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Fear on the Farm

In search of the big scare, a writer joins the cast of Ashland's Haunted Nights.

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I summon all of these memories in the hope they'll help me get my game face on for my appointed task. My mission is to become a ghoul for a night in the employ of the Ashland Berry Farm's annual Haunted Nights attraction, which every October opens to Halloween revelers in search of a scare or two.

I'd set up a meeting with the Chief Ghoul, James Boswell, or Boz, as everyone at the farm knows him. I must arrive just before sundown Friday.

"This is his thing," a woman tells me on the phone. "He waits all year for this."

When I meet Boz, he is wearing all black — the required uniform of ghouls in the haunted-house trade. It's drizzling, and the sky is overcast and darkening quickly. Boz gives me a tour of two haunted houses, which appear to be vestiges of old greenhouses.

He takes me through "The Other Side" — a dark and confusing journey designed to follow the path of someone entering the Afterlife. Next, I get a quick walk-through of "Ghouls of the 'Glades," which approximates a haunted experience in the swampy Florida backwoods.

Boz takes the scare business seriously, making note of areas in the maze where his cast of goblins and ghosts are supposed to deliver their best scares or features that are supposed to disorient visitors.

Occasionally, he stops to inspect the maze and gripes under his breath about some items left out of order from the night before, either by his workers' neglect or from damage caused by blinded and confused patrons.

Darkness starts to set in as a crew of mostly black-clad teenagers — hired ghouls — assembles outside the haunted houses. Boz counts his minions with some disappointment. He's short on numbers. His frustration reminds me of a community theater director who's missing his props manager opening night.

A big guy arrives carrying a fake machete and wearing an all-white face mask and wig that inspire a little bit of costume envy in me. Boz introduces him as Doug Jenks, the man who will help me hone my scare tactics.

A police detective for the town of Ashland by day, Jenks tells me he "works all over house," meaning he roams almost every corner of the maze, doing everything he can to enliven the experience for visitors to the "The Other Side."

I borrow some face paint and begin to wonder if I look convincing enough to scare even the most wilting victim, but I'm told by one of the performers that it's just camouflage to blend into the darkness. It may be the height of vanity to worry about makeup you're wearing in pitch-black darkness, but to feel scary, it helps to look scary.

Jenks pulls on his mask and wig, a knockoff version of "Michael Myers" from the "Halloween" movies and looks menacing enough with his expressionless hockey mask. Then he leads me into the house, filled with piped-in sound effects.

He gives me the rundown of how he works the maze. At times, he says, he plays the role of decoy, leading people through to draw their attention while other ghouls jump out and catch the patrons off-guard. Other times, after chasing his victims, he sneaks through secret passages to surprise them again.

"Sometimes people freak out because the see me in almost every room," he says through his mask, with a hint of pride.

"You try to give them their show," he says. If they're not screaming, or at least startled, they're wasting their dollars.

Finally, we take our spots. A scream from upfront signals that a few "dead bodies" are coming our way.

I find my place in a dark corner of the maze that leads to the "body-bag room," where a bunch of plastic-wrapped dummies is suspended from the ceiling like punching bags. A strobe light works with the swinging "bodies" to disorient people coming in.

I am totally hidden, but still I'm nervous. It's like I'm onstage all of a sudden. I wait tensely for Jenks to pass by. I hear the first chainsaw crank up, revving to a furious peal, which somehow sounds like evil laughter. It's chainless, but the noise is enough to scare people into action, Jenks says. When the first chainsaw starts, that's also a sign that people are coming my way.

But soon Jenks comes by me and stops.

"It's just a couple guys walking through who aren't really scared," he says, before disappearing through the body-bag room.

When my first victims walk past, I jump out behind them.

"RAHHH!"

Two thick guys in their 20s barely turn their heads. They nonchalantly pass into the next room and head out. It isn't until a half-hour later that we get a decent group worth scaring — a cluster of teenagers.

Jenks strides past me and they follow him, winding around to my corner. Just as they appear in front of me, I let out my best big, ghoulish "RAAAAH!" Two girls shriek and jump back.

Before long, I am playing the part to its potential, adding a few devious touches. I put on a mask and start working a hallway, like Jenks. And though it's well before I leave for the night, I get my highlight when a string of teenage boys walks through. By now, I have scared enough teenage girls that it's no longer a challenge. And I've given up on thick-necked football players who won't dare flinch.

This group of boys comes through a doorway where I'm hiding. I wait and choose my moment. As they pile through, clasped together in a chain of fear, I close in behind them. The last boy in the chain sees me and starts stumbling frantically ahead.

From behind my mask, entertained by prankish joy, I giggle like ghoul. S



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