“I think I just peed myself!” is not something most people usually say publicly in a tone that mixes reverence with glee. Yet a young woman walking through a forest of fake entrails enthusiastically divulges this to her boyfriend, seconds after a heavyset man covered in blood sprang out from a dark corner, shouting incoherently, sending the duo into screams followed by ample laughter. At the Headless Horseman Hayride, peeing yourself means you got your money’s worth.

Sprawling across 65 acres of land in Ulster County, New York, the Headless Horseman Hayride is a more elaborate, gruesome theme park than hokey jaunt through the countryside. There are four eateries, several gift shops, and a bevy of attractions, including themed haunted houses, a corn maze, escape rooms, and, of course, the hayride itself. Among the subculture of enthusiasts for haunted attractions, the Headless Horseman Hayride is widely acknowledged as one of the best. Hauntworld.com — a text-dense website, clearly a product of an enthusiastic micro-culture — consistently ranks it among the finest “haunts” in the country.

The appeal of the Headless Horseman Hayride is not self-evident. Unlike other famous haunts, it’s not located in an abandoned warehouse, prison or medical center. The Headless Horseman Hayride is set in the lush verdurous knolls and groves of the upper Hudson Valley, a landscape known more for inspiring 19th century watercolors than involuntary urination-inducing terror. The road leading to it, route 9W, is dotted with small, picturesque houses, churches, monasteries, and a Catholic novitiate. Turn off about 30 minutes north of Poughkeepsie though, to find a giant statue of a decapitated horseman, his mangled head hanging by a chain.

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A full circuit of the Headless Horseman Hayride, like an opera or a Broadway show, can last several hours, slowly building to a climax involving copious bloodshed. Each attendee starts the night off hopping on a hay-covered wagon that’s pulled by a tractor. “When you start on the hayride, it’s really more about the ‘wow’ factor,” says co-founder Nancy Jubie, a cheerful and energetic former nurse with an expressive voice, bright eyes and thick brown hair.

Driving past a cemetery set on the route of the hayride.
Driving past a cemetery set on the route of the hayride.

During the hayride, I jumped when someone wielding a chainsaw flew over my head through the trees, but my accompanying photographer and I agree that this initial part is rather tame.

A plot unfolds during the walk-through. From what I could tell, the story is about a war between “the master” — a mysterious figure who I may have seen a pixelated version of on a screen attached to a steampunk robot — and human-friendly demons with horns, yellow eyes, and purple makeup, who narrate what visitors see from the wagon. Smallpox, along with a mad scientist experimenting in the creation of a zombie-werewolf, are involved somehow, but the majority of my attention on the hayride was held by the elaborate, occasionally corny set pieces. Most made ample use of actors, animatronics and sound effects, with some actually bursting into flames or torrents of electric sparks.

When it first opened 23 years ago, the attraction featured just the hayride and ran on the efforts of a relatively modest crew of 35; it now takes about 375 actors, artists, set designers, and attendants to usher thousands of people each night through the gauntlet of houses, mazes and passages, terrifying them in the process. Nancy Jubie founded the business with her husband Michael, 67, who then worked as a detective for the Kingston Police Department. A tall man with steely-gray hair, he has a disposition that is, fittingly, a mixture of brusque and inquisitive. One night, according to Michael, over dinner with some friends, he and Nancy “had a couple of beers and began to think a haunted hayride wasn’t such a bad idea.” The couple had never run a business such as the Hayride before, but they each harbored a lifelong love of Halloween.

Michael Jubie explains the importance of building accurate and detailed sets in the lobby of The Lunar Motel.
Michael Jubie explains the importance of building accurate and detailed sets in the lobby of The Lunar Motel.

Michael is adamant that his wife is “the brains behind the operation,” though the park seems influenced by a detective’s logic. Each room tells a story, and everything has been deliberately placed. In the lobby of the Lunar Motel — a 1960s-style outpost Norman Bates would feel quite comfortable in — a coffee cup sits permanently half-drunk on a pile of newspapers from the era.

Costumes are another similarity between detective work and haunted houses. In both environments, an obviously phony or cheap disguise can ruin everything. “You don’t wanna be with criminals trying to buy a kilo worth of coke and have your moustache fall off,” Michael says as we sit in his office, located in a 200-year-old former horse exchange that is rumored to be haunted. The stakes are lower at the Headless Horseman, but a rubbery gash or dislodged horn can mean the difference between making someone scream or laugh uncontrollably.

Sean Gray, 18, dressing for his role as the Headless Horseman.
Sean Gray, 18, dressing for his role as the Headless Horseman.

“Some of these places do really awful things,” Nancy says, describing a new, increasingly popular breed of over-the-top haunted house experience — “like waterboarding or tying you up and putting a bag on your head. It’s torture.” She pauses and, after some consideration, adds, “I say that and then we throw fake phlegm or mucus at them.”

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Sometime in between Slither’s Pet Shop — a haunted house full of freak show animals — and Glutton’s Diner — a classic eatery filled with menacing blood-splattered waitresses — I have my first major scare. Walking through the corn maze, the people in front of me turn a corner and I find myself alone. A gigantic man with tattered overalls and some large, sharp metal cutting tool — a scythe, hedge clippers or God knows what — shoots out from the wall of corn and into my peripheral vision. I try to ignore him as he follows me down the path, before suggesting that the younger boy who had been behind me might be an easier target.

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When she’s not running the Hayride, Nancy visits local schools, lecturing to the students about the virtues of compassion as part of an anti-bullying program called “Don’t Be a Monster.” Her voice breaks when she talks about how Halloween has an ability to make outcasts feel normal. “We have so many amazing actors from such diverse backgrounds,” she says, “and they might not feel like they fit in at other places, but they feel comfortable here.”

Costumes, masks, and other accessories ready to be picked up by one of the hundreds of actors working each night.
Costumes, masks, and other accessories ready to be picked up by one of the hundreds of actors working each night.

While her husband is the executor of schemes, Nancy has the role of devising as many ways to scare people as possible. “I’m still thinking about this stuff at two in the morning,” she says.

Most of her inspiration comes from reading the news. One year after she watched an investigative report on the horrors of an old mental hospital, she fixated on the idea of a medically themed haunted house, a theme peppered throughout the park.

Her mind operates on multiple levels of horror. While a large part is shock and surprise — the giant in overalls — there are equal parts unease — the demonic scarecrows that loom over the maze — and anxiety —what’s causing that scraping sound off in the distance?

“One of the things we’d do as kids was take a bunch of hay, throw it on a wagon, ride through the cornfields as we told ghost stories,” Nancy reflects. “You didn’t need anything more than the moon and quietness and wind rustling through the corn to spook you. It was such an amazing experience, I wanted to re-create it.”

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With three hours left until the first hayride at seven p.m., Debbie Corsino, 60, an energetic seamstress with a smoky voice, has her attention torn between fitting a young man into a mammoth-sized Headless Horseman costume and directing another towards the appropriate ogre mask. “We have a person who has never been in a werewolf costume before,” calls out Nicki O’Donnell, Corsino’s 31-year-old assistant, over the commotion. Otherwise normal people have to enter the costume house and emerge as convincing vampires, zombies, demons, mad scientists, and more.

Actors, already in costume, wait in line outside the makeup shed.
Actors, already in costume, wait in line outside the makeup shed.

Corsino, who has worked here for eight years, did not always intend to work in haunts. “I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” she says. “My son worked here at the time and once they learned I could sew, I was drafted.” Corsino grew to love the challenges of the job, such as crafting a Revolutionary War-era coat to fit over artificial shoulders 48 inches in circumference. “Goodwill is our friend,” she says. “I can buy a gown there for $20, but I’m not gonna use it like that. I’m gonna tear it up and use the ten yards it has.”

The Headless Horseman has his truncated neck secured and the werewolf is sent off to find his snout, the seconds later there is another problem. “Where’s the sea-creature mask?” asks O’Donnell.

“It got a bit damaged last night,” Corsino replies. She faces a young actor who’s covered in seaweed and says, “It’s gonna be makeup for you tonight.”

Styling manager Debbie Corsino, 60, shows off one of her creations.
Styling manager Debbie Corsino, 60, shows off one of her creations.

Behind the costume house are two large makeup tents. Here things are tamer, if only because the actors all have to close their mouths and hold very still. In the airbrush tent, alcohol-based pigments are sprayed in layers over the skin to create subtle and complicated effects. Chris Rodschat, 30, the makeup manager, is engaged in turning a young man into what looks like an undead policeman during the scramble before opening. Rodschat has worked here for fourteen years. While he changes pigments, a friend of his brings over a plastic container full of giant hissing cockroaches and entertains the people standing in line by putting them in his mouth and letting them crawl over his face. “Things like that make me love working here,” he says, before returning to his work.

April Lombardo, a 31-year-old with yellow eyes and a purple face, talks about her love of Rodschat’s work. “These are some of the best artists in the business,” she says. “After they get done with you, when you look in the mirror, you’ll feel like a demon.”

April Lombardo, 31, has makeup applied in the airbrush area.
April Lombardo, 31, has makeup applied in the airbrush area.

In the 3-D makeup tent, sandwiched between a bag of pig snouts and open wounds, Jaime Gruber, 32, is attaching horns to a woman’s head. This is only her second year at the Headless Horseman Hayride, but since high school she has been passionate about the art of makeup and in the off-season she works in film and TV. “There’s nothing else like this,” she says, looking around as a co-worker affixes a large axe-wound to an actor’s face using gelatin. “I don’t watch horror movies, but I love this.”

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I abstain from the final house, The Mansion of Dahlia Blood, after barely making it through the previous one, The Feeding. I had plugged my ears, pulled my head between my shoulders, and sprinted past the caged robotic chimpanzees, insane doctors and nurses, medical body-horror atmospherics, and alien-like parasites that burst from corpses.

A young actor puts on a werewolf suit for the first time.
A young actor puts on a werewolf suit for the first time.

About midway through I eyed an emergency exit before entering the most unsettling experience of the night: walking through a hallway of thick black fabric pushing against me from all angles. Suddenly all I could see was black. A chainsaw revved up somewhere in the distance, and I swear a nurse was in there somewhere whispering, “Don’t lose your head.” I grabbed my undaunted photographer and held on to her for the rest of the house.

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Among Nancy Jubie’s most exciting moments was her purchase of nearly the entire contents of an abandoned hospital from the 1950s. “We bought everything from the morgue drawers to operating lights to crash carts,” she says. Next year, she plans to add a large graveyard that attendees can walk through before entering an elaborate underground crypt.

“I’m not a morbid person!” she insists. Despite the mental-endurance decathlon I just survived, I believe her. The allure of the Headless Horseman Hayride derives from something simpler than the fixation on horror and disgust seen in films like the “Human Centipede” series. It originates in the immediacy of fear and the illogical thrill of that emotion. At the Headless Horseman, opening yourself up to these forces and losing your head is exactly what you’re supposed to do.

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Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson is a writer based in New York City and has written for Prospect, Hopes and Fears, Film Comment, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.

Marisa Gertz is a photographer and gif-smith living in NYC, eating noodles, and seeking out weirdness. You can find her at marisagertz.com and follow her at marisagertz.tumblr.com.

See more of the Hudson Valley at Expedia.com