Written by Jonathan Wojcik

Iowa's Sleepy Hollow and Imagining The Perfect Haunt

It's been slightly over one week since October 31st, and you all know what that means: that it's still the Halloween season and absolutely nothing has changed. It's taken me a few days to recuperate from my birthday week, which included churning out a mountain of last-minute artwork, multiple road trips, getting married and planning out some secrets that I'm not gonna tell you, but the Creepypasta Cook-off has begun, the wrap-up of Homunculus Nightmare is coming soon and so is a bunch of stuff I promised on my Patreon, but for now, let's talk about HAUNTS.

We actually went to three different faux-haunted attractions this year, including Terror Behind the Walls in Philadelphia, a claustrophobic basement crawl through Linn's Supermarket in Des Moines, and Iowa's very largest Halloween park, Sleepy Hollow. This is, believe it or not, three times the hauntitude I usually experience in one year, usually more limited by time, money and the omnipresent fear that I could run out of Halloween events within reasonable visiting distance.

All three of this year's experiences had their advantages. Linn's had a charming, homemade quality and played with its architecture, including claustrophobic tunnel crawls through pitch blackness and even a downward slide, deeper and deeper into a massive basement full of glowing skeletons and dangling spiders. Terror Behind the Walls had a beautifully strange 3-d segment (pictured) representing an outbreak of some unspecified biological weapon, and it threw in a post-haunt lounge, complete with bar and singers, in cells that once really held the likes of Al Capone. There was even a museum exhibit - a year-round attraction, but still relevant - featuring the insects and other specimens one can find around the prison grounds.

It was Sleepy Hollow, however, that really stole the show for me. While rivaling Universal Studio's Horror Nights in size and scope, it felt as though significantly more love went into it even on a tighter budget. Using the same fairgrounds as the Des Moines Renaissance Festival, it featured no less than five full-size haunted houses, a massive indoor Jack O' Lantern gallery, a free, pitch dark "fog maze" you could actually get lost in, and an absolutely lovable "ALIENS ATTACK" attraction, free to walk through as many times as you wanted with 3-d glasses at the door.

Cameras aren't really allowed to be used on park grounds, but this is their own promotional photo of Aliens Attack, and I won't be able to resist sharing at least a smidgeon of my candid photography. This particular attraction is just a series of rooms lined with black-lit murals, but how awesome are these neon aliens and bubbling craters? With or without the 3-d glasses, it's an absolute joy to walk through this gallery of bug-eyed weirdos, lovingly conceived by an artist with an obvious affection for space monsters of all sorts.

...From clawed and exoskeletal...

...To the slimy and amorphous.

I spent more time in "Aliens Attack" than probably any other part of the park. It hit every note of my perfect, ideal atmosphere, from the colorful designs to the eerie, "spacey" sound effects I have to assume were actually playing on a loop and not a delusion of my own memory, because I doubt I could tell you the difference if they were. It was almost like walking through one of the colorfully unsettling voids of Yume Nikki - especially the room of entirely eyeballs - and this is all still just the first half I'm talking about.

I'm only going to give you one taste of what the second half looks like, so take a moment to soak it in:

As much as I positively cherish the cheerful, cartoonish style of the first few dozen aliens, I have to say that this dramatic shift in tone caught me completely off guard. A monster-free room full of polka dots, stripes and tubes is all that separates the two, and I almost thought it was the end of the whole house. Suddenly, you're thrust from quirky, kitschy martian mollusks to wall after wall of diseased, psychedelic nightmares that easily rival the work of greats like H.R. Giger or Junji Ito.

Never before have I walked through a gallery of murals that hit me with a cosmic horror plot twist, or wanted so badly to know more about artists whose names I cannot find anywhere, on the Sleepy Hollow website nor google. With no narration, live actors, animatronics or text, these paintings manage to weave a rich and compelling narrative all their own, an interstellar journey that begins on an almost cheerful note and decays rather abruptly into gibbering, existential madness.

These are not, however, the only bizarre works of art I fell in love with on my tour through the park....

I wish my picture of this came out clearer, but I'm sure you can appreciate it what you're seeing here even if you can't tell what the hell it's supposed to be, and it's not as if seeing it in person does much to clear up that mystery. Part of a fairy-tale themed haunt, this...thing...this magnificent thing...sits quietly alone in the middle of a wooded path, proudly illuminated in green with no context or explanation in sight.

Just a big, giant, egg-shaped skull, with striped socks and ruby slippers.

Sitting in a chair in the woods.

Just sitting and staring.

Considering the rest of this particular haunt was modeled around Alice in Wonderland and various Mother Goose rhymes, it's possible this entity is a reference to something, but I can't tell what for the life of me, and I like it better that way. Whoever came up with this addition is a genius either way, and I only wish I'd stopped to appreciate it longer, especially because I actually could have.

I'm so used to "scream parks" rushing you from one room to the next, it actually took me a while to get used to the slower pace of Sleepy Hollow. With fewer jump-scares and more emphasis on the scenery, most of the haunts gave you plenty of time and space to hang back and really take in the details around you, and coupled with some of the imaginative art we've ust seen, Sleepy Hollow really hits on some of the things I always wanted to see in a Halloween park, which brings us to the real focus of this post:

My Dream Haunt

There's no denying that a colossal amount of hard work, care and ingenuity go into building and running a Halloween haunt, and I'm not here to make any hauntinators feel like they've done a bad job. It's just that, for the most part, haunted houses are a little samey. Even Sleepy Hollow, though by far my favorite, was dominated by gore-strewn jump-scare gauntles we've still seen before, and even its best theme, the "twisted" fairy tale segment, is also something that's been explored in the past. While Halloween is one area in which I can respect and even admire a level of traditionalism, there are several key ways in which my own ideal "scream park" would differ a little from most:

1: Taking it Slow

I realize a haunt has to deal with a large volume of visitors in a short period of time, but you know what else does? Museums, where you're still expected to mill around and take some time to appreciate the sites. See also zoos, art galleries, flea markets, basically every public place that is not a haunt. Even department stores during a holiday sale seldom try to dictate how quickly you browse. We were probably just lucky to hit some of Sleepy Hollow's houses during their slower times - I'm still not sure they were really intended for the casual stroll we occasionally took - but that was so refreshing.

Some people obviously want the "rush," the jump scares, the mad dash to the end, but my perfect haunt would mostly let you go your own pace, stop to let the sights sink in, and slowly piece together the creepy narrative the house is weaving.

This would even make the jump scares and chase sequences significantly scarier, when they do happen, since you wouldn't constantly expect them around every corner. This actually happened to us twice in Sleepy Hollow's fairy tale house, where we truly couldn't tell that the doll-like figures we stopped to admire had human beings inside them. One girl, dressed as a blood-soaked Alice, was an expert at holding still enough to look like a mannequin until she slowly, stiffly turned her head, and I kind of wished she had a tip jar just for that moment, but I guess that would have ruined the mood.

2: Less Familiar Monsters

Here are two people re-creating "Siam," an admittedly cool double-bodied bondage meat monster from the otherwise corny Silent Hill: Homecoming. It's a disorienting, dream-like visual, and it's a 100% home-made costume you could probably throw together from stuff around the house.

Now, I'm not suggesting everyday haunts need abstract, multi-person costumes this involved, but this, along with any quick google search of unsettling, vintage Halloween costumes, should demonstrate how easy it is to concoct monsters more distressing than the rotten zombies, demonic clowns, bloodied rednecks, demonic clowns and demonic clowns populating so many haunts.

Hell, even the most accessible costume dealers sell weirder stuff than I've seen worn by most hired scarers, and any given monster mask with an odd enough shape is going to look even more disturbing the poorer the surrounding light. Of course, as we established, you don't even need to buy anything to make a memorable monster costume; you could cover someone in literal garbage, slap some cheap lights on it and already have a grotesque being more memorable than most. You're counting on your visitors to be caught off-guard in a dark, foggy, cramped passageway. You don't need a detailed monster, but a monstrous shape, and the less like a normal human's shape, the better. I'm not particularly creeped out by an angry guy in dirty clothes shouting at me from behind a trap door, you know? Possibly surprised, but give him some long, dangling fingers and a big bloated head and that surprise will at least turn into some memorable intrigue, a "what the hell WAS that, and why?" impression that would stick with me for years to come even if he was really only wearing a dirty pillowcase and some bunched-up stockings.

Audrey II as inerpreted by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

3: Less Common Themes

Surprisingly, Sleepy Hollow's Alien Attack art-walk is one of the few haunts I've been to themed around space creatures. One year at Universal had an interesting attraction focused around plague doctors, and another featured Greek myths like Medusa and the minotaur, but haunts are overwhelmingly dominated by some of the same old stand-bys; there's the "barbaric mental asylum" haunts, the "murderous cannibal hillbilly" haunts, the "ghostly vampire's castle" haunts, and I believe I've already mentioned "demonic clowns."

There's just so, so much more they could be doing. What about a whole house of giant, mutant insects? What about murderous robots? What about plants? Dressing people up as killer foliage would be easy as pie. I've seen it done, but never for an entire theme. Of course, there's also much to be said of having no recognizable theme. Once again, any household junk thrown together oddly enough and disguised with a layer of cloth, cobweb, slime or foam could create a more mind-bending experience than just splattering everyday items with blood and rust.

4: Non-Linearity

I know there are reasons for a haunt to be a single, winding path from entry to exit, but just once I'd like to see one where no particular path is set out for you. What if you're just sort of set loose to explore? There could be all sorts of weird stuff for you to find. Oddities tucked away in obscure corners, surprises behind secret doors, notes to read, maybe even things to collect. All the space your average haunt devotes to a few fast-paced runs could just as easily be geared towards this open, exploration-based experience, which would, again, present so much more potential to be scary when you really don't know if a scare is actually coming or not.

I guess my ultimate vision of a Halloween horror-house really is more like a museum with a storyline. A modestly sized maze of rooms and corridors filled with strange, cryptic things to gawk at, secrets to uncover, and sometimes, something horrible and indistinct waiting to leap out from a darkened crevice. This alone would be fun enough, but there are limitless ways it could be made even more interactive and unique. I've even got some highly specific ideas I know haven't been done, but as much as I'd love to share them, what if some day, some way, I somehow have an opportunity to make it happen? For real?






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