When it comes to haunted attractions and creating innovative and and unique designs, Plague Productions reigns supreme. Founded by Jon Cooke, Plague Productions has been at the forefront of haunt designs, working on Halloween themed events for such juggernauts as Knott’s Scary Farm, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, King’s Island and more. Back in July, it was announced that Plague Productions would be taking on its next project: Los Angeles’ Haunted Hayride with Jon Cooke coming on board as their Creative Director in conjunction with Melissa Carbone, Founder/Producer of LA’s Haunted Hayride along with Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group.
As a born and raised East Coast gal who grew up going on haunted hayrides with her family, hearing that Jon Cooke and his team would be revamping the Hayride for the 2019 season filled with my joy. I knew if anyone could capture the spirit of those New England Fall feels that encompass hayrides, along with creating a terrifying experience that fans would flock to, it would be Jon and his team. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Jon about Plague Productions newest endeavor with Los Angeles’ Haunted Hayride where we talked about everything from this year’s theme of Midnight Falls to what attractions fans can expect to experience at this year’s Hayride.
To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into designing haunts?
Jon Cooke: Around 2005, I was doing a lot of band stuff and I remember having some downtime and a friend of mine worked at Knott’s [Scary Farm] as a monster. I thought that would be fun so I went and applied to be a monster there. I was actually turned away for whatever reason and ended up taking a job there as a carpenter which gave me a glimpse behind the scenes of what goes into putting a maze together and I became very enthralled with that process and the art behind it. From there, over the next 10 years, it developed into getting into the design side of things but it was all very organic – just starting at the bottom and working up.
In terms of working with Los Angeles’ Haunted Hayride, how did that come about?
Jon Cooke: I’ve been a fan of the hayride and I’ve gone to the hayride quite a bit but it kind of more started when I was going to this Halloween show ever year in St. Louis called Transworld. I remember seeing these massive, amazing facades and I wanted to know who was creating them because it looked like Disney quality stuff for haunted houses and I wanted to know who was behind it. I remember seeing a plaque on the side of it that said, “Presented by Thirteenth Floor Entertainment” so I started to research the company and saw who the different players within the company were. I remember one year I went to that show thinking okay, my goal at this show is to meet these guys and start to develop a relationship with them. Then that happened and we became friends and kept in touch. They came out to California and I showed them Knott’s and Queen Mary, then the following year they acquired the Hayride and we started talking about having a working relationship.
The theme this year at LA’s Haunted Hayride is Midnight Falls. Can you elaborate on that and how you came up with the concept?
Jon Cooke: I think the Hayride has done a lot of cool stuff over the years, but for me, my favorite part is stepping out into Griffith Park and automatically feeling like you are transported to the East Coast. I love haunted house stuff but my favorite thing about the season is going out to the pumpkin patches with my family and just really soaking in all things Halloween. When we first sat down and started talking about this, everyone across the board was kind of on the same page in regards to loving the feeling you get by going out in the park and having the fog machines and such, so we really leaned into that. That’s kind of where we sort of developed this fictitious town of Midnight Falls where it embodies everything we love about the Halloween season. To me, that’s kind of been the thing that I’ve been most excited about – just being able to live in this world and just being fully encompassed by the season.
When it comes to designing the haunts, what is the process like and how far in advance do you start planning?
Jon Cooke: Well, we try to get the biggest jump on it as possible. The Hayride didn’t get a green light until a little bit later so it’s been about 6 months or so. My team is building the entire event from the ground up so we are living in it. About 90% of the event is a brand-new build which is really crazy but a really fun process building all that. We are already talking about next year and where we want to see the storyline and where we want to see Midnight Falls go, so I guess in theory it’s kind of a year-round thing that starts as soon as this one ends.
Expanding on Midnight Falls a bit, that’s a story that you plan on expanding past just this year?
Jon Cooke: Correct. It’s set up in our heads to be able to build upon. This is the year we want to introduce everyone to the town and set a strong foundation to be able to build on top of. That is kind of the intent behind this and it’s something we feel strong enough about and confident enough where we think people are going to be able to really come and fall in love with the town and the characters where they are going to want more in the future. We will be able to take deeper dives into the different attractions and characters which was kind of our thought going into this theme.
That’s great because this storyline will have an immersive element to it where you get to know these characters past just a one-time thing, which really adds to the entire experience.
Jon Cooke: The idea is the entity that is taking hold over this town is the spirit of Halloween so there’s a lot of different directions it can go and we are kind of starting to set that path for the storyline. But it’s something that is still kind of fluid in our minds to where it can go in different directions depending on how things unfold over the next couple of years.
Having been to the Hayride before, I know that Griffith Park is an amazing landmark, but I know the terrain can be slightly challenging. Now knowing that your team is building everything from the ground up, what were some of the challenges you faced? Also, are you taking over the majority of Griffith Park?
Jon Cooke: Yeah, man, it’s tough and that’s a good point – we are building everything in a nice, level, flat warehouse so once we get it out into the dirt we will see how it goes. [The terrain] is definitely the biggest challenge along with the load-in time because it’s a functioning landmark park in the middle of Los Angeles. We only get less than 2 weeks to install the entire event and that’s coming up. I’m sure the biggest challenges are yet to be revealed but we are just going into it trying to be as thought out and organized as possible and trying to get ahead of the potential challenges.
In regards to the amount of space we are using, it’s the same footprint that it took last year, but we are utilizing the spaces a little bit differently, but it does fit a pretty similar layout to last year.
What do you think fans are going to be most excited to see and what are you most excited for them to experience?
Jon Cooke: It’s tough, I’m personally excited for everything for different reasons but one of the things we were very cautious about when we were putting together the different attractions was to make sure that each one, cause there are only four, are very different in their feel and offer a different experience. For the people that are looking for that big adrenaline rush, of being terrified and trying to escape the killers, that’s Roadkill Ranch – that’s high energy and we call it the heavy metal show of the event with the chainsaws up in the hills and the crazy people. Then we have Trick or Treat which is more of a fun, Halloween experience where you are going trick or treating in the neighborhood of the monsters but they are also out there celebrating Halloween so their houses are decorated like the monsters they are portraying, so it’s very fun, kind of a personal experience that you get one-on-one with these monsters. Midnight Mortuary is the ghost story of the event, where you are invited to an open house of the town’s mortuary and so you get to go and explore the halls of this place and, of course, nothing is as it seems, it’s not just a good ole’ Mortuary at the end of the town, they are definitely up to no good. Then you have the Hayride which is a Halloween Hayride in the middle of Los Angeles which is definitely a unique experience with over-the-top large sets, giant monsters out in the woods, it’s a good time. It’s tough for me to choose which one I’m the most excited about cause I’m excited about them all!