Photos by Carolyn de Berry
Feet shuffle at a steady pace on the lightless path, scattering rocks into the brush on either side of the trail as we leave the glow of the massive ICONS sign and the safety of our ride far behind. Every step takes us further from the familiar, into the tangled and seemingly remote forest. Ahead, a glint of water and the sounds of screams both draw us further while imploring our souls to flee the coming nightmare.
There’s no turning back now.
“I like to say we are virtual reality,” Spookywoods owner Tony Wohlgemuth tells me as we come closer to a ramshackle wooden building.
Inside, visitors to the Kersey Valley Spookywoods are swarmed by actors, special effects and realistic props that put brave thrill-seekers right in the center of iconic horror stories. This new section, the first to call up classic horror in the more than 30 years that Spookywoods has been scaring visitors, is a feat of design, production and immersive theater that showcases the experience and expertise of the staff and creatives here.
The whole operation involves around 180 actors and performers, with 75 people keeping the magic going behind the scenes. The world here is massive: 15 uniquely themed buildings, a cornfield laser maze, tram rides — all on 92 acres in Archdale that feel wholly cut off from the rest of the world. Walking through the behind-the-scenes areas offers a sense of the scale of the place that you don’t see during the often claustrophobic maze of frightening scenes.
To call this place a “haunted house” doesn’t quite capture it. It’s more Disney-esque, except with buckets of blood.
Starting with “Fear Camp” prior to the season, the team at Spookywoods trains their performers in safety, acting, guest interaction and stamina. Since its inception in 1985, the team has constantly evolved its methods to improve how they work with their talent.
Post-pandemic, the dynamic of working has shifted everywhere, including in the asylums and crumbling facades of the haunted-attractions business. Last year, Wohlgemuth found himself in a rough place as Spookywoods hemorrhaged performers through October. By the end of the season, down to just 64 actors, he had to put on a costume and start scaring guests himself. Things had to change; he needed to imbue this place with a deeper sense of purpose. Why would you come work hard in a heavy costume for hours when you could work at McDonald’s for less stress?
To do that, Tony implemented a system of training and monthly gatherings for performers and staff that went well beyond the spooky season. Giveaways and team-building has built a stronger community than ever before, which Tony hopes will extend the culture that he’s created with his longtime workers to temporary employees. A three-strikes rule makes expectations clear for seasonal hires, who must be at least 16 years old.
Clare Williams has been with Spookywoods for 14 seasons, starting off in high school as a guide on the zipline before transitioning to behind-the-scenes operations in various seasonal and year-round attractions. After graduating from college and moving to Wilmington to work with the Army Corp of Engineers, she’s continued to come back every weekend to work at Spookywoods. She’ll make the three-hour drive every Friday this year as well, getting home around midnight on Sunday before heading to work on Monday.
“They work hard to create something awesome,” she says of Tony and his wife Donna. Employees like Williams are an essential part of that hard work, Tony says.
While Williams does everything from training staff to cleaning toilets, her bucket list job is to take a turn as a midway performer on stilts. The midway performers have a difficult task, as they are in the center of crowds, who have a 360 degree view of them at all times. This first section of the park also includes food offerings like Bubbling Eudora’s Brew, apple-cider donuts, craft beer and fair-style main courses. Club Spooky plays DJ-fueled, live performance beats.
All of that is only a primer for the horror that comes later.
Artistic Director Olivia Tippett helps create the sea of original characters as well as the classic additions that were introduced this year. Her shop is packed to bursting with costumes, masks and props that look gruesome even in the afternoon light. Fangs, caustic lacerations, wrinkles and hanging eyeballs in masks line a high shelf along the entire perimeter of the shop, watching her work. Smiling, she talks while hand-sewing a bloodstained pair of ripped pants.
“I like to listen to the performers and collaborate with them on their characters,” she says.
Actors at Spookywoods have ownership of who they become. They work with artistic staff under Tippett ‘s direction to infuse their own idiosyncrasies into who they’ll become for hours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. How much physical work they can handle is part of the equation, as the work to entertain 800-1000 guests per hour is a heavy lift.
It’s not just young people behind the scenes. The range of people who come here to do something unexpected and creative is itself unexpected. Casting began in February with open auditions, and new performers are brought in as the need arises.
Families come here to scare together. Often, multiple generations come to work at Spookywoods. In one recent case, there’s a young woman scaring folks, her mother working with guests and her grandfather loading the tram.
This year, Spookywoods hired a local professor with a PhD who came to audition. Matt Patterson was a professional chef for 20 years before he decided to try his hand at making his own Halloween mask. Three years later, he left the kitchen for the world of blood and gore. He’s now a full-time freelance effects artist and performer who’s been with Spookywoods for many years.
This year, Patterson practiced his craft blindfolded in the woods at the ICONS exhibit in the middle of the night. Wandering amongst the trees, he wears a wetsuit and a mask in the dark every night. And even though it’ll be cold and Patterson might be uncomfortable after hours of roaming in the dark, it’s the thrill of the scare that keeps him and the other actors going.
“You have to embody the character,” he says. “You have to own it. You have to live it.”
Spookywoods is open on select days through Nov. 4, including on Halloween night. Learn more at spookywoods.com.
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