Ames Haunted Forest actors reveal spooky details behind the scenes

Keegan Kearney displays his costume in one of the main trailers before the Haunted Forest opens. Kearney enjoys getting into character for each role he performs. Although clown roles are his favorite, Kearney is acting as a combination of Jason Voorhees and a slasher this year.

Collin Maguire

The Ames Haunted Forest has been instilling fear into those who visit for the past two decades as the forest enters its 21st season, and is continually revered as one of the spookiest Halloween attractions on an annual basis.

This year, the Haunted Forest opened its doors on Oct. 4, and it will continue delivering screams until Nov. 1. 

The South Fourth Street attraction instills fear its Iowan adversaries could never replicate. Each year the Haunted Forest undergoes a revamp in order to provide quality thrills for its visitors every October.

The Ballard family has been running the show since the attraction got its start 20 years ago. Lynn Ballard’s passion for the Halloween season is infectious.

The Ballards keep all of the actors in line before the screams ensue. The Ballards have two trailers filled with the necessary materials to assist in the costume creation process.

One trailer is filled with tools, while the other is a costume designer’s delight. 

The Ballards run a smooth show, but the key to enhancing the scare factor is in the actors. 

Zakkry Duff, a three-year Haunted Forest veteran, created his own Joker-esque clown costume by dying his clothes and bobby-pinning cards to his pocket. He resides in the “clowns” portion of the Haunted Forest this year.

Keegan Kearney, senior in journalism and mass communication, is an Ankeny native who has visited the Haunted Forest since he was a child. He has been acting at the Haunted Forest for three years.

Being an actor is fairly “hands-free” and allows students creativity, and being engulfed in the realm of a character in order to invoke fear is all part of the job, Kearney said.

“Part of wearing a costume of a character is you get to lose yourself in the character, you embody the character and it’s calming as you step outside of yourself,” Kearney said.

In particular, Kearney loves the role of the clown.

“With the clown you get to act wild and go crazy, doing this Joker persona,” Kearney said.

Kearney said some people are genuinely scared of clowns. But what really generates this so-called fear factor?

“Your posture and your walk changes when you embody these characters,” Kearney said. “I have to channel what it feels like to be angry. It is kind of an art form to be able to channel these emotions, and be able to channel them right.”

Kearney says the key to scaring a quest is in the jump scares. Visitors never know what’s coming at every turn.

“It is just as satisfying, if not more satisfying, than acting in a movie. It’s a more personal form of acting.” Kearney said. “You have to give these people a raw experience.”

However, acting isn’t the only portion he is passionate about. The creativity involved in developing costumes instilled a fixation with Kearney’s job at the Haunted Forest.

“I love the creative aspect, coming up with characters.” Kearney said. “I was born around the spooky season; all of my birthday parties were costume parties.”

Kearney taught himself to sew, along with other important skills in the world of costume designing. He even developed a mold of his own face for the structure of a mask.

This season, Kearney is acting as a Jason Voorhees and slasher hybrid, a role that brings power into the sphere of acting.

“You’ve got this intimidating presence — you’re strong and silent,” Kearney said. “I mastered the Jason walk.”

He said the Ballards let the actors work their magic hands-free.

“There’s no other place where you get to escape and express yourself creatively,” Kearney said.

This well-oiled attraction wouldn’t have been possible without the passion the Ballards possess.

“It shows how much these people really care about the season,” Kearney said. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is simply gathering a reaction.

“You have to want to be scared to come here,” Kearney said. “You get immediate feedback from the reactions that are created. [The reward is] when you get that one person in the group that is just scared and they’re crying.” 

Kearney also says that customers love the experience, regardless of how remarkably frightened they are.

“On their part, they get the adrenaline and the feeling that they survived,” Kearney said.

It’s a win-win for both parties. 

The backstory behind the Haunted Forest adds even more to the fear factor. The tale is known as “The Phantom of Bijou.” 

“The Phantom of Bijou” tells a story about a kid named Vincent. Vincent worked as a projectionist at a local movie theatre. The theatre ultimately burned down, and was later demolished and pushed back into the woods.

Vincent then tried to recreate his life within the wreckage of the old theatre. The forest portrays Vincent’s troublingly twisted mind.

The family operation costs $20 for admission. The Ames Haunted Forest will continue delivering fear, tears and excitement until the end of the week.