Winding through the woods in the dark, without a flashlight, you stumble as your eyes adjust to your surroundings. You arrive at a rickety bridge and gingerly put a foot on the first plank. It holds, but you hesitate, your senses heightened, whipping your head around at the slightest sound. You push forward, and then, midway across the bridge, you jump, then run, as a masked monster with a bloody face shrieks and swipes at your ankles. You reach the other side and exhale, when two men in bloodstained overalls carrying whirring chainsaws leap from the trees at you.
Those are just some of the monsters, demons and murderous characters you’ll encounter as you traverse the criss-crossing trails, navigate through corn mazes, and tread carefully through seemingly abandoned buildings at Markoff’s Haunted Forest, in Dickerson, Md.
“I’m always excited about some of the new things that we put on the trail, some of the tweaks that we do that some of the returning people might notice, but brand new visitors won’t,” says Paul Brubacher, vice president of operations at the Haunted Forest.
Among this year’s new features are a Game of Thrones-style Viking scene, additional pop-up effects inside a traveling circus tent, a funhouse maze, and tram-style cars with audio systems, which have replaced hay wagons as the primary mode of transportation to a haunted ghost town. At the “Front Circle” area, bonfires roar as visitors warm themselves, visit the concession stands, or take part in “redneck cannibal”-themed games like the Toilet Seat Horseshoe Toss, Hubcap Toss, or Beer Bottle Break. For an extra price, they can take on gravity-defying activities like ziplining, a “death jump,” and a giant swing.
Because the Haunted Forest staggers tour groups, there can be long wait times for the trails. Brubacher recommends arriving as early as possible. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the parking lot entrance is closed to new visitors at 10:30 p.m to ensure every person inside the gate makes it through the trails.
But Markoff’s isn’t the only popular Halloween attraction in the greater D.C. area. Steelhead Events and Productions has three haunted venues: Ocean City Screams, in Ocean City, Md., where visitors board a haunted ghost ship, Scream City, in the District of Columbia, where you travel through a haunted meat-packing plant with humans on the menu, and Field of Screams, its most popular haunt, where visitors navigate one of two trails through the woods of Olney, Md., with ghouls, demons and other fear-inducing creatures waiting to catch travelers off-guard.
Mike Lado, an artistic director for Field of Screams, keeps largely quiet on what visitors might encounter in the woods, but says Steelhead has tried to study what will scare visitors the most.
“When we develop the trails, we look into the science of fear,” he says. “Each station is put together with that in mind. You’ve got fear of the dark, fears of clowns, fears of chainsaw, fears of doctors, things like that. We think, ‘How can we incorporate multiple fears in each station?'”
Lado also recommends getting to Field of Screams as early as possible due to the high volume of visitors. But wait times of an hour to an hour-and-a-half are unavoidable, particularly on busier nights. That’s why Steelhead offers its own share of activities to keep the masses entertained, including magicians or stuntmen.
“Just this year, we had a guy who was stapling things to his body, like bills and just all kinds of crazy stuff,” Lado recalls. “I remember him putting his hand in a fox trap and doing all these fears where people are cringing and walking away, because they’re freaked out by how intense this guy is going. He’s just nonchalantly doing it.”
Markoff’s Haunted Forest is at 19120 Martinsburg Rd. in Dickerson, Md., and is open through Monday, Oct. 31. To guarantee admission to the forest, purchase tickets online prior to arrival. Visit markoffshauntedforest.com.
Field of Screams is at 4501 Olney Laytonsville Rd. in Olney, Md., and is open through Saturday, Nov. 5. For tickets or more information, visit screams.org.
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