Younger generations of Halloween lovers are finding pathways to careers in theme parks, prop making and more.
Jacob Larson was born into the haunting life. His dad, Dave, started a home haunt in Orange five years before Jacob was even born, in 1999.
Now at 18, Jacob is busy working at Knott’s Berry Farm as an FX technician in the Entertainment Department during the theme park’s biggest event: Knott’s Scary Farm.
“In our department we create animatronics, water effects and air effects for any seasonal event at the park with a big focus on Knott’s Scary Farm,” said Jacob. “Getting to create and showcase my work through Pirate’s Cave was a major reason how I got this position. Through the media nights we held, I invited out several creative professionals within the theme park industry. Because of these interactions, I was given the opportunity to interview for a position at Knott’s two days after my 18th birthday. Pirate’s Cave was like a living portfolio that showcased many aspects of my skills and I wouldn’t have earned this great position without it.”
When Jacob first started working on the haunt with his dad, he worked as a scare actor in their maze. When he was in middle school, he realized he enjoyed creating and designing too.
“Once I got into high school, that’s when our haunt and my skillset began to evolve the most,” said Jacob. “I began to embrace attributes of modern-day haunting by learning and integrating theatrical lighting, sound, media and show programming into our yearly productions. Applications I learned in high school and from my dad such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere and Show Control software were major attributes to our haunt’s expanding popularity and my skillset.”
Jacob is also currently enrolled in two online classes at Santiago Canyon College, working toward a degree in Technical Theater.
“In the future, I would love to be a creative designer in the themed entertainment industry,” he said. “It’s been a long-time career goal of mine, and working at Knott’s has been very beneficial to working towards my goal. I’ve gotten to learn many different aspects of production and work closely with our design team to see their process and what skills are required to have that position.”
For most families, thoughts of Halloween don’t really enter their minds until around the start of October. But for families who create haunted attractions and yard displays, that process began months ago, and likely even began last year. For families who commit to remaking their homes every Halloween season into a spooky — or even terrifying but fun — experience for the community, it’s truly a passion that runs year round, at their own expense and with many, many hours dedicated to the conceptualization, design and build. It’s a love that often winds through generations and becomes more elaborate throughout the years. And in some cases, it actually leads to careers.
Brandon Gasilan, a project specialist at Knott’s Berry Farm working in the Entertainment Department, said he’s loved Halloween since he was very young.
“I remember being 2 years old and watching horror movies with my grandmother, and my parents decorating the house with Halloween/fall decorations,” he said. “I can still remember the smell of the air and the cool, gray weather of the season and being so excited for Halloween to come, because that meant pumpkins, trick-or-treating and monsters!”
Gasilan first visited Knott’s Scary Farm at age 4.
“My mom [had] attended the event every year with her friends, and she had to bring home the map to me every time, and I would sit on her lap as she told me about each maze and its theme and what kind of monsters there were inside,” he said. “She finally decided to let me go to the event only if I could make it through watching ‘The Exorcist.’ I spent the entire time laughing at the movie, and so the next year my mom took me to Knott’s Scary Farm for the very first time. I looked at it differently than most guests. I saw how fun it could be to scare people and be able to portray a monster! I knew from that first visit that it was something I wanted to do when I was old enough.”
Gasilan worked at Knott’s Scary Farm as a monster the first season after he turned 18, in 2007.
“I strongly believed at that point that I would work the event as a monster for the rest of my life,” he said.
In 2010, he was let go from his day job and was in search of work. It just so happened that the Knott’s Berry Farm production team was looking for people to build mazes and show sets.
“I was able to join the carpentry team and assisted in building two of the mazes for that season,” he said. “After my run as a monster for 2010 ended, I was invited back to help strike the mazes, and was kept on through Christmas and into 2011. My last year as a talent/monster was in 2012, and soon after I was promoted to carpentry lead, which led me to becoming the lead for the bat techs, which are the technicians that turn on, maintain and turn off the mazes each night. I did this from 2013-2015, and took 2016 and 2017 off from playing a prominent role during Scary Farm to look after my son, Jaxon.”
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In 2018 he was asked to assume the role of talent manager, helping oversee all of the hiring, training and scare implementation of the Scary Farm monster throughout the park. In 2019, he was promoted to a project specialist role in Entertainment, producing specialty projects featured at Knott’s seasonally and year round. Every year — except for 2020 — he’s managed all 800-plus Scary Farm talent each season.
“Stick to it and soak up any bit of information you can, from any source,” he said. “Although I have been a part of the industry for close to 20 years now, I still remain a fan of not only Knott’s Scary Farm, but of haunted houses and haunted attractions themselves, and I still watch lots of YouTube videos of other attractions to help me come up with new, exciting and fun ideas for our mazes and for our scares. The haunted attraction industry is a lot bigger than most people know, and the different types of disciplines are vast. Whether it be carpentry, prop making, engineering or even event managing, there are numerous skills that someone can apply to the haunted attraction industry and be successful.”
Wyatt C. Stanley, 22, of Aliso Viejo has had a passion for Halloween for 16 years. He started creating and building at his family’s home for Halloween when he was about 10 years old. The home Halloween display has evolved significantly and even made national news last year for their highly detailed Pirates of the Caribbean display featuring iconic elements of the popular Disneyland ride. This year the theme is Haunted Mansion.
“I’ve gone from stationary displays to animatronics and themes with audio and visual,” said Stanley. “Also, now I make all my own props, no store-bought stuff here!”
Over the years he’s learned welding, fabricating, sculpting, molding, carpentry, costuming and animatronics “with a lot of observations, studying, tons of trial-and-error.”
“I also went to Orange County School of the Arts for high school and they taught the basics for these skills,” he said. “I do a ton of research online and watch how-to videos. When I’m working out how an animatronic will work, I sometimes build prototype first with an erector set.”
He’s been working on starting his own online business building props. His goal is “to own my own business building and designing what I love to do and I’m good at.”
Some educators have seen the benefit of integrating Halloween into learning lessons, especially as pertaining to STEM and STEAM.
Laurel Elementary Magnet School of Innovation & Career Exploration in Brea is hosting its annual Lunch and Launch event Saturday, Oct. 15, including students showcasing the trebuchets they built by launching pumpkins.
“A productive school/class/teacher always uses student passions to inspire and relate learning,” said teacher and event organizer Kim Thorsen. “It turns a potential distraction into a motivator. In fact, taking Halloween to the next level, we have actually used it to create our weekly ‘Wear It Wednesday.’ We build community by turning each Wednesday into a community event, where students learn about holidays, national movements by dressing for the occasion.”
Mandy Kelly, sixth-grade teacher at Trabuco Mesa Elementary School in Rancho Santa Margarita, said that in October, her classroom designs and constructs electric haunted houses.
“The students apply their understanding of geometry and nets in creating the dimensions for the sides of the house,” said Kelly. “There are requirements for the perimeter and height, as well as two to four windows and a functioning door. We also apply our understanding of circuits by wiring the house. The students are required to have lights in two windows that turn on when the door is closed, and off when the door is open. The students get creative with themes, design and details. After the construction is complete, they write a script to try to sell their houses/buildings and we use a green screen to place the students in their house to give the pitch. The themes of the ‘houses’ have really evolved over the years and I’ve had haunted farms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and arcades.”
Kelly began doing this in her classroom seven years ago, her first year teaching sixth grade.
“I always loved building gingerbread houses in the winter and wanted a fun way to incorporate house building for Halloween and the sixth-graders really enjoy getting dark and creative with webs, tombstones, skeletons, etc.,” she said. “It sort of spiraled into this project and the students ran with it.”
Scott Hudson, Visual Arts and Biological Arts Special Effects Career and Technical Education teacher at Fullerton Union High School, is also the BEAST coordinator. The main focus of BEAST is on the connections between the arts, sciences and engineering in careers in the SFX and entertainment industries, including theme parks and theater.
“As a part of the entertainment industry, Halloween-themed haunts have become a major source of revenue to theme parks, as well as other professional haunts, haunts for charities, and home haunts and yard displays,” said Hudson. “Americans spent over $10 billion dollars in 2021 alone on Halloween. Haunts have become a big part of this with increasingly sophisticated SFX including animatronics, special makeup effects, set designs and props.”
Hudson’s students learn makeup FX, prop design and animatronics, which can be adapted to the purpose of a haunt. For example, students have done projects based on the talking skull from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, and a coffin-opening project based on an effect from the Haunted Mansion.
“We work together to have students recreate a beating heart scene from ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ by vacuum-forming molds and creating realistic flexible foam hearts that are motorized to beat,” he said. “We even did a haunted doll project. My students learn to make zombie masks themed on ‘The Walking Dead’ and will hopefully be making prosthetics for Manimals based on ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ films. So while these are themed on films and theme parks, you can see how they could easily be integrated into a haunt if desired.”
Hudson said he is a huge fan of Knott’s Berry Farm and its annual Scary Farm.
“It was the first event to use the term ‘haunt,’ in fact,” he said. “About 15 years ago, I went to Scary Farm as a guest, but as an artist and [designer] I realized for the first time that each maze was unique, with its own color schemes, texture schemes, etc. Some mazes had warm colors, others cool colors, some complementary, some achromatic, etc. Some used satins, silks and smooth textures, others only burlap, denim and rough textures, some had sepia tones or earth tones, etc. Viewing these mazes as an artist totally changed my experience, and I wanted to share that with my students.”
He said students today love Halloween more than ever.
“I think it is a great time to be anything you want to be, and with the popularity of cosplay and other like things, costuming is more popular than ever,” he said. “As for haunts, I think they are like horror movies, in which you can go and be scared, but know that you are still safe. I have had several [students] even pick up seasonal jobs at haunts, local theaters and Halloween supply stores.”
He said from prop and animatronic makers to theme park creatives, and TV and film makeup artists and monster makers, the world is full of potential career avenues for Halloween-loving students.
“BEAST is tied to so many potential careers because of its diverse nature,” he said. “Besides designers, animatronics experts, makeup and special makeup effects artists, it can tie into any of the manufacturing trades, including machining, mold making and casting, and even unusual fields like medical prosthetics, forensic artistry, paleo artistry, and even the dental technician and mortuary sciences. SFX is a diverse field that has borrowed the skills and trades on many, many other careers, adapting it to its own needs.”
Hudson said he has a few connections in the haunt community for his lessons, including Knott’s Berry Farm.
“Knott’s has been allowing us to go backstage on an exclusive Scary Farm tour for the past 13 years, up until COVID hit,” he said. “So students could meet with the maze designers, the makeup and costume fabricators, lighting and show service people, and more, so they could see those amazing artistic connections. The last three years before COVID, we were also really thrilled to be given permission to go backstage during haunt and actually take a small group of highly interested students to see the makeup FX artists working, and ask them questions during the monster-making process. We learned so much, but we are sworn to secrecy!”
By Jessica Peralta