A group of teenagers slowly are working its way through the dark forest, which occasionally is lit by beams of moonlight. In the distance, behind them, all around them, terrifying sounds can be heard. Grinning clowns with smiles twice the normal size and hands holding sharp knives lurk in every shadow.
The teens’ hearts beat faster and faster the longer they stay in the maze. Will they ever make it out, and if they do, will they ever be the same again?
This is not a scene from the newest slasher movie, however, and it is not a pagan-like ritual as seen in works like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” No, it is just a fun way for families and friends to spend Halloween: by going to haunted attractions.
Why would someone put themselves through the emotional roller coaster that is modern seasonal entertainment? The reason is simple, said Michael Pardue, who for the last three years has turned his home at 217 E. Church St., Nashville, into a haunted attraction, complete with a maze in the backyard.
“I think people just like to get scared,” Pardue said. “Some people will say 'Oh I am a big brave guy, I do not get scared,’ but deep down, you want to get scared.”
It is that kind of thinking that has turned what used to be a niche attraction commonly found at firehouse fundraisers into a roughly $400 million dollar industry, according to hauntworld.com, a website that keeps statistics for the haunted attraction industry.
Lynn Strickland, owner and operator of the Trail of Terror at the Strickland Farm in Macclesfield, agreed with Pardue.
“We just like to be scared this time of year,” she said of the attraction at 7346 Strickland Farms Road.
Perhaps that is why there are so many haunted attractions of different types and sizes popping up every October. At the Trail of Terror, which is in its seventh year, customers will walk about three-quarters of a mile through different scenes, showcasing everything from movie characters such as Michael Myers and Jason to more primal fears such as clowns and creepy swamps.
The Trail of Terror structures are more permanent, too.
“We normally start about August, but a lot of the stuff stays up throughout the year,” Strickland said. “We have people who come back every year, and we do not want to give them the same thing every time. We get close to 2,000-2,500 people each season.”
Pardue’s home, on the other hand, will see a slightly smaller number, but do not let that fool you into thinking it is of a lesser quality. He has improved the haunted house every year, and this season will see a new addition.
“We are adding lasers this year, some projections that we’ve not had before,” Pardue said. “We are mounting our TVs and fake walls, and creating some pictures that talk and interact with the customers.”
In addition to different sizes, it is also important to remember haunted attractions have varying levels of scariness. While this is subjective, most attractions have a certain age threshold that is recommended.
At the Pardue house, it is recommended customers be at least 10 years old and at Trail of Terror the age is 12. Strickland also does not recommend attending if you are pregnant.
Some places, such as the haunted attraction run by the Tri-County Arts Booster Club, will tailor their scare level to you.
“We do different scare levels, so sometimes kids come through and we turn on the lights and if they can handle it we turn them off. The adults, they come running out screaming and pushing people over,” said June Fenton, who works with the club to set up the attraction at 1964 Stone Rose Drive.
While the haunted attraction industry might be much larger than it was when it began, it has not outgrown its charitable roots. Hauntworld.com estimates 80 percent of haunted attractions are run by charities or for fundrasing purposes, raising tens of millions of dollars nationwide.
The haunted house run by the Tri-County Arts Booster Club fund raises for the club, and Pardue divides the proceeds among the high school clubs that volunteered for the event, while also donating money to pancreatic cancer research. The Trail of Terror began as a fundraiser for a local softball team, but is for profit now.