I’m something of a connoisseur when it comes to haunted attractions. I’ve been to countless schools, ships, ski areas, forests, and farms that have been temporarily turned terrifying in honor of the Halloween season. They provide all the fun of being in a horror movie without actually having to worry about an evil clown, cannibalistic hillbilly, or nigh-invulnerable hockey-masked lunatic doing something dreadful to you.
While their pageantry is always enjoyable, most haunted attractions typically lack an actual ghost story behind them to substantiate their spookiness. Not so at the Haunted Fort, which this October will celebrate its 17th year of scaring the bejeezus out of their patrons. It is held at Fort Abraham Lincoln, the site where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer lived until his undoing at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. As so many men who once lived there perished alongside Custer, the entire fort is now believed to be haunted. Faint footsteps, sourceless murmurs, and fleeting shadows are normal occurrences at the fort, and the spirit of Custer’s wife reportedly waits there for his return to this day.
The fort even welcomed a team of paranormal investigators to their grounds in 2010. They found oodles of the kinds of things which paranormal investigators like to find, little bloops and bleeps on machines which, depending on your point of view, almost certainly do or do not actually detect ghosts.
This October the Haunted Fort will build upon its already chilling reputation with the aid of 50 to 60 costumed actors. This is not an aimless effort on their part — they have worked together to choreograph just how they can best unsettle their guests, and laid out the historic landmark into four distinctly themed areas.
The night begins with the Custer House itself, which is fashioned after a haunted mansion. A charismatic though funereal host beckons people in, whom are then confronted by ghastly Victorian era specters. Things progress afterward to the old grainery, which has been turned into an evil carnival setting complete with maladjusted clowns, black lights, eerie audio effects, and blind corners which breed sweaty anticipation. (The abundance of clowns in haunted houses reminds me of the words of Dan Avidan: “I’m convinced that 98% of the population hates clowns, and the remaining 2% are clowns.”) The barracks, done up in a nightmarish asylum motif, follow. They’re rife with deranged doctors and their lobotomy-crazed patients, all zombified and ready to give you a proper startle.
The tour wraps up in the Extreme Haunt Zone. This changes annually, so you really oughtn’t expect what you’ll get there. It’s so terrifying, however, that you’ll be given the option of bailing out before you have to experience it. Last year it was the “Dark Hood,” an area where participants donned hoods to blind them while they ambled precariously across a walkway designed in every way to disorient and unnerve them. Air cannons, upside down mannequins, and evil noises are bad enough when you can anticipate them — in the dark, they’re far worse.
None of this is very good for kids under 13 years old. The Haunted Fort keeps them very much in mind, however, and welcomes them to the far more wholesome Halloween Kids Bash. At it children can don their costumes to enjoy an afternoon of carnival games, candy prizes, and the company of friendly costumed actors. Kids can also enjoy the Little Monsters Hike, a two mile trek through the woods with a few soft scares in store for them along the way.
The Haunted Fort will be held at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan every Friday and Saturday night this October. To learn more about this historical and hair-raising spectacle, visit hauntedfort.com. Bring a copy of Shop.Dine.Live. with you if you go! There is no cross-promotion or anything, but our thought-provoking articles and lovingly designed ads are sure to provide you with some comfort if you get too scared.
By David Scheller