The interwebs are buzzing, and the word is quickly spreading like wildfire through Southern California’s haunt community. After 13 years at Knott’s Berry Farm, Jon Cooke has stepped down from his daily position there as a designer, and has been working quietly on a brand-new horror experience in a nondescript industrial building in Upland, California, which will open its doors to the curious public in the weeks ahead.
Recently, we paid a visit to Jon’s new venture and stepped into his world – a highly-immersive escape experience/haunted attraction he’s named MurderCo: An R-Rated Horror Experience. MurderCo is an ambitious haunt-escape room hybrid that is going to thrill the hell out of SoCal fans looking for the next big deal.
Before we look ahead at what Jon Cooke is about to unleash on the Southland, it’s important to acknowledge his departure from Knott’s, and what it means to events such as Scary Farm; it’s the elephant in the room that everyone is buzzing about, so we would be remiss not to discuss that a bit. The good news is, it’s not a bleak as some are assuming.
Cooke has contributed substantially to the evolution of Knott’s Scary Farm in recent years with back-to-back game changing experiences that include Infected, Paranormal, Inc., Shadow Lands, and Dark Ride. To many, Jon has become the Haunt fan favorite, and I can understand how word of his departure has a lot of people upset or nervous about the future of Knott’s Scary Farm. I totally get that, and when Jon told me that he was stepping down, it took me a moment to wrap my head around that reality as well. Fortunately for all of us who love Haunt, Jon has worked out an arrangement with Knott’s management that allows him to seek out new business opportunities such as MurderCo, while remaining a design consultant specifically focused on Knott’s Scary Farm attractions for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen Jon grow up through the years at Knott’s,” says Haunt historian and industry creative Ted Dougherty. “He began as a seasonal talent and then moved his way into the Haunt build process and into the Props department. He took designing Knott’s Scary Farm attractions by storm with Special Ops: Infected, and Paranormal, Inc., and wound up with Shadow Lands and Dark Ride. He has professionally developed into a premiere attraction designer, and I look at his departure from Knott’s as the next step in the evolution of his career.”
Ted not only has become a good friend of Jon’s, he’s also embarked on the MurderCo journey with him – more on that in a moment.
So while Jon’s departure from being so incredibly hands-on at Knott’s Scary Farm has Haunt fans concerned, the good news is, he will be around and still involved for now. And if MurderCo takes off and opens new doors for Jon, Knott’s is in good hands. It’s easy to get caught up in the worry of the moment in cases like this. However, I remind each and every fan out there that Scary Farm has grown and thrived for more than four decades now under the leadership and artistic hand of many people – and regardless of who comes and goes, the event itself will continue on and will remain the industry legend and standard that it is. Jon’s stunning contributions to Haunt remain part of its history; of its amazing story that we are all part of in one way or another. There’s still work to be done with Knott’s, and Jon is enthusiastic about their continued relationship. So, knowing that this isn’t a “clean break” situation, fans should be excited about Scary Farm’s future as well as Jon’s own personal ventures. It’s a win-win on both sides, and I am sure the folks at Knott’s are very supportive of Jon’s endeavor as well. There are no negative or hard feelings – no juicy gossip or drama. This is the way business works, and it’s fantastic that Knott’s has retained Jon as an ongoing design consultant.
So what is MurderCo, exactly? Here’s where I have to tread lightly, because the cat’s not completely out of the bag just yet; Theme Park Adventure will have a huge feature on the attraction once it opens to the public – but for now, we’ll discuss the basics and share our first impressions with you (as well as few very carefully-selected photos).
MurderCo is, as I have said, a hybrid escape room/haunted attraction experience that is going to send guests on a 60-minute journey into terror as they work their way through various puzzles and elaborate environments to survive. While it has elements of an escape room, MurderCo is more interactive haunt than anything. For those of us who aren’t terribly adept at escape rooms for one reason or another, Jon assures us that he’s on the same page.
“We want people to make it all the way through,” explains Cooke. “We want them to experience all of the cool stuff that we’ve planned so carefully as part of the show here. There definitely will be some puzzle moments – much like Trapped had at Knott’s Scary Farm – but the emphasis is really on the experience and advancing through the story, rather than getting people stuck in one room not going anywhere because they can’t figure it out. We want our ‘success rate’ to be extremely guest-doable. At the end of the day, we want everyone to come out, and have a great time as we scare the hell out of you.”
Groups of 8 guests at a time (this number may be tweaked during testing over the next few weeks) will venture into MurderCo, where their experience goes horribly wrong and they have to suddenly find a way out as the countdown clock looms in the background. Successful groups will move from room to room – a much larger experience than most typical escape room setups – where they will encounter live actors and elaborate practical effects.
“We’ve partnered with the team at Immortal Masks on several of our new effects,” says Cooke. “This is cutting-edge stuff that’s going to happen right in front of you. It’s going to be intense, violent, disturbing, and highly realistic. People are going to be freaked out!”
The effects and amount of violence are what give MurderCo its ominous “R-Rated Horror Experience” label. While this is an intense experience, it’s not really looking to be in the “extreme haunt” category. There is no electrocuting of guests, there’s no eating of gross food items, there are no nude actors, there’s no guest torture in MurderCo. This is simply a very elaborate production that is going to be unnerving, fun, and completely in step with what Jon has brought to Scary Farm guests for the past several years design-wise; just with a much darker storyline and environment.
“It’s been a tremendous experience,” says Cooke. “At Knott’s, I was able to design things and hand over the plans to a team. Here, I have taken everything I learned doing Scary Farm and other events, and have put that knowledge to work. And, I have picked up the tools and have been slowly building MurderCo myself with my own blood, sweat, and tears for the last year quietly and under the radar. Knowing we’re close to opening is really satisfying and exciting for me after all the work that’s gone into this.”
As the attraction’s Director and Co-Writer, Ted Dougherty is really enthusiastic about this project as well.
“We saw so much potential in escape rooms in terms of story, that we really wanted to see what we could do in this medium,” says Ted. “In the theme park industry, escape rooms are a huge challenge because of the low throughput requirement. We saw MurderCo as an opportunity to create a different experience outside the parameters we typically see at family-friendly theme parks.
“With that said, we could take the content much darker than we are used to working with… this is a far cry from fantasy-based themes like werewolves, vampires, light-hearted Halloween traditions, or other elements like the paranormal. I love working on those themes, but this was a chance to experiment with something else. MurderCo is much more gritty, and we had to go to some extremely grim places creatively to bring this show to life.”
With capacity in mind, Jon is already working on “phase two” expansion plans for MurderCo at the same location. But he knows for now, the focus is on finishing this labor of love, and getting its doors open to the public.
The repeatability factor is strong in the case of MurderCo. Without giving too much away, there will be different “personalities” that guests can encounter that change up the experience – enough for fans to want to see different aspects of the show in the months ahead. The cost of MurderCo is going to be $45 per person for their hour-long experience, which isn’t bad at all compared to the general cost of immersive experiences here in California and across the United States. With Jon Cooke at the helm, fans already know they’re going to have a high-quality experience and will sign up with no hesitation.
MurderCo is planned to be a year-round attraction here in Southern California, just a short drive from the Inland Empire and Orange County. Fans in San Diego and Los Angeles will have to drive a bit further to get to the venue – but they will, and I assure you, it’s going to be worth the drive. In fact, once word spreads about MurderCo, there is no doubt in my mind that people will flock from near and far to see what this new haunted attraction is all about.
We are really excited about this new venture and wish Jon and Ted amazing success. They are both haunt industry veterans, have absolutely proven track records, and are about to deliver something truly special to fans and soon-to-be fans. They’re going to kill it… or you!
For more information on MurderCo, as well as ticketing when that becomes available, visit BlackMarketEscapeRooms.com.
See you all in Upland!
- Rick West