By Rachel Gill
Brave souls creeping through The Haunted Forest at the Catamount Family Center in Williston can expect to be scared out of their skin this year. For the first time, terrifying tales scripted by Joe Citro, Vermont author and expert on ghosts and ghouls, are being brought to life within the deep, dark 500-acre wood.
For the last 27 years, over 6,000 guests annually have screamed their way through The Haunted Forest. Guides disguised in spooky makeup and dressed in black lead the way along the 1-mile path lined with 1,000 jack-o-lanterns.
The Haunted Forest is produced each Halloween season by the board members of Fun for Change, a non-profit organization established to continue the event when Green Mountain Audubon Society, after 21 years, was no longer able to host the event. In 2002, Fun for Change volunteers moved The Haunted Forest to the Catamount Family Center, where over 400 volunteers make the show happen year after year. The Haunted Forest also pays a site fee to the Catamount Family Center that helps support the preservation of the land used for The Haunted Forest.
This year, Citro has written 11 terrifying vignettes based on Vermont legend and folklore, turning the spook factor up a notch. Script writing is usually done by The Haunted Forest volunteers, a tradition that will continue next year.
“When walking into the woods I want people to feel like the ground under their feet is not safe, that anything can happen, all for a truly terrifying experience,” Citro said.
Among Citro’s unsavory cast of characters are a demon boy from Bristol, a vampire from Woodstock and a haunted bridge in Stowe.
The collaboration happened through a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation’s Arts Endowment Fund. Established in 1990, the fund supports new work by Vermont artists and provides technical assistance for Vermont arts organizations.
The Haunted Forest’s Managing Director, Jana Beagley, who started volunteering at the forest 17 years ago, said the grant has played a major role in the forest’s “down with the mud” fundraising campaign to preserve the non-profit community and environmentally driven work of the Catamount Family Center and The Haunted Forest.
“So much of what we do is about being outdoors and preserving the forest and environment that we felt it was right to benefit the CFC and help keep the land we use open,” Beagley said. “We hope this year we will provide them with a good chunk of change.”
Volunteers spread gravel, dug ditches and improved drainage to make the trails more passable and weather resistant.
Beagley said all the hard work is making this year’s haunted forest especially spooky.
“The increased creep factor is because the stories featured in the forest really happened, right around here,” she said.
Citro, an author for 20 years, said he has been collecting “weird and bizarre” tales for as long as he can remember.
“At first I had to seek out these stories but now people actually bring the stories to me,” Citro said.
Citro had no trouble selecting tales from his collection to turn into vignettes for The Haunted Forest.
“Certain stories just bubbled to the top of my mind because they lend themselves especially well to drama,” Citro said. “I also made sure all the stories related to one another.”
While scriptwriting is a new venture for Citro, he said these Vermont tales of terror are a perfect match for The Haunted Forest.
“The Haunted Forest gave me an opportunity to write many scripts at once, something I have always wanted to do,” Citro said.
While he has always enjoyed a little horror, Citro’s intent has more historic origins.
“My hope is that it will give people a scare and get them thinking about Vermont history and maybe even get them into a library to find out more,” the author said.