Mike Ahearn's voice comes faintly across a crackling telephone connection.
"You know our land is haunted, right?" he says matter of factly. Ahearn and his son Dan have been running the Halloween attraction "Terror in the Trees" on their isolated Springville property for three years. But to hear them tell it, a source of real dread has been lurking in their 10-acre forest for much longer.
"We've always had terror in these trees," said Dan Ahearn, "we just didn't open it up to the public until a couple years ago."
Like many that wander onto the Ahearns' property, Mike and Dan didn't believe in ghosts when they moved in seven years ago. Though the previous owners died years ago -- one from a fall down the stairs, the other from suicide -- the Ahearns say they're still hanging around, wreaking ghastly havoc on the house, the surrounding forest and anyone who dares enter it.
"We've been here since '97," Mike Ahearn said, "and I'm still getting used to all the stupid stuff that happens here." When thrill-seekers show up for the 25-minute journey through their haunted forest, he proudly displays a picture of what he says is an apparition of Mr. King, one of the ghosts that haunts the property. He tells stories of electrical disturbances, of drastic temperature changes and broken doors that fix themselves. Last year, he said, a stereo he and his son had set up to play Halloween music began scanning through songs from a CD that was still in its case.
Now, rather than let the ghosts do all the spooking, they've added a troupe of actors who line the dimly lit forest pathway, crouching behind the brush, ready to chase after their victims with gas-powered chain saws. It's a far cry from the security of a haunted house in suburban mall, where you can scurry out the door without a problem. In the middle of the Springville forest, your only option is to run terrified through the dark, isolated forest.
"We've had people walking up from the exits saying how great it was, even though they peed their pants," said Dan Ahearn.
The Ahearns' "roadside attraction," as Mike Ahearn calls it, is one of dozens of Halloween events in Western New York that are using new and creative ways to draw crowds. As the Halloween industry grows year after year -- with consumers spending an estimated $3.12 billion on the holiday this year alone -- the days of the standard-issue haunted house are numbered, and many of Western New York's spooky attractions are trying hard to stay on the cutting edge of fear.
"People naturally like to get the s--- scared out of them," said Mike Ahearn, that much he knows. But the substance of fright is subjective. While running through the dark woods in Springville has scared many, other methods can prove just as successful.
In Lockport, for example, organizers of the Haunted Cave have created a spooky semi-historical tour of a man-made cave that once powered factories with water from the Erie Canal. The fog, 100 percent humidity and dripping water in the cave makes the use of advanced technology impossible, so the 45-minute walk through the dank cave resorts to improvisational acting that is less frightening than amusing.
"Since you are 45 feet underground in completely black," said Clancy Berkwit, an organizer of the attraction, "it creates a great background for a haunted experience."
Back above ground, when it comes to freaking people out in more traditional ways, Jim Hughes has his finger on the pulse of fear. Along with his brothers John and Rich, Hughes spent the last year creating a completely original haunted house from scratch. The brothers, who run a construction business by day, used their basements, garages and driveways in their spare time to construct Dark Raven Manor in Clarence.
"People want to feel a violent or horrifying situation that's in a safe environment," Hughes said. "You want that rush."
Rather than a "Blair Witch"-style of fear, Hughes sees his project as a theatrical labor of love. "We always wanted to make a haunted house that felt like you were in a horror movie," Hughes said, because that's what we like."
After walking through Dark Raven Manor, it's easy to see that Hughes and his brothers were heavily influenced by movies such as "What Lies Beneath" and "The Ring."
In the first room, to which you gain access only by knocking on a heavy, creaking door, a ghastly hologram of a young ghost appears at the end of the rectangular corridor. The strobe light fizzles out, only to flicker back on seconds later to reveal a real girl lunging straight for you. Another girl screams 'Get out!" from the corner, and you do, without hesitation.
A projection screen outside the haunted house shows groups of people caught off guard as they walk into one of the scariest rooms in the house, often jumping back and screaming, unaware they're being watched. After the 14 minutes it takes to walk through Dark Raven Manor, one group emerges visibly shaken.
Stephanie Bartha, 19, of Lewiston, threw her arms in the air when she walked into one of the rooms, knocking her friend in the lip. In another room, she jumped back and knocked her boyfriend Mike Nutefall, 18, into a wall.
"I was so scared, I wanted to cry," Bartha said, adding that she thought it was the best haunted house she'd seen so far.
Scare at the Fair designer and co-owner Jay Milligan has a simple formula for the perfect scare: a finely tuned balance of darkness and surprise. In his 20,000-square-foot haunted house at the Erie County Fairgrounds in Hamburg, Milligan employs short stretches of pitch-blackness along with cleverly hidden actors to get the biggest scare possible.
The Science of fright
Scare at the Fair is exemplary of the latest in prefabricated Halloween technology, with animatronics worthy of Hollywood and the kind of fine detail in each room that few can observe because they're too scared to look closely. As opposed to the Hughes brothers, Milligan bought much of the technology for the haunted house and the accompanying monster truck hayride at a trade show for Halloween industry insiders in Chicago, including a 13 1/2 -foot animatronic monster that talks and moves like something out of "Star Wars."
Hughes, who became famous in haunted house circles for his design of a complex rippling floor, has the kind of real-time intelligence on Dark Raven Manor that the CIA should have had in Iraq. With 16 cameras placed strategically throughout the house and the ability to remotely activate many of the animatronic scares, Hughes tweaks each room as he watches frightened groups from the control room.
In "in" tool for haunted attractions these days has become the chain saw, which was employed to great effect at FrightWorld in the Eastern Hills Mall, "Terror in the Trees" and even to cap off Lockport's Haunted Cave. The blades are removed, of course, but that chilling sound is often all it takes to send people screaming out of the emergency exits.
Dave Brickner, a chain saw-wielding actor at FrightWorld three years running, takes pleasure in thrashing the power tool over his head while frightened customers scurry away. "This year I've probably scared the crap out of a lot of people," he said.
Whether it's chain saws or haunted forests, dank caves or advanced animatronics, the haunted houses of Western New York are all out for one thing: pure fright.
"People come out and you can see that they're horrified, but they're laughing and having a good time," said Hughes, adding that the comedic aspect of fright makes it all worthwhile. "It's fun to scare and be scared. The millionth time you see someone get scared, it's just as funny as the first."