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Forest of screams

Haunted hayrides tap into the Halloween spirit


By Nicole Klaas

‘If I can make a grown man jump, really jump, just one time, then I think you’ve got your money’s worth,” says Leo Martin, who has been in the business of spooking Capital Region residents for 15 years. As owner of Double M’s Haunted Hayrides in Ballston Spa, he’s persistent in achieving that aim, creating an atmosphere of suspense that begins the moment visitors push open the car door.

Loud, abrupt shrieks and long, high-pitched squeals reverberate in guests’ ears immediately. The screams emerge from undisclosed locations that surround visitors in a semi-circle of intermittent noise.

Outfitted in scarves and hooded sweatshirts or bundled in winter coats, guests pass through the doorway of a Hollywood-style Old Western storefront and enter Double M’s ghost town—of the non-American-West definition. A crazed cowboy stalks a preteen girl, who squeals as she panics and opens her stride from a brisk walk to a full-out sprint. A broad-shouldered, seven-foot goblin slowly saunters over to a conversing couple. He stands motionless behind the inattentive pair until, after several seconds, the woman senses the presence, looks up, and screeches.

The dense, gray clouds are impermeable tonight. Strategically placed artificial lighting provides only shadowy illumination.

To the right of the entryway, smoke oozes from the rear of a Munsters-style hearse. A group approaches the passenger-side window curiously. Each slowly leans forward to peek into the front seat. All five jump back in unison at the sound of a loud thwack upon the glass from inside the hearse. “It’s a person! It’s real!” one exclaims.

Such unexpected events set the tone for the Double M’s experience even before visitors board the hayride wagon. (Expect unpredictability from the disc jockey’s music collection as well. It abruptly shifts from Halloween classics such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to ’90s pop, including “The Macarena.”)

It’s only 7:15 PM, but already several tractor-drawn hay wagons have disappeared into Double M’s haunted forest.

As the next tractor pulls into the loading zone, the wagon’s tour guide unfolds a yellow fleece blanket over her lap. She goes by the name “Boo” and will serve as narrator during the ride. She’s dressed in all-black attire, except for her face, which is painted in chaotic strokes of orange, red and green, and is vivid in the darkness.

A staff member with a glowing cigarette pinched between his fingers positions a step at the base of the wagon and invites the front of the line to board. A group of about six preteen girls rush the wagon like wild children, spewing hay to the ground as they claw to the center. “I heard screaming,” one of them hollers. “That’s not a good sign.”

As the girls sit cross-legged and bicker about who is hogging too much space, other guests hoist themselves up and swing their legs over the sides of the wagon.

“The louder you scream, the safer you are,” Boo advises as the wagon lurches forward toward an archway that serves as the gateway to the haunted forest. The gatekeeper in a black robe paces overhead the wagon and warns the tour to turn back. Bursts of fire shoot out from the archway, providing immediate, but temporary, warmth and illumination.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Boo asks the passengers.

The hayride meanders in the darkness through about 25 acres of forest. While Boo regales riders with stories of Scary Harry and the oddities of the land through which the wagon passes, the tractor slows and pauses at staged haunting areas. The haunts, props and characters change annually, but always feature traditional Halloween characters, impersonations of horror movie favorites, and a few Double M’s originals.

“This place is littered with body parts,” Boo announces at one point during the ride, moments before the wagon passes through terrain covered with mutilated bodies and red-stained limbs.

Suddenly, loud noises erupt. Men carrying bladeless handsaws emerge from behind the leafless trees and approach the wagon. The smell of exhaust and gasoline is pungent.

The event provokes incessant screaming from the cluster of preteens, much to the delight of a particular handsaw operator, who walks alongside the wagon with his eyes locked on one of the girls. He points at her and motions with his index finger for her to come closer.

A young boy, who can’t be older than 5, sits on his father’s lap and seems unaffected by the scare tactic. While the girls continue to squeal, screaming subsides into laughter for many riders.

“Can they jump on the wagon?” a boy at the back of the wagon asks his mother as a man chases behind the cart.

Throughout the tour, which lasts about 30 minutes, random light effects, eerie sounds and various surprise tactics are designed to catch riders unaware. While many are successful, at times, others provoke more laughter than screams.

Down the path a bit farther, the tractor pulls into a metal shed that serves as Double M’s Hall of Fame Wax Museum. Boo calls attention to wax replicas of notorious scary-movie characters to the left and right of riders, until she’s interrupted when the shed goes dark and select wax figures come to life, their movements erratically captured by a strobe light.

“Those dudes were really freaky,” a boy’s voice calls out as the wagon pulls forward.

When the hayride reaches the end of the tour, Boo invites passengers to participate in a final scream, as a warning to visitors yet to board.

Guests are led through Double M’s terror maze and back to the main entrance, where ghosts and black-robed goblins wait to catch visitors by surprise one last time.

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