LEESBURG, VIRGINIA - This Friday night is Halloween - a time when the souls of the dead are said to walk the Earth - and brave souls among the living venture door to door in search of candy, and flock to haunted house attractions in search of thrills.
A mansion in Leesburg, Virginia was transformed into a house of horrors earlier this month, with volunteer actors scaring the thousands of visitors who come. Located on Paxton Campus, which has programs to help needy children and their families, the haunted house is a fundraiser in its fifth year.
There’s been a new storyline every year. This October, the 140-year-old mansion has a story to tell about the bloodthirsty Carver family. One hundred years ago, they were banished from this land and hid in caverns under the house. Now they are back as ghosts haunting the empty manor.
Meet the Carvers
Visitors are greeted at the front door by the elderly Granny Carver and her husband, “the General.” She explains that he is her second husband. “My first husband, I killed him because he was mean.”
The entire Carver family is a mean bunch. Nine-year-old Jimmy, blood streaming down his face, screams at people waiting in line to get off his land. He is aided by his five-year-old sister Janice, who is looking forward to a feast.
"It’s so much fun because we get lots to eat,” she said, nodding toward the visitors, “like them. They’re yummy.”
Once inside the house, you first run into Shiner Carver, with half his face blown off, who jumps out at you, threatening, "We’ve taken over the house and we want revenge!”
Getting ready for a fright
But before the Carvers get their revenge, the volunteer actors who portray them prepare for their big evening by getting into costume and applying deathly gray makeup and fake blood and boils.
One woman, feeling a bit overwhelmed with the fake blood streaming down her face, said. “It feels like I need a tissue!”
Fun in the dark
It’s so dark in the haunted house that it’s hard to see as you make your way through the narrow hallways, surrounded by screams and creaking noises.
Visitor Pam Rowe held on tight to her husband. “You’re kind of winding your way up and down stairs,” she explained. “People just coming out of nowhere, unexpected screams, lots of gore!”
There is gore all over, as well as hanging skeletons and bloody body parts. Worms crawl in and out of the food on the dining room table.
Andrew Bush got the daylights scared out of him when he visited the house, and then returned the following year as a volunteer actor to scare others. “It’s the best fun I’ve ever had!”
Is it real?
The hauntmaster behind the effects in the house is Matt Smith, whose day job is head of facilities for the campus. Smith admits he’s had a lot of experience scaring people, including his mother who he frightened with fake firecrackers when he was a boy.
“I stuck them in all the cabinets, the toilets and everything. She just absolutely hated it but I enjoyed it,” he recalled with a smile.
Just when you think things can’t get any creepier, your ride to the cemetery awaits. Outside the mansion is a hearse, and casket that visitors are invited to try out for themselves. A soundtrack explains what’s happening as the casket vibrates, giving the illusion you’re in a moving hearse. Kodi Sanders climbed in, and found it comfortable. The teen said he wasn’t afraid even though, “You’re buried alive and you can feel the shovel and dirt coming on top of you.”
But it might not all be make believe. Jennifer Lassiter, Executive Director of the Paxton Campus, says the house may actually be haunted.
“A lot of our actors hear voices, usually children singing,” she said. “They felt a presence pushing them or pulling their hair.”
Another presence, this one not so ghostly, runs out at visitors with a chainsaw during the tour. The Toporkov family - led by dad Aleksey - raced out of the house in fear. “Suddenly this thing came from behind and there was this smell, really like the smell from the wood, so it was vivid. And I’m still scared!” he admitted, adding that, in the end, it was fun to be frightened.