Day in the life of a haunted trail actor
by Lindsay Craven
Editor’s note: the following article is part of a series of articles The Ripple is doing entitled “The Day in the Life of.” The article is written in the first person from the reporter’s perspective.
A bone chilling scream drifts out over the corn and into the woods: “You’re all going to die!”
Despite this disturbing warning, groups of curious thrill seekers travel forward as devilish ghouls pop out at them around each corner.
Hillside Horror, located at 703 Davis Memorial Church Road in Wilkesboro, opened on Sept. 28. I had the chance to spend a Saturday evening learning what it means to be a creature lurking around the corners of a haunted trail. Several of the volunteers who work there are from Hamptonville, and the Wilkesboro location draws people from several counties.
The ride down to the trail was a fitting scene for what was to come. The sky was gray and getting darker by the minute. The roads twisted and turned as a thin veil of fog floated above them, and a rat scurried across the road ahead of my car. What better place for a trail intended to scare the sanity out of you?
As I pulled into the entrance I was greeted by blood-soaked actors in tattered clothes rushing around to prepare for opening time, which was just a short hour away. I met up with my guide for the night — Ryan Hodges — or as he’s better known, the “Devil Dog.” He’s out of breath and scrambling to put together a makeshift bridge along the trail.
Hodges has become the manager for the event and does most of the work maintaining and creating new scares for the trail. He tells me that the rain had just let up an hour or two earlier and the trail had been fairly flooded, leaving it a slick, muddy mess. The volunteer actors had already worked together to get sawdust laid out at various areas within the trail to make it safe to walk it.
Hodges has pulled together as much scrap wood as he could and is piecing it all together to make a bridge alongside the creek that parallels the path. The washout rains have created a dangerous ridge in the trail that people can easily fall on and every attempt to fix it with packed dirt and sawdust has washed out into the creek.
With night drawing in quickly Hodges finishes the bridge and packs the remaining gaps with mud and sawdust, making it safe enough to last the night. Now it’s time to rush back to the entrance so Hodges can slip into his Devil Dog attire and get down to his scene before the crowds show up.
Hodges’ costume is fairly simple. A raggedly torn white shirt with blood stains, mud coated jeans and much needed knee pads. What truly makes him a Devil Dog is the mask and gloves that transform him into a demented hillbilly’s pet werewolf named Willy.
His set consists of a fairly sizable dog house complete with a heavy link chain, bones of the trail walkers who didn’t make it past him and a dirty tin pan where he devours his meals.
As we arrive Hodges tells me that he had to make last minute repairs to this area today as well. The scene is in an old chicken house that has spotty roofing and a dirt floor. The rain had managed to get to some of the scenes and Hodges had to repair the leaks in the roof. As we arrive to set up his scene he realizes that his sound system had also fallen victim to the rain, and his recorded dog snarls were not going to be an option for tonight.
Hodges doesn’t let the setback slow him down. He makes sure that all the electrical cords are tucked safely away, starts up the smoke machine to give his scene a creepy vibe, straps on his knee pads and gets in position as a group of people make their way through the corn maze.
Other trail workers are absent tonight, so some of the actors have to play multiple roles as the groups move along. The run through the sets shortly before each group walks through whispering who the weakest link in the group is or warning if there’s a particularly terrified child that could use a break.
The cautious trail walkers round the strobe light lit corners of the chicken house and come to a sign that warns them to “beware of dog.” Most of them read the sign aloud and either move slowly into the Devil Dog’s lair or begin to make dog calls. Hodges waits in a dark hallway, and while the trail workers are fixated on his empty dog house he tears out of the shadows up to the unsuspecting victims. Some let out a nervous laugh, and others scream and leap back.
Hodges doesn’t let them pass easily; he crouches in front of the crowd snarling and growling, daring them to walk past him. Several trail walkers don’t know how to react and just stand in a stare down with the masked dog man. Others pat him on the head and gingerly walk past him, jumping a little bit as he lets out another loud growl.
He lurks behind them down the hallway and as they turn the corner he squeezes in a hole between the walls and gives them one last scare as they feel his werewolf paw gloves brushing their leg in the dark.
Hodges hops up once they’ve passed and excitedly tells me “that’s why I do this.” He clearly loves to see a genuine scream of fear followed by relieved laughter.
In between groups we talk about the different types of people who come through the trail. He said that he gets most frustrated by the people who are smart alecks the entire trip through the trail. He gets the most pleasure out of catching one of these people when they least expect it and scaring them to the point of a scream.
He says he feels particularly guilty when a child comes through who has never been through a haunted trail, and he unintentionally scares them to tears. Hodges and the rest of the trail actors make it a point to communicate to each other when a child is coming through so that they can all take it easy on them if they are already past the point of scared.
As the night winds down I finally get up the nerve to take a walk through the trail with a couple of researchers there to review the trail for NCHaunts.com. We start the trail be entering the House of Pain, a pitch black barn filled with surprises popping out of the dark.
Next we travel back out to the trail and head down a hill to Crystal Lake, Jason Vorhees’ stomping grounds. We catch a glimpse of the hockey masked villain and continue on to the corn maze. This is the only guided portion of the tour, and our group is particularly lucky because the full moon has finally peaked out from the clouds and the area is well lit.
After several terrifying surprises lurking in the corn husks we make our way to the house where I’ve spent my time this evening. We have to cross through an old oil drum that’s unsettling to our equilibrium and into the chicken house where the walls bang and creepy laughs bounce off the walls.
After my group members get the pleasure of meeting Willy we make our way to the grand finale, the clown room. The spray painted asylum of the creepy face painted creatures lives up to the fears of that every clown hater harbors.
We manage to make it out in one piece and exit to a sign that says “if think this was scary try going through eternity without knowing the Lord.” Our tour guide shares that the trail has teamed up with Davis Memorial Baptist Church on the event and church volunteers hand out tracks to trail walkers regarding salvation.
The trail also works closely with Champion Fire Department who helps direct traffic and parking and manages crowd control and the safety of the patrons. To thank them for their help and assistance, trail owners give a large donation to the fire department and a portion of the trail’s proceeds go to the church.
As the night grows colder the ghosts and ghouls of the trail come dragging out of the woods, exhausted from a night of scares. They all gather to grab a bite to eat and discuss their biggest scares of the night before heading home for a well-deserved night’s sleep.
They close the gates of the Hillside Horror until the next weekend when they will accept their next victims.
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