A local forest is a nightmare factory in disguise

An eerie abandoned crib sits near the exit of the Ames Haunted Forest. The forest is a seasonal business that serves as a sort of haunted house for the Ames community and is open through Halloween night.

Felipe Cabrera

The course of the Ames Haunted Forest looks like a normal forest with Halloween props during the day, but when the sun dips into darkness it’s like walking through a nightmare.

“There’s not a bad scene in this place,” said Lee Ballard, part owner of the Haunted Forest. “It’s just how you make it and how it affects that certain person.”

Brothers Lee and Lynn Ballard inherited the family Haunted Forest from their father, a magician, whose love for illusions inspired the core tenants that have scared ISU students and attracted people from the far reaches of Iowa for 16 years.

The haunted attraction business is a $300 million industry. Americans are estimated to spend $6.9 billion dollars on Halloween this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

The Ballard’s Haunted Forest is one of the most popular haunted attractions in Iowa, with people coming from all parts of the state for a taste of the fright. This is because the Ballards have a background in sales and promotions. Advertising for the Haunted Forest can be found in 150 Casey’s General Stores as far out as 100 miles from Ames.

Most Halloween attractions are unable to last as long as the Haunted Forest.

“They’ll be in it the first year and maybe break even,” Ballard said. “If the rumor comes out that you’re not any good, you’re done.”

Some say fear is an acronym for false evidence appearing real, and the actors and workers do everything they can to bring patrons’ fears from an idea to reality.

“There’s a lot of people who get escorted out, and that’s what they came for,” Ballard said.

Ballard frequents haunted house conventions and garage sales to collect anything that can be used for scenes. From something as simple as pieces of mannequins that can be spread across the ground like body parts to platforms that make walkways violently tremble. 

Perhaps the most mind bending set piece at the Haunted Forest is a $10,000 vortex tunnel. The tunnel is a walkway that runs through a spinning kaleidoscope. Anyone walking through it will hang on to the rail as if the walkway is spinning, even though they aren’t moving at all.

But Ballard said it’s the actors who keep the Haunted Forest running.

“The actors are what make this thing,” Ballard said. “We get enthusiastic people that want to do this … and they’re the ones that make this place super hot.”

Anyone 18 years and older can join the crew of actors at the Haunted Forest. No acting experience is required — just enthusiasm and an active imagination. Actors are given a walkthrough of the forest and they find the scene that touches their imagination and penchant to terrify.

The Haunted Forest is a collaborative effort.  The actors not only hide in the shadows waiting for an unassuming guest but they also come up with their characters, costumes and the scenes they work in.

One of the most terrifying rooms in the Haunted Forest, the checkered room, was created by two brothers, Ballard said.

The checkered room is what it sounds like — a black and white checkered room with a strobe light going off inside. The challenge is finding the door out — and avoiding the man in the checkered suit.

“Every scene out here is successful — it’s what that actor makes it,” Ballard said. “If you take an interest to a certain scene or something you might want to do with it, tell us.”

During the day when the sun is out, the fog machine is off and the sound of chainsaws isn’t roaring through the night air, actors can be found diligently working on their scenes.

Tanasha Taylor, a nine-year Haunted Forest veteran actor, was working on props in her cemetery scene.

“I have multiple costumes, it’s whatever theme I’m working on,” Taylor said. “I’ve been a bat, a ghost, a werewolf — whatever the theme is.”

Actors’ scare tactics may vary depending on their scene. Some actors wait by doorways for a quick jump scare. Others may pretend to be statues who either animate to life or stalk guest as they walk by. Not all of the actors take part in terrorizing their patrons.

Christen Livingston, a four-year Haunted Forest veteran actor, would rather talk with the customers than scare them.

“I like to take tickets by the front door and talk with the customers,” Livingston said. “I don’t really like to scare people.”

At the head of the entrance, Livingston doesn’t only take tickets, he also checks a timer that controls the flow of groups coming in. There is at least two minutes between each group — long enough for the groups to be isolated from each other. The flow is important, Ballard said, adding that half of the terror comes from waiting in line.

“The line is the whole key,” Ballard said. “If you have people in line, they’re freaking out.”

Guests may wait up to three hours in line depending on the weekend — but waiting isn’t a passive experience. A cloaked figure in a ghoulish mask silently sizes up guests standing in line. From the line, guests can hear the sounds of screams from the forest and roaring chainsaws.

Right before stepping into the forest, guests can see others flee from the forest chased by masked men wielding chainsaws, setting the tone for what awaits inside.

“If I could be out there scaring people, running a chainsaw, that would be what I’d do all year,” Ballard said.