I’ll never forget the first time I visited a “haunted house” attraction, but then I don’t think anyone ever really forgets being chased around by a guy with a chainsaw. I was about 13 years old, trying not to betray my nerves to the girls I had invited. I had a terrible crush on one of them, of course, and in my precious naivete I felt that if I could only endure the annual Havre Jaycees haunted house I would therefore demonstrate my viability as a mate. Too bad, then, that when a hockey-masked lunatic waved power tools in my face, I screamed in a high-pitched register and began to run as hard as I could. Neither of my female companions were impressed.
I’ve often thought of that haunted house in the years after. Not because I regretted the scene I made, but because I’ve always been fascinated by where entertainment and fear meet. In fact, it’s quite a big business, from the yearly glut of scary movies to the paperback thrillers of King or Koontz. But “haunts”, as they are known, are the purest expression of both—after all, a really thrilling paperback may keep you up at night, but it hardly rivals the feeling of turning a real corner and encountering a “real” horror.
It is high time, then, that Montana’s best haunts get the recognition, shock, and fear that they deserve.
Consider, Sandy and Quinn Kirkland’s “Field of Screams,” which has been terrorizing the good people of Victor, Montana, and its surrounding environs for almost 20 years now. This is not a hyperbole—they sell adult diapers to patrons wise enough to take them up on it—as Quinn points out, “it’s not just for giggles. Many people need them because they get so scared.”
The “Field of Screams” attraction began in 1999, in part because, Sandy points out, there wasn’t much for kids and families to do in Victor. It began as a regular corn maze, only scary if you don’t like the feeling of being lost (which I don’t). But soon enough, people began to demand something a bit more extreme.
“Guests suggested we haunt the maze in October and we did,” Quinn says. “It was a huge success... It is truly something everyone should come and experience.” Seemingly bemused, he adds “Who would have thought that being scared is actually fun?”
I try to imagine my response, and ask him whether anyone has ever punched one of his employees.
“That’s a great question,” he laughs. “Our employees are trained at the beginning of each season to stay at least an arm’s length away from guests for [the employee’s] safety and to have two-three escape routes.” But, he admits, “there are occasional stories throughout the season of hits and near-misses.”
The Kirklands have worked hard at their 19-year-old profession. This year they attended a Halloween convention (yes, there is such a thing) in St. Louis where they collected dozens of diabolical ideas. Pressed for details, they demure: Sally and Quinn don’t want to “give away all of our secrets,” but they do say that this year they plan to add a “haunted swamp effect,” and add that “we hope you’re not afraid of small spaces” (which, naturally, I am. Very.)
Richard Davenport, owner of the media production company Roothead Studios (in Lolo), can get rhapsodic describing the appeal of Halloween: “I love how [during Halloween] the whole world seems transported briefly to another place that’s far from ordinary, and so much more exciting than usual.”
His work with Roothead Studios, known particularly for its wedding videography and drone photography, have lent themselves well to his proprietorship of The Missoula Haunted House. “Video production is also about transporting your audience, and delivering to them, a specifically curated experience. That, in turn, is what the Haunted House is to me, a specifically curated experience designed to thrill.” The elements of video production, he says, like “makeup, costuming, lighting, etc.,” have “…lent themselves wholly to designing and building the Haunted House.”
2018 will be the sixth year of the Missoula Haunted House, and each year the attraction has its challenges. It has always been constructed in the Llama Barn on the Missoula fairgrounds, 7,000 square feet of unused space in which Davenport and his team of nightmare crafters have to, as he says, “construct the Haunted House from the ground up.” They generally only have between five and six weeks to get it running, during which time its “all hands on-deck” at Roothead Studios to top themselves in theme, story, and execution every year.
The Missoula Haunted House is big on story. Every year so far, the Haunt has been characterized by a high-concept theme that has driven the scares and which read like the backs of VHS tapes found in the horror section of a video store: there’s “The Reaping”, in which visitors encountered cultists set on “sacrificing victims to pagan gods to ensure a good harvest of crops,” and “Once Upon a Nightmare, and Other Tales of Terror,” in which “a possessed book… sucks you into its pages” in which the petrified victim encounters twisted versions of once-placid fairy tales. They’ve even gone a little classic ‘50s sci-fi once, with “Quarantine: Death From Above,” a paranoid potboiler about aliens turning humans into zombies in advance of their invasion.
Designing something within the theme seems to be a big part of the fun for Davenport. He says that after they land on a story “inspiration generally hits me and I go down the rabbit hole of the most terrifying situations I can think of” within the theme. Then he has to “weed through the scares that are impossible to pull off, the ultimate goal being, of course, to “make the Haunted House something that would scare me to go through.”
This year’s theme will be “Sideshow Massacre,” which Davenport assures will be a grotesque mélange of “fortune tellers, trapeze artists, lion tamers, freak shows, etc.” He’s reluctant to say too much but says to expect a dark take on the “1940s-ish Barnum and Bailey-style circus.”
Unwary travelers and seekers after bad dreams in the area of Victor and Missoula would do well find themselves in Kirkland and Davenport’s grip this Halloween. But Montanans know that even the smallest, safest towns will be overcome by a pandemic of fear as community haunted houses run by the aforementioned Jaycees, churches, schools and others will shatter the peaceful sleep of innocent townsfolk throughout the state. Beware, for instance, the Anderson School Haunted House in Bozeman, whose kids transform yearly into ghouls, creatures, and menacing killers. And the Jaycees of Billings have also distinguished themselves in the field of apoplexy inducement with events like the “Two Moon Haunted Hallows,” a one-mile hike through a forest filled with—gulp—clowns and spiders.
Honestly, just writing this article has proven to be a scary experience. My palms are a little sweaty, and I’m jumping at little noises. My eyes are searching the shadows for movement. Suddenly, there’s a noise. Do you hear it too? It seems to be… no, it couldn’t, could it? It IS!