Screaming my Head Off at the Headless Horseman Hayride

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Call me crazy, but being relentlessly chased by an axe-wielding maniac is generally not my idea of a good time.

That is, except on Halloween, when we’re all looking for a good fright. And one place to get more than your fair share of scares is at the Headless Horseman Haunted Hayrides & Haunted Houses attraction in Lake Ulster, New York.

Nestled in the woodlands of the eerily beautiful Hudson Valley, the Headless Horseman attraction is roundly considered one of the premiere outdoor haunts in the country. And I couldn’t wait to check it out on Halloween night this year with my friend Stephanie, who first introduced me to this ghastly ghoul-fest several autumns ago.

Upon passing through the front gate, we immediately queued up for the main attraction: a mile-long tractor-pulled hayride through the ominous woods. Our feet dangling from the straw-covered wagon underneath a starry sky, Stephanie and I awaited our journey with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.

This year’s theme: “Escape of Prisoner X,” the harrowing tale of a violent convict, born into the penal system, who committed unspeakable acts of mayhem upon the prison population before ultimately breaking free. Our guide/narrator, an intrepid newspaper reporter whose face was mutilated by Prisoner X, recounted the tragic back story of this fearsome fugitive, as she led us through a series of spooky set pieces. Along the way, we passed an old prison facility that someone set ablaze, a creepy ghost town, a disturbing psych ward whose methods aren’t exactly in line with the American Psychiatric Association’s standards, and a prisoner torture chamber that gave new meaning to the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Throughout our guided tour, the ghosts of Prisoner X’s past victims, including former inmates and prison guards, popped out at us when we least expected it – some flying over our heads via bungee cords and zip lines. We even received a visit from none other than the legend himself, the Headless Horseman, who rode in on his ghostly steed, brandishing a steely sword.

In perhaps the ride’s most memorable moment, we witnessed a mad-with-power guard strap Prisoner X into an electric chair, cover him with a sheet and flip the switch on him. Of course, we had a feeling the execution wasn’t going to go all that smoothly. Sure enough, when the lights stopped flashing, Prisoner X had disappeared into the chilly night.

Perhaps the only thing lacking on our ride, aside from the Horseman’s noggin, was a climactic finale that satisfyingly wrapped up the story of Prisoner X with one last big scare. Fortunately, there were still plenty more shocks to come.

We next entered the first of five elaborately-themed haunted walkthrough attractions – the Lunar Motel, a creepy little inn where Norman Bates would feel right at home. Approaching the front desk, we were immediately greeted by the blood-soaked concierge, who clearly hoped I would be “checking out” before my time. Did we have reservations? Yes, but we came anyway (rim shot, please). The place also seemed to have a bit of a pest-control problem, as evidenced by the mutant rat-dog creature that made the New York City bedbug scare look like a minor inconvenience.

The motel’s twisted hallways deliberately fed us directly into the second haunt, Glutton’s Slaughterhouse, a bloody meat factory where the practices were anything but kosher. Apparently, as the Lunar Motel’s latest guests, we were the intended kill -- which, in hindsight, explains why there are always vacancies!

Dodging butchered pig carcasses as they dangled from a rotating conveyor belt was almost enough to make me turn vegetarian. Throw in an evil pig-man waving an axe in my face, and suddenly I was thinking perhaps vegan was the way to go.

After we narrowly avoided becoming dead meat, Steph and I next entered the Dark Harvest, a foreboding corn maze. Despite the absence of “dead ends” in this disquieting labyrinth, the trek was nevertheless a dark and disorienting experience as we carved a winding path through the towering corn husks -- the calm, eerie silence punctuated only by our screams.

Rickety skeletons, pumpkin-faced monsters and sinister scarecrows relentlessly “corn stalked” us through every turn of this maize maze, apparently trying to get a head start on next year’s crops by scaring the fertilizer out of us.

Upon exiting the cornfield, we encountered even more pernicious plant life at the “Night Shade” nursery and greenhouse, where I quickly wished I had brought along my weed whacker. Any lingering thoughts of turning vegetarian wilted away as I was nearly devoured by the ravenous, man-eating greenery inhabiting this facility.

The fourth and fifth walk-through attractions were housed inside more traditional haunted mansions. The first of these abodes was themed to the concept “Flesh They Crave… The Feeding.” As we briefly waited on line, we detected the distinct roar of a chain saw as screaming guests frantically bolted from the exit doors. Yep, every year there’s at least one insane chain saw murderer, and this, more than anything else, completely freaks out Stephanie. (My weakness, on the other hand, is spiders, and I’m happy to say that this year’s haunt was 100% arachnid-free!)

Inside this bad acid trip of a house, it was pure carnage. Hideous beasts sliced and diced their victims and feasted on their insides. And then, just as we had almost reached safety: Mr. Chain Saw showed his face. Of course, he singled out Stephanie as his victim, all but ignoring my presence. Perhaps the fiend spared me because I put up a brave front, using my goofy gallows humor to disarm him. Maybe he chose Stephanie because he sensed my friend’s fear as she clung onto to my ski jacket. Or maybe it was because I repeatedly pointed at Stephanie as the maniac approached. In retrospect, considering how many wretched ghouls were literally breathing down Stephanie’s neck, she was clearly giving off some kind of “pick on me” vibe all night. (One awesome super-creep actually kept prodding her with a severed leg, asking her to “feel his bunions.”)

The final house, known as Blood Inn, was an old-time manor once inhabited by Prisoner X’s deceased mother, who went mad shortly before her evil-incarnate son chewed through her womb. (Lovely, no? Apparently, all of the haunted walkthroughs have back stories related to the hayride plot; they’re just not obvious to the casual observer.)

Upon entering the manor, the stately residence quickly deteriorated into a scenes of pure unadulterated horror. We passed through a particularly bizarre tunnel-like chamber, where the walls, decorated with skulls and human bones, literally collapsed in on us, creating a creepy, claustrophobic effect.

Having escaped all of the haunts in one piece, Stephanie and I found ourselves only mildly traumatized -- nothing a little shopping and snacking couldn’t solve. So we headed over to the midway, a cute Halloween village area offering an array of holiday props, masks, toys, tricks, ornaments and jewelry, not to mention seasonal goodies such as caramel apples, cider and pumpkin pie.

While Stephanie continued to browse, I took a detour to watch the hourly sideshow performed by stuntman John Shaw and his partner Lady Diabla, who in case you’re interested had herself surgically altered to make her ears pointy and her tongue forked -- you know, the standard nip-and-tuck procedure.

I kid you not when I tell you that several years ago one of Stephanie’s other friends nearly vomited watching Shaw perform his depraved acts of self-injury -- which, in itself, was kind of an amusing spectacle to witness. In this year’s performance, Shaw probed the insides of his head with a power drill (not through the skin mind you -- he’s not that good), and Lady Diabla swallowed a giant sword. According to Lady Diabla, only about five women in the world professionally perform the extremely dangerous sword-swallowing trick.

Then came the scariest part of the whole night: the grim realization that the fun was officially over for another year. Not to mention the truly frightening notion that November was now upon us, and Christmas was less than two months away.

The Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride and Haunted Houses attraction in Ulster Park, NY, runs through Saturday, Nov. 6. Visit www.headlesshorseman.com to purchase tickets.