The Battle of the Haunts

As Halloween rolls around, many of us who’ve outgrown trick-or-treating need something to do other than pass out candy to those who haven’t.

Luckily, we live in Southern California — home to two of the nation’s premiere haunts: Knott’s Scary Farm’s Halloween Haunt and Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights. Now these aren’t your average painted flats and Party City-decorated haunted houses. There’s a reason why people flock by the thousands each Halloween to these two events: They are the scariest and, in effect, the most entertaining way to get your scares in during All Hallow’s Eve.

Halloween Haunt and Halloween Horror Nights, while both employing mazes and “scaracters,” as the monsters are called, offer vastly different experiences. Knott’s Scary Farm — in its 36th year of operation — is the oldest and probably most well-known Halloween event in the nation. Started in 1973, Knott’s boasts 13 mazes, seven shows and three “scare zones” (i.e. areas where free-roaming monsters lurk to scare unwitting guests) annually compared to Universal’s meager offerings of four mazes, two shows and “six” scare zones. The event has earned the prestigious Golden Ticket Award for “Best Halloween Event” almost every year and for good reason.

The Haunt offers something for everyone. If you like dark humor there’s the “Killer Klown Kollege” maze, but if gruesome gore is more your style, there’s always “The Slaughterhouse.” That’s another thing about Knott’s: it’s never the same experience twice. The event at Knott’s is always under development. Mazes and shows are checked for effectiveness and age, and once it seems the time has come for new blood, Knott’s delivers. After a three and five-year run, respectively, Knott’s long-running mazes “13 Axe Murder Mansion” and “The Asylum” will close. Whatever the agenda, Knott’s is sure to roll out a new roster of terrifying entertainment every year.

However, the same cannot be said of Halloween Horror Nights, as Universal Studios has replicated all the mazes, shows and scare zones from the previous year, (save for some reconfiguring of its “Nightmare on Elm Street” maze, its Terror Tram, and its perennial “House of Horrors” and the import of the “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” from its Universal Studios Orlando event.) There is also a very visible difference in the size of cast between the two events. At Knott’s it seems you cannot go a few steps without encountering a demented clown or a pig-faced butcher, while at Universal it is easy to walk for long periods of time without encountering a single monster.

However, what Universal (which began its event in 1986) lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. At Knott’s, while the sets and pieces are effective, there is a sort of cheapness to it. You never quite feel like you’re in an infected space ship in the “Alien Invasion” maze or in a club infested with vampires in the new addition “Club Blood.”

At Universal, once you enter the house of Leatherface in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” maze it feels like you might never get out alive. This is due in part to a few things. For one, since Universal is a fully-operating studio it has access to some of the best makeup artists and design teams. The mazes are practically living movie sets. They even go so far as to pump in smells of vomit and other pleasurable aromas to enhance the visceral experience.

But it gets even better: The Terror Tram — Universal’s Halloween makeover of its usual Studio Tram Tour — actually puts you in real movie sets. Guests can wander the streets of Whoville from the 2000 movie “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” or take a picture with Norman Bates in front of the real house from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Because the mazes are based on movies, however, the “scaracters” can only do so much. They either have to play Freddy, Jason or Leatherface, which gives little room for improvisation.

At Knott’s, the “scaracters” are able to put their own charm into their characters and the event becomes more personalized — a monster could take a liking to you and try to scare you more than once or even try following you around. The Universal event is more static — the mazes have small vignettes that include Leatherface ripping a victim’s face off or shoving another through a wood chipper, but it prevents them from coming after you.

At the end, both events — pros, cons, differences and all — cater to the same audience: those who love to be scared and those who want a frighteningly good time.