I had a lot of concerns going into this maze because the posters really look like they depend on a lot of tropes about Japanese culture. You see a zombie woman in a kimono and stereotypical “geisha” make up, along with what appears to be a “demon” samurai.
While the background looks great, the characters and the subheading, “LIVE BY THE SWORD DIE BY THE SWORD” are just cheesy. Honestly, the samurai also looks a bit chthulhu-esque and, given that the Lovecraftian mythos seems to seep into multiple rides (see my review for “The Dead of Winter” later in the week), which made me think that the theming would include people in Yellow Face, fake Japanese (Disneyland, I’m looking at you), and random monsters.
Even the description sounds lousy:
A fulfilling life ensures a soul safe passage into eternity, but what happens to the souls of soldiers slain in battle? Enter the hair-raising Shadow Lands maze and fight off demon samurais whose souls are cursed to rot within the depths of purgatory. Guests will embark on a quest through a sacred shrine, an ancient Japanese temple and into the midst of the shadow lands.
–I was particularly concerned about the mix of religions here, including the idea of “purgatory,” a Christian notion, despite the fact that Christianity wasn’t really prevalent in Japan until the 19th century. Also, temples suggest Buddhism while a shrine is more Shintoist, so this description is just a jumble.
With demon “samurais” (note–in Japanese, all nouns are both singular and plural, so “samurai” refers to both a single warrior and multiple warriors).
This ride, however, is far better than its bad marketing. In fact, I would say that this is the scariest haunted maze at Knott’s. If you can handle waiting in line for an hour or so, I’d highly recommend trying “Shadow Lands” next year. Below, I’ll talk about some of the main elements that make this experience a success, but I’d suggest starting with this walkthrough by Inside the Magic (if you don’t mind spoilers):
Going in, I was pretty sure that Knott’s wouldn’t be going to the trouble to hire an all-Asian much less an all-Japanese cast to play Japanese characters. While I totally get the logistics of that, I’d honestly expected to see some Yellow face, which is when a White person adopts stereotypical and often demeaning make up in order to “appear” Asian. Like this classic example of Mickey Rooney from Breakfast at Tiffany‘s:
It’s a pretty offensive practice that still, unfortunately, exists today but which is far more openly condemned (see Master of None‘s “Indians on TV” episode for an astute analysis).
So, how did Knott’s manage to have a ride that portrayed dozens of Japanese characters without depending on Yellow face or clearly non-Asian actors portraying Japanese parts? They put ghost make up and masks on them–to amazing effect!
No, not Cthulhu masks. But what appeared to be mempo or facial armor worn by samurai, in addition to ghost masks from noh and kabuki makeup. Mempo are particularly relevant to this maze because they are often pretty darn scary!
The noh mask…
and kabuki makeup…
are also very terrifying. These options feel both respectful to Japanese culture and scary as hell–well done!
While “Paranormal, Inc.” was advertised as having “high flying aerial stunts,” I was actually far more impressed by the lower flying of the samurai and ghosts throughout this maze. They seemed like they were charging me, and the actors likely had to work pretty hard in order to ensure that they didn’t touch us with their weapons!
They also seemingly came out of nowhere and you could literally feel the rush of wind as they came by. They also did a great job mimicking actual kendo swordplay and poses from ukiyo-e Japanese prints.
All this to say there weren’t just ghosts and they weren’t just armed but they could also MOVE.
The sets are also fabulous, often utilizing cramped spaces and corners extremely effectively. Even in the open spaces, due to the “flying samurai” I felt completely claustrophobic. But then there are also the hallways with sliding shoji (Japanese screen doors) that open in these long, narrow hallways so that ghosts can pop out at you. Each “room” (we only saw the outside and those peeking out!) seemed to have a unique theme and a different ghost–a truly haunted house!
And, when you did reach the end, the corners were also filled with monsters–including the ghost lady (below) who terrified me.
The red and white lights also made it seem particularly eerie and hellish while also making it easier for the ghosts to sneak up on us. The lanterns added a particularly nuanced touch, making–along with the forest (which reminded me so much of Aokigahara!), the atmosphere really just felt like it could have been in a Japanese serial drama set in feudal Japan.
The Ghost Lady
Jump to 2:10 in the video above to see the SCARIEST part of the maze. The designers utilized blinking lights (not really strobe–not that bright but a dim flickering) to make the image of the ghost approaching you disappear and reappear–and she got close FAST.
With long black hair and a dirty white dress, along with the flickering lights, she really reminded me of Samara from The Ring (Sadako and Ringu for the Japanese version, which notably didn’t have the light flicker and static used in the remake):
So, I was pretty terrified by her as a whole and really impressed with how quietly she moved when the lights were out (I guess it was loud but still).
I only wish that my friends had been able to see her–I guess your timing has to be just right to enjoy this terrifying aspect of a scary as hell maze.
Overall, if you visit Knott’s Scary Farm, I highly recommend waiting in line for this maze–five out of five stars! Or, if you don’t like waiting, do what we did–wait until just before closing. Anyone in line when the park closes gets to do the maze! Hopefully, this maze comes back next year so I can enjoy the experience again.
Rating: 5 out of 5–nearly perfect!