Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Chain saws, demonic clowns, half-buried skeletons that suddenly jump to life-Markoff's Haunted Forest delivers the fright of a lifetime

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IT'S A CHILLY NIGHT in October, and bonfires are roaring as dozens of teens and twentysomethings chatter and laugh nervously. The crowd has come from all over the Washington, D.C., area to this farm in Dickerson to experience one of the most notorious and popular haunted attractions in Montgomery County.

Jennifer Doan, 26, who admits to being easily frightened, is sandwiched between two friends, Erin True, 27, and Khrystine Stine, 23. Actors dressed in garish clown makeup and kaleidoscope-colored tuxedos taunt them with ghoulish stares. “I’m scared,” Stine says, gripping Doan’s waist as they walk toward the entrance, the gaping mouth of a demonic clown.

It’s a feeling shared by many who have visited Markoff’s Haunted Forest, a county tradition that dates to 1992, when brothers Nick and Alex Markoff devised a creative way to raise money for their dream business: a summer camp for kids. What began as a whim has turned into a million-dollar business that attracts roughly 30,000 thrill-seekers every fall in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Led by True’s fiancé, Jason Goff, 30, the group makes its way through the forest, where candles shed flickering light on skeletons that are strewn with cobwebs and half-buried along the trail. Chain saws snarl in the distance while screams, laughter and expletives fill the night air. A masked demon jumps out from behind a tree, and a slumped-over scarecrow with a pumpkin head suddenly springs to life with a hideous cackle. “Oh my god! That f–king pumpkin!” Doan cries.  

Doan and her friends enter a carpeted, coffin-like chamber meant to evoke the feeling of being buried alive. Next, they descend into a crypt full of skulls where hidden actors are waiting to jump out of dark corners. Then it’s on to a circus scene with headless dolls and a fire-breathing clown under a big top.

Finally, the buzzing sound they’ve heard all night is right in front of them as men in blood-splattered flannel shirts give chase with chain saws. (In fact, there are no chains on these saws, just blunt bars that vibrate against your legs—terrifying nonetheless when you’re being chased.)   

The group ends its journey on an elevated ramp in a junkyard, where a rusted hearse sits atop a battered school bus with shattered windows. Thrash metal music blares and white lights flash, blinding Doan and her friends as men in orange jumpsuits and white masks chase them out of the Haunted Forest for good.  

Doan and Stine can’t seem to run for the exit fast enough. “The chain saws freaked me out,” says True, breathless as she runs to catch up with her friends. Even though they drove an hour to get here, the foursome is already making plans to return this fall.

THE MARKOFFS STARTED the Haunted Forest not out of an affinity for horror but for the dream it was intended to subsidize. As boys, the brothers spent their childhood summers working at Valley Mill, a camp in upper Montgomery County owned by their maternal grandparents, Robert and May McEwan (the camp is still owned and operated by the Markoffs’ maternal aunt). They often led weekend kayaking and backpacking trips to West Virginia, and as they grew older, they dreamed of opening their own camp one day. They just needed to find the money to do it.

When Nick Markoff, now 45, was a student at Brigham Young University in Utah in the early 1990s, he visited an outdoor haunted attraction in American Fork, a nearby city, and it struck him as an ingenious way to attract crowds and cash. He told Alex, now 44, who, in a fit of inspiration, transformed the family’s RV into a mobile haunted house and drove it around neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County.  

“It looked Sanford and Son-ish,” recalls Nick, describing a popular 1970s TV show about a junk dealer. “It barely ran and was very well received by all the kids, but not the police or neighborhood watch.” Although it was popular, the mobile attraction didn’t make the Markoffs much money and was cast aside after one year.

In 1993, Nick and Alex set up an early version of the Haunted Forest at Valley Mill. They posted fliers on telephone poles and invited friends. That first year, the brothers made $19,000, which they used to buy a few kayaks and put a down payment on two vans for their future summer camp.  

After two years, the Haunted Forest was drawing crowds too large for it to remain at Valley Mill—parking was such a problem that the line of cars often shut down traffic on Seneca Road in Germantown, Nick recalls.   

In 1995, the brothers moved their operation to a 165-acre farm that their parents had helped them buy in Dickerson, where it’s still located today. Meanwhile, they had raised enough money to launch their camp, Calleva, which means “a place in the woods” in Celtic.

Today, Calleva runs camping, skiing and kayaking trips for children, and corporate team-building exercises for adults. It offers a wide array of scholarships for kids who can’t afford to attend, and the farm serves as an agricultural and environmental education center with workshops in sustainable farming, forestry and renewable energy.

Given the breadth of its programming and nonprofit status, Calleva depends heavily on the Haunted Forest for revenue—and the Halloween attraction has delivered. In 2013, the Haunted Forest sold nearly $1 million worth of tickets, which ranged in price from $20 to $30 per person, Nick Markoff says, adding that about 65 percent of ticket sales go towards Calleva each year. A portion of the proceeds from the Haunted Forest support other local nonprofits.

A highly anticipated event throughout the D.C. area, the Haunted Forest is a massive theatrical production that takes months to plan and tens of thousands of dollars to create. We went behind the scenes last fall to see the show come together.  

A FEW HOURS BEFORE the Haunted Forest’s doors open at 7 p.m. the crew gathers around a whiteboard to learn their assignments for the evening. One of the hallmarks of the forest is that it cleverly mixes cast members with dummies and dolls in each scene. Not knowing which is real and which isn’t makes for an unnerving experience.

Each year, the Markoffs hire up to 180 local teens and adults to work as actors, makeup artists and technical crew.

Once they learn their assignments, the actors head to the costume shop, where Gracie Jones, 25, has set up a color-coded wardrobe system with hundreds of costumes organized by scene and trail. Jones, who studied theater at the University of Maryland, sprays Febreze on each outfit and Lysol on each mask; she washes costumes that are sweat-soaked and dirt-caked.

Costumed and ready for makeup, actors walk up to the second floor, where makeup coordinator Chris Martin-Knowles, 40, commands six makeup artists with brushes, sprayers and industrial strength face paint. Martin-Knowles reminds artists to spend no more than seven minutes on each actor so they’re ready when doors open.

“These are not nice clowns,” Martin-Knowles says as he sprays a white base coating on an actor’s face. The clowns are supposed to be dead—each actor’s mouth is painted over with a toothy skeletonlike grin. Although there is fake blood at their disposal, the makeup artists use it sparingly. “We don’t want to go all gory,” Martin-Knowles says. “It’s a bit of a cop-out just to chuck blood on people. We’re trying to make people freak out, not gross them out.”

To that end, the Markoffs try to keep the Haunted Forest “as PG as possible,” says Nick. They also want to stay consistent with Calleva’s mission, which is focused on youth development and leadership skills.

It’s difficult to say who enjoys the Haunted Forest more, the patrons or the staff. Actors make it a personal challenge to terrify anyone who crosses their path. “My first year working here, I made someone cry and then they stood up and peed their pants,” says Keri Bridgett, 28, as she waits in line for makeup.

“It means you’re doing something right,” adds Allie Delgado, 18, who, like Bridgett, is dressed in olive-green rags for the cannibal scene, which takes place in a hut-like structure made of twigs and burlap. Tiny skulls mounted on sticks stand vigil in a small bog behind the hut as an ominous bongo drum beats in the background.

Shana Dahnhert, 39, a patron who has visited the Haunted Forest every year for the past decade, says that even though the show takes place in almost pitch-black darkness, the crew has an uncanny ability to spot patrons who act scared.

“They’ll chase you,” she says. “They’re like dogs.”

THE MARKOFFS PRIDE THEMSELVES on the Haunted Forest’s improvised, made-from-scratch approach. The so-called “haunt industry,” which by some estimates is worth $300 million annually with its conventions, consultants and prefabricated props, is of little interest to them. They have resisted offers to franchise and overtures from corporate sponsors who see the Haunted Forest as prime real estate for branding.

“We get so many offers of ‘let’s put banners on your products,’ ” says Matt Markoff, 39, another brother who participates  in the family business.

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