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Haunting for 30 years

Oct. 21, 2010

By Jess Sanders
Observer correspondent
Volunteers wear costumes used in The Haunted Forest. The annual Halloween-themed outdoor theater, held at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. (Courtesy photo)

The power of community is the reason The Haunted Forest is celebrating its 30th year in business this fall. The annual event has become an integral part of Vermont’s Halloween season.

“It’s a theatrical event that happens in the woods at Catamount (Outdoor) Family Center. We transform the trails in the woods into a Halloween themed outdoor theater. We line all the trails with lit jack-o-lanterns,” said Michelle Gates, the managing director of The Haunted Forest.

The Haunted Forest came into being 30 years ago in Huntington, at the Green Mountain Audubon Center.

For its 30th year, The Haunted Forest is incorporating what Gates calls “classics” with new skits.

“We’re doing some of the classic favorites with a twist. One of the favorites is a wax museum setting but (this year) it’s a different story,” Gates said. “Another classic favorite is about the jack-o-lantern and how he came to be.”

The event has become so popular that it needs 400 to 500 volunteers to help. The Haunted Forest puts on a series of volunteer events to prepare for the final performances.

“The Haunted Forest is piling up a thousand pumpkins for the community to come out and carve into jack-o-lanterns. The finished works of art will be on display at the 30th Annual Haunted Forest,” a recent press release said.

Despite the size The Haunted Forest has grown into, the event originated on a much smaller scale.

“Executive director David Bailey decided to start a small haunted forest and have it be a fund-raiser for Green Mountain Audubon. Back then it was folklore and some Halloween stories that brought the environment in with Halloween,” said David Melincoff, president of The Haunted Forest board of directors.

Melincoff said Bailey was expecting a couple hundred people in the first year, and after time it started bringing in thousands.

Then, nine years ago, the Green Mountain Audubon Center became a part of the National Audubon Society, leaving The Haunted Forest to be a miniscule part of its budget.

“They (the Audubon) felt it was taking time away in the fall for doing education and things of that nature,” Melincoff said.

Soon after the Audubon Society took over, Melincoff, who had been volunteering at The Haunted Forest for 13 years, received a call.

“The president of Green Mountain Audubon called me up and said if you want to get a group of volunteers together who have been doing it for a while, and create a nonprofit so you can keep it alive because the Audubon is not doing it anymore,” Melincoff said.

It was then that he and four other volunteers brought The Haunted Forest to the Catamount Outdoor Family Center. Melincoff was glad to keep the spirit of The Haunted Forest alive for many reasons.

“One was obviously the tradition of the forest and I love Halloween and the whole going and watching the show,” Melincoff said. “But the other part that was important, the volunteers part, I was always taken aback by the outreach of the community, getting together to volunteer to make that event happen.”

The success of The Haunted Forest can be attributed to the many volunteers who have come back year after year to create the annual spectacle.

“We have a group of volunteers called the scare force. Nothing really scary, we’re definitely family friendly,” Gates said.

A sense of community has evolved, which is one thing Melincoff has come to love about the event.

“There are people that I only know from The Haunted Forest. They were single and now are married, and have kids and are volunteering with their kids,” Melincoff said.

Melincoff said the event raises about $6,000 to $8,000 each year for Catamount and an equal amount for The Haunted Forest, which is also a non-profit organization.

The Haunted Forest runs from Oct. 21-30 at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston. Show times are listed online at www.thehauntedforest.org. Tickets are $8.50 for matinees and $12.50 for evening shows.