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Searching for scares

Make no bones about it, haunting is big business. Second only to Christmas, Halloween season draws Americans to spend an estimated $7 billion getting their freak on.


Make no bones about it, haunting is big business. Second only to Christmas, Halloween season draws Americans to spend an estimated $7 billion getting their freak on.

But long after all the candy is gone and the temporary hair dye is washed out, one lingering aspect of fright night will remain: fear.

From haunted houses to horror movies, Americans have a perverse fixation with being scared witless. People who sleep with the light on will still pay top dollar to see the newest horror movie or run through the fun house.

So why do people pay good money to get the willies?

"That's a good question," says Mel Nygaard, owner of the Haunted Farm and Haunted Corn Maze south of Moorhead. "I can't believe how many people like to be scared."


Larry Kirchner can believe it. The president of the St. Louis-based HauntWorld, a support network for the haunted attraction industry, says the draw is a natural one -- the appeal of adrenaline.

"It's no different than getting on a roller coaster," Kirchner says. "Why do people jump out of airplanes or bungee jump? People like the thrill."

A 15-year veteran of spooking, Kirchner has seen haunted houses evolve from single rooms draped in black plastic bags to elaborate half-million-dollar fear factories.

Just as a lot of the old haunts have been getting facelifts, what goes on inside these halls of horror is being redefined.

Kirchner says haunted houses often follow popular trends in horror movies. With psychological thrillers taking the place of slasher flicks as the fervor of the month, professional poltergeists have been trying to find new ways to scare up business.

"I think the gross out factor was a big part of it years ago. I think today you're seeing haunted houses that are a little more realistic."

"Realistic" may seem like an odd term for Kirchner to use considering his professional goal is to scare people silly.

Still, he's pleased to be moving beyond the realm of machete-wielding maniacs in hockey masks and chainsaw-slicing sociopaths.


"It should be good, clean fun. The more spooky we make it, the more people will come."

Kirchner says that in the world of haunted houses the devil is in the details and the lower budget hell holes can't hold a match to the higher end haunts.

"When you create a house with so much detail, people pay attention to it and are distracted. Then, when something comes up, they really get scared."

Nygaard shares Kirchner's appreciation for a good scare, though he boasts, "we still use a chainsaw."

Every March Nygaard attends the International Association of Haunted Attractions convention in Chicago. Through the convention, he has made contacts across the country to use for inspirations and ideas.

Though he'll occasionally watch horror movies he says the best resource has been the Web.

"The big turn around for haunted houses was the Internet" Kirchner says. "Now you've got people across the country who can share ideas and see what's new."

Although it takes a month to get the farm ready for Halloween, Nygaard works on projects year-round, building pneumatic mechanisms for other haunted houses around the country.


The corn maze, which he acquired three years ago, will close for the season after this weekend. The haunted farm will stay open through Halloween.

Nygaard's 10-year-old haunted farm is a collection of creepy things spread throughout seven buildings on the farm. He says it takes anywhere from half-an-hour to an hour-and-a-half to make it through the haunt.

Robed guides lead each group through a variety of scenarios, including a room that's been turned into a funeral parlor, a crematorium and a graveyard.

In between buildings and the final bonfire, a walk through the woods reveals some of Nygaard's handiwork. An animated yeti and an alligator, among other animals, leap out from the trees at passers-by, propelled by pneumatic "jumps."

He urges families with small children to come to the haunted farm at 7 p.m. for a slightly less frightening tour.

But fright is the name of the game for Nygaard and he doesn't see any limit to the horrors on his farm.

"It's realistic," Nygaard says. "I don't see anything worse than I did driving ambulance for 16 years."

Kirchner's view is slightly different.


While he recognizes everybody's right to freedom to freak, he says some people go too far. He doesn't suffer ghouls gladly and refers to people who brazenly rip off slasher movies as "fast buck Freddies."He points in particular to the House of Shock in New Orleans, owned by Phil Anselmo, lead singer of the heavy metal band Pantera. He says the popular attraction is well-done, but makes excessive use of gore and Satanic imagery.

"The thing I don't like about it is that they're not doing the haunted house industry any favors. We have enough negative connotations with death, the devil, Satan and things of that nature."

The only thing more offensive to Kirchner than the spooks who take things too far, are the churches that hide their agenda in haunted houses.

He refers to the people behind "hell houses" -- a pagan parade of the horribles presented by some overzealous church groups -- as "holy rollers."

"I think what they're doing is disgusting. It's just wrong. What does that have to do with Halloween? Nothing. Why are they picking on Halloween?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

What: Haunted Farm and Corn Maze


When: The Haunted Farm is open 7-11 p.m. Friday through Saturday through Oct. 31. The Haunted Maze is open from 7-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2-11 p.m. Sunday. It will be closed after this weekend.

Where: Nygaard farm, 10 miles south of Moorhead on Highway 75 and County Road 60

Other information: Tickets are $10 for the Haunted Farm and $6 for the Haunted Maze. Check out www.hauntedfarm.com or call (218) 585-4302.

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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