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Halloween Haunts: Eerie entrepreneurs take the spooky season very seriously

by Jon Kir

You’ve seen the movies. You know axe murderers hide in closets, basements and log cabins. You know they kill nerds and supporting cast first, brash males and topless girls second, saving some sort of Neve Campbell/Freddie Prinze Jr. combo for the sequel. Anyone can sit there on their futon watching sexy co-eds getting hacked apart, but you know in the end the blood is fake, the knife is plastic and the actors are rich.

But how long would they last once their car breaks down in, say, Walnut Cove while Stabby McMurderson has just escaped from the local asylum? All the local radio stations have been talking about it and you should have never taken this shortcut and why doesn’t this phone work and -slice. You’re decapitated. Machetes are way scarier in real life. And boy can they sever some vertebrae.

And yet this time of year we relish the sensation of getting spooked. The older I get and the scarier real life becomes the harder it gets to procure a good fright. Video games and the nightly news have desensitized us from violence, and liability insurance has made purveyors of retail terror a little more conservative with their hacksaws. But come September, haunted structures start springing up everywhere from the Elks Lodge to Carowinds. Some advertise with billboards and commercials, others with posterboard and Sharpie.

Just like Dungeons & Dragons or “Star Trek,” the average person on the street probably doesn’t understand how involved one can get in the haunting business. For devoted haunters, Halloween begins in March with the Transworld Trade Show in Chicago. In April the Hauntcon rolls through Denver. In July the Midwest Haunters Convention hits Ohio. August features Horrorfind, which whets most inundated palates for a little thing at October’s end known around the world as Halloween.

Patty Pumpkin climbs aboard the tram, clad in an orange wig and a stuffed pumpkin costume and gripping a paper cup of coffee. It’s 9:30 a.m. Most ghouls or goblins are just getting to bed at this hour. But Patty (real name Kathy Justice) sings every cheerful word to the Maize Adventure theme playing over the tram’s loudspeaker. It’s a song she will likely hear several hundred times by Oct. 31. But Patty couldn’t be happier. After hearing about the excitement for several years, she finally made the journey from eastern Virginia to join her relatives in staffing the family business. It just so happens that the family business isn’t your ordinary hardware store or tackle shop. It’s North Carolina’s largest haunted attraction. Grab your walkie-talkie.

It all started 21 years ago when a 15-year-old Tony Wohlgemuth dared a friend to walk into the attic of an abandoned farmhouse, only for him to return screaming, a family of irritated bats in tow. That fall they decorated the house inside and out and charged $2 a head. It’s grown into a Halloween tradition that employs over 100 people each fall. In his mid-thirties, Wohlgemuth is two decades deep in haunting. Although born and raised on-site, Tony’s parents came to America from Switzerland in the late ’60s with dreams of buying a farm. Due to exorbitant European land prices and a dramatic job transfer, the Wohlgemuths landed here, just over the Guilford County line in Archdale. Farmers they were not, but Tony would soon inherit the family business and add a unique twist to it. The abandoned Christmas tree farm would become the Spooky Woods. The old farmhouse would become haunted.

Wohlgemuth could be considered the Willy Wonka of haunted houses. He is mild mannered and mustachioed with a penchant for innovative scare tactics. His scout-leader demeanor coupled with the summer-camp aura his attraction emits in daylight makes it all the more believable that someone could get hacked up and dumped in these woods. Regardless of this fringe possibility, busloads of school kids arrive over the course of the school day, bagged lunches in hand, sluicing for gems, dusting for faux fossils and other wholesome daytime activities. By night shrieks of excitement and the whir of chainsaws fill the air; by day jovial bluegrass plays over the PA. No zombies or werewolves, just line leaders, head counts and buddy systems as far as the eye can see.

Once the sun goes down Spookywoods is frights and lights. Church groups in athletic gray sweatshirts wait in line beside goth kids with chains hanging out of their lips. Little do they know that in 20 minutes, whether intentionally or not, they’ll all be yelling the same swear words in unison – in solidarity. From the parking lot it may look like a roller disco, but don’t let the Jock Jams and party lights fool you. Once the journey begins, C&C Music Factory’s greatest hits will be nothing more than a murmur. Over the course of the night, expect to get groped by rubber hands, deafened by chainsaws and encounter a lot of dudes who look like a cross between Rob Zombie and Snuffleupagus. The rest is a surprise. My friend Steve wore his gorilla costume and they put him to work while I snooped around and took pictures. How cool is that?

If Wohlgemuth is the Willy Wonka of Haunted Houses, Eddie McLaurin is the PT Barnum.

“I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m definitely a perfectionist.” Says McLaurin, regarding his work ethic towards his woods. Situated behind an enclave of homes belonging to assorted relatives, Woods of Terror is the embodiment of one man’s dream: to have the biggest and best haunted house ever.

“A few years back I decided I wanted to take my haunt to the next level. That year instead of starting in September I started in July. Then about three years ago I started in March. And the past two years, I haven’t quit.”

The fruits of McLaurin’s labor are evident. It’s creepy. Walking through the Woods of Terror on a Thursday afternoon, McLaurin is completely passé about the emotional turmoil his trail will inflict on his victims.

“We blind ’em here, shock ’em here, chainsaw ’em here,” he says, pointing at various points along each trail. There are 15 stations in all. The entire gauntlet will take you over an hour to run. As we pass through a narrow maze, McLaurin ads, “A lot of people are claustrophobic, so I try and touch on that psychological fear.”

The Woods of Terror is more than just chainsaws. It’s a deeper scare. It’s fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s the creaking of floorboards. One of the Woods’ most famous stunts of seasons past took place upon a trail, a mandatory detour through a broken-down school bus. Inside a little girl is crying, begging for help. Just when your estrogen levels have peaked, axe-wielding psychopaths chase you off the bus only to chase you back on. Woods of Terror exploits every weakness you have, including your trust and compassion for human beings – truly a deviant accomplishment.

But to McLaurin, his intentions aren’t one bit sinister.

“Some people might say, ‘Man this guy’s really a freak!’ I look at it just like I would a scary movie – it’s entertainment.” If you truly can’t hang, and you’re willing to get made fun of for the remainder of the fiscal year, there’s a “chicken exit” located about a quarter of the way through. Over 150 people utilized this escape hatch last year alone. That door will lead you back to the parking lot to wait for your friends, while they push on, wishing they’d joined you.

If Wohlgemuth is Willy Wonka and McLaurin is PT Barnum, then Curt Walker is the Steve Irwin of Haunted Houses: enthusiastic, playful and a little bit crazy. The object of his affection has taken many different shapes over the years but has finally materialized into the Castle of Horror. For this home cooked spook, you’ll drive up Highway 29 to the bustling metropolis of Reidsville, 15 minutes from the Virginia border. For every major player in the spook game, there are five like Curt Walker. Let me rephrase that. There are five attractions that are similar to Curt’s, but no one is quite like Curt Walker.

There is as much of Walker’s own sweat and blood in this attraction as there is salvaged construction materials, of which most of the castle is comprised. A general contractor by day, Walker has managed to take scrap rebar, corrugated pipe and liquid nail and turn them into something magical. What bigger budget attractions do with pneumatic humdingers and hydraulic whatsits, Walker accomplishes with pulleys, clever lighting and gravity. What Hollywood hotshots can do with Latex and micro-mechanics, Walker can do with soda bottles and duct tape for a fraction of the cost. What’s more, he’s passing the savings on to you.

“I could spend more on the costumes, but then I’d have to charge thirty dollars a head,” explains Walker, whose attraction costs half that price and opens this weekend. “My two biggest priorities are safety and customer satisfaction. If I make a dollar, that’s nice. I mean, I can eat cupcakes without icing on ’em, but if I have some icing, I’ll eat that too.”

It was Walker’s sweet tooth that got him into the Halloween game in the first place. When other kids were out collecting candy, he was hanging back at the house, putting the ‘trick’ back in ‘trick or treat.’

“As a kid, around seven or eight years old, mom would buy my two favorite candies; Hershey’s Kisses and Smartees. As an eight-year-old, I wanted that candy, too. So I figured if I’ve got this costume and I’ve got this creature and the more of this candy I could save the more I can eat.”

The light bulb’s been on ever since.

Walker’s castle is run and maintained by a support system of family members and local kids, who are valuable to Walker because of their active imaginations. He is especially thrilled when his own kids get in the holiday spirit.

“Look at all the kids staring at him,” says Walker stopping midway through a Halloween photo album he keeps in his truck. “You’ve got two Supermans, a Power Ranger, you’d better bet my son’s going to take the title. I remember asking him, ‘What do you want to do, son?’ He said ‘I don’t care daddy as long as I’m bleeding.'” Walker looks at me, as if to say, “That’s my boy.”

Walker knows his haunt might not compare in size or attendance to other major attractions. All of the owners are acquaintances and relish the differences that set their individual attractions apart. But even if they were all equipped with the same gear, Walker knows his castle would still stand out as his own.

“If we have a chili cook off, not everybody’s chili’s gonna be the same. Sure, it’s all just meat and spices – but my chili is strange.”

Fall seems to have come a little early in Reidsville. Leaves are already browning and fields of neglected corn lie beside dilapidated houses. A few automotive graveyards sit roadside as the highway narrows and the wilderness encroaches on the road. A flat tire would not sit well with me right now, and I’m left to wonder what my fate would be were I to run out of gas. Reidsville isn’t exactly residential Guilford County and none of these shanties look inviting. I’m in the country. Maybe Walker knows something about this land I don’t know. Perhaps he’s got some inside information, sees something the other haunts don’t see about their surroundings. Maybe these hills really are haunted. But like most good scares, it’s probably all in my head.

To comment on this story e-mail Jon Kirby at jonckirby@hotmail.com

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