Horror Meets History at Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor

Steve Sheldon (Left) and Jon Cooke, proud purveyors of horror at Dark Harbor. Photo by Scott Feinblatt

The RMS Queen Mary, a retired British ocean liner that has been permanently moored in Long Beach since 1967, is well known for hosting vacationers, conferences, and various popular events. During the Halloween season, of course, she is known as the host of the haunted theme park, Dark Harbor. One of the distinctions that Dark Harbor has always had over most other haunted attractions is the fact that the Queen Mary possesses her own historical ghost stories. In advance of this year’s Dark Harbor, the Weekly had a chance to walk through a couple of its mazes while speaking with the event’s co-executive producer, Steve Sheldon, and the Dark Harbor team’s new production designer, veteran haunted maze designer Jon Cooke.

Sheldon originally came aboard the Queen Mary team as the director of entertainment events mid-season during 2011’s Dark Harbor. In 2016, he and his former assistant director, Charity Hill, launched their own event production company, called EPIC Entertainment Group. Now the two, as co-executive producers, run Dark Harbor as contractors. This year, in an attempt to spice things up, they brought Jon Cooke on board to help re-imagine the haunted theme park and the mythologies at the hearts of the event’s mazes.

Jon Cooke pulls the scares from their containers in preparation for this year’s Dark Harbor. Photo by Scott Feinblatt.

Cooke, who also works as a contractor for Knott’s Scary Farm, took Queen Mary’s historical ghost stories and built from there. “Where we started was looking at the stories that they have already had and tried to look at them at a different angle,” he explains. “We did build upon [some], but certain mazes like B340, we took in a whole different direction from [before]. Intrepid as well…we wanted to dive deeper into the backstory of [the maze’s central character, Ivan the Iron Master] and why he is the way he is. So we started on a creative level before getting into a practical sense.”

The idea for the Intrepid maze originally spawned from a research trip that Sheldon and Hill took. “Historically we’ve always tried to do our best to tie them into the actual history of the Queen Mary, and several years ago when we were looking for a new maze concept, Charity and I actually happened to have traveled to Scotland,” Sheldon recalls. “And we were on a train…talking about different concepts, we said, ‘wait a minute, the John Brown Shipyard [the birthplace of the Queen Mary] is in Scotland. Let’s somehow tie that in,’ and that was initially where the idea for Intrepid came from.”

The maze features a variety of environmental effects, such as flashing lights and snow, and includes a crumbling cemetery inspired by one that Hill observed while touring Scotland. As for the shipyard-inspired maze’s mascot, Ivan the Iron Master, his history became a bit more fanciful after Cooke started brainstorming. “When I looked at the character — he’s made of half man, half metal — I thought that was really interesting and wanted to explore more to why,” Cooke explains. “So we came up with a story [that] he made a pact with this sea witch that allowed him to — as he got older and started to fall apart — he’s able to replace parts of his body with metal and so we kind of go through his journey in making that pack with this witch, and how he has to bring her fresh souls every year and all this fun stuff.”

As we walked from the land-based Intrepid to the onboard maze, Feast, Sheldon and Cooke revealed that in addition to this year’s revamping of the mazes to include new mythologies and even some variant, multiple pathways, the park will also feature secret bars, hidden within the mazes and elsewhere on the grounds. In addition to providing an opportunity for a mid-haunt drink, the bars also have unique features that enable patrons to view the guests walking through a maze and even press buttons to trigger scares for them. Guests wanting to find these hidden bars will have to discover them on their own — they are, after all, secret!

An unlucky victim of the Chef, from Dark Harbor. Photo by Scott Feinblatt

The Chef awaits victims inside the Feast maze. Inspired by an actual Queen Mary chef who was shoved into an oven by his kitchen staff during war time, the Chef is now out for blood. “We created a fictionalized version of that story; we had a chef who was aboard during during war time who then stayed aboard when the ship went back into service as a luxury liner,” Sheldon explains. “He was kind of just driven out of his mind and started poisoning passengers and killing passengers and kind of got the taste of…blood. And continued on his rampage.”

Designing the mazes on board the ship was a particular delight for Cooke, who remarked that the areas of Queen Mary that are used for mazes — their corridors and textures, in particular  — provided him with an amazing canvas to start on. This season, Ivan the Iron Master and the Chef — as well as Graceful Gail, the Captain, Half Hatch Henry, Samuel the Savage, Scary Mary, and The Ringmaster — will be scaring and delighting haunt fans on select nights, from September 27 through November 2. Visit them in their respective mazes, and enjoy various other attractions, such as Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch Sinister Swings, the Panic 4D Experience, the slider shows, sideshow performances, the hookah lounge, DJs and dance floors, and the 9-degree ice bar, while enjoying the overall ambiance of Dark Harbor’s extensive fairground.

For more information about the event and for tickets, visit their site at: www.queenmary.com/dark-harbor

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