Friday night doesn’t start off well. As I’m driving through town, a man in baggy cargo shorts and a hoodie almost steps directly in front of my car. Cars seem to be gunning for me, including one giant’s pickup truck which barely misses me as it exits the Mobil station. A group of teenagers stops short in their car. The bumper sticker reads blood was everywhere. There’s either a dog in the back seat or maybe someone wearing a dog head. I’m not sure. As I cross the railroad tracks a man on a riding mower materializes from the dark.
The Barn of Terror is a local institution and their sign is about four times as large as the barn itself. In the parking lot I realize I came here once as a kid with a group of friends but was too scared to go inside. I’m embarrassed because my dad stayed outside with me and apparently paid $37 between the two of us for the experience.
The barn’s theme this year is zombies, and there are a lot of them, in electric chairs, on operating tables, and under bunk beds. They all want to know why exactly I’m there, and occasionally growl helpful tips like “wrrrrrong wayyyy” and “go lefffftttt.” They favor tight corridors and 180-degree turns, and sometimes blast you with smoke or hide in a strobe light. I ask one for directions. “Go throuuugghhhh the sheeettttt,” she says.
After you finish the barn, someone informs you that, “if you’re ready for more terror,” your ticket pays for a corn maze as well. So I sit at a picnic table and wait for a bus to pick me up. A movie screen plays “Night of the Living Dead.” We’re on the part where a television announcer explains what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to kill it. It occurs to me that those survivors have it pretty easy. We’re not even allowed to touch anything. Out on the road, a fire truck speeds by, followed by a couple police cars. The proprietors all walk out to watch. You can hear it a long way off.
Eventually the bus arrives and I get on, followed by a group of teens and a cluster of adults. The radio is playing “Africa” by Toto. When we get down to the cornfield, we’re handed glow sticks and split into groups. Because I am apparently the only person out tonight by myself, I join up with the adults. The only one whose name I learn is Manuel, because they all say it about a hundred times. They don’t know I’ve joined them, and for a while apparently assume I’m a very committed member of the cast who follows them for 20 minutes. When I explain that no, I’m just a guy, they call me “Our Rando” and “Our Extra Zombie.” The maze goes on a long time, and they start sneaking off into the corn to scare each other. Artificial light spills over the hill in a faint strip.
On our way out we pass the bison raised on this farm (of terror). One of them stands right near the fence, bug-eyed and startled by the lights shining right at him. The teenagers walk by. “They’re pretty,” says one of the boys without a bit of self-awareness. The concrete plant is running at full steam tonight. Gouts of molten fire drip from inside, the color of the sun.
I’m the only person at Cantine Haunted Estates, so I wait outside with a member of the Saugerties Fire Department while everyone gets ready. I don’t know what pace to take through the rooms with no one else to set it, and when people pop out asking me if I want to play or to sit and watch a movie, I actually respond to them. We both stand there confused for a minute. At one point the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” one of my favorites, is playing on a screen. I want to stop and watch it for a bit, but I’m hurried out.
If the Barn’s tactic is to yell at you, than Cantine aims to unsettle. They only yell at me a couple of times. I drive out down Washington Ave, past a kid pedaling his bike in the dark. My mind flashes to John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness.” One of the street signs has been vandalized with a handprint and a 65 mph speed limit.
Last on my list is the Woods of Mayhem. I had only a crude map with a large swatch of 9W meant to represent where the turnoff might be, and I went on Thursday afternoon to scope it out. You first see a couple signs, just easel-boards with black paint, that direct you up a steep hill, past a boarded-up house that’s fallen apart and covered in graffiti. Following more signs you pass a couple abandoned trailers laid up in the woods. Turn right again. Go further into the woods, now a dead-end road. I turned back around. I’ll figure this out later.
Come Friday night I didn’t want to go at all. I started thinking of excuses. This place, just the thought of this place, really scared me. But I press on. Everything is way more terrifying at night. Everyone knows that. But as I pull into the cul de sac it’s near pitch black. A deep red light burns inside a chicken coop, but how do I know it’s not actually a barbecue pit for human meat? Aren’t most horror stories based on true stories? I prepare my line, “I’m with Saugerties Times,” as if serial killers respect the Geneva Conventions (incidentally, “You can’t touch me, I’m a member of the press!” is what journalists say in movies right before a dictator throws them into his shark tank).
People start talking, and eventually someone comes walking up the path. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but we’re just closing tonight.” I tell him who I am, and he shakes my hand and introduces himself as Tony Raleigh before giving me a tour of the mostly closed maze. I meet his brother, Craig and their dad, Anthony. They’re friendly and forthcoming and, after showing me all the places I would have been terrified, we stand in the cold and talk. The Woods started as an elaborate entrance to their Halloween parties, but after it got big enough, they figured why not try to scare other people? They all agree Halloween is their favorite holiday, even better than Christmas. After all, you don’t get to scare people on Christmas. Tony’s children love scaring people, too. It runs in the family. Everyone involved volunteers their time. “Whatever we make goes right back into the house,” says Tony.
They apologize for having to close up, but they don’t want anything to burn out because of the rain, and we say goodnight. Tony walks me back to my car. “It’s a good name,” I say to him. “That’s my nickname,” says Tony. “I’m Mayhem.” He walks back into the cemetery and shuts the door. The moon is a halo in the clouds above us.