On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
The Halloween season comes to a close this weekend – and along with the sugar rushes and cooling temperatures, the DMV’s local haunted attractions will soon close their doors for the season.
But just because the ghouls aren’t out to play doesn’t mean that the creatives behind our region’s scariest attractions aren’t busy. In fact, running a haunted trail or ghost tour requires constant tinkering and vigilance – and a surprising amount of existential thought about what’s really scary.
The operators of three spooky attractions in our region will join us in-studio to discuss their craft, what got the screams this season, and what’s to come.
Produced by Maura Currie
We visited Fields of Fear and Markoff's Haunted Forest. Here's what we saw behind the scenes
SASHA-ANN SIMONSLast night the Washington Nationals made history in Game 7 of the World Series.
ANNOUNCERAnd a World Series Game 7 winning Curly W is in the books. The celebration is on. The Washington Nationals are the World Champions.
SIMONSIt was indeed a long journey spanning eight decades and seven World Series games, our most heartfelt congratulations to the home team and now Halloween. You're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. The season of spookiness is drawing to a close. And if you are on board with the scares and fun of Halloween, you might have visited one of the many haunted houses and haunted trails to get a good scare in.
SIMONSIf you haven't there's some good news. Most of these attractions are open through the weekend. But as November rolls in and the ghosts go home lots of people in our region won't stop thinking about how to make you scream and squirm, well, because it's their job. Creating the haunted attractions you enjoy in October is a hands on yearlong process that's melds theater, technical know-how and event planning. Joining us to share more on how to haunt is Natalie Zanin. She's a Drama Teacher and a Historic Interpreter at Ghost Story Tours of Washington. Hi, Natalie.
SIMONSWelcome back. Lucas Cox is Co-Farmer-In-Chief at Cox Farms and Fields of Fear in Virginia. Hi, Lucas.
LUCAS COXHi. Great to be here. Thanks for having us.
SIMONSI'll start with you, Lucas. This is the 10th year of Fields of Fear, the haunt event at Cox Farms, which your family actually runs. Now how has the event changed over the last decade? It's been 10 years.
COXI've got to be honest, we were kind of terrible that first year.
COXWe tried our best, but we did not know what we were getting into.
SIMONSBut you've stepped up your game.
COXWe sure have. We put on a pretty great show right now and it's a heck of a party out there.
SIMONSAnd what actually is Fields of Fear? For who aren't familiar, what can people expect if they do go check you guys out?
COXSure we have three main haunted attractions. We've got our haunted hay ride, the lost circus theme, our corn nightmare -- which is a walk through the corn -- and lots of scary actors and scenes, and our forest back 40. And then we also have our fire grounds, which I got to admit we kind of stole from Markoff's over there. But it's really big party with a bunch of bonfires. Our dino slide is a 140 foot slide with six lanes. And there's food and there's fire dancers and foamhenge and a bunch of different crazy stuff.
SIMONSA hundred and forty foot slide.
SIMONSWowzers. Paul, Markoff's Haunted Forest has been in Maryland for decades.
SIMONSHow did that get started and how has it changed over the time?
BRUBACHERWell, this is our 27th season and 27 years ago as the legend has it we had three founders, Nick, Matt and Alex Markoff. They were in Utah and they had a school bus. And they wanted to start their own environmental education kids camp with the core belief of getting people outside unplugging. So they had a bus. They drove it back to Maryland. They decorated the inside of that bus and they drove around local parking lots and charged a couple of dollars here and there. And, you know, they were kicked out of the parking lots by the police, but they managed to raise enough money to incorporate and form Calleva Incorporated, which is a 5013C registered non-profit. And it just kind of all became magic from there. So the Haunted Forest in Calleva has been hand in hand since. And we're definitely going to steal the Dino slide. That sounds awesome.
SIMONSThat's okay. Natalie, you joined us on this show exactly one year ago and you told us then about what you do, but give us a refresher. What exactly is that Ghost Tour?
ZANINSo it started in 1998 and it was indoors inside the Christian Heurich House Museum at Dupont Circle. And in 1999, I was thinking about, well, could we expand to outdoors? Could this be also an outdoor attraction? And at the time I didn't know of anybody else doing a haunted walking tour in Washington. So in 2000 I launched the outdoor component. I had an indoor one running inside the mansion and outdoor tour, and people came. I was shocked, just shocked.
SIMONSWhy were you so surprised?
ZANINBecause it's cold.
SIMONSWell, true. Yes, there's that.
ZANINIt was really cold. Yeah. And it's windy. And I thought, wow, will people do this? Will they walk around and hear ghost stories outside?
SIMONSPeople love Halloween.
ZANINYeah. And I thought, well, okay. I'll give them candy at the end and somebody will win a prize, because I kept thinking, I need to sweeten this somehow. It can't just be ghost stories.
SIMONSNo. It was too good to be true.
ZANINYeah. People didn't really care about the candy or the prizes. For them it was like, you know, frosting on a cake, but they loved the stories.
SIMONSSo who's your typical tour participant? Are you attracting students or families or tourists?
ZANINIt's all ages. It's tourists. It's locals. It's students. It's young. We say eight and up, but I have had people call me and say, you know, my seven year old is really mature. And they're really into history and for Halloween they're going to be George Washington, or you know, Alexander Hamilton. This is before the musical. So I was like, oh, okay.
ZANINYour kid is going to be Alexander Hamilton then, yeah, I guess they should come on the tour. College students love it and we get a lot of visitors. We had some visitors from England last weekend who told me that they planned their trip around the tour, which ...
ZANINI had not heard of that before. So I was like, okay.
SIMONSThey checked you guys out online.
SIMONSSounds like. Lucas, who's your target audience for Fields of Fear? Is it family friendly or is it a little too much for kids?
COXI would not say it's family friendly, exactly.
SIMONSA hundred 40 foot slide is already freaking me out.
COXWell, that part is. That's really fun.
SIMONSI'm just a scaredy-cat.
COXWe run a fall festival as well. So we have kids all ages and we've been doing that for a long time. So once kids get about 12 or 13 and start graduating out of that then they start coming to Fields of Fear. So 12 and up is what we go for, 12 to 18 is our target demographic.
SIMONSTwelve to 18. And, Paul, same question for you. Who's the target audience for Markoff's and does it skew older than teenagers?
BRUBACHERWe basically say 10 to 12 is the lowest that you should go as far as bringing your kids out. But, you know, our core demographic we target is anywhere from 20 to 30. However we have people coming that are as old as 80, you know, and then there are babies in little carries that they come walking around.
SIMONSPaul, looks like I got a tweet here for you. It's from Paul Varga. He says, I went to Markoff's with my wife and our friends for as per our annual transition. One year my wife almost ran into the woods after being chased by some chainsaw wielding actors. An instant classic.
BRUBACHERYes, yes. Everybody has to have a chainsaw in their haunted attraction. I'm sure Lucas has them. And I mean, I think the Ghost Tours to could benefit from a chainsaw here and there, but, yeah. That is a common occurrence for us. We will have people that just go ...
BRUBACHERChainsaws, absolutely. We find people's shoes, their clothing and people just lose it. As soon as you hear that engine rev up, boom, gone.
SIMONSThey lose it literally.
COXRemember how I said we weren't that good that first year?
COXWe tried to not have chainsaws for a couple of years there and now I think we've got a set.
BRUBACHERA lot of the actors don't or do it. I'm sorry chainsaws.
ZANINI'm seeing Edgar Allen Poe with a chainsaw. I don't know that that would work, but it's worth a try.
SIMONSWell, Paul, it does sound like an intense experience. So how do you actually tell people in advance like what to expect? They have to sign a waiver, right?
BRUBACHERAbsolutely, yeah. Our waiver -- and we are one of the few places that we actually state on our waiver that we will touch you. And when I say touch I mean an ankle grab or a shoulder grab. And the favorite trick that we teach our actors and actresses to do is when you have a couple walking together you sneak up behind and you gently replace the boyfriend's hand with your own. And then the girlfriend turns around to say, "Hey, honey," and "Ah." It's chaos.
SIMONSOh, my gosh.
BRUBACHERSo, yes, we inform everybody that this is what's going to happen. We signs out that say our actors will touch you, but you cannot touch them, which you know sometimes ...
SIMONSI mean, I don't know. My impulse reaction if someone jumps out and touches me I think I'm going to swing.
SIMONSSomebody is getting hit.
BRUBACHERAbsolutely. And we do train our staff very well about that, how to anticipate the reaction, because there's a difference between a scare reaction and an aggressive reaction, and we experience both from our patrons. So our actors are trained. They're prepared. They're anticipating what's going to happen when they go through with their routines.
SIMONSAnd, Natalie, there's obviously an educational component to your work. But how scary is a ghost tour and how is it scary? Do you use the jump scares or is it more of a -- is it the content that you're conveying?
ZANINWell, I think it's mostly the content, but there is an element of surprise built into the tour, because I come from a theatrical background. And having run events in haunted houses and house museums that was perfect. So I just brought that into the park. Nobody grabs you, though. Somebody might hand something to you and it's up to you whether you want to take it or not like a piece of paper.
SIMONSSo they don't come out of nowhere.
SIMONSThey reach out.
ZANINThere is a point where somebody just sort of materializes and I'm not going to say how that happens, but ...
SIMONSRight. We don't want to give away too much.
ZANINI just -- I always want to make sure that the Park Police and the Secret Service know that that's going to happen so that they're not seeing someone lurch out from behind a statue.
SIMONSWell, what's your ideal reaction from the audience?
ZANINI like people to be shocked, surprised.
SIMONSI think you'll get that.
ZANINThere is a point where there's usual a little scream. It happens. But it's not -- no one is going to grab you. So no one has ever tried to deck any of the actors.
SIMONSAwesome. Well, we will continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Natalie Zanin, a Drama Teacher and the Historic Interpreter at Ghost Story Tours of Washington. Lucas Cox is Co-Farmer-In-Chief at Cox Farms and Fields of Fear in Virginia. And Paul Brubacher is Vice President of Operations at Markoff's Haunted Forest in Maryland. And we're talking about, you guessed it, Halloween. Join us by calling 800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lucas, when you plan what a haunted event looks like, how scary is too scary and where do you draw the line?
COXWe are a high startle low gore haunt. So we don't have any gore, no blood, no guts or anything like that. What we go for is a scream then a laugh. So our actors, they are haunters. They materialize out of nowhere and just make everybody a big scream and then get out of there. So we're not looking to give people nightmares just to show people a good time.
SIMONSAnd you have a personal story about an unconventional scare that you had at a haunted house that you visited once. Can you tell us about that?
COXSure. So after we visited Markoff's and while I was doing research for our haunted house or our haunted attraction I went to this crazy place called Raven's Inn Grin in western Illinois. I was there in March. I was there by myself. And this guy had built a really impressive haunted house in his house including tunnels that went through the yard that he dug himself by hand.
BRUBACHERWhat's the regulation on that?
COXOh, God, I don't know, but it was terrifying. Let me tell you.
SIMONSAnd you went there by yourself, doing research.
COXAnd in the middle of March and didn't actually tell anybody I was there. Yeah, it was terrifying. So he also had this one thing. He walked you into a bedroom and told you to lie down on the bed and then he pulled this lever. The bed went up at 45 degrees. And then you went through this really crazy three story slide into this really scary basement that he made you stand in -- for a couple of minutes. Anyway ...
SIMONSOh, my gosh. I would have checked out at the bed.
COXIt is amazing. It is amazing. So I was there and I told him what I was doing. I was doing research and everything and we had a nice conversation. He said, so one of the things I've learned is you can scare anybody with anything as long as you do it right. He held up this whole size six foot cutout of Pamela Anderson from Baywatch in her bathing suit, right? And he said, I'm going to scare you with this by the end of the haunt. And I said, I'm a professional guy. You've not going to do that. Come on. Sure enough. Halfway through the house he sends me down this hallway. It looks like it's just solid walls on either side. Halfway down this hallway one side is plexiglass he just slams this Pamela Anderson up against the other side of this plexiglass. It scared the bejesus out of me.
SIMONSThat sounds scary.
COXNo, it really got me. And I don't jump much.
COXYeah. So I tell that story to all my haunters and then they know that you can scare anybody with anything.
SIMONSLiterally. Darren emailed us. He said, we love Cox Farms. It has become an annual tradition. And the Cox Farms team are just fantastic with us and families of all ages. How does it feel hearing this kind of feedback?
COXIt feels great. I mean, that's what we live for.
SIMONSWho are your staffers there and the performers at Fields of Fear? Are they mostly volunteers or younger adults?
COXMostly younger adults. You have to be at least 16 to work the hours we ask them to work. So we have everybody from 16 to I think the oldest person we have is in their late 60s. And people just really enjoy being outside at night and, you know, giving people a good time and scaring people.
SIMONSI want to jump to the phone lines. Adam has been waiting. Adam is in Poolesville. Adam, you're on the air.
ADAMHi, thanks for taking my call. I work at One Co Health, the food pantry and financial assistance program for the agricultural reserve in upper Montgomery County. And I just have two things to say about Markoff's. It's scary.
BRUBACHERWell, thank you.
ADAMBut it's also a great deal of fun. I mean, you don't have to go there to get scared. The village and the two trails and everything else is just amazing. But the other thing is that the Markoff family and their team have been so generous to the community here. They do events for One Co and for the Chamber of Commerce and other groups. And they're just an incredibly generous and wonderful company to be involved with. And if you're up in our area, come visit Markoff's definitely.
SIMONSThanks so much for your call, Adam.
ADAMYou bet. Thank you.
SIMONSSame question for you that I asked, Lucas earlier is, your performers there, are they actors and how many do you have on staff? How many does it take to run Markoff's?
BRUBACHERWell, it takes a lot.
BRUBACHERWe have a couple of full time staff year round that work on this particular project. However, when we are in operation we have roughly 200-225 people. The majority are paid. We feel like if you're paid you get more motivation out of -- and things. We do take some volunteers as well. A lot of our actors are actually returning Calleva staff from the core company. They'll work -- they're part time or they'll work their seasonal job and then will keep them over for another month or two. And they'll work haunted forest with us. We also have a lot of people that have been there for 10-15 years just return and return, because they love it. It's a big family thing. And that's kind of what ...
BRUBACHERThe core business is getting together and getting the family and Calleva. Like the caller said we do a lot of things for the community as well and a lot of our staff are out there doing things. We do things for team River Runner, Girls on the Run. We have a lot of charter schools that come out to see us and things.
BRUBACHERYou know, it's just such a community. And we get to see these people once a year. It's like a family reunion.
SIMONSYou're making impressions on people like Adam.
SIMONSNatalie, you work with professional actors. What kinds of backgrounds do they have?
ZANINOh, my gosh. They do everything. Alice-Ann does film, TV, extra work. She does voiceover work. She's done day player work on TV shows like "Boardwalk Empire." Barbara does cabaret when she's not haunting with me. I mean, they do -- they work on stage. They do film work. They do TV work. There's a lot of stuff in the area and sometimes they're not available because they're filming something.
SIMONSWhat are some of the logistical elements of doing these performances that they have to carry out in addition to acting?
ZANINSo, yeah, it's both scripted and improvisation. So people that are used to improv work do really well at this, because things happen. You know, it's a live show. It's outdoors. There are protests going on in the park during the tour. Last year it was drums. This year it's whistles. So how do you hold for a whistle knowing when to hold in the middle of your monologue, because someone is blowing a whistle really loudly? But if someone comes up to you and wants to know what you're doing, you know, if they're security that's one thing. You show them your I.D. But if it's just somebody from the public, how do you explain in character what you're doing? So people that are used to the unexpected, actors, who have worked these murder mysteries or have done Tony n' Tina's Wedding, they're really good at this.
SIMONSAnd they're used to costume changes.
SIMONSAnd everything that goes with that.
ZANINUsing the Velcro. You know, you have your base costume, but then you've got Velcro layers. And how do you quickly change from Mary Todd Lincoln into the spy Rose Greenhow? Velcro, velcro. And can you do it outside with a high wind blowing?
SIMONSAll the elements at once. Let's jump again to the phone lines. Melinda has been waiting. Melinda is in southeast D.C. Hi, Melinda.
MELINDA (CALLER0Thank you. Go Nat's, of course. I wanted to know what the reactions of a lot of people are, like do the curse words fly? Are they crying and screaming? Because I'm like you where if you scare me I might deck you.
COXThat's the thing.
SIMONSAbsolutely, Melinda. We're on the same page there. I'm decking somebody. So you're all laughing. So tell us. You've heard some swear words.
BRUBACHERWe hear everything. And, you know, when you come out to one of these events we want you to have a bit of freedom to express yourself and who can really keep themselves contained if they're truly scared? So that's a tough one. Yeah, we have people that want to punch, that want to kick, that want to swing. We've heard every swear word and some that I've never heard before. I keep a running tally like, hey, staff, this is a new one.
SIMONSHere's a new one. That's great. Lucas, the environment that you're working in as the word farm suggests is pretty rural. So what are some of the challenges of doing special effects and having actors in that kind of space?
COXWell, it's a working farm. We have a greenhouse range. We grow some crops and we have animals and whatnot, but we have had to run a lot of wire. And we have about 130 Raspberry Pis running the place. We have Wi-Fi going everywhere. So, yeah. We needed a lot of power and we tried to keep the place as clean as we can. We reuse as much as we can. But it's just a lot to do.
SIMONSHow do you manage the crowds and the flow of people going from attraction to attraction with all that going on?
COXSo we have a pretty intricate time ticketing process. So once people buy a ticket they come in. Then they have a time they go through the corn, a time they go through a hayride, a time they go through the forest. We try to keep the lines as short as possible. So usually they're waiting about 10 minutes with each attraction, which isn't bad. But it's intricate. A lot more complicated than it looks like on the surface.
SIMONSUnlike our other guests, Natalie, you don't have a huge plot of land to work with. But much of your tour takes place in Lafayette Square. So what are some of the challenges of doing what's basically theater in that very public space?
ZANINYeah. I always have an alternate route in case the park is closed, because Park Police can shut it down on a dime. They can get those barricades up really fast. You have to be aware that that would be happening. Also you have to be aware if they're investigating something. One year a man reached into his boot in front of the White House. I saw that that was happening. I saw the officers were mobilizing and I moved the tour behind the Andrew Jackson statue, because I was like, let's just get something big in between us and whatever is about to go down. It turned out he was reaching to pull up his sock. But no one knew that. At the time they thought he was reaching for something.
BRUBACHERLike a chainsaw.
ZANINI'm just thinking, yeah, what is this guy thinking. Don't reach into your boot in front of the White House. What? I don't know. He was from out of town. He had no idea. So you have to be aware that that can happen and just be ready to react.
SIMONSNow we're running out of time. But, Paul, I want to know how much of a break will you get once this weekend is over before you have to start prepping for the next year?
BRUBACHERI'm sure Lucas and I are the same -- there are no breaks in this business.
SIMONSNo breaks in Halloween.
BRUBACHERAbsolutely not. We shut down the doors. We have a meeting immediately afterwards. What worked? What didn't work? What are we doing better for next year? How can we make this more efficient? And how can we enrich the patrons experience coming out?
SIMONSWhen do you start planning for next year, Lucas?
COXWell, I was going to say too -- I'm sure you didn't finish everything you wanted to this year.
COXSo I mean, planning for next year ...
BRUBACHERWe're still building right now and we have three nights left.
COXYeah. That started last year planning for next year. Yeah, so that's kind of how it is just like.
SIMONSAnd quickly what are you up to?
ZANINI started in March. In March is when I start planning.
SIMONSSo you start planning in March for October?
SIMONSWow. And so what are you up to after Halloween then? This break between now and March?
ZANINI have my Charles Dickens Tour in December. So I have to ramp it up for Dickens.
SIMONSTiny Tim with a chainsaw.
SIMONSNatalie Zanin and Lucas Cox and Paul Brubacher, thank you so much for joining us.
SIMONS(overlapping) You're listening to the Kojo Nnamdi Show.
COXIt's been a pleasure.
SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, WAMU's Race and Identity Reporter sitting in for Kojo. We'll be back after a short break. Stay with us.
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