They do things a little differently in Mountville, PA, when the sun goes down.
Vile creatures of all shapes and sizes stalk the land, searching unceasingly for prey. And the potential victims of these foul fiends? Well, they’re ready to plunk down anywhere from $15 to $45 for the privilege.
Formerly acres of farmland, Field of Screams has held a special place in the hearts of those who scare and those who yearn to be scared for over a quarter of a century. Though it has transformed over the years and adapted to the real-life scares of the outside world, Field of Screams remains an indelible hallmark of the Halloween season in Lancaster. I’ve been to a few notable haunts - including the one closest to my hometown, Shocktoberfest – but in order to really immerse myself in the things that go bump in the night, I knew I’d have to actually become a ghoul. After a few e-mails back and forth, I was on my way to Field of Screams on Saturday, Oct. 5, the very beginning of the attraction’s busiest season.
When I arrived in the make-up barn prior to opening, I was given a “character card” indicating that my role for the evening would be that of a masquerade mannequin in a ballroom setting. Since my character wore a plague-doctor-style mask, the make-up process was fairly light, though still impressive. A helpful artist named Jeremy beckoned me to his make-up chair, and within five minutes, my face was properly airbrushed and contoured to complement my long-beaked mask.
The Den’s ballroom scene holds a small bar, an out-of-tune piano and roughly half-a-dozen mannequins dressed exactly like me in dark pants, an oversized jacket and a requisite mask. Over the hidden speakers, music from bygone decades would blare out, such as “Midnight, the Stars and You” from “The Shining” soundtrack and Johnny Mercer’s take on “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
Joining me as the only other real human in the room was 18-year-old Christian, volunteering only for his second time. We quickly took our roles – him either standing perfectly still or creepily dancing around with a feather duster, and me as the haunted bartender.
It was my job as bartender to crouch underneath the bar and look through a tiny hole to see when the next group of potential victims would be turning the corner from the last room into ours. To assist, a creature from the previous room would stomp his foot to alert us. Once people had entered our room, I would jump up, slam a piece of metal on the bar and then yell something to send the scare all the way home.
The doors opened at 5 p.m. and, initially, the line was slow, allowing me to figure out the painful science of determining which lines would work (“What’ll it beeee!?”) and would not work (“Stay with us forever and ever!”)
The best scares were deeply satisfying – I’d jump up, say a line and watch as fully-grown adults and children alike jumped back screaming into the arms of mannequins, unsure if those arms were real or not. Sometimes, people would laugh and say “You got me!” and walk away chuckling, no longer fully immersed. I quickly discovered that although jump scares are the bread and butter of the experience, the real scares come when you do something people don’t expect.
To exit the Ballroom, people would have to climb stairs to get to the next room. It turns out, when you slowly and quietly follow people up the stairs past where they think you are supposed to stay, you can instill a quiet terror that is hard to mask. Teenagers, formerly puffing out their chests in bravado, would cower before hurriedly running up the stairs and out of sight.
After an hour or so, the floodgates truly opened and groups arrived in droves nearly every 20 seconds. Sometimes, there were so many people coming through that a line the length of the room developed, making it exponentially harder to maintain the illusion. Aside from scare concerns, I quickly realized that jumping from a crouched position to scream at strangers multiple times a minute for over five hours would completely shred my legs and voice, both of which were eviscerated before long. Field of Screams co-owner Jim Schopf estimated that more than 4,000 people entered Field of Screams on that Saturday night, and I do believe that I attempted to scare most of them.
Many hours after I began, I could feel my un-stretched legs starting to give out, so I followed suit. In the days that followed, I gained a fuller understanding of why the ideal Field of Screams volunteer candidate is usually a hyperactive teenager – I could barely walk until the following Wednesday. However, seeing a haunted house from the other side only strengthened my theory that this is essentially theater, except that it’s micro-sized, semi-improvised and lacking a stage.
For volunteers, Schopf sums it up best:
“For a lot of the people, it’s their passion, their sport or hobby. They might not be involved in a club or activity or whatever, but Field of Screams is their team.”