Fall had peaked on Saturday as we drove down the winding road speckled with autumnal hues and overarching amber trees. Nature’s festive display almost made me forget the reason Hailey and I were taking a half-hour trek out of Ann Arbor.
Growing up on ghost stories and Halloween, haunted sites and lore have always intrigued me — at least, from a distance. I was eager to snag the opportunity to write about walking through a haunted forest, but it took until the day of our trip to the Terrorfied Forest for my rational mind to kick into action and my feet to turn cold. Memories of walking through haunted forests with my grandma reeled through my head: My grandma, born on Halloween and predestined to enjoy it, had laughed the whole way; while I, a middle schooler who had just overcome my fear of dogs, did not.
Around 7 p.m., we followed an arrow sign into a field at the end of the road. The late-October dusk was just beginning to settle as we stepped out of Hailey’s Jeep, and we were greeted by a man dressed in black who spoke with a deep voice. After discovering we were reporters, not actors for the forest, he led us to meet one of the owners, Cindy Murphy-Broadbent, at her house not far from the parking lot. There, we were welcomed by a dozen ghouls gathered around a bonfire, applying their terrifying makeup. A woman with bloody barbed wire wrapped around her face pressed flesh wounds to a man’s face; another woman was smearing white paint over her cheekbones while a third monster airbrushed an actor’s face.
Murphy-Broadbent came out of the house. She was an older woman, with cropped white hair and a lifelong passion for Halloween. As she approached, an actress mentioned that the house was decorated with spooky decor all year long.
“I just always liked Halloween,” Murphy-Broadbent said. “You can dress up if you want, you don’t have to if you don’t want. You can give candy if you want, you don’t have to if you don’t want. You can have a lot of fun with it, or you don’t have to. So, it’s a great holiday.”
The Terrorfied Forest was first created as a haunted hayride surprise birthday party. The party was such a hit that Murphy-Broadbent and her husband, Dean, continued to host it for five years until friends convinced them to open it to the public. Now it’s a 30-minute walk for three-quarters of a mile through the woods. The forest opens for business the second weekend of September through Halloween night, as well as on the Friday the 13th in November.
It was inching closer to 8 p.m. when the trail officially opened. Murphy-Broadbent offered to lead us back to the entrance so she could open the ticket booth. The man who we had seen being made-up with fake flesh had now transformed into a monster; he snuck up behind us as we lingered, growling and barking. Hailey shrieked. We eagerly left the ghouls.
By now it was dark out, the entrance sign illuminated by a string of lights. It had rained earlier that day and lone clouds still hung in front of the bright, nearly full moon; it was the kind of night you’d expect werewolves to transform — and that’s not an exaggeration. It was hard not to take the ominous hint and begin worrying again.
It suddenly dawned on me that it may not have been the best idea to tell all of the actors we were reporters.
The main area was a large field that resembled a movie set: a ticket booth, haunted house, a ghoulish tree for photos and a food trailer glowing yellow, all dispersed along the edges. With half an hour until the trail opened, we naturally headed to the snacks: cider for $1.50, cider and a doughnut for $2.50. The actors, all teenagers with painted faces, were gathered there, too.
A freshman from Eastern Michigan University, dressed as Frankenstein, said he enjoyed working at the Terrorfied Forest; it was a good weekend job. He was able to spend the money he made from scaring willing individuals and save what he made from his day job.
Frankenstein said he’s never scared when he’s in the forest waiting for passersby. I understood this more later when I walked through — as the trail is lit by red lights — but at the time, I was skeptical.
Young girls with caked-on red cheeks and freckles said they worked in the Fun House, which people could pay extra to go through before the trail. They said that some people are scared, some flirt and many crack jokes. The nun said she had heard all the “nun puns” in the book. The most common: “I’ll have nun of that!”
People of all ages began arriving. By the time we left that night, the parking lot would be full. The actors explained that the week before Halloween was peak week for the haunted trail: costume parties had only just begun, but people were in the spirit.
A single doorframe, propped up like the forgotten remains of a burned-down building, marked the entrance to the Terrorfied Forest. A costumed woman stood in the shadows as Emma and I approached, her smeared white makeup catching the glow of the orange lights overhead. In her hands was a hatchet.
“Are you two with a group?” she asked. Maybe I imagined it, but she seemed to smirk at the question, her charcoal-rimmed eyes glinting. If the smokey-eye look was intimidating on a normal basis, this chick took it to a whole new level.
“Um,” Emma said, stalling. Survival tip number one: Never go alone.
We locked eyes with the couple next to us, high school kids on a Saturday night date, willing them to take two college students under their wing for the night. It was a low point, but fear makes people do crazy things, like sleep with the lights on for a month after watching a scary movie (this is why you should never watch “Silence of the Lambs”). Besides, we were being practical — it’s all about strength in numbers. No University of Michigan-educated person would venture into the creepy woods alone.
“Do you mind if we come with you?” I blurted. The girl, bless her, nodded enthusiastically, agreeing with our group mentality or maybe just taking pity on us. Her boyfriend gamely agreed, possibly hating us for tagging along. (Boys, take note: A haunted forest is not a romantic date. Your girlfriend will be terrified, possibly crying, wanting to get out of there as soon as possible. If you want a fun fall activity, stick to scary movies and pumpkin carving.)
At the entrance to a haunted forest — a forest that the ticket lady warned takes 30 to 40 minutes to travel through — manners were not our highest priority. So when the hostess told us to line up single file to enter, we pushed the boy to the front.
The door thudded behind us, drowning out the woman’s cackle. “Don’t touch anything and it won’t touch you back!” she said.
In nervous silence, we walked along a narrow trail, guided by hanging red bulbs on low-slung branches. Leaves whipped around our feet in tiny tornados, hiding roots, making us step carefully in the darkness and ignore our instinct to run. Though my awareness was piqued for any type of movement — a sinister shadow lurking behind a tree, the ominous snap of a twig — I couldn’t help but notice the beauty of the woods in the nighttime. The moon was nearly full, flooding the forest with light; it was almost peaceful, being outside and away from the bustle of campus.
For a while, there was no movement. We kept walking, winding through the woods. We knew that there were about 80 terrifying employees waiting for us in the forest — but where were they? I started to enjoy myself, thinking of our tour as a midnight nature walk. This would go great with some hot apple cider.
Survival tip number two: Never let your guard down. As I peered around the bend, a throaty snarl erupted from behind a tree. A wolf-creature sprung onto the path, half crawling and jumping toward our group. We screamed and stumbled, running up a ramp that led to a shed pulsing with strobe lights.
The wolf-creature left us alone, but the shed — and the other makeshift shacks that would follow it on the trail — brought a new terror: the fear of being in a confined space of horror, with a lurking monster and nowhere to run. (In “Silence of the Lambs,” this is the situation that frightened me the most; in the final scene of the movie, Detective Clarice Starling is unknowingly trapped in the basement with serial killer Buffalo Bill with the lights off.) At this point, the four of us abandoned all formality, clutching each other’s shirts as we entered the shed.
“This is the last thing I need right now,” Emma said, groaning. The room was filled with swinging black tubes, like punching bags, their movements warped and disorienting from the blinding strobe lights overhead. Everything was pulsing. We wove through the tubes, gripping each other tightly, our vision blurred and jaunty — was that movement a person? Or was it just us in here? — when a stranger’s voice shrieked from the corner of the room. He staggered toward us, moving fast and in slow motion at the same time, his manic clown grin flashing between the tubes. We bolted through the door at last, the lights blinking behind us.
The trail became our friend. It held its own horrors: redneck zombies jumped out from behind a battered car, setting our eardrums ringing with blows of their shovels on metal; a deranged girl wailed and chased us, her hands grabbing at our ankles; a man with only half a body was suspended in a tree, screaming for help. Still, we preferred to be scared in the open woods, where escape was easy and the moon offered solace, rather than be trapped in dark haunted houses.
Survival tip number three: Always bring a flashlight. From its exterior, the final stop in the Terrorfied Forest looked no different from the other shacks we had walked through. We entered the house cautiously, tugging on each other’s shirts. The room became a narrow hallway, a twisting maze, growing steadily darker and darker. Soon it was pitch black; the only light came from the ceiling, a tiny sliver of moonlight, shrouded by leaves.
An eerie silence took over as we walked in the blackness. With one hand I gripped the shirt of the high school girl, with the other I skimmed the wall, feeling for passages and corners.
“This must be what it feels like to be blind,” Emma said, behind me. Suddenly, a loud smack from in front: we’d hit a dead end. The high school boy chuckled, brushing past to backtrack. I tried to control my breathing. If Harry Potter could make it through the Triwizard Maze as a 14 year old, we could get our adult selves out of this trippy house.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of dead ends, we found the back door. We spilled out into the moonlight, laughing about the maze and the trail, walking easily to the distant glow of the ticket booth and huddles of friendly faces.
Before leaving, Emma and I posed for a picture with one of the characters, holding signs that read, “I wet my pants at the Terrorfied Forest.” (Whether this was true or not can’t be disclosed.) We waved as we walked back to the car, thanking the staff, wishing ticket holders good luck.
Somewhere in the woods, a low snarl replied.