Behind the Scenes of The Salisbury Woods: A Haunted Barn and Trail

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In the small town of Salisbury NH, elementary school students have not found the need for bake sales and car washes to raise money for field trips, guest speakers, and other fun activities. Instead, a local family took matters into their own hands; funding a haunted barn and trail through the woods to raise money.

Starting mid-October, The Salisbury Woods operates as a haunted barn and trail fundraiser, and it is quite a terrifying place to enjoy on a chilly autumn night. Although not recommended for children of very young ages, it can be fun for families all around. The Salisbury Woods changes it’s props and sets each Halloween season to scare visitors from all over the state.

Lisa Walker, former PTG (Parent Teacher Group) President of Salisbury Elementary School, and her husband, Brett, began The Salisbury Woods in 2014 as a way to fundraise money so that their daughter’s elementary school could build a new playground. After decades of having the same splintering equipment, the PTG wanted the chance to provide a new and safe playground for the students.

After enough money was raised to construct a new playground, in the following years the money was put into the general fund for the school. When Lisa and Brett’s daughter entered Merrimack Valley Middle School, the proceeds were split halfway.

“When she goes to the high school we will probably find a club or something that she will be involved with that we will split it in thirds, but we haven’t decided on that yet,” Lisa mentions.  

The first year The Salisbury Woods was open to the public, Lisa and Brett reached out to their friends, hoping they would want to be haunters (actors). The crew has grown significantly from 2014, as previous haunters reached out to their friends and family, recruiting them for the haunt. Lisa said, “there is only a handful of our haunters that have been with us since day one of the haunt.”

Insurance isn’t required, as this is a fundraiser and not a business, but respectful rules are set in place to ensure the safety of both haunters and visitors. No running. No flash photography. No physical contact whatsoever, from either party, which helps keep everyone comfortable and safe throughout the trail.   

Putting a policy in place for the first time this year, Lisa and Brett meet and talk with the potential haunters before accepting their volunteered help. She wants to make sure that “they would be okay with haunting,” and to help decide, “what spot might work best for them.”

Being a fundraiser and not a business has its downsides, as the haunters are volunteers and not paid employees. Lisa noted that her least favorite experience has been dealing with pesky volunteers who don’t listen to their rules. “We actually have politely uninvited some of the actors to not rejoin us,” Lisa said that despite being a charity event they still want the customers to have a good show.

Lisa and Brett once had an incident when a haunter was bored and left their spot empty to walk to a different section of the haunt. Haunters and visitors have also had issues in the past regarding inappropriate behavior, with visitors pushing and hitting the haunters. The rules are set in place for a reason, and it becomes a real problem when the volunteer actors and visitors do not follow them.

“Distraction is a big thing in order to scare,” Brett said. The swinging, jumping, or hanging props are meant to distract visitors as the actors come out from hiding to scare. Each actor is given a certain role, and although they may be dressed the same each night of the season, what they do and say to scare people may be different. They improvise according to the crowd.

With a total of eighty actors this year, they all have to work closely together to ensure the haunt is frightening for each visitor. Although not all eighty may work every single night, there are still fifty to sixty haunters in the barn and trail each night. Communication is key, whether it be a phrase screamed into the dark or a whack on the wall, the actors cue each other so they know when to scare the incoming group of visitors.

Lisa and Brett are also in charge of the costumes for the haunters. Collecting dozens of costumes from Goodwill and other thrift-like stores, the Walkers reconfigure outfits to work for whatever character a volunteer will play. This year, each night there were three to five volunteers in charge of makeup. “We try our best not to do masks. They cover too much of the actor’s face, and then it’s too hard to act,” Brett says.  

The scenes are constantly changing, although, there are a few that stay in place for years at a time. “There are some things that have been staples from the beginning like Clown Town. That will probably always be a part of the haunt,” Lisa said. While there are certain scare scenes that will always be there, others are changing.

New additions can stay for just one year, as Lisa, Brett, and their crew are always adding suggestions to “a long list of ideas.” Others can be present for more than one scaring season. Zombie Town, set up for three years so far, will most likely stay. Some spots are ready to be retired and will be replaced with one of Lisa or Brett’s many ideas for expansion.

Although the actors play a huge role in making the barn and trail scary, Brett says, “I really like to play with phobias. What are people scared of? Not just traditional stuff, we’re trying to scare everyone.” Each section is different, and some are unique areas that one normally wouldn’t see in a haunt.

A castle with skeleton prisoners and a steam-breathing dragon made from a children’s basketball hoop. Hansel and Gretel’s candy-covered adventure, complete with a wart-nosed witch brewing eyeball stew. A rat tunnel with strobe lights, burlap flaps, and screeching rat sounds playing over the speaker. A trick or treater section made scarier with cute children’s costumes mixed with burlap grotesque masks. In addition to these untraditional sections, the Walkers have made sure to include a nursery, morgue, and an even an insane asylum.

There comes a time when a leader must accept what his or her role is in an organization. “I used to dress up and let people into the haunt. I realized that it wasn’t really my strong suit,” Lisa explains. Instead of joining the other haunters and her husband Brett, she stays up front at the gate.

An important aspect is relaying the rules to each visitor. She also informs each group about the strobe lights and fog machines present in the barn and trail through the woods. Making sure every last visitor is safe is the number one priority of the haunters.

However, it is crucial that Lisa knows what the visitors think, in order to reassess and improve for the next year. “I like to be up at the front to see if people liked it,” Lisa says, “I enjoy seeing if they enjoyed themselves.”

Being up front to greet visitors and sell tickets could leave one the possibility of missing out. But Lisa loves being able to see visitors after they’ve gone through the haunt. The expressions of fear are amusing, especially if they’re on the faces of those who couldn’t even go through the whole thing. Brett says, “if they don’t make it into the haunt then I’ve done my job.”

If the visitors have started to head through the barn and trail, but are so scared they have to turn around, he feels as if he has successfully scared them. Lisa’s best experience so far is being able to hear the visitors scream. “Especially when we are slow and there aren’t many people and I can just sit back and listen.”

Visitors come from all over the state to enjoy this haunted barn and trail. This year, The Salisbury Woods has broken their record for most visitors, coming in with 920 people! Their best night was Saturday the 20th, with 403 visitors. Their worst, however, was Saturday the 27th, with only about 80 visitors.

It is sometimes difficult to add more nights to the haunt. This year, however, another night was added, making The Salisbury Woods available for four nights this year. The volunteers are needed to be haunters, to make it a good scare for the visitors. “It is a big commitment for people,” Lisa says. “We have 60 actors to get makeup on, costumed, feed, shown where we want them to be, group picture taken and set in their spot.” Asking haunters to be there three hours in advance is a time commitment that can sometimes be hard for all of the volunteers. Lisa believes that if The Salisbury Woods were to expand, they would consider opening more nights throughout the month of October.  

Another persistent issue is parking. The Walkers are able to use the neighboring church next door for parking, as well as the corner store across the street. If they could expand the venue, then they would stay open for more nights. “That way we can have more options for people to come visit us and not feel like we are going to have issues with parking,” Lisa said.

Personally, the Walkers don’t benefit financially from this fundraiser, so they have spent thousands of their own money over the years for the setup and the materials to build. Although Brett spends time building up to ninety percent of the props for the haunt, he also purchases materials on Craigslist and accepts donations from family friends.

He ensures that the sound and lights are working properly for each haunt. Maintaining sixty-five speakers and one hundred twelve lights can be a challenge, but Brett manages quite nicely. “Each section has a different tone with different music and lights,” Brett said. Although Brett says the haunt is “mostly actor-driven,” it is all about the speakers and surround sound, not the volume.

The set up of the haunt is rather unique. Not everything is taken down at the end of the season, however, Brett explains, “It’s a never-ending project. The main build starts on Labor Day, but it’s pretty much all year long.” Using forty-five gallons of paint this year, Brett built almost every single prop in each section. Shaping and carving Styrofoam and PVC into fake bodies and other creepy animals, Brett works mostly over the winter in their basement, preparing for next year’s haunt. “We design the haunt with the idea that this is a theatrical production,” Brett mentions.  

Through word of mouth and Facebook, this attraction has grown from more than just a haunted walk through the Walkers’ barn. Lisa and Brett both see the success this event creates, and Lisa said, “I foresee us doing this for as long as we live here. So probably another 8 to 10 years.”  Expanding the scares and the donation entry fee ($7 this year) helped The Salisbury Woods grow to be voted a Top Five Fan Favorite Haunted Adventures in New Hampshire.

The Salisbury Woods is a charity like no other, collecting close to $7,000 this year. Working with about eighty actors, Lisa and Brett Walker have created a one of a kind haunted barn and trail. With handmade props and terrifying surround sound, the Walkers transformed a fifteen to twenty-minute walk into an enjoyable night of horror for families all around the Granite State.

 

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Elizabeth is a freshman at New England College, majoring in creative writing. She stayed close to home in order to pursue a college education, as her hometown of Salisbury NH is only a dozen or so miles from NEC's campus. She spends most of her time focused on writing (whether it be personal or academic), photography, and reading. She also enjoys being an active member of NEC's writing club, Ravens and Writing Desks.
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