Terrorizing Central Massachusetts

Most October nights, Kerry Russell arrives home very late, covered in blood. Russell, the makeup manager at Witch’s Woods, a Halloween attraction in Westford, said she often ends up taking the haunt home with her.

“Halloween isn’t just a holiday,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle.”

In 1964, Alan Fletcher Sr. purchased 100 acres of land in Westford and opened a one-run ski facility with a rope tow. Now, 50 winters later, Nashoba Valley Ski Area has expanded into a multi-season outdoor recreation facility. Guests from across Massachusetts return every year for festivities, including snow tubing, Oktoberfest and barbecue cookout competitions.

Haunted Tree (EGB)One of the most popular events is the Halloween-themed haunt, Witch’s Woods. Now in its 15th year, Witch’s Woods opens Friday, Oct. 3, and runs every Thursday-Sunday until Nov. 1. Classified as a “super haunt,” the three haunted houses, 1½-mile-long haunted hayride, and twisted carnival boardwalk (called the midway) consistently attract more than 30,000 guests during the month of October.

For a business to attract such a large crowd, it must be a well-oiled machine. Each season, Nashoba Valley hires between 140 and 150 actors, as well as 40 to 50 managers and support staff, all of whom fall under the purview of Show Director Brian Brandt.

Brandt was one of the first actors hired when Witch’s Woods opened its doors in 2001 and has since risen through the ranks, having held almost every job available. He said he finally “tapped his inner ghoul” when he was given a chainsaw scare in the haunted hayride.

Haunted House Ghoul 2 (EGB)As show director, Brandt is in charge of hiring the actors. He said the interview process varies, depending on the character each actor will portray. Interviews are always in person and usually include a trial run of any performance that would be done in front of a guest. “I like to have them wow me before they can wow the crowd,” he said.

The second component of Brandt’s job is to ensure each element of all the haunts runs without a glitch. Brandt called this part of his job “organized chaos.”

“It takes a lot of effort to get these up, especially working in a time frame around other parts of the business,” he said.

An actor at heart, Brandt’s favorite part of working at Witch’s Woods is interacting with guests. He admits he sometimes likes to bring the old prop chainsaw to work and get his ghoul on.

Part of the reason Witch’s Woods attracts so many visitors is because of the forethought and planning put into the haunts each year by Brandt, the managers and the creative team.

Haunted House Interior 1 (EGB)As the month of October progresses, these staff members, led by creative directors Matt Bistany and Ken Layne, take note of which elements produce the best scares and which will be scrapped before opening next October. Off-season brainstorming is when most of the next season’s ideas and themes are mapped out. “The process almost never stops,” Brandt said. “You never know when you’ll have a great idea!”

Combined, Bistany and Layne have worked in haunted attractions for more than two decades and have held various positions from acting to makeup. Layne, a Tewksbury Department of Public Works employee, grew up watching horror movies with his grandmother and has a sketch of the first haunt he worked tattooed on his leg. A network security administrator and improvisational comedian, Matt Bistany has been working at haunts for so long, he said, “It’s such a treat to be scared now.”

Bistany and Layne have a style of haunt they use to produce a bone-chilling, world-immersion experience for the guest. “We’re big on creating a world and keeping people inside of it,” Layne said. “I hate when you go to a haunt and people break character. If I come through and the guy has a chainsaw but is wearing a T-shirt and jeans, I feel like he didn’t even try.”

If Bistany and Layne have done their jobs well, guests should not be able to distinguish between mannequins and actors. “Even if you catch on to the fact that some things are real and some things are fake, you’ll never know which are which,” Bistany said.

Because Nashoba Valley is a year-round park and runs different seasonal festivities almost every month of the year, Bistany and Layne have, at best, one month of uninterrupted time to construct. This year, the pair had just 12 days to build sets for various scenes in the haunted hayride; create mannequins for all locations; string up an animatronic bat with a 9-foot wingspan; and, because the park is open at night, strategically light all the haunts.

The Graveyard (EGB)On top of the hundreds of built elements are the tens of thousands of props wielded nightly at Witch’s Woods. From prom dresses and stone garden decorations to bed frames and high-back chairs, donations stream in during the off season, and Bistany and Layne take it all. “I don’t even know if I want it, I just say yes,” Bistany said. “What’s the worst case scenario, I throw it out?” Layne admits he’s pulled over multiple times on the way to work to pick through someone else’s trash.

Necessary inventory increases exponentially when you factor in Costume Manager Liz Devlin’s responsibilities. Imagine a dress-up chest the size of the DCU Center. That is roughly the magnitude of materials Devlin must categorize, inventory and repair before the start of October.

Devlin, who learned to sew by hemming pants, began making her own Halloween costumes in high school because she could never find the perfect costume. “There was always something I wanted to add, change or take away,” she said. “It became easier to just make it from scratch.”

Costume Trailer (EGB)Now a costume designer for Witch’s Woods, Devlin coordinates most of the 150 costumes from her massive inventory. Costumes range in detail from a simple black robe, nightgown or one-piece clown suit to 10-plus elements per costume. However, the amount of face-to-face time the actor has with guests determines the level of detail in the costume.

The same principle applies to makeup ~ the more up close and personal, the more detailed an actor’s appearance. Makeup Manager Russell sticks to a strict priority schedule because she, with the help of 15 additional makeup artists, only has 90 minutes each night to makeup between 70 and 80 actors. “We’re a makeup factory,” Russell said. “We don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty.”

With a degree in sculpture, Russell, a corporate business analyst by day, has many makeup tricks up her sleeve, but her favorite materials when creating wretched faces are silicone and latex. “It’s an exciting way to transform our actors into their characters,” she said.

Those actors who will be in the house haunts and walking the midway will have silicone makeup because it appears and reacts similarly to human skin. In contrast, latex makeup, which begins to pull away on contact with sweat and water, has a less natural look and is used on those actors who interact with guests from afar. With the rise in latex allergies, Russell is very careful not to cross-contaminate. If an actor has an allergy, she talks with them about the severity of the allergy and determines safe alternative products. This year, the application to work at Witch’s Woods has been updated to include a latex allergy questionnaire.

Haunted House Ghoul 1 (EGB)A small plastic box, which never leaves Russell’s side, holds other tricks of the trade she has come to incorporate when creating the look of the undead. When dry, a special raspberry jam-like putty mimics the look and feel of coagulated blood; a thin layer of rigid collodion contracts the skin to form deep, painless scar tissue; and swishing makeup-grade nicotine coloring in your mouth produces a look of grotesque decay.

“We always say if we make you wish you wore diapers, we’ve done our job,” Russell said.

Alan Fletcher, Sr.’s daughter, Pam Fletcher, credits the success of Witch’s Woods to the diversely creative staff that returns year after year and devotes its free time to create an attraction fated to be deconstructed a month later.

“The reason it is such an interesting concept is because of the haunt family,” Fletcher said. “Their passion in wanting to scare [is amazing]; our staff just loves to haunt.”

Tickets are $33. For more information, visit witchswoods.com.

Photos courtesy of Witch’s Woods
By Emily Gowdey-Backus