Every weekend night from now through the beginning of November, thousands of people will be flocking to the Headless Horseman Hayrides & Haunted Houses in Ulster Park to get the pants scared off them. Rated as the Number One best haunted hayride in the US by USA Today, MTV, the New York Daily News and other national media – for many years, it has consistently been in the Top Ten in all ratings for scariest hayride and haunted houses – Headless Horseman gets so many people that a special red light is erected on Route 9W in Ulster Park to direct the traffic turning into its parking lot during those 18 nights. On Saturday nights, reservations for its three-hour tour (which is not recommended for children under age 12) is essential, though you may still have to wait an hour before you climb onto the haywagon.
Located on 65 sylvan acres of woods, fields and orchards – a setting that preserves the sense of the rural past and, as a place apart, adds to the spookiness factor, making the attraction unique among haunted destinations – Headless Horseman has 11 haystack wagons, each holding 30 people. They leave every few minutes, winding through pitch-black woods past the off-kilter, Western-style storefronts of Crow Hollow, a coffin factory, fishermen’s conclave (misting machines submerge the boats and shore in fog, as if you were on the coast of Maine), hunting lodge, distillery, cemetery, mine, giant pumpkin patch, slaughterhouse and schoolhouse. Ghoulish bodies rise mysteriously into the air, appear and disappear or crash down from above; a car and other objects suddenly explode into flame; and other supernatural effects transform the night into a gallery of horrors. The specter of the headless horseman, galloping through the night on a real steed, keeps everyone on edge.
After the mile-long hayride, visitors disembark into a New Orleans-style cemetery, in which the aboveground tombs are eerily lit and unfortunately alive with occupants. They navigate through a corn maze, check in at the 1950s-era Lunar Motel, visit a basement full of occupants belonging to a secret orphanage and explore six haunted houses, which contain live snakes, tarantulas and a room full of caged monkeys and apes, desperately shaking their cages (they aren’t real). There’s a magic show, presented on a stage set up in a garden full of various oddities, including a giant shoe.
The evening ends calmly, with servings of local apple cider and homemade donuts, fried dough, popcorn and desserts – that is, if you make it through the tour. Not everyone does. While there are emergency escapes, the website’s FAQs note that if you use one, do not expect a refund; regarding the presence of chainsaws, strobe lights and clowns, the answer to each one is “Yes.”
“I had a woman who jumped off the wagon and dropped her purse, spilling jewelry and medicine onto the ground,” said Michael Jubie, who, with his wife, Nancy Jubie, owns the Headless Horseman. “She just wanted to get into her car and would not come back to get her purse. We had to give it to a family member.” On another occasion, “one of the guys from the Orange County Choppers [a motorcycle lifestyle brand company] had to leave.” Bladder control among some visitors can be a problem, he added.
The entire experience, which Jubie likens to a play consisting of various discrete sets through which the visitor travels, is carefully scripted. Each season introduces a new narrative, which this year is Headless Horseman’s Spawn, about the creepy rider’s two daughters; past themes centered around a hardcore prisoner who was born in prison and taken from his mother while still a child and Butcher Joe, who fell on one of his meat grinders and wore a pillow over his head. (“That story went around the country, and some people thought it actually happened,” said Jubie.) Headless Horsemen hires writers, although Nancy is “very involved with the storyline,” said Michael.
A storyteller accompanies each hayride, interacting with the actors playing the characters or the illusive effects, such as a projection of a ghost, at each stop. “One thing I hate is when you go into a haunted house and the actor groans and says ‘Get out of here,’” said Jubie. “Did you pay to have some person growl at you? We have set lines, and if we can’t scare you, we make you laugh.”
Attention to visual details is also key to creating a total experience. Many of the monsters, ghouls, skeletons and human figures that are variously chained, hung, bloodied or otherwise transformed into scary apparitions are fabricated at Kingston-based American Made Monster Studios. Some, such as the life-sized horse and headless rider near the entrance, which tower over a horrifying pile of skeletons and include a life-sized head dangling from the rider’s arm, were specially designed for the attraction.
The special lighting effects contribute mightily to the illusion and drama of each scene, as do the elaborate sound effects. Headless Horseman has a staff of nearly 375 people, including actors, carpenters, two Headless Horseman riders (both of whom are women), the illusionist Ryan Dutcher, salespeople stationed at the four gift stores and wranglers to care for the six horses.
“When you’re hired, you’re immediately given a handbook and a script at our orientation meeting,” said Jubie. “Then the new hires get with their managers and teams, are sent down to their space and I’ll do a walk-through.” He noted that “some people are great, some need help, some lines need to be changed, then we’ll do dress rehearsals.” Seventy-five percent of employees return the following year: a number that would probably be higher if everyone was asked back, he said.
The Jubies, who both grew up in Kingston, were Halloween enthusiasts, seriously into their costumes every October 31. But it was Michael’s actual disguises, required for his job as a detective on the Kingston Police Force, that helped spark Headless Horseman. From 1971 until he went off the force in 1994, “I needed good-quality mustaches, beards and wigs,” so he added those disguises, along with a line of Halloween masks, to his tee-shirt business, Sunshine Tees and Embroidery, based in Kingston. Jubie and his wife also each grew up with horses, and Michael started the mounted patrol for the Kingston Police, serving as unit commander; he also operated a horse-and-carriage business, renting out the gigs for funerals, weddings and other events.
A conversation between himself and Nancy and another couple while they were out to dinner one evening led to the purchase of the 65-acre farm, which had been owned by an elderly couple and included apple and pear orchards. The property also had a 275-year-old stone farmhouse, which he and his wife have restored, and in the 18th and early 19th centuries was once used as a tavern for travelers needing to rest or swap their horses on the journey between Manhattan and Albany. The original red-painted barns have been incorporated into the complex, whose numerous storage warehouses, concessions, two-story Charleston-style haunted house (complete with life-sized butlers on the second-floor outdoor balcony), stage, sheds, gardens, directional signs, photo-op areas and other facilities exude the odd blend of utility and surrealism that you’d find on a Hollywood back lot.
Headless Horsemen opened in 1992 with a crew of 35; the first ride occurred just a month after the Jubies had closed on the farm. As a sideline, Michael has rented out his horses as a security detail; gigs include the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee and traveling with the rock band Phish for five years.
Headless Horseman is also expanding its attractions. For two Saturdays in October, it hosts the Tiny Taste of Terror, a daytime show for kids in which “all the monsters are friendly” and face-painting, country games and other activities, along with bouncy huts, are scheduled. Jubie also rents out props and costumes, as well as occasionally leases out the site for movies, weddings and other events.
Last year, Headless Horsemen introduced a new attraction, the Great Room Escape, in which up to 12 people are locked into a room and given an hour to figure out how to get out. “It’s a team-building effort, in which people solve riddles and find clues,” said Jubie. “A gamemaster watches everything you do from behind the walls, and after 30 minutes will give you three clues” – although, he added, groups “aren’t always successful at getting out.” The set of themed rooms includes Houdini’s Workshop and a room that is designed as a former animal research facility. “They’re very well-detailed, and each has ‘startles,’” such as the release of fog or a ringing bell when a panel is removed. The Great Room Escape, which was tested on friends by the Jubies for several weeks before opening (“It’s important it isn’t too easy nor too hard,” Jubie said), has been visited by the Dutchess Chamber of Commerce, school groups and companies both small and large, coming from as far away as Buffalo, Saratoga and Long Island.
Once the last hayride has finished late on the evening of November 5, staff scramble to put away the scary props and transform the property into a winter wonderland, for what’s called Frosty Fest, starting on Black Friday and running through the holiday season. The family-friendly attraction features light displays measuring up to 30 feet high and a host of costumed characters, including Mr. and Mrs. Frosty, the Gingerbread Man, Santa Claus (shown at home, at the North Pole) and a talking Christmas tree. Visitors can choose to take the tour in the comfort of their cars, though Jubie said most opt for the hayride. There’s a magician’s show and decorated house.
“My set designers and carpenters are diehard Halloween people, and it was a hard sell to have them turn the attraction into Christmas; plus, the time frame is short,” said Jubie. “I asked them, ‘Did you ever watch the Super Bowl? We can transform this from scary into not-scary.’”
He doesn’t worry too much about competition. “To do this correctly, you’d need $2 million,” he said, noting that he has visited similar attractions as far west as Colorado. Although Jubie would not divulge his profits nor the number of visitors, he noted that “we consistently draw from across the country and around the world,” with visitors arriving from France, Germany and Australia; word about the Headless Horsemen has spread as far as China, with a Chinese travel channel filming the attraction a couple of years ago.
“There’s nothing you can’t do in today’s world,” Jubie said in reference to the inspiration that continually feeds the Headless Horseman. “The only limit is your imagination.”
Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses are located at 778 Broadway (Route 9W) in Ulster Park. The 2017 season runs from September 16-November 4. Visit the website for more info.