Jeff Strout seems like a very nice man.

He’s got those kind eyes, that fuzzy mustache and a generally mild way about him. Nice fellow, Strout.

And then autumn rolls around and a kind of madness overtakes him; a madness he is happy to share with the rest of us. He can’t help it. Maybe he was born this way.

“When I was 5 years old,” Strout says, “I was building haunts for my brothers and sisters and scaring the poop out of them. I’d make paper mache monsters and stick them in the woods. I’d use strings to move them up and around.”

He’s still doing that kind of thing, too, only on a much, much grander scale. If you’ve been to any haunted hayride or ghoul-plagued walk through a cornfield in the area, you’ve probably seen his work. Strout, 62, has designed and choreographed sets for some of the most popular Halloween attractions around.

For the third year, it’s the Nightmare on the Ridge at Wallingford’s, a winding landscape of bad dreams that mingles traditional scares with stuff you likely haven’t seen before. They don’t call it a “nightmare” for nothing – Strout’s set at Wallingford’s is a collection of characters and situations people would typically avoid as though their lives depended on it.

“These are the kinds of things that wake you up in the middle of the night,” Strout says.

That’s not just fancy promotional talk, either. If you’ve got a fear, phobia or outright dread of something, chances are good Strout has it covered at Wallingford’s.

Rats? Good God, rats are everywhere on the ridge. Spiders, too.

Closed-in spaces? About mid-way through the course, you’ll get a pretty intense encounter with that particular phobia.

Falling? I’m not saying that there is a point along the course where the floor seems to fall away right under your feet. I’m just saying you should probably be prepared for that kind of thing.

Clowns? Oh, yes. Clowns of all kinds. Clowns with dark eyes and lurid smiles, clowns that cavort, and a menacing pack of miniature clowns with chain saws. For the many sufferers of coulrophobia, Strout’s “Lair of the Ringmaster” scene will be the ultimate test of fortitude. And there’s an unexpected twist right in the middle of it, so bring extra underpants.

“I’ve been working with clowns,” says Strout, “before it became fashionable.”

The ringmaster scene is so effective, the entire attraction is more or less written around it. In the script, a boy of about 15 years so covets his father’s circus that he kills the old man and steals his magic hat. Of course, when the boy places that hat upon his own head, he’s unable to control his power and the whole world turns into a nightmare.

As one who doesn’t particularly worry much about clowns, I can say nonetheless that Chad Strout, who portrays the Ringmaster, is horrifying. When he leads you into his tent, your deep, human instincts will urge you to run the other way. That’s not a bad instinct, by the way, but it’s not going to help to you here. Into the tent you go. And without providing spoilers, I can tell you that there’s no cotton candy, no dancing poodles. There is, however, plenty of that unnerving circus music that I suspect is the sound of insanity itself.

There’s fire. There’s a madhouse and there’s an unnerving little room where it feels like you’re wading into a dark, glowing swamp. All around there are thuds and thumps and things creeping in dark places. Out of the night, uncomfortably close, the gibbering, cackling and screaming seems to never stop.

And of course, there’s corn. After surviving the slaughterhouse or the madness of the clown tent, one gets dumped right into the dark maze of corn where anything could come from any direction at any time.

“Corn is a great ally,” says Strout. “It’s tight. It’s dark. The actors can get out there and really have their way with you.”

For the visitor, that feeling of vulnerability is constant. There’s a sense that at any second, something is going to get you, and it’s probably going to be something out of your darkest, sweatiest nightmare. The rustling, conspiring corn does nothing to allay that sense of doom.

SCHOOL OF HAUNTS

Every year, Strout goes to as many haunted attraction conventions and trade shows he can, including a gathering in St. Louis that draws up to 10,000 people a year. These shows are for people who are truly interested in scaring others as much as is humanly possible. Strout is one of those people, and much of what he learned in St. Louis, he brought back to Wallingford’s.

“There’s a lot of science behind haunts,” Strout says. “There are distractions – you definitely want to distract the audience before you hit them with the main part of the ‘boo.'”

And props. The very first stop along the nightmare walk alone features an overwhelming number of things to look at and to recoil from. Rats gnawing on massive mounds of human remains that seem to be strewn everywhere. Hanging corpses, feckless body parts and a variety of gleaming gore at every turn. And among that ghastliness walks is the hulking butcher in a blood-soaked apron, who always seems to be a little too close at your heels for comfort.

“I can be big and scary when I want to be,” says Austin Posnick, the 22-year-old actor who plays the part of the butcher. At least we hope he’s just playing, because he is indeed both big and scary.

Of course, any performance is only as good as its players. Strout’s sprawling cast includes his youngest daughter, Allison, as well as a grandson and a nephew; kin who have apparently inherited Strout’s lust for scares.

There are actors Strout has worked with for years and there are a few who are new to the haunt game. Each seems to have his or her own specialty – some are great at lunging out of the dark, some are talented at simply leering, a whole bunch are skilled screamers.

Evy Bilodeau is the latter. This 17-year-old’s scream is so high and crisp and chilling, I sincerely believe I may have been clinically dead for a few seconds after experiencing it. Bilodeau makes Jamie Lee Curtis seem like a low-talker. And what’s worse, you won’t be prepared for it. I won’t tell you why, exactly, but trust me on this.

“She has such a scream,” says Strout. “Some people have that ability, some people don’t.”

In her role in the nightmare, Bilodeau has to spend four hours in one place that doesn’t look altogether comfortable. Once my heart resumed beating, I asked her if it was worth it.

“I love it!” she said. “I scare the heck out of people. It’s a lot of fun.”

Demented, the lot of them.

Now, Brian Bates troubled me for entirely different reasons. An inhabitant of The Ricker Asylum, near the end of the walk, Bates has a look that suggests he’s right at home in the straitjacket he wears. The wild beard, the crazy eyes and, like the butcher, this cackling lunatic always seems to be a little too close. Although you know this is all make believe, you want to get away from him as quickly as possible. A hint: You might get away from Bates eventually, but his equally deranged cohorts will get you in unexpected ways. The very walls around you are no protection at all.

I fear I’ve said too much.

Bates has been working with Strout for many years. He’s a man who genuinely seems to enjoy the fright game. When I mentioned to him that the Ricker Asylum was my favorite part of the attraction – the scratchy 1930s phonograph music doesn’t hurt – he seemed fiendishly pleased.

“We all compete with each other,” Bates said, “to see who can be scarier.”

You’re all horrifying, OK? Hope that helps.

“These actors, they love what they do,” says Strout. “You have to love it – you’re spending a lot of time out here in the cold.”

You know who else is pretty committed to scaring people? Angela Coron, who runs the Halloween attraction at Wallingford’s. It was Coron who enlisted Strout at Wallingford’s.

“It’s been such an honor. He’s taught me so much,” Coron says. “I started this five years ago, and it was just a backyard haunt. I had no idea what I was doing.”

Others have deemed Coron “The Mother of the Nightmare,” which seems fitting enough. Although she claims to have no real phobias herself (we’re not buying it), she’s more than happy to exploit the bad dreams of others.

“If you have a nightmare,” she says, “we want to tap into that.”

I tell you, these people aren’t normal.

DATE NIGHT FROM HELL

So we’ve established that Jeff Strout is a perfectly nice gentleman . . . until it’s that time of year when he’ll do his best to scare you into soiling himself. It’s what he does. It’s what he’s always done.

Strout has spent most of his life working in both entertainment – sound systems, mainly – and farming. At some point, those two careers came together in ghastly yet elegant way, and now, here he is, spending part of the year fashioning nightmares for hordes of people to enjoy around Halloween.

If you have an image of Strout toiling away on bloody torsos and man-sized rats in his basement, you’re not entirely off the mark. He builds a lot of the sets himself and casts many of the props.

“My basement kind of looks like this,” Strout says, as we’re standing amid the faux innards and dangling body parts in The Slaughterhouse.

It’s a trite cliche, maybe, but it definitely applies here: Strout is a man who knows what scares you and he has no qualms about taking those nightmares out of your head and getting them all up in your face.

“I love this,” Strout says, with an unsettling smile. “I just love seeing the reaction of the audience, whether they’re laughing or crying because they’re so scared. You’re taking them to another realm they’re not used to. I feed off that adrenaline, and so do the actors.”

On the event Facebook page, one reviewer described her walk through Wallingford’s corn as like being in a horror movie.

“My friends were so scared!” writes Kristin Freeman of Lewiston. “They wouldn’t let go of my arms. I lost circulation because it was so awesome! The people working were SO good in character! I would pay to do this again and again! I felt like I was in a horror movie! Because it was so good I do not recommend bringing kids under the age of 13 or people that are easily terrified. Worth every penny!”

If I have any complaints about The Nightmare on the Ridge, it’s that they send you through the course in very small groups – I went through with a couple from South Durham, which made me feel like a third-wheel on date night. Plus, let’s face it: In larger groups, fear becomes infectious and the clot of frightened bodies slows the way for those who want to rush through the madness.

It’s a small complaint, though. Even in my wee group of three, Strout’s clever use of timing, props and skilled actors definitely found its mark.

“The clowns and the chain saws?” said Cassandra Lord of South Durham. “Those definitely got to me. The whole circus part was excellent.”

“And the pig,” said her husband, Jared. “That was messed up.

I never told you about the pig, did I? Not to worry. The pig will find you. And if the pig doesn’t get you, the spiders will. And if it’s not the spiders, it’ll be the clowns, the lunatics or the creeping things hiding in the swamp. Just keep telling yourself that it’s only a nightmare and you’ll be fine. Just fine.

Probably.

A rat gnaws on what appears to be human remains at the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 

At the Nightmare on the Ridge Halloween attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn, Chad Strout, left, is the demented Ringmaster character, Jeff Strout is the designer of this year’s offerings, and Angela Coron is the “Mother of the Nightmare” and original creator of the attraction. 

Jeff Strout is the designer of the Nightmare on the Ridge Halloween attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 

Chad Strout of Poland is the Ringmaster character at the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 

Angela Coron is the “Mother of the Nightmare” at the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. She started the attraction five years ago. 

Lost Valley’s new Mountain of Terror: Two frights in one night

Pants still dry after braving the Nightmare on the Ridge at Wallingford’s? Congratulations, slugger. Perhaps you’ll want to double your fright by taking on a second haunt.

There is a shuttle for willing fright seekers interested in a second attraction, the Mountain of Terror at Lost Valley just down the road a sneeze.

The warning on the Mountain of Terror event webpage is ominous:

“We must warn you there are untold dangers ahead – horrific things have happened at this mountain, strange people have been operating a secret facility in our cellar, which until very recently has not been brought to light. Your passport grants you access to this secure facility, but we must warn you, there are things we’ve seen down there that no one can ever forget . . . the blood-curdling screams we’ve heard haunt our dreams. Many have entered, but none have returned.”

Find out more about the Mountain of Terror at lostvalleyski.com.

Discover more about the Nightmare on the Ridge at nightmareontheridge.com or on Facebook.

Welcome to my nightmare!

I think you’re gonna like it!

I think you’re gonna feel you belong!

We sweat and laugh and scream here!

‘Cause life is just a dream here!

You know inside you feel right at home, here!

— Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare”

Nightmare on the Ridge designer Jeff Strout leaves a haunted scene at the attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 

A scene from the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 

The frightmasters at the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn have attempted to tap into every human fear imaginable. 

Angela Coron and Jeff Strout talk at the entrance to the Nightmare on the Ridge attraction at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. 


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