As sure as pumpkins are turning orange and leaves are fading to gold, the shrieks and screams pierce the autumn air.
Can you hear them, rattling out of the dark and vacant building sitting just off the busy highway? Or listen -- what's that unearthly noise, drifting out of the shadows of the murky swamp?
Sounds like another haunting season is under way in the Top of Utah -- monsters and zombies are back on the prowl after months of rest in their cobwebbed hideaways.
The scares are out there for 2011 in a myriad of forms, from indoor and outdoor haunted attractions to the puzzling -- and spooky -- configurations of numerous corn mazes.
We caught up with three local haunters for a peek at the season ahead: Andy Wilson and Sean Murray are newcomers to the Top of Utah, opening the Carnival of Chaos on Riverdale Road; Bill McCalmant manages the Haunted Hollow, a long-standing West Haven attraction getting back in action after floodwaters hit earlier this year.
Carnival of Chaos
Haunting plunges into another dimension at what operators dub the state's largest 3-D haunt.
The walls of the former Macy's department store in Riverdale have been transformed into a black-lit Carnival of Chaos 3-D Maze that sports ghoulish clowns most foul.
"Everything actually pops off the wall at you. It's really a visual experience -- it's pretty cool," says Wilson of the 3-D attraction, which opened Friday.
As for the clowns, well, Murray says, "People seem to be afraid of what's behind the mask, so clowns always seem to be hiding a little bit of something."
The timing was right this fall to lease the building and open a Castle of Chaos franchise in the Top of Utah, say Wilson, of Roy, and Murray, of Layton, two childhood friends who wanted to create a venue in their home area.
"Not everybody wants to drive to Salt Lake for a good haunt," Wilson says.
The two are part of a six-partner team that also runs Castle of Chaos venues in Salt Lake City and Taylorsville. At 140,000 square feet, the vacant Riverdale store offers space galore for scares, with the new attraction using about 47,000 square feet of that space.
The 3-D maze is just one of three attractions created in Riverdale; the others are the 7 Deadly Sins Haunted House and a haunted midway.
Wrath, lust, vanity, pride -- you'll find them all in this haunted house with "more gruesome and more in-your-face scares" than those of the maze, Wilson says.
Visitors will meet a greedy dentist pulling teeth to collect their gold, he says, or a woman who is so jealous of her sister that she removes her face.
"You'll have both sisters in there, one without a face and one with an extra face," Wilson explains.
The midway offers this carnival's alternative to standing in line, Wilson says. Located in the middle of the building, between the maze and haunted house, the midway will feature a variety of activities to entertain folks while they wait their turn to enter the other attractions.
You can watch aerial artists perform on rings and a trapeze, see spooky movies, get your face painted or sit down with a tarot card reader. Or maybe you'd like to take a coffin ride; just lie down inside, close the lid and you're off for a bumpy journey to the graveyard.
There's a camera inside the coffin, Wilson says, so the onlookers "get to laugh at you as you get scared."
The choice of so many different attractions makes the Riverdale's Carnival of Chaos good for all ages, Wilson says.
"You can come in and decide what you're comfortable with," adds Murray. "Not everybody likes to come in and just be terrified."
Murray, who opened his first haunt in his garage when he was just 12 and later worked as a "scare consultant" for other houses, says the secret to a good haunt is in the actors.
"A haunt that doesn't rely on actors will always be less effective than one that does," he says.
The creative props are great, but Murray says they only serve to distract visitors while those actors sneak in for the frights.
"We call it the decoy and 'The Gotcha,' " he says.
As if monsters and zombies aren't scary enough, there are new creatures lurking in the dark woods of the Haunted Hollow.
"We've got a tribe of cannibals this year ... we brought them in from New Guinea," says McCalmant, general manager of the West Haven attraction, which has been a Halloween staple since 2000.
And one more thing, he warns -- "Watch out for the boa constrictors."
The 13-acre hollow is still afloat this fall after being literally afloat for months during last spring's flooding in the Top of Utah. The water was 5 feet deep in areas of the venue along the Weber River and 2 to 3 feet deep around the haunted house ticket booth next to 1900 West.
"You can see the water line here," McCalmant says pointing to a painted wooden fence.
The West Haven location experiences some flooding every spring, mostly due to ground water, the general manager says. But this year, he says, "It just kept getting higher and higher -- and then it never left."
The flood was at its worst in April and May, and the hollow didn't totally dry out until mid-July. As a result, McCalmant says, work couldn't start on this year's haunt until Aug. 1, two to three weeks later than usual.
But damage at the venue, which opened Sept. 16, was minimal. The haunted house was built on stilts, because of yearly flooding, and stayed dry inside. The attraction's staging items are stored inside trailers and were also unharmed.
"(The flood) washed away the bridge in the back, but we were able to salvage it," McCalmant says, and four big cottonwood trees were lost due to wet ground and high winds.
The main thing visitors may notice is a little extra dust.
"The flood brought in a lot of this silty sand stuff," McCalmant adds, scuffing his shoe in the fine dirt on the ground near the haunted house.
Changes are afoot in the setup of this season's Haunted Hollow, in part due to the flooding, McCalmant says. Things have been moved around since the ground is still soggy in some of the caves, and he didn't want to risk putting heavy props in them that might get stuck in the mud.
"It's going to be almost a completely different haunt than it has been in the past," McCalmant says.
How does the manager of this long-running attraction feel about the new Carnival of Chaos opening in Riverdale?
"I think any competition is good," McCalmant says. The more haunts there are, he says, the more people get in a Halloween mood and want to go visit all of them.
McCalmant, of Ogden, has run the Haunted Hollow for four years, but has worked in haunted houses since he was 16. He started in low-budget venues where "everything was made out of sticks and pulleys and ropes." Now, in most places, "it's all animatronics and computer-driven."
Although folks would drive by last spring and comment on his underwater locale, McCalmant says he wasn't stressed about the situation.
"There's not a dang thing I can do about it, short of moving the river, and that might take more effort than it's worth," he says.
And it's the river and the outdoor setting with its mile-long trail that sets this haunted attraction apart.
"You're walking in the middle of the night in a forest with monsters in it," McCalmant says -- not to mention all of the resident critters, like snakes, squirrels, raccoons and beavers.
There's even an owl that's been hanging out in the same tree for the past four years.
"With some haunts, you can get fake," McCalmant says. "We want it to be real. We have the real forest, we have the real swamp, we have caves and real animals out there."
It's all real, he says -- or "as real as walking dead people can be."