Forty-two years ago, on a dark October night, a witch appeared on the grounds of Knott's Berry Farm. She came to the Buena Park, California, amusement park along with an army of ghouls and goblins, cobwebs, and an eerie haze.
The first Halloween Haunt at Knott's Berry Farm in 1973 was the very first Halloween event held at a theme park. It spawned countless imitations, and today the original sprawls across Knott's 160 acres. The normal attractions are replaced with haunted mazes and a wide-open "scare zone." There are monsters of every variety, all of which relish in the opportunity to give visitors a good fright by sneaking up behind them, jumping out from the foliage, or sliding across the walkways with kneepads that create a startling spark when scraped against the concrete.
And there, in the midst of it all, slinking through the crowds or hiding behind the bougainvillea branches, is the Green Witch—one of the original characters of the very first Knott's Halloween Haunt and still its most enduring symbol.
Knott's Berry Farm, opened by Walter Knott in 1920, was originally an actual roadside berry farm. Over time, the place became famous for the fried chicken dinners cooked by Walter's wife, Cordelia, and the family gradually added attractions and souvenir shops to entertain people waiting in line for chicken. (The amusement park was bought in 1997 by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company; the fried chicken restaurant now seats 900 people.)
In the early 70s, Knott's had just added the Timber Mountain Log Ride and an expansive theater with approximately 2,000 seats, which attracted the attention of Larry Vincent, better known as "Sinister Seymour." Seymour hosted the horror show Fright Night, which presented—and heckled—B-grade horror films. The production was both cheesy and beloved, and Seymour wanted to translate it from television to the stage. So in 1973, he got in touch with Knott's talent booker, Bill Hollingshead, and asked if he could do a show in Knott's new theater.
To gear up for the October 26, 1973, opener, the park grounds were draped in cobwebs and decorated with skulls made of foam. Diana Kelly (née Kirchen) had worked as a "greeter" at the park before, so she was assigned to play the witch and usher people into the theme park. Admission for the three-day event cost $4 in advance or $4.75 at the door.
Today, those kind of Halloween events are common at amusement parks, but there was no precedent for Knott's Halloween Haunt; there weren't many rules, except 1) always travel in pairs, because as Kelly put it, "the crowds can gang up on you" (true then, truer now) and 2) spook the visitors however you can without physically touching them.
"We were kind of making it up as we went along," Kelly remembers.
But it was fun, and more importantly, it was a success. Ticket sales soared, and so when Knott's signed on to replicate the event the following year, they amped up the production values. One of the Knott's employees, Gene Witham, had a background as a Hollywood makeup artist (his credits included Planet of the Apes) and took charge of crafting the look of the characters. He created a plaster of Paris cast of each person's face and molded them new, horrifying masks to wear while roaming the park. For Kelly, who retained the role of the witch, that meant a beaked nose and, later, a protruding chin with a plaster wart. For the third Halloween Haunt, they added green face paint. Thus the Green Witch was born.
Kelly's favorite fictional sorceresses were the menacing Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and the bumbling Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf. Kelly had no acting experience, but she studied these characters intensely, parking herself in front of the TV for Saturday morning cartoons and hold up her cassette deck to the speakers; later she'd play the recordings back, imitating the voices as best she could to develop her distinct witch's intonation.
As the Green Witch, Kelly had two tasks: to sneak up on people and spook them, and to perform in the evening's show, called the Market Street Monster Massacre. After a choreographed "monster fight," the witch would emerge on top of a roof and let out an ear-splitting cackle. Then she'd slip away in a poof of smoke, which was actually the spew of CO2 from several fire extinguishers being sprayed from beneath her. She was paid $2 an hour.
Kelly's last year as the Green Witch was 1976. By then, she'd graduated from college and started a career in radio. Her successor was a woman named Barb Bess who spent a year in the black dress; then came Karen Parker, who had previously played the Bride of Frankenstein in Knott's Halloween show, took on the role. She was a natural fit: charismatic, big voiced, with a healthy dose of humor. When she caked on the green makeup and the fake nose, she was totally transformed. "It was her voice coming out of somebody else's body," remembers her sister Charlene Parker.
Charlene didn't have the natural performing streak her little sister did. She worked what she called "a real job," supervising the packaging machinery at a honey manufacturing plant. But Karen would coax her, year after year, to come to the Haunt, insisting that it was the most fun a person could have. When Karen was eventually promoted to supervise the ground's characters, she asked Charlene to come try out for a part. "It'll just be six nights," she insisted. Charlene thought to herself, OK, why not?
By this point, Knott's had begun holding auditions for characters, and "I saw all these people screaming and yelling and throwing themselves all over the floor and I thought, I can't even do any of that," Charlene remembers. In all the jobs she'd had before, she'd been valued for her steadiness. "I mean, I've never had to scream and yell and act like a maniac."
So to get through the audition, she copied the people next to her, mimicking their screams and movements and trying to slink into the back. "I felt so foolish," she said.
But when it was over, someone came up to her and said, "How tall are you?" She was five-nine. "Perfect," they told her. "You're the next witch."
The costume, which had dragged on the floor when Diana wore it, was just right for Charlene. It draped elegantly on her tall, waif-like frame; and if she walked just so, with her gait steady and her feet close to the ground, the edges of the gown seemed to glide so that it looked like she was not walking at all, but floating. She was terrifying, even if she didn't say anything at all.
Parker's first year was 1982, the same year Knott's hired Elvira, the notoriously well-endowed "Mistress of the Dark," to host the nightly musical performance. Elvira was witchlike in her own right but she was sexy and campy as opposed to scary.
Parker, on the other hand, was utterly frightening. She didn't do any performances (the Market Street Monster Massacre had been scrapped by then), so instead, she spent all night roaming the streets. She didn't study fictional witches the way Kelly had, and she felt too awkward attempting a scream, so instead she just watch people. A group of visitors would walk by and she'd follow them for a while, quietly stalking them like prey, until one of them might turn around and see her. Usually, that was enough to freak them out.
"Because of the costume that I wear, the best way for me to scare somebody is to blend into the background so that when they walk by they have no idea that there's a live human being standing so close to them, and when they get within a certain distance, I just jump right out at them," Parker explained. "They all scream. I also have a little shaker can which I rattle."
Parker likes to tell stories of the time she made a grown man jump with fear and spill his cup of coffee down his shirt, or the time a teenaged girl pissed her pants from a scare. "She fell on the ground, and when she got up, there was a wet spot on the ground. People were walking by like, 'Look! She wet her pants!'"
Over the years, she's perfected her scare strategy: She stands inside a bougainvillea planter near the Indian Trails stage, then obscures her face with a branch.
"I'll look at a group, and I can tell by their body language if they're starting to get a little spooked. And then the object is to get up close enough to them to get them to start moving quickly. If they start to run, I keep on going and then separate somebody from the group," she said. "That is what predators do. They separate one, and then there's no longer safety in numbers, and that person knows it."
By the 90s, theme park Halloween events had become ubiquitous. Six Flags Fright Fest started in 1989; Busch Gardens began its annual Howl-O-Scream in 1999; Universal Studios started running Horror Nights in both their Florida and California locations around the same time. All of these owe something to Knott's Halloween Haunt.
"There are other entertainment areas and theme parks that are doing haunts, but this one is the granddaddy," says Kelly. It created a formula for success: genuine fear with a dash of camp, Hollywood-quality sets and costume design, and most importantly, a cast of characters who were utterly consumed by their roles.
The park's publicist, Leidy Arévalo, wasn't able to provide concrete numbers on the event's attendance, but noted that "it is one of the most popular events at Knott's Berry Farm" and has been enjoyed by "millions throughout the years." Other reports have suggested that the event makes up as much as 15 percent of the park's annual attendance, and estimated that the month of October accounts for half the park's annual revenue.
"Halloween wasn't a big event prior to the Haunt," longtime Knott's employee Gary Salisbury said in an interview with a website dedicated to the history of the Haunt. "Then, all of a sudden in 1973, a little family-owned amusement park in Buena Park, California came up with an idea that changed the course of Halloween forever."
Parker had been working as the Green Witch for ten Halloweens while keeping her full-time job at the honey manufacturing plant. Her night gig did not go unnoticed. She'd clock in at 7 AM each morning, sometimes with flecks of green face paint stuck to her eyebrows and Spirit Gum affixed to her face where her prosthetic nose had been, eyes bagged from lack of sleep.
Then, in 1993, Sue Bee Honey was bought out by another corporation and the plant moved out of state. Suddenly without a job, Parker asked Knott's if she could help out more. She eventually got hired as a tour guide and now spends most of her time at the park as a spinner-weaver in the old town, where she demonstrates craftmaking.
Every now and again, when she's in her spinner-weave costume, someone will come up to her, study her eyes for a moment, and then whisper, "Are you the witch?"
This year's Haunt marks Parker's 33rd year as the Green Witch. She still wears the same costume that Kelly did, though some of the feathers have been plucked off and Parker has taken to sewing on new strips of fabric where the gown has grown tattered. She says she never wants to give up the costume—it's part of what makes the witch.
Kelly, who now lives in San Diego, revisits Knott's from time to time. Halloween is still her favorite time of year to come, even without the green face paint and pointy hat.
"It was the most fun job I've ever had," says Kelly. "Every time I come back to Knott's, it's like coming home."
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