SCARING: A FAMILY AFFAIR
It’s Easter Sunday and while most families are dying boiled eggs, Herbert “Buster” Foster, 39, sits outside his grandparents’ house painting giant octopus tentacles. It’s only April, but he and his family are already thinking about their family-and-friend-run haunted trail in Eden.
The group of volunteers that run Freedom Park Haunted Trail are part of the sub-culture of fans that go absolutely crazy for the holiday “” far beyond just carving a pumpkin and buying bags of candy.
“The reason everybody shows up is simple “” they get a kick out of scaring people,” said Brandon Hodge, 24, Buster’s cousin. “That’s their reward.”
The kicker with the Hodge-Vernon family is that even though they spend thousands of personal dollars each year to manage and add to the trail, all of the entrance fees collected are donated to the City of Eden’s Parks and Recreation Department “” adding a whole new element to their “Halloween fanatic” status.
For the past eight years, Freedom Park Haunted Trail, running every Friday and Saturday in October, has made the city anywhere from $7,000–$8,500 every year, averaging more than 100 visitors per night.
“We’re the only city in the state of North Carolina that does not charge our children to participate in our youth athletic programs, and that money helps us to be able to do that,” said Johnny Farmer, Parks and Recreation director. “It covers the uniforms for the children; the equipment; everything.”
“The trail gives the children in our community a nice, safe place to go for Halloween,” Farmer added about why the volunteers are so important to the city. “They keep the price low for the residents, and it’s just a good place for kids to go and have a good time.”
The family’s borderline obsessive passion is actually two-pronged: They love scaring and entertaining people, and they’re dedicated to Terry Vernon’s life mission to help the youth of Eden.
“That’s what we’re doing; we’re creating memories for these kids,” said Buster, recounting his own memories of his first haunted house experience in the Boys and Girls Club gym.
After all, what is Halloween at its core, other than a holiday for kids?
“Everyone knows Terry for his devotion to the town and his work with the kids,” Brandon said about his uncle, the head of the haunted-trail family. “There are adults now that still know Terry from their childhood.”
The family’s haunted-house experience is actually rooted in Terry’s life work, dating back to 1981 when he got his first full-time job after college working for the Boys and Girls Club. Terry, 58, actually grew up going to the Boys Club (now the Boys and Girls Club) in the ’70s, and has his own fond memories of the one-night-only Halloween carnival and haunted house. Back then it cost a dime to go through the decorated gym.
“Tammy (my wife) made the mistake of being around me three or four years before, so she got pulled into helping with the haunted house, too.” Terry laughed. “She made a great witch.”
When Terry started working for the City of Eden Parks and Recreation Department in 2007, he brought the idea of a haunted fundraiser and his family of volunteers with him. The city let them use the woods of Freedom Park to set up, and the rest is history.
“Terry’s always gone above and beyond, which is why the trail isn’t just Terry’s thing, it’s his whole family’s thing,” Brandon said.
Because Terry and his extended family “” like most of the residents of Eden “” have special memories about growing up in the Boys and Girls Club and taking part in the city’s youth programs, playing sports, meeting friends and, of course, experiencing their first haunted house. They pay homage to their beginnings with a special kids’ night by offering a $2 admission fee.
“That’s why we still have a kids’ night here,” said Karen Bruins, 38, Terry’s stepdaughter, “because that’s how this all got started.”
Putting a scare together. Places everyone!
To pull off the month-long haunted trail, everyone plays their part, whether acting as a ghoul, managing the talent, building the props, buying and creating the costumes or simply carting their kids off to participate.
“We’ve always been a close family, so this is like a group hobby,” said Karen’s son Tyler Bruins, 17. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary, just something we always come together to do.”
Besides acting as family time, the trail also allows for each family member to find and explore their niche and micro passion.
“I get to do weird and crazy things, and it’s completely acceptable,” Tyler joked while dressed as a bloody, masked murderer.
But you might wonder what a teenage boy thinks about sacrificing all of his weekends in October.
“It’s rough, but it’s worth it,” he said. It’s also easier with friends in the trail, something Tyler caught on to in the past few years. In 2013, he recruited the entire JROTC unit from Morehead High School.
His brothers Daniel, 9, and Jacob, 14, are also staple actors in the trail. Jacob usually handles the clown house, whereas Daniel is more versatile: he’s been a dog,a zombie and even “dinner.”
“He’s basically grown up in the trail,” said Karen, his mother. “When he started he was about four years old. He was a little dog in a dog cage, and he would bark and everything. When it would get late, he’d just fall asleep in his cage until the trail was over.”
Joe Hodge, 21, enjoys creating handmade masks for the trail. “It started with a hot-glue gun and some old jeans, but now I solder stuff,” Joe said.
Brandon, Joe’s cousin and former chainsaw partner in the trail, said Joe first got into masks because they needed something that fit well and wouldn’t hinder their sight while they were chasing after people with chainsaws.
Joe got an old mannequin head so he could ensure a proper fit when he created his first design by painting stitched-together denim scraps black. The simple, but stealthy black mask covered his entire face except for a small mouth and eye slits, which allows him to hide better in the woods. Over the years, Joe has now created about 20 to 30 masks, including his favorite, a gas mask.
Buster, of course, enjoys building the props and animatronics. His 21-year long construction background and electrical experience aid him in figuring out the logistics. Buster’s interest was piqued when out shopping for expensive Halloween items and realizing, “well I can make that.” And so he did.
Over the years, Buster’s created nearly a dozen six-foot-long Octopus arms, a skinless barking dog, a striking cobra, an electrocution victim, a hanging and thrashing victim, a jumping spider and a buzz-saw table, not to mention other smaller details.
“Without Buster, the trail would be a lot of random characters in random places because there would be no props to set the scene,” Brandon said. “Buster takes an idea and actually makes it happen. A lot of people come up with ideas of things they’d like to see in the trail, but Buster’s the only one that turns the talk into the trail.”
Each year, Buster spends anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 of his own money to make the props and design the haunted scenes.
“I don’t care about the money (I spend), I just like doing it,” Buster said. “I just like it as a hobby.”
And even though his career in industrial construction takes him out of state, he still finds the time and energy to commute to the trail. This year, Buster is working up to 60 hours per week, and he still drives his family four hours from Columbia, S.C., after a full day of work on Saturday, to work the trail that night. Then he drives himself, partner Melanie, and 6-year-old daughter Katie, back Sunday morning.
Besides creating the scenes and building animated characters and other props for the trail, Buster, alongside his uncles Thomas and Curtis Hodge, is pivotal to the technical setup and upkeep of the trail.
Each performance night, the three hook up the fog machines, speakers and other gear. And during the trail, they’re on call and stay on top of any technical errors that might go wrong on the trail, which could be that a light isn’t working or an animated prop that needs a tweak.
The leader of the pack
Of course it takes more than props and costumes to pull off a good scare, considering how large the trail is: It takes a lot of volunteers to fill the space with ghouls.
And it also takes a manager with an in-charge attitude who can keep track of everyone and everything.
As with the job of any mother “” many would say the true head of the family “” Tammy is the one who organizes the chaos of the trail each night. She manages anywhere from 80 to 100 volunteers each season, including dozens of volunteer children and teens, and makes sure they get in costume on time and know where to go.
She’s also the one who reprimands them for not taking care of their costume or props if they are simply cast aside on a picnic table at the end of the night.
“Tammy’s sort of the leader of the troops in a way,” Brandon said. “(The trail has) a lot of volunteers that aren’t as invested. They don’t spend the weeks and months beforehand preparing. They just show up to act, so Tammy’s in charge of directing everyone.”
Buster adds that another benefit to his set-pieces and animated ghouls is that it takes some of the acting pressure off of the volunteers. With so many people coming and going, with different levels of interest and experience, “you don’t know who’s going to be there every night.”
Terry’s brother, Sammy, and his family are also a tremendous help. Sammy recruits anywhere from 15 to 30 volunteers each year to set-up and manage their own section of the trail “” the haunted maze. That’s one section the Hodge-Vernon family knows will be under control.
Of course, it’s important to remember that this is not a professional trail “” it’s a household trail, which means it also comes with family guilt.
Some volunteers, such as Buster’s cousin Kayla DeHart, show up each night out of obligation. DeHart also delivers her son, Nate, as an actor in the clown house.
But no matter the motivation, it’s important to the Hodge-Vernon family to uphold the tradition.
“It’s a year-long experience,” Tyler adds about his family’s dedication. And that it is. Not only do Buster and Joe continue to create masks and animatronics throughout the year as a favorite pastime, but the props themselves take residence in the family’s lives. Although the bulk of the fare is stored on city property, a few pieces haunt the family’s homes.
The iconic movie character Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th films stands six feet tall, holds a machete, and creeps around Tammy’s washer and dryer “” a startling sight for those who don’t live the lifestyle.
“If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t do it,” Tammy said plainly.
The Freedom Park Haunted Trail will live on like a spirit itself, rooted in the minds of locals and their memory of their very first haunted trail.
Freedom Park Haunted Trail, located at 121 N. Edgewood Road, Eden, is open Friday and Saturday from 8–11:30 p.m., or until the last group goes through. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for kids. Friday, there is a $2 special admission for kids 12 and under. For more information visit freedomparkhauntedtrail.com.
Halloween falls into that renaissance fair/sci-fi convention kind of obsessive niche, and so does its fans. There are those who are mildly interested and then there are those who take their passion seriously “” and it shows in the product.
And the Vernon-Hodge family isn’t the only case; take these smaller-scale fans, for example.
The Sedgefield Slaughterers
Each year, Michael Soles and his family, including sister Sheila Willis and nephew Justin Willis, decorate his two-story home in Sedgefield, Greensboro. The foyer is transformed into Dracula’s castle, while the parlor houses a mad scientist’s lab, and the kitchen is full of cannibal chefs.
The family spends about a month setting up before Halloween night and builds new props throughout the year, including a cemetery with personalized gravestones for all of their friends.
Justin has even built a “brown-out” box so that the lamps in the home will constantly flicker on and off on their own.
The real show comes on Halloween night when the family and any friends they’ve wrangled act out horror scenes for trick-or-treaters and their parents all night long.
Take a drive down Michael and Jennifer Wooten’s neighborhood in Brassfield, and you’ll find quite a tale of the crypt. Michael has created a blown-out cemetery with graveyard guardians, animated skeletons and zombies, and several other homemade animatronics in his yard, as well as his neighbor’s yards.
Every prop on display, including the colored spotlights, were made by Michael himself “” a regular YouTube genius.
On Halloween night, the family, including 2-year-old Nora, hand out regular sized candy bars to trick-or-treaters and invite the neighborhood to a bonfire in the parking lot, complete with marshmallows for roasting.
Perry Thomas, 27, started scaring as a teen in his old Adams Farm neighborhood, but now continues the tradition at his own house in Kernersville.
A few examples of the surprises in his yard include a dead body that pops out of a coffin, a 15-foot grim reaper that swings into view and blocks your path to the door, and a hidden screaming clown. Perry and his brother Adam control the props from an app on their phones by using electric valves.
Find a haunted attraction near you
Woods of Terror, located at 5601 N. Church St, Greensboro, contains about 120 actors each night roaming through 11 attractions, including a cemetery, cornfield, miner’s shaft and a wooden pirate ship. The spooky experience takes more than an hour to complete. Tickets are $15-$50.
Kersey Valley’s Spookywoods, located at 1615 Kersey Valley Road, Archdale, contains more than 100 actors, a haunted trail, cornfield and an ornately creepy castle. Tickets are $25-$50.
Mountain of Terror, located at 4527 Linda Lane, Asheboro, has more than 100 actors covering a mile-long haunted trail. The indoor/outdoor attraction contains a dark forest, miner’s lodge, maze and 300 feet of underground tunnels. Tickets are $20; $10 for kids.
Nightmare on Scales Street, located at 207 S. Scales St., Reidsville, is an indoor haunted attraction in the “Klenner Clinic.” This year, there’s a new addition of a swamp of terror. The haunt uses Hollywood-style special effects to appeal to all of your senses. Tickets are $20.
Castle of Horror, located at 2709 Narrow Gauge Road, Reidsville, is an indoor-outdoor event that’s known for changing its scenery from year to year. Tickets are $15 (two for $25).