Escape from crazed monsters in the corn. Run like mad from spooks in a 3-D maze. Shoot up a few zombies.
It's all in a weekend's "play" during Halloween season in Utah, a time of year when ghouls and ghosties seemingly take over every empty field, vacant building and well-manicured community park.
Halloween is freakishly popular in our pretty, great state. Creepy houses loom in the darkness, orb-seeking ghost hunters prowl the city streets, and tombstones pop up like weeds in front yards everywhere.
Yet why would a holiday like Halloween put down such deep tentacles in a state with such a strong religious and conservative climate?
Those very characteristics are one of the reasons why the Beehive State became an "incubator" for the national Halloween craze, says Cydney C. Neil, former owner of the nationally recognized and now-closed Rocky Point Haunted House in Salt Lake City.
"It comes from a culture of 'shoulds' and 'shouldn'ts'," Neil says. When people have a long list of things they cannot do, she says, they naturally open up to other ways of addressing the dark side.
"It was a safe way to be rebellious, I guess," says Neil, a part-time Salt Lake City resident whose house of horrors got its start back in the late 1970s in Pleasant View.
Sean Murray, one of the owners of the Castle of Chaos chain, also says he believes the state's conservative climate plays a role in the popularity of Halloween. Folks seek "entertainment that's somehow a little edgier, (but) still appropriate."
Most of the time, we try to be good people, adds Lisa Carter, owner of Carter's Crazy Corn Maze in Garland. But, she says, Halloween is that one day a year that "people can let their dark side come out a little bit ... release your inner demon."
Or as Diane Schultz, owner of the Spirit Halloween store in Layton puts it: In a sometimes "restrictive" atmosphere, people need an outlet.
"People want a chance to let go and do something that's out of the norm," she says.
When sociologist Pepper Glass moved to Utah, he says he noticed a much larger emphasis on Halloween, zombies and the like than he did -- ironically -- at his former home in the Los Angeles area, which he says is often considered to be "a den of sin."
Kelly Adams, too, noticed how huge Halloween is when she moved to Utah from Illinois four years ago due to her husband's job in the military.
"You think Mormon Utah, it wouldn't be that big but it is -- it's amazing," says Adams, an employee at Layton's Spirit Halloween store. She adds, "It's amazing to see what people do to their yards, and the haunts people put on to collect money for charities -- it's wild."
Glass says it's no coincidence that a highly conservative and religious state boasts a plethora of Halloween activities.
The phenomenon can be explained by looking at the studies of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who examined the ways people come together in a society and unite as a whole, says Glass, an assistant professor in the sociology and anthropology department at Weber State University.
Durkheim found that societies reaffirm and unite through rituals or events that define what is good and bad in their culture, Glass says. Halloween could be one of those rituals, and so could Sunday church services, he says.
"They're both kind of celebrations bringing people together surrounding ideas of what is good and bad, sacred and profane, light and dark, holy and unholy," he says.
In Utah, he adds, "The culture is one that's really heavily into defining boundaries of good and bad." So, Glass explains, when there is a group of people coming together and defining the good, "It's not surprising to find people defining the bad and the profane."
"Most people are just kind of playing," Glass points out, "-- they're not necessarily embracing evil."
Those Halloween events focused on the darker side of the holiday, like haunted houses, and those focused on the brighter side, like Day of the Dead celebrations honoring deceased loved ones, are all reinforcing boundary lines, the sociologist says.
Top of Utah haunters say there are other reasons why grand-scale Halloween celebrations are so prevalent in the state, including large numbers of children and a focus on family-oriented activities.
Halloween itself is fun, but the time of year also plays a factor, says Carter, of the Garland corn maze. "It's warm days, cool nights, the leaves are beautiful ... people just really love fall," she says.
Also, Carter says, elaborate yard decorations just make sense in a rural town like hers.
"We live in an agricultural community, so people grow pumpkins and they grow corn, so they decorate with the cornstalks and the pumpkins," she says.
It could also be that Utah likes to do holidays big. Rebecca Getz, marketing manager for the American West Heritage Center's corn maze and Haunted Hollow in Wellsville, says, "More and more people are getting into the spirit of the holidays -- Christmas, Halloween, Valentines Day, whatever -- and they just want to have fun and go big with it."
For members of the Utah-based Rocky Mountain Home Haunters, Halloween provides a year-round creative outlet to build props, scenes and characters to display in a yard or garage, says Robert Wolf of Springville.
"I've always liked Disney -- Disneyland -- and I've always wanted to learn to make the animatronic figures," says Wolf, one of the managers of the group. "Halloween gives me the theme to play in that realm, without having to move to California and work for Disney."
Utah has also embraced the world's pop-culture fascination with vampires, werewolves and zombies in books, movies and television.
"So you're not surprised that Halloween would be such a big deal because it all falls in the same kind of genre," says spokesman Dick Andrew of Lagoon in Farmington, which presents Frightmares each fall.
Neil, who ran Rocky Point Haunted House for 20 years before closing it to move on to other projects, agrees -- saying society worldwide is witnessing an "entire shift in our culture."
"This is an edgier generation," she says.
Although Neil is proud of creating a successful business like Rocky Point, she says she has never been a fan of Halloween. Running a haunted house gave her the opportunity to give to charity and to work with young people and teach them to do their best, she says.
"What it didn't mean to me was Halloween," Neil says.
She adds, "I'm a very spiritual person and it was a mission for me. ... I tried to keep it very light in its darkness. To me, it was almost a church-like situation."
Contact reporter Becky Cairns at 801-625-4276 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bccairns.
SCARING UP THE NUMBERS
Here's a look at how America celebrates Halloween:
- Hand out candy -- 72 percent
- Wear a costume -- 43.6 percent
- Carve a pumpkin -- 44.2 percent
- Visit a haunted house -- 20.3 percent
- Take child trick-or-treating -- 31.7 percent
- Decorate home/yard -- 47.5 percent
- Attend or host a party -- 30.9 percent
- Make a costume instead of buying one -- 18.1 percent
- Get a costume for a pet -- 13.8 percent
- Start Halloween shopping before Sept. 30 -- 32.8 percent
Source: National Retail Federation Halloween 2013 Spending Survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics