Oct. 14, 2009 12:00



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 a single house or haunted hayride — although both of those components are present — Woods of Terror boasts over a dozen different attractions and a nightly cast of 130 performers. It’s the biggest attraction of its kind in a threestate radius, and its fans — many of them long-time regulars — say it’s the beast… errr, best.

This year, it again made the grade as one of America’s Best Haunts, and may well shatter previous attendance records by the time its 2009 run is done.

For 38-year-old Eddie McLaurin, who’s been at the helm of Woods of Terror since the beginning, such acclaim and success is testament to the hard work he and his team put into presenting the wildest, weirdest scare show around.

With 18 years of horrific history to its credit, Woods of Terror is on its second generation of fans, many of whom came when they were children and teenagers and are now bringing their own kids — often more than once a season.

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

In addition to local traffic, Woods of Terror also plays host to many tourists who have traveled from far and wide to experience it for themselves. Off the top of his head (which, by the way, was photographed on a silver tray on Page 3 in the Sept. 23 issue of YES!

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

Raised in what he describes as a traditional Christian household, McLaurin didn’t watch many horror movies as a kid, “and I think I went trick-or-treating maybe three or four times.”

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

McLaurin estimates 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’ll definitely do 20,000 this year,” he predicts.

Although Woods of Terror has been a financially successful venture, much of the monies earned from ticket sales are funneled right back into the upkeep and maintenance of the venue. Constructing a new attraction, like the Blood House, doesn’t come cheap. It takes time, hard work and the occasional bout of trial-and-error.

There’s also the matter of clean-up duty, both after each evening and then after the season, a task made even more daunting by the amount of tall trees 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 had been completely cleaned and cleared. “We filled three 18-wheelers with downed limbs from storms,” he recalls.

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

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

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

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

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

Swink is one of the few employees with dual roles: He’s both an actor and one of the crew. This is his second year on the Woods of Terror team, and his 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 an actor this year.

“Man, it’s fun!” he says, “and she loves it.” Shared affection for horror runs 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 who pulls double- duty as both an actor and a principal member of the main tenance crew is named Anthony, but prefers to go by the name Gypsy.

“I’ve been all over — from Bridgeton, Massachusetts to Miami, Florida to Tempe, Arizona and back here to North Carolina. I’m a wanderer … that’s why 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 dual roles at Woods of Terror. “I love the people, the reactions. If I’m going to work at a haunted place, it might as well be the best one in the 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.”

Gypsy had previously appeared in the Jungle of Doom attraction, and when McLaurin decided to knock that one down and build the new one, he didn’t have to look far for his star pirate.

“Horror movies never scared me,” attests Gypsy, “but I was always a big, big fan of Halloween — the holiday. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I used to scare the teenagers in my neighborhood by holding sances in my basement.”

Now, as an adult, Gypsy gets to relive his affection for Halloween. “I love dressing up and scaring people,” he says, “and I can do it in an environment where I don’t have to worry about being arrested!” With a gung-ho attitude like that, is it any wonder that Blackbeard’s Revenge has become one of the most popular attractions in the history of Woods of Terror?

Given the many guests who enter the Woods of Terror each season, there will be the occasional one who’s had too much to imbibe or is intent on causing trouble. If so, McLaurin and his team are quite adept at solving that problem, too.

“Come out and have a good time,” says Gypsy. “It’s all for fun. Don’t get mean. 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 the end of it.”

Besides, he adds with another Blackbeardian snarl, “I always have a spare set of chains 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’re here to entertain and we’re here to scare people,” says Swink, who takes great satisfaction “knowing that you’ve gotten ‘em good!” Although there was some concern whether or not the economy would have an impact on attendance, “I don’t think it has yet, and I don’t think it 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.

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

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

“It’s not bloody/gory,” says Kernersville resident Mike Beane, a longtime Woods of Terror devotee. In fact, his nephew Dustin Barnett is an employee there, and Uncle Mike couldn’t be more proud that there’s another horror 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, “The Blackbeard’s Revenge pirate ship was an awesome addition last year, and I 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 estimates that the venue can handle as many as 600 people an hour, who embark on the tour in groups of 10-12 (on busier nights, as many as 15). It takes approximately an hour to go through each attraction, whose names include Elements of Terror, Night Stalkers, Clown Town, Heavy Metal Nightmare, Dimension Into Evil, 3-D Vortex, The Awakening, Horrorwood Cinema, Miner’s Massacre (an expanded and improved version of a previous attraction), The Slaughter House, Virus and Redneck Hayride.

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

If he had his druthers, McLaurin would make Woods of Terror “100 percent completely original,” but when he’s conducted exit polls, “they want to see 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 stays and here it slays. When the customers speak, McLaurin listens.

Many of the Woods of Terror attractions are inspired by — or have elements of — popular horror and fantasy franchises. Blackbeard’s Revenge, for example, 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.

This year sees the introduction of the Blood House, a hellish haven for bloodthirsty vampires — inspired by the recent rise in popularity of bloodsuckers 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 has made it a favorite with teens. “People have told me that our version is scarier than the movie’s,” McLaurin laughs. Woods of Terror 1, Hollywood 0.

It’s no surprise that McLaurin would take an interest in the burgeoning independent film movement in the area, and earlier this year he’d devised the CarnEvil Film Festival, in which local filmmakers would compete for a $1,000 prize by making horror shorts that featured a recognizable element from Woods of Terror. The films would then have been screened this month at the Carousel Luxury Cinemas in Greensboro.

As there were fewer entrants than expected, the decision was made to cancel the contest — at least this year. McLaurin’s not sure why it didn’t work out. Perhaps they got a late start, or perhaps it followed too closely on the heels of the 48 Hour Film Project and the local filmmaking contingent was worn out, or perhaps it was simply a matter of 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.”

Rather than redouble efforts to push the CarnEvil Film Festival, McLaurin decided to channel his energies into making certain that Woods of Terror would be up and running in time for Halloween. But he hasn’t given 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.”

Right now, however, McLaurin’s got one thing on his mind: Scaring the customers so badly that they’ll scream and scream again… and keep coming 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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