By Chad Nance
Unexplained feelings of heartbreaking despair, unimaginable loss, and unbridled fear coupled with a sudden drop in temperature that sends chill bumps gliding across your skin. Screams echoing through the night that would wake up entire households only to leave them huddled under the covers in their beds- left to wonder if the sound that had curdled their blood was real or belonged to the world of nightmares.
According to legend in 1941, as the horrors and pain of the Great Depression were finally becoming just bad memories for some, there were angry and despondent spirits haunting the houses, graveyards, and streets of Greensboro, North Carolina. Poltergeist struck fear through intimidation and terror, banshees screeched their pain into the night, and the haunted and heartbroken spirits of those who had been claimed by privation, pestilence, and war haunted the highways and by ways of North Carolina as fearful apparitions embodying the ghastly curses of those dark and terrible days.
As this legend tells us, a local priest, Father Eddie Howie McMillan found himself troubled by these lost spirits and their diabolical determination to plague the living. Unable to exorcise the great and terrible evil, Father McMillan was able to bind these spirits to a small farm he owned twelve miles outside of the city limits. There was already a lonesome graveyard at the site where the dead had been buried, their final resting places marked only by simple stones with no writing. Father McMillan lived there, at peace with the dead, until his death in 1970. That was when he deeded this earthly purgatory to his great great grandson who was still in his mother’s womb, yet to be born.
That baby would grow up to become Eddie Howie McLaurin, the mohawked impresario of fright and mayhem who today lives on that very piece of property near Greensboro and operates what has become one of the premier halloween haunts in the Southeast. Woods of Terror is a brilliant slice of Americana sitting on 45 acres of country not far from the city limits. You may show up nervous and tense at what horrors are to come, but you will leave with a goofy grin on your face. There is sheer joy in being scared out of your wits, and Eddie McLaurin and his crew know just how to push your buttons in the best of ways.
Eddie’s life has not been an easy one. Early brushes with the law and hard work for little pay did not diminish or tear down Eddie, they just made him stronger and more focused on his personal vision of “Doing Halloween” for a living. He is now the curator of the “spirits” his ancestor bound to the family farm, or at least he became the curator and protector of his own horrific and delightful imagination.
Eddie Howie McLaurin is a true American original. He has a blue-collar dedication to hard work and the sensitivity of a true artist. Behind the carnival barker bluster and gore dripping latex is a man of real complexity and soul whose vision is not just to delve into the darker aspects of human nature, but to entertain and delight his patrons while offering the 175 kids who work with him a place to fit in and just be in a world that is increasingly hostile to those who don’t conform and fit into pretty, little boxes. He has become the slightly demented den mother to hundreds of kids over the years who have had Eddie by their side as they faced the very real demons of parental neglect, drug abuse, depression, and rejection by other kids. Backstage at Woods of Terror they find a place where they are welcome and a man in Eddie McLaurin who understands their struggles and offers a firm and guiding hand.
The true story of Woods of Terror and Eddie is even better than the ghostly tale of Father McMillian. The attraction is not some ad-hoc collection of rickety sets and screaming, masked teenagers scaring screaming, unmasked teenagers. No, Woods of Terror is the unique, artistic vision of a man who has spent the last twenty years learning how to scare the living shit out of his friends and neighbors. Eddie first started the haunt on his family farm in the early 2000’s after having seen several other haunts and becoming convinced that he could pull one off himself that exceeded the ones he’d seen. He spent time touring some of America’s best attractions. Sometimes, even while operating the first years of Woods of Terror, he would manage the haunt then hop on a airplane at PTI and fly to another part of the country to see another attraction and study their method on Sunday’s run. Using his technical skill, solid work ethic, and desire, Eddie spends every off season making Woods of Terror a bigger, better attraction for fans who come to Greensboro from all over.
At first Eddie just did Woods of Terror as a part time gig. While in Chicago at a convention for haunt operators, Eddie ran into a couple and was surprised to discover that they “Do Halloween” as a profession. Like any artist/storyteller, the concept of doing what you love for a living grabbed Eddie. He became determined that Woods of Terror would become his profession. Also like a true artist, Eddie pumps all of his money back into the attraction. Even though 30,000 people or more will walk through the gates this year paying ticket prices as high as $17 (worth every penny), Eddie still lives in the house where his grandparents lived on the original property left to him by Father McMillin. Woods of Terror is a labor of love and that shows in everything Eddie does.
Most of the attraction is not torn down after Halloween, it lives there on the farm with Eddie. Over the past two years he has expanded his midway, parking, and built permanent toilet facilities at the request of the county. At the same time he has reworked some of his original gags and set pieces and expanded others- all with the exacting detail of a master craftsman. It is Eddie’s attention to detail that sets his haunt apart from even more elaborate productions.
Unlike similar attractions, visitors don’t simply stand in line like cattle to get back behind the walls and get scared. Eddie’s midway is an ever expanding carnival with merch stores, snack bars, and fun side attractions that offer scares of their own. All of this is contained in a small village that has the studied, ramshackle feel of an autumn bonfire and beer blast with friends. The night always begins with a parade of the cast of characters led by a dragster built out of a low slung chassis and coffin. Eddie, himself, marches in the parade flanked by a large, yellow python, his carefully coiffed mohawk rising like a shark’s fin on top of his head. A whole cavalcade of heavily made-up and meticulously costumed actors follow teasing the crowd as they go. Then the show pauses for a moment so the National Anthem can be sung while everyone turns to look at a large, well lit stars & stripes. The moment that bit of business is complete the entire cast offers up a few cheers before disappearing behind the fences to take their places in the Woods of Terror.
The attraction, itself, is made up of a series of structures and walks that range from the post-apocalyptic to the outright trippy with black lights and lasers. There is a pirate ship that includes a water filled moat and a walk through some of the most terrifying films in Hollywood history. Edie acknowledged that these haunts are almost obligatory- moments that the audience wants. That doesn’t mean that Greensboro’s Master of Mayhem does anything half-way, from the young girl singing the creepy lullaby from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to the magnificently detailed Texas Farmhouse. Woods of Terror’s version of the recent horror series “The Purge” is better than and offers more scares than the movie. Populated by an unsettling collection of twisted freaks, it is the Texas Farmhouse where Eddie’s work as an exacting artist and story-teller is best on display. Just walking through this nightmare leaves you with an unsettled feeling of true dred. Just as you enter the house the woman sitting in a chair and crying about the baby she no longer has is more than enough to bring the gooseflesh.
This woman’s performance along with the performance of all the others is focused and comes from a real place. During the hours long makeup session before every night’s opening each cast member get’s into character in their own unique way. Some sink into the darkness as soon as they get into costume and make up and some goof around until the time comes to turn it on for the audiences. Make no mistake, these young people are as serious about their craft as Eddie is. They have created detailed backstories for their characters and seek to inhabit them rather than just run about in scary masks and bloody makeup screaming at people. Eddie and his cast have worked out complex narratives for their beasties even bringing in acting coaches every year to help the performers with characterization and movement. Signs hang in the backstage area that read S.C.A.R.E. in large, black letters. The acronym stands for: Survey, Categorize, Aware, Action, Reaction, and Escape. This lays out a structured approach to performance that still gives the actors latitude to create and improvise on the fly.
The level of craftsmanship extends to the makeup and special effects. Eddie sends his top makeup artist to L.A. to attend monster school and then she returns to train others. It takes them almost two hours to get the entire cast (175 people) into costume and make up and ready for the parade. Then there are the crew members who must handle an array of mechanical effects from air guns and a wall that delivers low voltage electric shocks. Add to that a series of high tech, laser based illusions and a wall of sound effects and music. Woods of Terror is a visceral, immersive experience created and curated with a great deal of love.
Talking to Eddie McLaurin his love for what he does comes immediately on the forefront. When asked what his favorite part of Woods of Terror is and he grows visibly emotional, tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s the kids. The kids I see who come through here and leave happy.” He went on to talk about many of the cast members. Young people who don’t necessarily fit in in the “Normal” world, but find a home at Woods of Terror. Some of them have had troubled pasts like Eddie’s, but at the haunt they find a welcoming and unjudging family that also provides a structure. Eddie’s rules are strict, but they have been created from a lifetime of experience.
“There have been kids,” Eddie stated, “That have told me that they were considering suicide. They were considering killing themselves, but that here they found some place they could be accepted. A place they could be themselves.”
Eddie McLaurin has built a place like that. His love, obsession, and wicked sense of humor come through in this personal wonder/terror land he has built with his own hands. Woods of Terror is a fluid piece of American folk art. Its fluidity, narrative, improvisational, and immersive qualities make Woods of Terror a legitimate and vital piece of performance art that is an American original. Eddie probably doesn’t think of it that way, however. Eddie is too focused on making sure that every visitor has a good time and leaves his haunt with a goofy grin on their face. That suits him just fine.
You can find directions, ticket prices and more information on the Woods of Terror website, HERE.