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WOODS OF TERROR

by Mark Burger

WOODS OF TERROR

Greensboro’s Woods of Terror, named one of America’s Best Haunts, has been in operation for 18 years. (courtesy photo)

More than just a asingle house or haunted hayride — although both of those components arepresent — Woods of Terror boasts over a dozen different attractions anda nightly cast of 130 performers. It’s the biggest attraction of itskind in a threestate radius, and its fans — many of them long-timeregulars — say it’s the beast… errr, best.

Thisyear, it again made the grade as one of America’s Best Haunts, and maywell shatter previous attendance records by the time its 2009 run isdone.

For38-year-old Eddie McLaurin, who’s been at the helm of Woods of Terrorsince the beginning, such acclaim and success is testament to the hardwork he and his team put into presenting the wildest, weirdest scareshow around.

With18 years of horrific history to its credit, Woods of Terror is on itssecond generation of fans, many of whom came when they were childrenand teenagers and are now bringing their own kids — often more thanonce a season.

Repeatbusiness, estimates McLaurin, accounts for more than 70 percent ofattendance each season, which runs from mid-September and throughHalloween into early November. (This year, Woods of Terror will remainopen until Nov. 7, the latest date that it’s ever stayed open.)

Inaddition to local traffic, Woods of Terror also plays host to manytourists who have traveled from far and wide to experience it forthemselves. Off the top of his head (which, by the way, wasphotographed on a silver tray on Page 3 in the Sept. 23 issue of YES!

Weekly, inwhich he was recognized as a “Local Talent”), McLaurin recalls visitorswho came in from Colorado, Michigan and Florida — “and I’m sure I’mforgetting a few other places,” he says.

Raisedin what he describes as a traditional Christian household, McLaurindidn’t watch many horror movies as a kid, “and I think I wenttrick-or-treating maybe three or four times.”

Thenotion that he’s been making up for it ever since is an apt one, giventhe enduring and often growing popularity of Woods of Terror.

McLaurinestimates that it takes 15,000 people to earn a profit. Last year,Woods of Terror welcomed a record 17,500 guests, and “I think we’lldefinitely do 20,000 this year,” he predicts.

AlthoughWoods of Terror has been a financially successful venture, much of themonies earned from ticket sales are funneled right back into the upkeepand maintenance of the venue. Constructing a new attraction, like theBlood House, doesn’t come cheap. It takes time, hard work and theoccasional bout of trial-and-error.

There’salso the matter of clean-up duty, both after each evening and thenafter the season, a task made even more daunting by the amount of talltrees on the property (it lives up to the “Woods” part of its name).Last year, McLaurin says, it wasn’t until mid-December that the area hadbeen completely cleaned and cleared. “We filled three 18-wheelers withdowned limbs from storms,” he recalls.

“Lookingto the future, I’m always trying to find how to make it easier,” hesays with a smile. “It’s about trying to think ahead and stay ahead ofthe game.”

Eventhough it’s open for business roughly one month out of each year, Woodsof Terror is nevertheless a year-long vocation for’son, he does electrical work, but a good deal of his day-to-day life revolves around the Woods.

“Overthe years, I’ve realized that the buck stops here,” he says. “There aretimes when people say to me ‘This can’t work,’ but somehow I make itwork.”

But, he adds, “If I wasn’t picky, my haunted house wouldn’t be any good.”

“Wehave a reputation,” says Woods of Terror employee Fred Swink, “and it’sour job to help Eddie uphold that reputa tion. You don’t get to be oneof the 10 best haunted houses in the country by taking the easy wayout. Our goal is to be number one… and we’re going to get there.”

Swinkis one of the few employees with dual roles: He’s both an actor and oneof the crew. This is his second year on the Woods of Terror team, andhis enthu siasm is doubled by the fact that his older daughter Carolyn,herself a budding devotee of all things scary, is also on board as anactor this year.

“Man,it’s fun!” he says, “and she loves it.” Shared affection for horrorruns in the Swink fam ily, he says. “I have a five-year-old daughter,and she’s starting to love it!” Another Woods of Terror veteran whopulls double- duty as both an actor and a principal member of the maintenance crew is named Anthony, but prefers to go by the name Gypsy.

“I’vebeen all over — from Bridgeton, Massachusetts to Miami, Florida toTempe, Arizona and back here to North Carolina. I’m a wanderer … that’swhy they call me Gypsy,” he explains.

Gypsy is reprising his role as the cutthroat pirate Blackbeard in the Blackbeard’s Revenge attraction, so

he’s adopted a faux British snarl. “Aye, I’m Blackbeard… known as Edward Teach to a few, Blackbeard to many,” he growls.

Is he always like this? “This is nothing,” jokes Swink.

Woods of Terror covers more than 30 acres, including the woods, the haunted house and more!

Eddie McLaurin, center with noose, serves as the mad ringleader og the Woods of Terror.

“Usually,he’s worse!” Underneath the snarl, however, Gypsy revels in his dualroles at Woods of Terror. “I love the people, the reactions. If I’mgoing to work at a haunted place, it might as well be the best one inthe area.”

In terms of maintenance, “I’m a jack of all trades,” he boasts, “and master of a couple! But we always seem to make it work.”

Gypsyhad previously appeared in the Jungle of Doom attraction, and whenMcLaurin decided to knock that one down and build the new one, hedidn’t have to look far for his star pirate.

“Horrormovies never scared me,” attests Gypsy, “but I was always a big, bigfan of Halloween — the holiday. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I used toscare the teenagers in my neighborhood by holding s’ances in mybasement.”

Now, asan adult, Gypsy gets to relive his affection for Halloween. “I lovedressing up and scaring people,” he says, “and I can do it in anenvironment where I don’t have to worry about being arrested!” With agung-ho attitude like that, is it any wonder that Blackbeard’s Revengehas become one of the most popular attractions in the history of Woodsof Terror?

Giventhe many guests who enter the Woods of Terror each season, there willbe the occasional one who’s had too much to imbibe or is intent oncausing trouble. If so, McLaurin and his team are quite adept atsolving that problem, too.

“Comeout and have a good time,” says Gypsy. “It’s all for fun. Don’t getmean. Don’t get stupid. Don’t put your hands on us and we won’t on you.But if you start pushing people, we will push back — and that’ll be theend of it.”

Besides,he adds with another Blackbeardian snarl, “I always have a spare set ofchains lying around for just such an occasion….”

Swink paraphrases an old adage:

“We’re not going to let a few bad apples ruin it for everyone else. It’s not fair to them.”

“We’rehere to entertain and we’re here to scare people,” says Swink, whotakes great satisfaction “knowing that you’ve gotten ‘em good!”Although there was some concern whether or not the economy would havean impact on attendance, “I don’t think it has yet, and I don’t thinkit will,” says McLaurin.

The Blackbeard’s Revenge attraction plays on North Carolina history as well as the success of Hollywood movies.

A more pressing worry is the weather.

Thefirst few years, McLaurin remembers, there were clear, cool skies, but“one year we had 17 inches of rain in one month,” he recalls, none toofondly.

The popularity of ultra-violent, goresoaked shockers like the Saw franchisecause McLaurin to wonder aloud: “How far am I going to have to go toscare people?” One of the charms of Woods of Terror is that it tends toeschew splattering blood in favor of good, old-fashioned jolts andshocks.

“It’s notbloody/gory,” says Kernersville resident Mike Beane, a longtime Woodsof Terror devotee. In fact, his nephew Dustin Barnett is an employeethere, and Uncle Mike couldn’t be more proud that there’s anotherhorror fan in the family.

Beane has been to Woods of Terror “many times… [and] it’s splendid and wonderful, a lot of fun, a chill a second,” he says, “TheBlackbeard’s Revenge pirate ship was an awesome addition last year, andI like that it’s not over the top with gore. It’s just a good time.”

People love to be scared, especially in October.

Costumes and make-up become mroe elaborate and professional every year.

McLaurin estimatesthat the venue can handle as many as 600 people an hour, who embark onthe tour in groups of 10-12 (on busier nights, as many as 15). It takesapproximately an hour to go through each attraction, whose namesinclude Elements of Terror, Night Stalkers, Clown Town, Heavy MetalNightmare, Dimension Into Evil, 3-D Vortex, The Awakening, HorrorwoodCinema, Miner’s Massacre (an expanded and improved version of aprevious attraction), The Slaughter House, Virus and Redneck Hayride.

“They’vepulled off some very interesting and impressive 3-D effects,” saysBeane, who plans to make more than one visit to Woods of Terror thisyear. “Oh sure, we’re going! Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Ifhe had his druthers, McLaurin would make Woods of Terror “100 percentcompletely original,” but when he’s conducted exit polls, “they want tosee Freddy, they want to see Jason,” he reports.

He’d briefly considered replacing the Slaughter House, which remarkably resembles the crumbling mansion in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but“so many people told me that was their favorite part,” so here it staysand here it slays. When the customers speak, McLaurin listens.

Manyof the Woods of Terror attractions are inspired by — or have elementsof — popular horror and fantasy franchises. Blackbeard’s Revenge, forexample, was inspired by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and has rapidly become one of the most popular attractions at Woods of Terror.

Thisyear sees the introduction of the Blood House, a hellish haven forbloodthirsty vampires — inspired by the recent rise in popularity ofbloodsuckers on the big and small screens.

“Twilight’s more for kids and teens, and ‘True Blood’ is too adult — so we’re going for something in the middle,” says McLaurin.

These days, McLaurin is well versed in horror cinema, watching as many movies as he can. “A lot of them are bad,” he says with a laugh, “but sometimes they’ll have a good idea that we can maybe use.”

Jeepers Creepers 2 wasn’t the best horror movie McLaurin’s ever seen — it’s not even particularly good —but incorporating a pair of old buses into one of the attractions hasmade it a favorite with teens. “People have told me that our version isscarier than the movie’s,” McLaurin laughs. Woods of Terror 1,Hollywood 0.

It’sno surprise that McLaurin would take an interest in the burgeoningindependent film movement in the area, and earlier this year he’ddevised the CarnEvil Film Festival, in which local filmmakers wouldcompete for a $1,000 prize by making horror shorts that featured arecognizable element from Woods of Terror. The films would then havebeen screened this month at the Carousel Luxury Cinemas in Greensboro.

Asthere were fewer entrants than expected, the decision was made tocancel the contest — at least this year. McLaurin’s not sure why itdidn’t work out. Perhaps they got a late start, or perhaps it followedtoo closely on the heels of the 48 Hour Film Project and the localfilmmaking contingent was worn out, or perhaps it was simply a matterof bad timing.

“The people we worked with to promote it did a good job,” shrugs McLaurin.

“There are a lot of talented filmmakers in the region. It just didn’t work out.”

Ratherthan redouble efforts to push the CarnEvil Film Festival, McLaurindecided to channel his energies into making certain that Woods ofTerror would be up and running in time for Halloween. But he hasn’tgiven up on the idea of a film festival.

“I’d love for it to happen,” he says. “It’s definitely something we’ll be looking at for the future.”

Rightnow, however, McLaurin’s got one thing on his mind: Scaring thecustomers so badly that they’ll scream and scream again… and keepcoming back for more.

Woods of Terror is located at 5601 N. Church St., Greensboro. For more information, check out the official website: www.woodsofterror.com/main.htm.

McLaurin believes his haunted attraction is head and shoulders above the rest.

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