Knott’s Scary Farm has seen many wild and unique themes come and go in the past 41 Halloween Haunts. However, never before has the Berry Farm in Buena Park known for its rich western heritage and style featured a ghost town-based maze for its annual scare event! It was something that Knott’s designers really felt should be done before anyone else opted to go for that theme, and so, the task was given to Gus Krueger (Endgames, The Witch’s Keep) to develop and design what would become Gunslinger’s Grave.
During the summer of 2013, Knott’s held a fan event at the park, where many of the new mazes and additions to Halloween Haunt were unveiled. It was then that we first learned about Gunslinger’s Grave, and immediately, it was the one project I was personally most intrigued and excited about. The maze would be fairly large in scale, its footprint existing in the “lake bed” area of the park, where Fallout Shelter has resided for the past several years, under Silver Bullet. Gunslinger’s would require a lot of construction, as most of the maze would consist of exterior western ghost town facades, as well as detailed interiors and even a mine. I was also concerned with so much of the maze existing outside in the open – I asked Gus early on how it would be affected if the rain came as it sometimes does in October. His answer was straightforward and honest – he was concerned too by the amount of mud it would create, as the maze would be built on platforms and dirt. However, Knott’s and fans would simply have to deal with it, because the location was set and locked in; we also joked that it would add authenticity to the maze as well should that happen – just like in the wild West! Fortunately for all involved, Gunslinger’s Grave remained relatively untested by the elements, as severe weather stayed away, with only a few moments of light showers passing through during Haunt.
I’ll just blurt it out – I thought Gunslinger’s Grave was masterfully designed and executed by Gus and the team at Knott’s Berry Farm. I’ve been a fan of Gus’ work thus far, and was really excited about seeing what he could do with his first solo maze project. In 2012, Gus assisted in re-configuring Endgames when it moved from Camp Snoopy to the backstage area behind GhostRider. He was also instrumental in the Witch’s Keep overlay, which has been in place now since 2012 as well – and was one of our favorite aspects of the 40th Haunt last year. I like Gus’ style very much – it’s fresh and out of the box in some ways, compared to the veteran Haunt designers at Knott’s; not a ding toward anyone – I’m just saying that Gus brings something very exciting and fresh to the table that I really vibe with as a fan as well as fellow professional in the industry. Plus, the idea of a cowboy/ghost town themed maze at Knott’s Scary Farm? Hello!? No brainer, and it should have come about much sooner than this!
The design of Gunslinger’s Grave really worked; despite having Ghost Town right next door, the miniature boom town that Gus and the team created really felt and looked authentic and was highly detailed. One of the negative comments we heard from some fans was that the maze was “too dark” as far as show lighting goes. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I do feel that there could be a bit more ambient lighting added in 2014, so as to illuminate store fronts and highlight some of the finer details throughout Gunslinger’s Grave. It’s also hard to balance the maze’s show lighting when its backdrop consists of brightly lit roller coaster supports and ride structures; that’s a rough one and an aspect of this maze that I’m sure was the hardest to try and make go away from the experience. I’d love to see more subtle lighting added; nothing bright or colorful. Perhaps more lanterns with pulsing LED “fire light” near signage or inside the buildings and scenes. Just enough to kick it up a notch visually without looking like a theme park attraction.
That said, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in Orlando has very little show lighting after dark, due to J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Hogsmeade look and feel real, even after dark -which means no colorful spotlights, no projected effects; just dim, “real” ambient lighting. And it works beautifully. People complain about that as well – but in the end, the success of Potter in Florida is undisputable; it’s gorgeous and one of the greatest immersive experiences on the planet. There’s something to be said about show lighting that is ambient and not apparent. In the case of Gunslinger’s, the task is to realistically light an 1880s boom town, not a roller coaster or fantasy castle. It had to be realistic, and I think that Gus hit this pretty much on the nose. I feel with some tweaks here and there to show off some of the gorgeous craftsmanship of the painters and builders that worked on this maze could really compliment an already stunning design in 2014. I’m personally hopeful that Knott’s realizes that these mazes are on-going investments while they are part of the Scary Farm lineup; it’s not just a done deal after they debut – not a slow decay for the next three or four years until they are scrapped for something new. The mazes at Knott’s should evolve, and be improved on each season to up the ante of the rest of the event as a whole. I’d love nothing more than to see Gunslinger’s Grave bloom into an even more visually stunning attraction – because it’s off to one hell of an amazing start.
The biggest change in gameplan that Gus brought to Gunslinger’s Grave was that he wanted the talent throughout the maze to do more than simply boo-scare guests. Part of the appeal of this maze was that the talent was instructed to really interact with guests – talk to them, yell at them, get them involved in the story line, which consisted of a lone gunslinger exacting his revenge on a group of outlaws that destroyed his family and life. To create an immersive story, the talent in Gunslinger’s was instructed to act – to make the maze a virtual play experience rather than typical haunted house. Again, some people were put off by this – and I understand that. Joe Public is usually fine with going through a haunt maze simply to be scared and have monsters jump out at them. However, the idea behind this maze in particular was to make it more theatrical and experiential, as opposed to balls-out frightening – and for me, it really worked. Hell, for our flow-through POV video of Gunslinger’s Grave, it really worked. I’ve been shooting the Haunt mazes for a long time now - never has a team so thoroughly put on a show for our camera; never. Usually, we’ll see small scenes or clusters of talent doing something out of the norm as we come through a maze, but never close to the scale of what took place as we documented Gunslinger’s Grave. I will say without hesitation that this is one of my favorite Theme Park Adventure Haunt videos ever. And that is all due to Gus and his crew and their desire to make something different when creating Gunslinger’s. It was fresh and exciting, just as I have described Gus’ skillset when it comes to designing for Knott’s Scary Farm.
There were some masks worn in Gunslinger’s Grave – something that TPA would like to see less of at Haunt in the years to come in exchange for prosthetics and more detailed makeup on its actors. In the case of this maze, we’d love to see the envelope pushed and 100% of this crew interacting with guests without the use of masks. With a theme such as this and a call for cowboys and saloon girls, there is really no need at all to throw masks over the talent here. There are no “monsters” or ethereal characters or creatures featured in Gunslinger’s Grave – if ever there was a maze to go mask-free at Halloween Haunt, this is the maze and this is the time to do it. If we could have one wish granted for Haunt 2014, it would be to experience this maze with 100% of its cast as face characters. Obviously, we have no say in this matter with Knott’s, but as fans and long-time media partners with Knott’s, we issue this friendly challenge – break the mold and give us a mask-free maze for 2014 with Gunslinger’s. It’s easy in this situation, it’s doable, and it’s within range. Make it happen, and make Haunt history as the event grows and evolves! We’d be beyond stoked!
Gunslinger’s Grave featured a soundtrack that was perfectly matched to its visuals; it played a secondary role to what was going on – and in the case of this maze, that is exactly how it should be played. The talent and sets are the stars; the music and sound effects are co-stars in this case, and it gelled together beautifully, even down to the saloon’s piano player hammering out a period rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”, which those paying attention may have picked up on! Kudos to sound guru Adam Hankinson for suggesting the tune to Gus, and implementing such a great soundtrack in this maze.
One of the personal touches I loved most about Gunslinger’s Grave was its many “Easter egg” nods to so many individuals connected to Halloween Haunt in some form or another. From long-time Haunt vets appearing on the maze’s “WANTED” posters, to the Justice of the Peace sign reading “D.A. Miller” (Daniel Miller, one of Haunt’s most senior designers). As a fan, I love those types of touches, and I know that many other hard core Scary Farm fans picked up on these things and were buzzing about them as well. “Easter eggs” like these aren’t uncommon – but to have so many in plain view with only probably 5% of the guests (if that many) getting the joke or hidden nod… tremendous fun and a definite bonus for the fans!
Gunslinger’s Grave was absolutely fantastic this year. The design, the talent, the soundtrack – everything was strong and nailed what it was supposed to be. Those guests that witnessed the Skeleton Key room of this maze got to witness the execution of the Gunslinger’s family, really setting the stage for the rest of the experience well. However, even folks that didn’t see that portion were immersed in a rich environment packed with scares and out of the box acting from many of its talent crew. Huge props and praise for all involved in the production of this gorgeous addition to Halloween Haunt. We hope to see Gunslinger’s Grave stick around for a few more years to come, and cannot wait to see what projects Gus Krueger brings to the table next! It’s an exciting time for Haunt fans!
Did you visit Gunslinger’s Grave in 2013? What were your thoughts? Would you love to see a mask-free maze at Haunt? What did you think of the talent being coached to act and interact heavily in character with guests in this case rather than simply jump out and scare? Did it work for you or not? We want to hear below from our TPAers as we continue to discuss this maze throughout the year!
- Rick West