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Halfway through trail two at Markoff’s Haunted Forest is a tunnel that will wreck your life—or at least send you back to the worst set of spins you ever got after drinking jungle juice at a college party. “Your eye fixates on a point and you get a vertigo feeling,” explains Paul Brubacher, vice president of operations at Markoff’s.
To make it out of the woods, patrons must cross a bridge that’s suspended in the center of a rotating rainbow-colored tube lit with black light. Most people escape after a few minutes of awkward baby animal teetering, but on occasion someone will come to a dead stop.
“They close their eyes and hold the handrail and refuse to go anywhere,” Brubacher says. That’s when Markoff’s literally has to send in the clowns. Since the tunnel is located within the funhouse set, creepy clowns and carnies are the nearest “actors” who can coax trapped visitors out of the vortex tunnel.
These tunnels have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. Brubacher reports they retail at $7,000, but the Markoff’s Haunted Forest team made theirs, and just about everything else that spans the 60 acres of spooky attractions in Dickerson, Maryland.
Brubacher explains that while the Markoff’s team heads to St. Louis every March for a haunted attraction trade show, they go principally for inspiration. “It’s a multi-billion dollar industry,” he says. “Most of the special effects guys from Hollywood—once they were replaced by computers—turned to the haunted industry to continue their craft of mold making and mask making.” After gathering ideas, they return to their on-site prop shop staffed by welders and woodworkers who source wood from trees milled on-site instead of from Home Depot.
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What they can’t make they haul in—like a fully functioning Ferris wheel on trail two, which Markoff’s recovered from a carnival company in upstate New York. They drove up to retrieve it, but a tire blew out at 2 a.m. on the way home. “They were stranded with relatively no cell service, so they ‘borrowed’ a tire from a car and left a note with a couple hundred dollars for a new tire,” Brubacher says.
The haunted attractions industry may have mushroomed over the past decade, thanks in part to attention from the Travel Channel and the Discovery Channel—both of which have featured Markoff’s Haunted Forest—but the Markoff brothers at Calleva Farm were some of the original goulsters, having launched 24 years ago.
“The original concept started out of a bus that the Markoff brothers drove back from Utah where they were all going to college,” Brubacher says. The three brothers—Nick, Matt, and Alex—had aspirations of opening an outdoor education camp. To raise some funds, they decorated the 1960s-style bus and charged a few dollars for people to walk through for a quick scare.
Four years later, Markoff’s Haunted Forest landed in its permanent home on Calleva Farm, where’s it’s been spooking people for 20 years. The farm is a nonprofit organization that operates as a working farm, agricultural education center, and a summer camp on Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.
Because Brubacher has worked at the haunted forest on the Calleva property from the start, he’s seen it evolve into what it is today—two long, winding haunted trails through the woods full of every horror trope on record, a hayride to an eerie town that could be the set of a twisted Western flick, and a front circle lit aglow by three bonfires. While patrons wait for their ticket numbers to be called to enter the first trail, there are games, a DJ, a zipline, and fat, fluffy funnel cake that would make state fairs jealous.
It’s a massive production that requires year-round attention. Planning for the following year starts in November, after the actors have revved their fake chainsaws for the last time. In season, the operation requires 220 employees—200 of whom need to be costumed and made up before the gates open at dusk. They typically arrive at 5 p.m. to visit one of the 12 makeup artists.
Many of the broken down dolls, cannibal butchers, institutionalized patients, zombies, and the like are young, aspiring actors who aren’t shy about trying accents—especially the ones patrons encounter in “The Town.” Some have been scaring the greater D.C. area at Markoff’s for 10 or more years.
“Some come from the Calleva camp, the high school theatre department—we have a bit of a cult following, so people who came last year say, ‘This is amazing, I want to work here,’” Brubacher explains. A call for applications is posted online in early August, interviews are conducted in mid-August, and staff training begins in September.
Actors are taught where to perch and also how to scare safely. “Unfortunately, when you scare someone, even a stone cold sober person can take a swing at you,” Brubacher says. That lizard brain just kicks in and says defend yourself. Booze only makes things worse.
“Alcohol is our number one problem,” Brubacher says. “If I were going to one of these, I’d have a couple of cocktails in me, but it’s the combative people that come towards the end of the evening that are a problem. You can hear them a mile away.” Indeed, on a Saturday night, there were some over-served bros mixed in with teens just looking for an excuse to hold hands. Brubacher assigns extra security to these groups when he spots them.
Perhaps the biggest security situation occurred when the first family visited the forest. “They were out in Western town, but the actors didn’t have any idea because we didn’t want to give special treatment,” Brubacher says. “But a couple [of actors] came out of the saloon firing guns, and the Secret Service guys reached for their pistols.”
Brubacher says 1,800 to 2,000 people typically come through the gate on any given night, and tickets are capped at 4,000. Understandably, this puts quite a crush on the small town of Poolesville. To soften the blow, Markoff’s teams up with area restaurants. Those who want to enter the trails without waiting for their number to be called can dine at Basset’s Fine Food and Spirits, House of Poolesville “AHOP,” or Cugini’s Authentic Italian Cuisine to purchase a “fast pass” after their meal.
Markoff’s Haunted Forest will be open tonight through Oct. 31 and ticket prices range from $20-$30.
Markoff’s Haunted Forest, 19120 Martinsburg Rd., Dickerson, MD; (301) 216-1248; markoffshauntedforest.com