Things going bump in Bena: NightScreams haunted haven open for fright seekers
By Crystal Dey / Bemidji Pioneer Journal
Fright fanatics needn't wait any longer to get their Halloween horror fix. NightScreams opens Friday night in Bena.
Three years ago, Big Winnie General Store owners Arnold and Matthew Dahl-Wooley concocted a plan to give back to the community -- NightScreams was born. Each year a portion, if not all, of proceeds are donated to a local charity.
"It really brings people closer, and we have a blast," Arnold said.
The attraction drew just less than 500 people in the first year. By 2013, more than 1,000 people trekked to the tricked out forest in Bena to stir up a little scare in honor of Halloween.
"We went a little Hollywood this year," Matthew said.
Witches, wackos and scary clowns await spook seekers in the northern Minnesota woods on the NightScreams "Forest of Fear" trail 40 miles east of Bemidji. The trail has been extended this year and a second cabin has been added to the set. Before embarking on the trail, visitors walk through a fog laden cemetery between the haunted cabins.
NightScreams sprawls across a 2-acre plot behind the historic Big Winnie General Store on Highway 2. Werewolves, baby minions, Jason, Bloody Mary and chainsaw psychos are sure to make an appearance on the property.
Matthew's background in theater contributes to the couple's creativity, as well as tips picked up during visits to Universal Studios. Apparitions have been added to the cast of spooks this year, Matthew said. Much of the activity in the haunted cabins is animatronic.
Live talent comes from Bemidji, Grand Rapids and as far as Remer to complete the production. Actors range in age from children to adults and varying specialties. Last year, a 6-year-old actress was a creepy zombie girl.
"We have an amputee who works for us," Matthew said. "He approached us interested in being part of NightScreams. He does a zombie scene each year."
Matthew said there are usually about 20 people involved. He'd prefer to have closer to 30 actors.
"What we have and what we need are two different things," Matthew said.
Rick "Wizard" Holmin, of Remer, has been part of the crew for two years. Holmin said he was hanging in a tree last year. This year he looks forward to working in the serial killer kitchen.
"I enjoy scaring people," Holmin said with a laugh. "But really, I'm all about the kids. It's for the community."
Putting the show on for the community is time consuming and costly, but worth it, the Dahl-Wooleys agreed. The crew starts setting up the scene in the summer. This year, most structures are permanent.
"Last year we broke even," Matthew said. "I spent $1,500 more this year."
Arnold, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, said the reward is contributing to the area. It is important to keep the community involved and be a positive influence for youth, he said.
"I used to be a little rez kid, and you'd see these things on TV that were so far away and would cost a lot. So now, when you see this up and running at night, it's incredible and it's totally affordable and accessible for local kids," Arnold said. "I also want to show Native American kids they can be a business owner locally."
A specific charity has not yet been chosen this year, but Arnold said proceeds will likely go toward supporting a local homeless shelter.
NightScreams is centralized in what could be a highly active spiritual location. The Civilian Conservation Corps camps, an old church and former Native American housing border the property. Arnold said gangsters used to frequent the area in the 1930s.
The historic Big Winnie General Store was built in 1932, and has been nationally recognized as a historic place since 1981.
"We'd love to have paranormal investigators come out," Matthew said.
People have come from as far as Duluth and the Twin Cities to experience NightScreams. NightScreams was voted the fifth scariest haunt last year in Minnesota in a WCCO TV poll.
"You have people who are haunted house fanatics who will tour the state," Matthew said.
Each year the Dahl-Wooley's ask visitors "what scares you?" which has become the NightScreams slogan. Last year it was clowns.
"We have clowns with air horns, bike horns and chainsaws," Matthew said. "We try to play on peoples biggest fears."
Some people make their way through the fright night in 10 minutes, others take up to 20 minutes. Matthew said it depends on what kind of experience patrons are seeking.
"If they're running and screaming, they're out in 5 minutes," Matthew said.
And then, there are the pee-ers. Folks have been known to be scared to the point of leaving puddles in the past.
"People want to be scared. That's why they come here," Arnold said. "Some have cried. Some have peed."
Matthew said the experience isn't age restricted because they tried that the first year and parents brought their children anyway. He advises it is not for children under the age of 12.
"We find more often than not the parents are more scared than their kids are," Matthew said. "I've seen grown men push their kids in front of them."
This year NightScreams has started using "the wand of protection" which is a glowing rod that can be purchased at the concession stand that alerts actors the visitor isn't interested in a hands-on experience.
"We give them the chance to go through and enjoy it without getting attacked," Matthew said.
Along the lines of safety, Matthew said to stick to the trial, bundle up and don't wear loose clothing or costumes.
"You are going for a walk and you have two houses to go through, a cemetery and a forest," Matthew said. "Each year it gets bigger and better."
NightScreams is located behind the Big Winnie General Store at 1510 U.S. Highway 2 NE in Bena. The haunted park is open Friday and Saturdaynights in October from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and on Saturday, Nov. 1. Admission is $5 and a concession stand will be serving hot cocoa and sweet treats.
People interested in becoming part of the NightScreams action can contact the Dahl-Wooley's on the Big Winnie Store RV Park and Campground Facebook page, emailWinnie@arrowheadtel.net or call (218) 665-2585.