Dreadwood Haunted Forest: Putting heart into the haunt
Driving the narrow path through the dark woods, with nothing but a sliver of moon and headlights to guide the way, a note of fear begins to build in your chest. The trees hang low, and you find yourself scanning the edge of the forest — for deer, or something else. No comfort will be found at the end of the drive, as the site of Dreadwood Haunted Forest rises to meet you, hiding zombies, ghosts, witches and more in its shadows.
Behind the gory makeup and costumes of Dreadwood, there's a lot of heart, though it's not always the first thing they show off.
"We're in this because we're passionate, we're in this for the adrenaline, we're in this because we love Halloween," Creative and Marketing Director Emily Gerbig said. "It's a pleasant surprise on the other side when you discover it's all volunteers."
The scares at Dreadwood are delivered by a crew made up entirely of volunteers, from the sets in the woods to the characters out there ready to scare to the crew that gets them dressed and gory.
"When volunteers come together to do something, it's out of passion, not out of pay," Gerbig said.
The story of Dreadwood started long before its nine seasons of haunting, during the Tunnel of Terror in the St. Paul Caves where Dreadwood organizers and future spouses Gerbig and Darrin Johnson met in the dark, in full make up.
The two shared a love of Halloween and haunts, and when the Tunnel of Terror closed, they were devastated. It wasn't long before they decided to find a new outlet for their passion.
"We just got the itch to do it again," Gerbig said.
They found their chance with Splat Tag, the paintball course Johnson runs. The woods where it's located off County Road E in the town of Hudson had plenty of room.
In 2010 Johnson proposed the idea of hosting a haunt, that year, to Gerbig.
"I thought he was crazy because it was July..." Gerbig said. "He said, 'Yeah, it's going to happen.'"
And it did.
The two rallied the help of friends, and in three months set up the first Dreadwood Haunted Forest.
"We didn't have any volunteers, we didn't have anybody, we just knew that we wanted to do this," Gerbig said. "We thought maybe we'll have 50 people the first time."
They drew hundreds of people the first night.
"It took off right away," Gerbig said.
The haunt has been going strong ever since.
Open Friday and Saturday nights in October, the half-mile long hike through Dreadwood Haunted Forest takes about a half-hour and is led by a guide.
"It's about a 25-minute journey through the backwoods of Wisconsin and then they pop out on the other side, hopefully," Gerbig said.
Visitors, between 3,000 to 5,000 a year, will encounter several scenes and scares as they pass through the shadows.
Gerbig and Johnson wanted to do something different with their haunt than the props and animatronics that are typically seen.
"We have realistic sets and we have characters that are more real," Gerbig said.
"At night time, you're dealing with people's imaginations," said Carde Gerbig, mom and longtime volunteer.
Preparing to play with those imaginations takes a lot of work. Planning for the month of Dreadwood starts immediately after last year ends, with a mind dump from all the volunteers about how the year went. Then things pick up in mid-summer with the design of a new advertising card featuring a new haunting character for the season.
Most of the work is done in two weeks before the opening, as the paintball field limits the ability to work on sets.
Scaring for the love of it
When the October nights arrive, volunteers descend onto the site in the forest to be covered in dirt and splashed with fake blood.
The whole process of preparing volunteers with airbrush makeup, fake wounds, hair and costuming takes about two to three hours.
"We have it down to an art," Gerbig said.
Then they gather together at the start of the forest for a cheer and scaring tips before they're released into the night.
The entire production involves more than a hundred volunteers most nights.
Dreadwood sees all types of volunteers of all ages, Gerbig said, from those eager to get out and scare to the ones who are just fine helping with parking.
"We like people who are passionate about Halloween," Gerbig said.
Kat Christopherson was one of the more hesitant volunteers. She started out helping with parking the first year, as a favor for Gerbig and Johnson. Now she's the volunteer coordinator, organizing everyone who shows up into positions, and helping get more volunteers there in the first place.
"I just kind of fell in love with it," Christopherson said.
Often the people who are scared to do the scaring, end up having a blast.
"People say, 'Oh I don't act, I'm not the scaring type,'" Gerbig said. "The same people come out of the woods at the end of the night and say, 'This is awesome.'"
Volunteers produce the best performance, Gerbig said, because they're passionate about doing so, and want to be there. That's a notion most of the seasoned volunteers agree with.
"My favorite part is seeing the excitement of our volunteers," Christopherson said. She leads the volunteers in the cheer every night. "They get so pumped, it just brings chills."
Dreadwood has a regular group of volunteers showing up every year, some even taking time off work to help.
"They have such a good time so they keep showing up year after year," Gerbig said.
Adam Stegner has missed one year of Dreadwood, when his daughter was born. A big Halloween junkie, he does anything and everything in both prep work and on the haunt nights.
"I'll be a monster for them, I'll be a trail runner, whatever," Stegner said.
It's all a lot of work, but it pays off when visitors finally make it out in the woods.
"The first time you hear somebody out there screaming and laughing and having a good time, it makes it all worth it," he said.
The haunt is also always looking for new volunteers. Those interested just need to sign up and show up — makeup, costumes and tips will be provided.
As a result of the volunteer help, Dreadwood Forest donates proceeds, minus expenses, to Sharing and Caring Hands, Courage Center and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Visitors also receive a discount if they bring food donations for the United Way St. Croix Valley Food Shelter. Dreadwood has collected 20,000 pounds since they started.
"It was about the volunteering," Gerbig said. "We didn't start with the charities and say how do we give money to these charities. We started with how do we create a great Halloween haunt and the best haunts are the ones, that I have found, are [run by] the people that volunteer."
To learn more about Dreadwood or to volunteer, visit www.dreadwoodhaunt.com.