The August sun was beating down on Steve Wilsey's baseball cap as he drove an ATV past a 12-foot-tall fake volcano, which was towering above a swamp in a Meridian cornfield. A dinosaur overlooked this mini Mount Doom. We were on our way to see the new pirate ship Wilsey just finished constructing.
"Not a lot of people get to see back here," Wilsey said.
Not by the light of day, anyhow.
During the month of October, thousands will catch strobe-lit glimpses of this field on their way through the carefully designed sets, motorized corpses and costumed ghouls that comprise The Haunted World.
Wilsey, on the other hand, sees it every day. The lifelong scary movie fan started working at Haunted World as an actor in high school, halfway through the attraction's first year, and never left. The 26-year-old now lives on site with his three children and works on the Halloween attraction almost year round, doing everything from maintenance to management to playing casting director. For a month or two he has to do some farming as well, but says every job has busy work you're not passionate about. He gets a lot of good thinking about The Haunted World done while spacing out on the tractor.
For Wilsey's wife, Sarah, the whole thing is kind of old hat. Like people who live near railroad tracks not hearing passing trains, Sarah said she no longer notices the mysterious howls or snarling chainsaws.
"After a while, you get used to it," she said.
But she doesn't underplay the novelty.
"There's always something to do," she said. "Even off-season, I just let my kids go out there and walk around."
And there's plenty for them to explore.
What started 12 years ago as a small cornfield attraction with a derelict tractor that honked its horn at passersby is now a sprawling nightmare that has up to 200 costumed actors playing everything from mad scientists to chainsaw-wielding psychopaths to farmers who aren't very particular about what they make their sausage out of.
A variety of permanent sets house the actors on 30 acres of corn and a converted warehouse. There is also a 15-acre non-haunted corn maze on site. Some of the sets, like the new ghostly pirate ship, are built above ground, while others are dug into the corn like battlefield trenches and covered over with black tarps so visitors to the park can't see what lies in wait for them.
Visitors to The Haunted World stroll through everything from an old school bus to a vertigo-inducing psychedelic tunnel boasting everything from pneumatic air cannons to a motorized beaver that shakes violently and spits water from its mouth. It is live theater of the strangest variety.
"My biggest pet peeve is people don't think Halloween until October, but people start thinking about Christmas in September," he said.
This can also be a practical problem for employees of the park when it opens in September. Wilsey prefers the actors to come in their own costumes so they'll be more committed to their roles.
"If you're not feeling Jason that night, it's hard to do Jason," he said.
But the costumes are nothing without the dozens of sets and thousands of props.
Wilsey pointed to a fake corpse in the corner of a room made to look like a medical examination chamber.
"We ordered the body, but we think of ways to improve it," he said, pointing to a fake shotgun blast in its torso that drips fake blood.
The copious body parts littered around the park are factory seconds from companies that make supplies for medical schools. Many of the props are donated or salvaged. Rusted tools may not be much use to a tradesman, but they are given a second life once sprinkled with fake blood, mixed up with severed limbs and left around a ramshackle structure sporting a poorly lettered sign reading: "Public Health Care End of Life Counseling Center."
Because of their unusual construction, Wilsey said the structures on site have gotten their fair share of unusual looks from the building inspector.
"It's always like Elvis walking into the building," he said. "Everyone is looking at him and hoping."
But not every idea Wilsey dreams up works out. Some aren't scary enough. Some just malfunction. A pneumatic piston malfunctioned in a corpse dummy, causing it to make repeated pelvic thrusts at anyone that passed by.
Of the dozens of sections of the park, Wilsey thinks the Barnyard Witchhunt section is the scariest, due in large part to the live pigs incorporated into its design. The sounds of them grunting and chewing in the dark is deeply unsettling, especially mixed in with the howls of actors pounding on rusted car bodies.
"It's like your own personal interactive scary movie," he said.
And interactivity is key. Wilsey regularly attends an annual convention of haunted house proprietors in which trends, techniques and technology are shared. The 2012 convention featured a special demo interactive haunted house for vendors to tour and get new ideas, footage of which can be seen on YouTube.
"A haunted house is very interactive because of the fact that all the performers are live, you share the stage with them, they're not separated from you," said Larry Kirchner, publisher of Hauntworld Magazine. "That's why haunted houses are much more popular than horror movies: Every time you go through, you can have a different experience."
Wilsey's hope to maximize those experiences is to find a way to give the people going through the house more choice instead of keeping them on a fixed path.
But Wilsey's constant quest for fear improvement doesn't spring from any sort of life dissatisfaction, just a desire to provide some good-natured escapism.
"What appeals to me is that you can take people of out of their reality," he said. "There's nothing more different from everyday life."