It looks like this year Knott's Halloween Haunt will finally drop the more-is-more mantra in favor of the right kind of more: more back story, more attention to detail, more monsters wearing custom masks and more intimate scares.
After four decades of screams and scares, Halloween Haunt had gained a reputation for quantity over quality -- with unimaginative paint-on-plywood mazes, interchangeable story lines and monsters wearing store-bought masks.
In recent years, the granddaddy of Halloween events has worked hard to undo that stubborn stigma, but with 13 mazes change takes time.
For 2013, the Buena Park theme park will introduce six new mazes while reducing the overall number of mazes as Halloween Haunt continues to compete with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, which has delivered an increasingly superior haunted event in recent years.
The improved standards were evident during a sneak peek of three new Knott's mazes: Black Magic, Gunslinger's Grave and Forevermore.
The Black Magic maze takes visitors inside an Art Deco theater haunted by the ghost of Harry Houdini and his coterie of demonic illusionists.
Black Magic is one of five Haunt mazes this year featuring an up-charge Skeleton Key that unlocks additional rooms offering expanded back stories and interactive scares.
The Skeleton Key provides entry to a red velvet seance room inside the Black Magic maze where visitors sit around a table holding hands while a medium consults a crystal ball. Before long, things go awry and Houdini passes over from the great beyond dragging along every soul that ever died in the theater.
In the Gunslinger's Grave maze, a higher level of craftsmanship and attention to detail was evident in the dozen elaborate facades currently under construction for a Wild West town that includes a general store, saloon, brothel and jail. Passing back and forth between indoor and outdoor scenes, the tightly wound labyrinth sits directly under a knot of coasters that will be buzzing overhead throughout Haunt.
Spoiler Alert: What follows is a detailed and often gruesome scene-by-scene preview of the Forevermore maze. Consider yourself warned.
The Forevermore maze offers a modern twist on nine gothic tales and poems of revenge, insanity, torture and murder by Edgar Allan Poe. The back story centers on a serial killer who pays homage to the 19th century American mystery writer by re-creating the murders portrayed in Poe's macabre stories.
Visitors enter Haunt's longest maze near a television news van that both establishes the modern time frame of the unfolding story and sets in motion the ongoing hunt for the killer. News reporters and SWAT officers lay dead and dying around the van.
Inside the killer's lair, we learn through a series of newspaper clippings plastered on the walls that the madman drugs his victims to get them to do his bidding – including torture and murder. An adjacent photo dark room serves as a portrait gallery of his kills.
Each of the successive rooms illustrates a Poe-inspired murder scene with the title of the tale written in the victim's blood on the walls.
In "The Raven," the black birds have pecked out the eyes of a professor and his students. Wind and sound effects give the illusion of birds circling overhead.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" finds a caged catatonic girl succumbing to a deafening and blinding assault on her senses. The corrugated steel walls push in on both sides of the room in a nod to the inventive interactivity introduced in last year's up-charge Trapped maze that significantly raised the quality bar for Haunt.
In the next room, an escaped orangutan has cut off a woman's head and stuffed her daughter up a fireplace chimney in a bluntly literal scene from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
In a psychiatric hospital scene inspired by the tale of "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," the inmates have tarred and feathered the entire nursing staff. The unbearable strobe light in the infirmary seems set to trigger photosensitive epilepsy.
One of my favorite rooms in the maze retells the tale of the "The Tell-Tale Heart." Red lights pulse under the floorboards as the thumping audio of a heartbeat plays in the background – all designed to suggest the dismembered man buried beneath the floor.
"The Black Cat" tells a straightforward story of a man who trips over a cat and accidentally buries an ax in his wife's head. A clowder of cats eats at the wife's rotting remains. Beware of the accident-prone man with an ax.
The most impressive scene in the maze takes visitors inside a silo where an ax swings over a dead body floating in a bloody pool in a homage to "The Pit and the Pendulum."
That's followed by the least impressive scene in Forevermore – the type of long and pointless hallway that earned Knott's its reputation for uninventive mazes. There's not much to see beyond wine barrels in "The Cask of Amontillado" scene – which tells the story of a drunken vintner who buries his rival alive in a wine cellar. Fortunately this long walk is only a detour designed to get visitors from point A to point B in an otherwise tight space.
The upside: Point B is well worth the walk. The elaborate scene inside the Red Clock bar brings visitors face-to-face with the Poe serial killer in a finale that pays tribute to "Masque of the Red Death."
The 41st annual Knott's Scary Farm starts Sept. 26 and runs on select nights through Nov. 2.
Related theme park stories and photo galleries:
Universal Studios Hollywood: Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Six Flags Magic Mountain: Full Throttle
SeaWorld San Diego: Aquatica