The Weird Beauty of Scream Town
How the decade-old Minnesota scare fest, in the middle of a Chaska cornfield, has combined today’s "Insidious"-conditioned jump-scare obsession with the dreamlike, strangely touching allure of old-world Disneyland
MAtt dunn and scream town residents; Photo by TJ Turner
Anyone who’s braved the cheap intimidation tactics of your standard, schlocky, carnival-style haunted house knows there’s not a lot to get: Everyone’s screaming, and any sense of nuance gets choked out. Usually, it’s inside a neo-Georgian mansion so dark you can’t tell what species of costumed teen is popping out to clangorously strike the wall feet away from you. This means it isn’t likely that I’m remembering correctly when I recall the time, as a kid, that I walked through the haunted mansion at the Minnesota State Fair and saw an elaborate tableau of a young woman in white chiffon reclining on a four-poster bed while tipping a dagger against her collarbone. No one else in my family remembers it. And it’s not probable, in a $5 house of jump-scares, that an actress would perform such a psychologically complex, subtly gestured reference to Juliet—out of either rotted love or can’t-take-it-anymore fear of the werewolf clawing at the door of her boudoir.
No, the point of every room was simple: Someone’s somewhere, then clang.
Imagined or not, though, that scene has stuck with me. It told a story, whereas cheap scares barge in, then leave as fast. Today, as our box-office glut of James Wan–style startlers peters out, we might be cresting a new trend in horror where frights linger long enough to actually mean something.
That’s why I’m drawn to the adult-centric, sophisticated Halloween attractions going up this time of year—big October events that rise and sink across the country like ghost ships.
Granted, adrenaline's still the big draw. We’ve raised the stakes for screaming. We want to get chased, touched, breathed on. We want chainsaws and liability waivers. We want a municipality, not just a house. Big cities can’t provide our best examples; they lack the wide-open spaces befitting cursed manors. But the Midwest’s flat, forsaken ’scapes, quietly hellish by themselves—those make perfect real estate.
Minnesota’s Scream Town has built a reputation, over the course of a decade, as one of the country’s best haunted-house attractions. A few dusty roads from the Twin Cities, stewing in a Chaska cornfield about 40 minutes away, it has been voted fourth best in the country on HauntedAttractionsOnline.com, and its online ratings soar over local competitors. Every year, it gets a little bigger.
For scale, compare the furbelow of fog under the State Fair’s neo-Georgian to the 200 gallons that lift into the naked Chaska sky every October weekend to churn over Scream Town’s 35 acres—spewing fast from 50 fog machines and taking only a few minutes to transform a moonlit clearing into Sleepy Hollow.
Matt Dunn; Photo by TJ Turner
From afar, it looks like a post-apocalyptic citadel. Survivors, you imagine, would hunker here against a zombie horde. But it’s the reverse. Inside is pretty much the Halloween Town of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. A Gothic fountain stands flanked by eight themed façades, some of them multi-storied, a few tucking their trails deep into the surrounding cornfields and 200-year-old forest. There, acting aspirants—mostly young theater nerds—put months of preparation into action. A boy musses up his kempt blonde hair an hour before go-time. He’ll be the one growling beside a buffet of brains in the zombie-themed house. One girl among many dressed in a Harley Quinn–esque getup will unsettle those waiting in line, telling stories, in a piping quaver, about how her dolly hanged herself.
While the rest get into costume behind the façades, Scream Town founder Matt Dunn—the entrepreneur who has rented out all of this suburban acreage, cut the grass, planted the corn, and provided the sets and props from two decades’ and some $300,000 worth of collecting—hurries house to house. He has to ensure everything's in working order, that this year’s new air compressors are ready to breathe sharp, shuddering bursts of life into the zombie animatronics, for example, and you could easily mistake him for one of the kids. It’s not just his boyish face (recalling Matthew Lillard, or Shaggy from the live-action Scooby Doo) and his worn-in black sweatshirt. It's also the Christmas-morning bounce in his step. Referring to his work, he calls himself an “adult child.”
Dunn started early in the profession of audience manipulation, first learning how to work a crowd at age 6. He borrowed his neighbors’ Fischer-Price magic kit so often they finally handed it over. Soon, he was sawing neighbors in half and making cars disappear in the Plymouth cul-de-sac where he grew up.
Halloween would come around, and Dunn would opt out of trick-or-tricking so he could rig up displays in the family garage. “I felt like the Home Alone kid,” he says. “You know, with the ropes tied, and he’s pulling everything? That was me. I had strings pulled up in the trees, and I was dropping stuff on people and flying pheasants out of windows.”
Dunn graduated from an entrepreneurship program at the University of St. Thomas and launched Scream Town shortly after, at 24. Even now that the initially modest (by his standards) idea has blown up, Dunn pads out about half his income working as a magician. Some kind of performer-audience relationship informs just about everything he does. “I like to see people’s reactions,” he says, “whether surprised, scared, or laughing.”
“Scared”—more so than “surprised” or “laughing”—is a vulnerable place to put someone. Understandable, then, why some might enter the gargoyle-sentineled gates of Scream Town with a degree of cynicism. I, for example, didn’t enjoy scary things as a kid. Back at the State Fair, I could have invented that romantic tableau to create distance. More like a movie scene, it raised a fourth wall against interaction.
Today, though, I’ve changed my mind. Fear is something I recommend chicly to friends. “Oh, yes,” we say, “it was terrifying!” We know, as children, that indulging this curiosity expands the imagination into frightening new spaces. And as adults, that's exactly the point: to escape from the safe and mundane, from everywhere we’ve already been.
The denizens of Scream Town who hang around the square have their twisted origin stories memorized. They’re grim, yes, but also possess lunch-break nonchalance, as if the grotesque were part of their day-to-day. A socialite woman’s fur coat still looks bloody from skinning. This year’s “mayor” resembles the clown from the most recent It movie. He stands just outside a tall cage, where you can pay $5 to spend five minutes alone with him. He draws in a small group of girls, and, moments later, they scatter from him like geese. Whoever he is, he’s nailing the scratchy voice. Meanwhile, his wife, looming, wears a mask similar to the wan face of the widowed bride in the Insidious movies.
You can find horror filmmaker James Wan's sweat-inducing influence elsewhere, too. Dunn identifies as a fan, and, naturally, each of the eight attractions makes you jump—with things bursting from around corners and out of cupboards. If the houses look ramshackle from the outside, the insides tighten, then deepen. Many of the 100-plus scenes are so dense with minutiae they reward a slow walk. Others unfold without warning: a buoyed, bobbing rush through a strobe-lit hall where bodies dangle like butchered meat. And the actors—warping their voices, and, in one case, choreographing their movements around the creepiest silhouette a bare lantern can cast against gnarled trees—have their roles well enough in hand to avert potential awkwardness.
It’s not only a chance for them to hone improv skills; they get to feel belonging, too. An hour before opening night, the sky is still clear, and the mayor’s wife, mask off, does stretches under a tent. Dressed down in black spandex, she lifts her arms in rising-sun pose behind the nearly fortress-size “Clown Asylum” attraction. About 20 mad clowns gather nearby. Some of their makeup invokes Insane Clown Posse, and their leader, sporting a red-tipped faux hawk, reads directions off a clipboard. Feet away, a girl in an Einstein wig clenches a cigarette between orange and pink fingernails while jiggling a jug of fake blood over a cartoonishly huge syringe. A corpse bride sips an energy drink. A swamp thing calls “Cousin!” to his counterpart. The mayor’s wife, dressed now in her black-and-lavender gown, goes searching for her husband. “Are you the mayor?” she asks. Finally, it’s obvious. “We meet at last,” says the Bill Skarsgård-as-Pennywise lookalike. They compliment each other’s costumes, then discuss whether wearing a latex mask is worth the discomfort. When they talk shop—their approach to their characters—it sounds like method acting.
And maybe it is. In the sprawling alien-themed attraction, there’s a young, lanky farmhand, who, in flurried seconds, drawls his story to visitors as they try to shuffle past. This is the post-arrival countryside, where his cow has gotten beamed up, his parents brutalized, and as for him—“Isn’t she beautiful?” he croons, stroking his dead mother’s cheek. It’s left to you to imagine what's happened to him.
You would have found Dunn crafting sets for high school plays when he was these actors’ age. At the end of the month, everything comes down, and the year pushes on to our more family-friendly holidays. That's when you can catch Dunn holed up in a treehouse for the off season, tucked away in Plymouth, where he puzzles, like the twisted Santa of one of his attractions, over the ways he wants to frighten people next year. “Fear of heights?” he wonders. “Maybe something with mirrors...”
Matt Dunn; Photo by TJ Turner
As you might expect, the creator of Scream Town himself is no scaredy cat. If there’s a spider in Dunn’s bathtub, he takes a shower anyway. Heights, though, do make him queasy, and his Plymouth treehouse goes up nearly 30 feet. At the top, he wants to install a zip line.
There, standing on the high balcony in the backyard of his spacious estate, I look through the surrounding oak trees, and Dunn feints a push at me from behind. He laughs as I jump, and I laugh, too. He tells me he does that to everyone. “And they all do what you just did,” he smiles. “They freak!”
When I suggest that Dunn manipulates people’s emotions for a living, the same way a film director does, he understandably balks at the description. After I take in more of his treehouse—with all its via-Craigslist furniture, upholstered in wine-red velvet that lends a cigar-lounge feel while a taxidermy zebra head conjures up the doesn’t-belong-here surrealism of the Addams Family—I rephrase my thought: that he creates atmospheres for a living. “Exactly,” he agrees. “I like giving spaces an emotion.”
Dunn has spent tens of thousands of dollars on Halloween props, collected since the entrepreneur, now in his mid-30s, was 10 years old—including a couple hearses, caskets, a gutted pig, and a skeleton, all, again, from Craigslist. Combine that with the thousands of feet of electrical wiring, the fog machines, this year’s air compressors, and the ten dozen or so fully realized scenes, and Scream Town evokes old-school Disneyland charm. (The historic woods help, too. Lost in darkness, my friend points to a mouse darting across a branch. “Is that real?” It is; the light from our lantern follows the rodent as it scuttles over a doll arm hanging there like an ornament.)
Still, eliciting reactions is more art than science. How people respond to Scream Town varies—and tells you a lot about them.
People use the controlled environment of fear, so unique to “haunted houses,” to perform desired characteristics for those around them.
Inside the vine-enclosed “Oak Blood Forest,” altars and tombstones transfer their religious tones to the voodoo-lamp, chicken-skeleton culture of a bayou village. The woman ahead of me—she’s pulled her sweatshirt sleeves over her hands and cupped her hands over her mouth—readily shrieks. A determinedly stoic bearded man reinforces his ego with hands in his pockets, head back, not flinching. The tall guy with hockey hair makes off-color jokes to lessen the chance he’ll spook.
But the most common reaction bubbles up as laughter. Not derisive or dismissive laughter, though. The same chortle—cathartic and a little self-deprecating—that escaped me when I realized I was not, in fact, shoved over the railing of Dunn’s treehouse. I was safe. But in that moment, I also faced a big irony.
To understand it, think of why young kids scare more easily. They don’t know yet what to imagine of the world. But adults feel as if they can safely expect everything: Things will continue as they’ve continued. Really, we stand close to the edge—right next to it. We're just in the dark. When a creepy sound echoes up along the walls of that chasm, then we register, in our gut, that it opens up, without a safety net. So much we take for granted—and the ground could fall away, just like that?
Here at Scream Town, sure, the threat is only a puppet. A hag on the end of a lunging mechanical arm. But you still scream. Afterward, you can either laugh or cry, so you laugh.
7410 Highway 212 E.
September 28–November 3, 2018