The annual making of Fright Farm.


Back in 1990, Tom Rich’s brother Michael had an idea for putting an old house on the family’s Smithfield, Pennsylvania, farm to fun and productive use. Friends and family helped out. “We all worked together and picked a theme and put together a haunted house,” Rich recalls.

The first weekend Fright Farm was open, 30 visitors paid to be scared. The family thought it was a great start.

The second weekend, 1,500 people showed up.

“We were overwhelmed in every possible way,” Rich says. They borrowed tractors from neighbors to pull the hay rides and rushed out to buy supplies to accommodate the crowd.

The following year, Rich Farms recruited local high school students to help brainstorm spooky ideas. But three decades later, this little family venture has become a big business, employing 300 people for the Halloween season.

Just 20 minutes’ drive away through pretty country, Fright Farm has long been a favorite part of fall for Morgantown residents. It’s a family enterprise on a couple of levels—not just the Riches, but also the core group of those who assemble each year to create new chills and thrills. “It’s kind of a dysfunctional family, but it is a family,” laughs Dana Oglesby, a longtime member of the Fright Farm creative team. While many families gather to cook and eat, the cast and crew of this Halloween-season attraction come together to create things that make your stomach churn.

Cultivating suspense
Work on Fright Farm starts long before 160 actors and hundreds of employees arrive on-site in the weeks before the attraction opens in late September. The creative team of makeup artists, costume designer, acting coaches, security officers, and building crew work year-round.

Physical creation of eerie, hair-raising scenes starts in April as the crew begins thinking about how to reuse props and materials from previous years. Come June, the farm holds actor auditions.

“Every year we change our themes completely,” says Rich, now president of Fright Farm, to keep the experience fresh and exciting for visitors. As the team considers ideas for both the overall theme and elements within it, they steer clear of anything too crude, he says. They also stay away from extreme violence, including guns. Instead, they use animatronics, custom soundtracks, fogs, scents, and lighting to evoke fear. “We want to make sure people are entertained—not terrified,” he says.

This year’s theme, “abandoned,” plays out in five separate areas in and around the haunted house. “It’s dark and it’s scary,” Oglesby says. She says the theme allowed them to imagine and create “all kinds of things living there, all kinds of things creeping around corners.”

One creature who will be creeping around a corner is a blood- and grease-covered pig wielding a chainsaw played by P.J. Turner, an 11-year veteran of acting at haunts, four of those with Fright Farm. Turner joined the building crew and creative team earlier in the year than most actors to help put together a barn space designed just for his chosen costume and character.

An actor who Oglesby says plays serial killers exceptionally well has been with Fright Farm for 15 years. This year they created rooms in the haunted house just for his persona.

Westley Loukota has worked for eight years as a scene builder at Fright Farm and devotes extended time to individual scenes. “It’s been pieces and parts, but it’s probably been about two weeks,” he says of his work on a small, dual-story room that includes an animatronic dummy strung to dangle by its feet.

On busier nights, it takes 101 actors to stage the full Fright Farm experience—slower nights require 80 actors. Because multiple actors play the same parts, costumer Erin Snyder made about 150 costumes for this season’s run. She takes special pride in a ball gown she created for a scene that brings a painting to life in a spooky way.

The subject matter is creepy, but the creative family at Fright Farm has fun with it. “We try to stay joyful in our work,” Oglesby says.

Reaping fear and fun
Fright Farm’s one and a half-to-two-hour tour takes visitors through household settings, a swampy graveyard, woods with creepy clowns, a creature den, and a town full of tricks rather than treats.

This year, the team is replacing long ticket lines—hours long, on the busiest nights—with a festival midway where people can have fun until it’s their turn to be frightened. “It’s the same wait, but people will be entertained,” says creative team member Deniro Leoni. Live music, mini–escape rooms, paintball, ax throwing, and concessions will keep visitors busy until a hayride takes them through the woods and past recreations of historic buildings that include a local one-room schoolhouse and coke ovens.

Fright Farm runs Wednesday through Sunday evenings through Halloween night. The whole experience ranges from $20 with student ID on Wednesdays to $60 for “Xpress” admission on Fridays and Saturdays.

“None of this would have been started if it weren’t for Mike Rich,” costumer Snyder says of the man who started it all. Since he passed away a few years ago, she likes to remember him each October.

“He definitely has a legacy that lives on,” says Oglesby. It is a legacy that hundreds of enthusiastic people carry out and thousands of people enjoy each year.

2043 Springhill Furnace Road, Smithfield, Pennsylvania, 724.564.7644, frightfarm.com

 

written and photographed by Aldona Bird

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