Actors at Fear the Woods in Stockbridge, Ga. The owners try and hit on every type of fear in the attraction.

By Sara Hodon

Seasonal attraction operators are always one step ahead—looking forward to the next season, planning new attractions, and brainstorming ways to give customers an unforgettable experience year after year. Haunted houses and attractions are no exception—operators are constantly tweaking and revising their offerings to give visitors a scare they’ll never forget. With a new year, operators are turning their attention to the 2019 season. “We have a running list of ideas for new scares and improvements for the show,” said Jim Schopf, co-owner of Field of Screams in Mountville, Pa. “We like to keep the elements of each attraction fresh and new to continuously provide our customers with different scenes and scares to see and experience each year.” 

Field of Screams consists of four main haunted attractions; each one gives visitors a unique experience. “There is a Haunted Hayride, The Den of Darkness Haunted House, The Frightmare Asylum Haunted Hospital, and The Nocturnal Wasteland Haunted Woods,” Schopf explained. “While most customers choose to attempt to survive all four attractions when they attend Field of Screams, the most popular attraction is The Haunted Hayride.  There are a number of factors that make the Haunted Hayride the most popular attraction at Field of Screams.  There is a certain appeal in being escorted through sinister scenes and being attacked by menacing monsters while seated on a hayride.  It has a nostalgic ‘farm-y’ feel to it that most people don’t get to experience on a regular basis.  The Field of Screams hayride has become a tradition for many and a sort of right-of-passage for some.  It is extremely well-choreographed and the scenes are massively impressive.” 

The Hyde character in the Hyde n Seek Escape Game at Ominous Descent Haunted Attraction in Plant City, Fla. The haunt had its first full season in 2018.

Schopf said they’re adding a few new elements for 2019. “One of the main features we added in 2018 were three 5-minute Escape Rooms. These rooms were a huge success and provided our customers with an additional engaging activity to do in between the horrifying scares of the four main attractions themselves.” He added 2019 marks Field of Screams’ 27th season; work has begun on the construction of a massive addition to the Haunted Hayride.  “There will be a new scene added that is 150 feet long and full of cutting-edge technology which has never been implemented on any haunted hayride before.” But, he added, “The details are under wraps for now.”  

Eric Dodson, co-owner of Ominous Descent Haunted Attraction in Plant City, Fla., said 2018 was quite an interesting season for them. “It was our first full season,” he explained. “We had January to September of building stuff. We were supposed to open in 2017, but Hurricane Irma wiped out our building days before we opened. Our first building was deemed unsafe. We pieced this attraction together in nine days.” Dodson and his business partner, Chad Ashley, were fortunate to connect with Zach Glaros, owner of Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail, and the two entities decided to team up. “In 2018 we had Sir Henry’s Haunted Trail and Ominous Descent. Zach is an extraordinary artist and storyteller. His venue was Silent Walls. He had two trails—one based off a haunted orphanage. It’s really cool, but kind of different in what we’re offering.” For 2019, Dodson said they’re planning to tweak a few of the existing scenes. “I have a few ideas I’m not at liberty to talk about,” he said. “It’ll be a really cool scene. Probably about 2,500 square feet will be added. We’ll add another story, a few new characters. What I try to do is give every character a backstory. Our new story includes a family, and every family member has a backstory.”

The Ominous Grim Icon character at Ominous Descent Haunted Attraction. Because of a work interruption caused by Hurricane Irma, the haunt was build in nine days.

The best haunted attractions are essentially visitors’ biggest fears come to life, said Arrah Thomas, head manager of Fear the Woods in Stockbridge, Ga.  Take spiders or clowns (both very real physical phobias for many) or enclosed spaces (a common psychological fear) and you have the recipe for some serious scares. “Not one of our scares is more popular than the other,” Thomas explained. “We try to hit on every type of fear. We have the haunted house, which is peoples’ psychological fears come to life, and the Haunted Trail, which is like something out of a horror movie, and the Pandemic, which is battling zombies in a cornfield. People who love video games love this. You can pick and choose the attractions you want to visit,or pay full price to go to all three. We sell more combo tickets than anything,” she said. Fear the Woods is produced on a year-round functioning farm and their offerings coincide with the seasons, but Thomas says the team is already looking ahead to next season. “We know for a fact we’re going to extend the house—we’re going to bust down a few walls and make it longer. For the Pandemic we added more actors and a soundtrack. People can always expect expansion. Every year we add at least six new features, which might be a new room or some other new addition. One year we completely switched the house around. People said they got scared in different spots. It’s just constantly evolving.” Schopf employs 13 people year-round and says they’re always looking ahead to the next season. 

“We are constantly adding new scenes, scares, décor, and effects to the show. We never stop working on improving and remodeling,” he said. “When our 2018 season ended we spent a week cleaning up and winterizing and then immediately began plans and construction on a new massive hayride scene.  The main limitation to how many additions and changes we make from one season to the next is time!”

Artwork for Twisted Souls at Ominous Descent Haunted Attraction.

Mike Jubie, owner of Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, N.Y., said he hasn’t started planning his 2019 season yet, but as they change their storyline every year, there will be some changes. “We’re a destination,” he said. “We draw from seven surrounding states. Visitors will spend at least 2 hours on our property.” The attraction features 10 haunts, including the Nightshade Greenhouse, Lunar Motel, and Dr. Dark’s Side Show.

Operators typically review each aspect of the attraction at the end of the season to brainstorm ideas for what to add, change, or cut. For most, it’s a team effort. “At the end of the season we’ll sit down and discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what can be changed or improved. We’ll also attend haunt conventions and sit down and talk with other brilliant minds. It’s cool to have someone in Oregon using our idea. Our actors also bring a lot of ideas,” Thomas said. “All of the stuff we have here is original.” Thomas says they typically have 70 actors at a time; most return year after year. 

Arrah Thomas, head manager of Fear the Woods in Stockbridge, Ga. People can always expect expansion each year at the attraction.

It’s a delicate balance to make the visitors feel like part of the action and downright make them uncomfortable. “Being that we’re an independent haunt, it’s a little more intimate,” Dodson said. “We try to cater to each of the patrons. We’ll send a group of 4-6 people through at a time; we’ll have front, middle, and back haunts. We’re able to take a little more time with our patrons and really make them feel like they’re in the setting.” 

Haunts appeal to a wide visitor demographic, but Thomas says they all have one thing in common: “I just think people like being entertained. It’s something new and different. Some people are adrenaline junkies; some like horror movies, some like Disney—they love to see the reality come to life. We’re giving them the ‘different’ they want, but also keeping them on their toes.”