Written By: Mitchel Tilley
On October 26 and 27, North America’s largest Halloween dance music festival and freak show transported its guests through a hell-raising fairground filled with ornately costumed performers, sinister circus attractions, and unforgettable sets from over 70 dance music heavyweights across four colossal stages. Located just inside the festival gates, the aptly named Psycho Circus played host to contortionists, fortunetellers, magicians, and burlesque performances all weekend long. Returning to San Bernardino over the Halloween weekend, this year’s Escape: Psycho Circus was the biggest yet as 125,000 headliners descended upon the NOS Events Center
The Festival Experience
Everyday I arrived around 5-6 pm to avoid the initial lines when the festival opened (4 pm) and the general busy entry hours (7-10 pm). One person in our group is a disabled veteran so we were able to park in the ADA parking lot next to the box office. The traffic getting to the festival wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and thankfully Waze guided us on some side streets to save some time.
The festival will call itself didn’t have any lines when we arrived (~ 6 pm) so those lines were quick as well. Insomniac did a really good job with setting up an efficient credential pickup for festival employees at an offsite hotel in several ballrooms. The festival security was a breeze since lines were short and the staff was efficient yet thorough with personal searches.
The overall layout was somewhat familiar to other Insomniac events at NOS Events Center, but there were a few changes that mixed things up. The flow between stages was pretty solid as it wasn’t too difficult to move from state to stage even with the large crowd attendance. Instead of utilizing the capacity limited buildings at NOS Events Center, the majority of the stages were open-air tents or structures, which helped improve building capacity issues, sweltering temperatures, and sound acoustics.
After passing thru security, you were immediately greeted by several concession stands, a general store, a big festival map, the back of the Ghouls’ Graveyard stage, and an ID check. The ID check right at the entrance of the festival created a bit of a traffic jam as people were trying to get their drinking wristbands immediately after exiting the security check. If you looked at the festival map, there were ID checks at almost every bar area so I skipped the first ID booth and continued into the festival.
The first thing you notice as you walked past the festival entrance was the Ghouls’ Graveyard stage, which was a very large circus tent. The very rear of the tent had 2 large LED screens so you could view the performances from outside the tent if it was too hot or crowded. Some of the sets at Ghouls’ Graveyard created massive crowds so I typically took an immediate left after passing the general store and ID check. On the way to the Ferris Wheel, I stumbled upon this really cool government crash site with a sideways Alien spaceship from outer space. Reporter Dick Winkle provided on-site coverage of the UFO landing at NOS Events Center in San Bernardino.
Really large bursts of light and heat caught my attention across the pathway and we ended up finding an oversized Medusa head with fire coming out of the hair tendrils shaped in the form of snake heads. Later, we found out that the art installation originated from Burning Man. Throughout the whole weekend, I found myself stopping by the Medusa head to watch the rhythmic bursts of fire. As I continued to the ferris wheel, I swung around the left side of the lake that was located in the middle of the festival.
On this side of the lake, I discovered the Psycho Circus, which featured all sorts of bizarre and daring circus performances throughout the night. Escape hosted its own fortune teller booth where a fortune teller would decipher your future through tarot cards. Before getting to explore this area I already got the shit scared out of me by this tormenting baby being pushed around in an old fashioned strolled by her mother.
Near the Psycho Circus, there was a functioning merry-go-round and the infamous Asylum. Rentable lockers were conveniently located next door in case headliners need to drop off hydration packs or costume accessories that weren’t allowed inside The Asylum. In the same area, there was a huge block of Insomniac brand booths that featured everything from merchandise to activation booths for upcoming Insomniac festivals (Dreamstate, Countdown, Audiotistic, Day of the Dead, etc). Adjacent to this area and The Asylum was the large ferris wheel that had a never ending line of eager riders. The ferris wheel had amazing views of the whole festival grounds as well as The Chopping Block stage that just in front of it.
The backside of The Chopping Block had this awesome street that connected the Cannibals’ Tea Party stage (south side) to the Slaughterhouse stage (north side) on the opposite side of the festival. The back of the Cannibals’ Tea Party stage had this awesome photo op location that featured 4 scary themes: electrocution chair, open coffin, wooden pillory, and a spinning wheel with thrown knives.
The vendor village was spread out along the back street and featured some really creative clothing, hand fans, trippy glasses, and more. If you forgot your flag or totem, many people took advantage of the balloon vendor that sold crystal clear balloons covered in multicolored LED lights. I ran into one of the water stations on the way to the Slaughterhouse stage from Cannibals’ Tea Party next to the sponsored Corona Beach area. Every time I passed by the sand filled dome of Corona Beach, it was always a party inside and headliners were eager to get inside after waiting in line (there was a capacity limit since it’s all enclosed).
Moving a little further north I finally encountered the Slaughterhouse stage, which was considered the main stage for Escape. I discovered a lot of great cuisine options near the main stage and throughout the festival as well. Cuisine options ranged from Belly Bombz’s filling rice-bowls-and-fries combo and the Mediterranean-inspired Middle Feast, to sweet-tooth-satisfying options at The Boba Truck and After’s Ice Cream. Overall the lines for food and drinks were not very long (more time to dance!), so major kudos to Insomniac for the variety of food vendor options and speedy service.
Since the temperatures were quite warm this year (a drastic change from the previous cold years), I found myself exploring more areas outside of the stages and I really gained an appreciation for all the creativity and decorations that Insomniac put into the overall festival experience (especially all the performers and actors). Don’t get me wrong though, the stages themselves were masterpieces of art in their own unique ways and all of them absolutely raised the bar for stage design in my mind.
The massive Slaughterhouse stage, with its DJ booth nestled inside a gaping clown’s mouth, housed over 731 video tiles, 450 lights, and 16 lasers. The giant clown had LED eyes and had circus cages on both sides. Those who purchased VIP wristbands were treated to panoramic views of the Slaughterhouse, as well as a Jumanji-inspired VIP area featuring LED floor panels, a hot chocolate and coffee station, a Bewitched beauty bar, a complimentary trick-or-treat kandi bar, and a fully-functioning hookah lounge.
Ghouls’ Graveyard featured 326 lights and 26 lasers (almost double the lasers of Slaughterhouse), and hosting Friday’s Bassrush Massive-curated legends JOYRYDE, GTA, and Excision, as well as EDM staples KSHMR, Tchami x Malaa, and Eric Prydz on Saturday.
The Chopping Block, powered with 16 lasers and 6 massive smog machines, presented a diverse lineup curated by Basscon and Audiotistic. On Friday, hardstyle purveyors Brennan Heart, Digital Punk, and Angerfist brought the blistering tempos, while Junkie Kid’s performance concluded with an on-stage wedding proposal. Saturday saw SayMyName, A-Trak b2b Yehme2, and Snakehips round out an eclectic lineup of talent synonymous with Audiotistic’s diverse DNA. Zeds Dead closed out Chopping Block with an incredible performance.
After a massive turnout at last year’s event, the Cannibal’s Tea Party stage received an new expanded footprint and was curated by Factory 93 with highly anticipated collabs. Insomniac transformed the stage into an outdoor techno and house wonderland. The signature underground minimal vibes were courtesy of Jamie Jones, Claude Vonstroke, and Green Velvet—which included a surprise “Get Real” b2b performance by Claude and Green Velvet to close out the weekend.
Speaking of surprises, there were a lot of really amazing and surprising sets throughout the week. Escape’s lineup was quite diverse with artists from many genres including hardstyle, techno, house, trap, dubstep, and more.
On Friday, I bounced between Slaughterhouse and Ghouls’ Graveyard mainly to catch sets from Kai Wachi, Andy C, Seven Lions (my favorite), JOYRYDE, Kaskade, and Excision. Although Anna missed part of her set due to insane traffic outside the festival, she brought so much energy to finish the last hour strongly at Cannibals’ Tea Party. Remember the lasers discussed earlier? Excision blew the crowd away with a slew of lasers and mind melting bass. Out of all the sets during the weekend, Excision was one of the most crowded so it was a mad house trying to get a view inside the tent.
Saturday’s lineup was equally stacked as Friday. A good portion of the day was spent at The Chopping Block as Audiotistic took over the stage. Champagne Drip’s set with jungle and bass music alongside lush 80s synths created a killer vibe and Quix’s set immediately after was quite stellar too. Lane 8 brought the heat at Slaughterhouse with his remixes of RÜFÜS DU SOL’s “Innerbloom” and Deadmau5’s “Strobe”. KSHMR won the crowd with his hit tracks “Festival Of Lights”, “Secrets”, and “Jammu” and played his new track “Magic” (released on Nov 2nd). Eric Prydz closed out the last night with 2 hours of pure house and techno bliss from all his different alias names (Pryda, Cirez D, and Eric Prydz). Just like Excision, the sync’d lasers at Ghouls’ Graveyard complimented Prydz’s set perfectly. While the first good portion of the set consisted of rather unfamiliar music (ID…ID…ID), I was so happy that he played “Rebel XX”, his remix of M83’s “Midnight City”, and his well known edit of Faithless’s “Insomnia”. Every set is very unique no matter how many times I see Prydz, each telling a story of its own.
The 32,000 square-foot Wonderland Asylum is Escape’s own house of horrors. This year’s haunt was the largest and most intricate yet, featuring over 150 performers, 25 individual sound systems, and 30 distinct rooms depicting scenes from eight years of Escape trailer storylines. The exterior of The Asylum resembled a prison that was converted into a psychiatric ward for the mentally insane. The front entrance was complete with guard towers, metal fences, spotlights that searched through the crowd, and several actors that were dressed up as doctors, nurses, and security guards. Insomniac took it one step further by projecting scenes of doctors restraining patients and administering psychiatric treatments onto the walls of the prison exterior.
Once admitted into the ward, guests were fitted with straitjackets and masks before wandering through chill-inducing dark corridors and past padded cells, bloody showers, graveyards, and all the twisted inner workings of the demented Mad Hatter’s mind. Insomniac really nailed the Alice in Wonderland theme while also incorporating a scary carnival environment. I really liked the padded room with the belligerent inmate, the surgery ward, and the hallway that looked like a never ending closet with shadow figures under a flickering light bulb. As all good things must come to an end, the doctor informed us that we had been cured (how I’ll never know) and a nurse greeted us to remove our straight jackets (freedom at last!). I got to keep the hockey mask that we wore throughout The Asylum, which is a really cool souvenir after having my mind tormented for the past half hour.
Tucked away on the outskirts of the Psycho Circus near The Asylum exit was the Shanghai Surprise speakeasy, disguised as a noodle shop storefront. The intimate bar was a hidden gem, only accessible through a refrigerator door in the back of the restaurant’s lobby. Shanghai Surprise was quite the decorated little club with its own bar and DJ’s playing non-stop music. As the sun began to set, the trees throughout the venue caught my eye as warmly lit Chinese paper lanterns in the tree branches and accent lights on the trunks began to glow softly.
Insomniac Nailed It
North America’s largest Halloween dance music festival is quite the title to defend. Insomniac put in a lot of hard work and creativity to deliver four unique stages, world class DJ performances, a fully immersive Halloween experience, and unparalleled production. With over 125,000 headliners in attendance, its quite amazing that Escape runs relatively smoothly without any major issues. Some of the stages experienced rather large crowds for the popular sets, which is totally expected. The open-air style tents helped alleviate a lot of issues in prior years when the buildings at NOS Event Center were utilized. Plus, the large LED screens at the back of Slaughterhouse and Ghouls’ Graveyard gave headliners a closeup view of sets without having to deal with the crazy, hot crowd inside the tents. A big shoutout to Insomniac for elevating Escape: Psycho Circus using their creativity, passion, and love for Halloween.
“Halloween has always been a special time of year for me. For a lot of people, it’s about dressing up and becoming someone else. For dance music fans, it’s a chance to be who we really are. This year, we’ll have some amazing stages of music to check out, not to mention all the haunts, artwork, and next-level production we’re known for.” -Pasquale Rotella
I can’t wait to see what happens at upcoming Insomniac festivals like EDC Orlando, Dreamstate SoCal, Audiotistic, Countdown, and more. Keep an eye out for Insomniac’s new concept Play Festival. Escape’s DJs were playing video games live on Twitch before and after their sets. Those who missed out on Escape this year may have gotten lucky and played with their favorite DJ over the weekend.
Be a freak. Be beautiful. Be your most creative self. The Psycho Circus is your world to haunt and explore. You are the reason we’re here, and that’s why YOU are the Headliner.
Connect with Escape: Psycho Circus
Connect with Insomniac