debut of “Origins: The Curse of Calico,” a maze in the park written in part by Dougherty. Picking up where Marshall’s story left off after the failed hanging, the maze remains popular, with the beloved witch serving as the event’s original and most famous icon.

Scary Farm was successful from the start and the event quickly evolved, including its name from Halloween Haunt to Knott’s Scary Farm. In 1977, they introduced the first maze.

Dark Ride: Castle of Chaos takes place in an old amusement building at Knott's.

Dark Ride: Castle of Chaos takes place in an old amusement building at Knott’s.

Courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm

“Ten Chilling Chambers paved the way for all the mazes we see today,” added Dougherty. “The Knott family, who still owned the park at the time, realized: We have this huge success on our hands, these lines are too long for the log ride and the mine ride, we need to really start expanding. ”.

Throughout the 1980s they slowly began to add to it, and by 1987 it became the full-scale event we know today.

In the late 1980s, the other major parks took notice. “Once we started seeing the success of Halloween Horror Nights on both coasts and Knott’s Scary Farm, that’s when we started seeing Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream and Fright Fest at Six Flags. Things are global now. Most of the world’s major theme parks have some sort of Halloween-related event that could trace its roots back to Knott’s Scary Farm.”

These days, it’s less of a competition and more of a camaraderie, Dougherty described. The niche entertainment section is a small industry and many creatives such as show writers and directors will commonly work at multiple theme park events including Dougherty’s.

On paper, Scary Farm resembles Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, but unlike the latter, which incorporates blockbuster movie intellectual properties, Knott’s uses only original storylines.

These original masterpieces have been over a year in the making, which means they’re already working on next year’s mazes even before the current year’s event starts. Easter eggs and tributes to labyrinths of the past are scattered throughout, a particular kind of thrill for repeat visitors, and there are even returning labyrinths.

The Wax Works labyrinth is filled with horrible surgeries gone wrong.

The Wax Works labyrinth is filled with horrible surgeries gone wrong.

Courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm

“Almost every Scary Farm ride now has some kind of reference to something that is in the past,” added Dougherty. “That’s something that I’m a big fan of, not just including Easter eggs, but also making sure that the scares, the story, the narrative, the pull is strong enough for someone discovering the event for the first time and the fans that have been running for almost 50 years.”

“Origins: The Curse of Calico” uses original dialogue from the hanging shows of the ’70s and ’80s. This year sees the return of laser pistols in the new Bloodline 1842 house, a sort of revival of the retired Special Ops: Infected maze, but reimagined with a steampunk vampire theme.

There’s a special allure to Knott’s Scary Farm that’s hard to pin down, and something you can’t find in the larger theme parks. It’s not as shiny or polished, but it’s noticeable. An undeniable sense of pride emanates not only from the frightened actors but also from the creatives behind the scenes. It’s a level of professionalism that could only be tangibly tied to a legacy event decades in the making, and guests can’t get enough of it.

“There’s something here that’s been going on for a long time and it’s magical,” adds Dougherty. “Yes there is. All you have to do is spend a few minutes in the shadows of Ghost Town and you can see for yourself. They know how to entertain and scare living people.”

Knott’s Scary Farm runs until Monday.

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Nicole Aniston
Nicole loves to write and works as a corporate communications expert by day. She's been working in the field for quite some time now. Her training in media studies has provided her a wide perspective from which to tackle various issues. Public relations, corporate communications, travel, entrepreneurship, insurance, and finance are just few of the many topics she's interested in covering in her work.
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