When they drive north on I-35 through Wyoming, travelers pass a charming, fall-infused pumpkin patch farm. During the day, the 160-acre, family-owned Pinehaven Farm is home to fall attractions for families, including a pumpkin cannon and a mechanical dragon. But at night, the farm transforms into a full-blown haunted attraction that is being recognized on the national scale, going head-to-head with the biggest boys of the “boo” business.
From now until Nov. 2, miles of car headlights line up to attend the hayride, haunted trail and cornfield, a combination that was termed “one of the most terrifying attractions to knock your socks off this Halloween” in Popular Mechanics this past September as part of its “15
Best Haunted Houses Across America” feature.
This haunted mecca started simply, as ideas often do: with a vision. Pine Haven Farm owner Jeremy Hastings, the second of five children in the Hastings family, subscribed to Haunt World Magazine in 2008. He was 23 and wanted to check out the renowned industry publication for haunted house business owners. “I was just blown away at the production level in some of these large-scale haunted attractions in other parts of the country. I wasn’t seeing anything like that in the Minneapolis and St. Paul market,” Hastings said.
The seed was planted. Hastings was already heavily involved in his family’s pumpkin patch farm at the time, and working full-time as a machinist. He always had a knack for tinkering, creating and building new attractions on the farm. It wasn’t so much the love for Halloween or scary movies that drove him, he says, but the creative process of building.
“What I have a passion for is creating an event. I’ve always liked being creative and to create experiences for my customers. For the longest time, I’ve been a very creative person, building things from the pumpkin cannon that we currently have at Pinehaven to building other attractions like the dragon and other playgrounds.”
It took some convincing, but Hastings said he sold his parents on the idea. The next step was to figure out how to do it. Hastings immediately booked a trip to visit other haunted attractions so he could talk with the owners and get some ideas on where to start. He started with Spooky Woods in High Point, North Carolina. When he returned, he was ready to put his plan into motion.
For the first year, Hastings operated on a shoestring budget with a team of mostly close friends and family. Hastings remembers the second year of The Dead End Hayride: it was the year that the golden age of Groupon and social media was blossoming into mainstream. “We were really trying to grow attendance, at least double it —and it happened. It was sheer panic, we’ve never experienced crowds that size before. So we were scrambling, building new wagons, figuring out where to get a few more tractors, more actors … We weren’t ready for those numbers,” Hastings recalled.
The Dead End Hayride has now been featured in Haunt World Magazine as well as on numerous national haunted lists across the country. But Hastings is quick to acknowledge that the business is always changing. “You really have to keep yourself relevant, and you’ve got to produce an edgy show,” Hastings said. “We state that our hayride is along the lines of a PG-13 rated movie, so we try and ride the razor’s edge between family friendly and still (serve as) entertainment for the 21-plus crowd. The customers like the edgy show. In this day and age of ultra-realistic video games and incredible Hollywood special effects, you need to be an edgy attraction.”
This season Hastings is 34 and no longer “the new kid” on the haunted block. He works full time running The Dead End Hayride and employs more than 240 actors, makeup artists and haunted attraction workers. This year, The Dead End Hayride is unveiling some new surprises, including a new prison set, and adding a beer garden and food trucks.
At the end of the night, Hastings said the customer’s experience is what counts the most. And he’s always trying to go two to three steps beyond what he does every year to give the most bang for the buck. But is it all show? Maybe.
“We do catch weird things happening sometimes,” Hastings said, “like some spooks that just don’t seem to want to call it a night when the crew goes home.” He remembers one night he had killed all the power to the haunted cornfield, but there was still one light that stayed on in the field for at least 30 seconds. Then it flickered out. “Now that’s weird,” he said.
Submitted by Kelly Jo McDonnell