Updated: Oct 18
As Knott’s Scary Farm celebrates its 50th anniversary, fans look back at how the theme park haunted attraction has impacted their relationships, careers and lives.
When John Castro began working as a Knott’s Scary Farm monster in 1988, he had just turned 21 and he’d only attended the theme park haunted attraction once before.
He ended up working as a monster — aka scare actor — at Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual event for 13 years.
“I had always liked scary movies and growing up on kind of a diet of scary stuff,” said Castro, who lives in Santa Fe Springs. “My dad used to like to scare me around the house.”
While Castro hasn’t worked at Knott’s Scary Farm in Buena Park since around 2001, his love of horror and scaring hasn’t waned. In 2014, he became a zombie character for Maverick Theater in Fullerton’s “Night of the Living Dead” — which he continues to this day.
“They had somebody drop out last minute and (director) Brian (Newell) needed a replacement right away,” said Castro of his participation in “Night of the Living Dead.” “It’s all history from there.”
Castro’s story isn’t unique. Countless fans have formed, developed and grown around a Halloween- and horror-loving culture centered around Knott’s Scary Farm — an event that started on a much smaller scale than it is today, 50 years ago. Knott’s Berry Farm has been celebrating its 50th birthday during its Halloween-season run throughout September and October with returning characters, “The Chilling Chambers” maze honoring its first maze and a musical stage show, “Music, Monsters and Mayhem,” as well as other activities.
The theme park also opened its Legacy Haunt Store & Museum in celebration, called an “immersive retail experience,” that sells exclusive 50th-anniversary merchandise while offering a museum showing historic exhibits of Knott's Scary Farms past.
“Not only did Knott's Scary Farm establish the concept of a successful large-scale Halloween event at a theme park, throughout the past 50 years, the event has introduced several innovations that have greatly contributed to the growth of the Halloween theme park industry,” said Ted Dougherty, author of “The History of Knott's Scary Farm.”
Josh Mikkelsen, who works at Knott’s Scary Farm as a project specialist, has been a fan since the early 1990s. He said he is now part of a small team managing and training close to 1,000 monsters for the annual event.
“Being involved with Scary Farm has immensely impacted not only my life but my career,” he said. “I am very lucky to be able to do this full time for the last two years, turning my love for the event into my career. I have met longtime friends, family and my wife here at the event and without it being in my life, I am not sure what life would be like.”
Castro has a similar story. Though no longer working at Knott’s, he still maintains many friendships and relationships he made from his time there. In fact, he recently attended a reunion of “old-timers.”
“All this gray hair,” he said, jokingly. “Lifelong friendships come out of things like that.”
He said he’s on his third marriage and each of his wives he met at Knott’s Scary Farm. Plus, his daughter, who is now 28, loves horror and Halloween because of it.
“My daughter was born into Knott’s Scary Farm,” Castro said.
She was born in the beginning of September, and a month later, she visited the makeup room with him during the Knott’s Scary Farm season. She went to her first event at 5.
“She’s basically grown up in it,” he said. “She likes to confront her fears, so even if something is scaring her, she’ll go head on into it .… I think that’s a product of growing up with monsters.”
More than a few have turned passion into a career. Gus Krueger, maze and scenic designer at Knott's Scary Farm, has been a fan for 25 years. He said Knott’s Scary Farm went from a fun, seasonal event to turning into his full-time career.
“I went from monster to carpenter to props master to maze designer, all thanks to Scary Farm,” he said. “My association with Scary Farm has only made me love the season more and I make it a point to get to as many different events as possible during the spooky season.”
A Long History
Krueger said Scary Farm's impact on the Halloween community in Southern California is “indescribable.” As it has grown from a small, one weekend event to a month-and-a-half-long one, the Halloween community in Los Angeles and Orange County has followed suit, he said.
“Now the Southland is filled with a great variety of professional and home haunts of all shapes and sizes and none of that would be possible (without) the one that started it all,” Krueger said “Now it's not the weird kids that love Halloween, the weird ones are the ones who don’t.”
PHOTO 1: Knott's Scary Farm maze and scenic designer Gus Krueger as a monster in the Blood Bayou maze in 2002. PHOTO 2: Krueger as part of the special immersive experience Trapped: Lock and Key in 2014. PHOTO 3: Krueger in Elvira’s Nightmares maze in 2000. PHOTO 4: Krueger in Hatchet High maze in 2006. PHOTO 5: Krueger backstage as a Ghost Town Streets monster in 2008. Photos courtesy of Gus Krueger
Dougherty said it is the longest running Halloween-themed event at any theme park in the world — all others trace their roots back to Knott's Berry Farm.
“Most large-(scale) Halloween theme park events have strong followings and fandom primarily rooted around the love of these respective events,” he said. “Those fans, attractions and parks were created based on the model that Knott's Scary Farm established back when the event debuted in 1973.”
He said one example of its contributions to the Halloween theme park industry was the first maze built solely for Knott's Scary Farm that debuted in 1977 — named the “Ten Chilling Chambers.”
“That maze not only set a new standard for Knott's Scary Farm because since then, the event creates mazes specially created for the event, but every single Halloween theme park in the world that offers some sort of haunted house/maze for its special event can trace each of those attractions back to the ‘Ten Chilling Chambers,’” he said.
Sliding is another example of Scary Farm’s contributions to the Halloween attraction/theme park industry. Sliding — when a monster slides on his or her knees as a scare tactic — was created at Knott's Scary Farm by the Ghost Town Scare Zone monsters in the early to mid-1980s, said Dougherty.
“Those early scare actors discovered guests did not like monsters crawling on the ground around their feet,” he said. “Initially the actors were slithering and sliding toward the guests' legs without any padding. In time, the scare tactic developed and the actors now wear specialized gloves, shoes and kneepads to quickly slide as they startle guests. The popular scare tactic can now be seen at Halloween events around the world.”
Mikkelsen said without Scary Farm, he doesn’t think the culture would be as large as it is now.
“Those that have had Scary Farm in their lives have gone on to produce incredible experiences both here and outside KSF,” he said. “We now have teams of sliders who put on shows outside of KSF — where sliding started — and that shows the impact the event has had on the community as a whole.”
PHOTO 1: Knott’s Scary Farm project specialist Josh Mikkelsen as Blood Banker in the Necropolis Scare Zone in 2012. PHOTO 2: Mikkelsen as the Calico Railroad Owner, right, with the Plague Witch, in 2018 Ghost Town Streets Scare Zone. Photos courtesy of Josh Mikkelsen
Krueger said his time working as talent at Scary Farm helped him grow as a person.
“The magic of hiding behind a mask and being able to free yourself and live in those little interactions with complete strangers help me overcome social anxieties and be more comfortable with public speaking and, honestly, just being free to be myself wherever I may be,” he said. “I'm a better person because of my time with Scary Farm and I wouldn't have changed this experience for anything in the world.”