Terrifying, actually. But The Haunt gives chills for good causes.
Ozaukee Press staff

The Dowe family of Port Washington has spent countless hours volunteering for The Haunt in Ozaukee County for several years, but attendees won’t see two of them.

Until it’s too late.

Often, the family has come to learn, less is more when it comes to ensuring shrieks.

“I think it’s more fun to be unseen and be around them,” college senior Becca said.

“She actually made a grown man cry and crawl out of her room,” her mother Sue said.

Fritz, Becca’s father, once noticed several people setting up for a photo under the lights in the parking lot. Dressed in all black, he snuck behind the group — even backing up per the photographer’s instructions so everyone fit into the shot.

A girl snapped the photo and screamed when she noticed him. Then a guy turned and freaked out when he saw the uninvited figure. The girl and guy ended up falling down in a panic but were OK.

“I can legally scare people six nights a month and the cops won’t get called,” Fritz said.

The Haunt, held at the Ozaukee County fairgrounds, is one of 4-H’s largest fundraisers, Sue said. She has been a 4-H leader and is the event’s marketing coordinator.

Putting together the haunted house can be a petrifying project itself. Sue said work starts in January when a 4-H committee of volunteers chooses a theme that must be kept a secret through October. The word never gets out, and the theme can even change from weekend to weekend, providing a different experience for return customers.

“You can’t scare someone if they know what to expect,” Sue said.

Construction starts right after the County Fair is over in August. Two semis worth of materials are brought in, and the cow barn gets cleaned and transformed into a spooky space. At least 50 people are involved.

“This is all built by volunteers with sick minds,” Fritz joked.

“Building it and decorating it every year is pretty fun,” Becca said. “It’s literally a barn and then it’s a haunted house.” 

Becca wanted to be involved since she was a child. She joined in sixth grade, the first time she was eligible.

“I had to start as a ghoulie because they don’t let you act,” she said.

Ghoulies, whose jobs are to “just kind of be creepy,” escort attendees from the ticket area to the house.

Since then, Becca has played several different characters, including a jailed prisoner making loud noises on the bars and a torturer using a guillotine.

Now, she and her father usually work Haunt patrol, wearing dark clothes while lurking around scaring people.

Actors don’t know who they’ll be until they read a list on an easel in a back room. They are each assigned their own area and have a fair amount of leeway in coming up with ways to scare people. Sue said getting into attendees’ heads is important.

“Jump scares are very effective,” she said.

A woman who the Dowes said goes from normal to full-on creepy in an instant reads attendees the rules of the house, which include not touching the monsters.

The Haunt is a safety-first event, the Dowes said. Each room has a fire extinguisher, and evacuations are practiced.

A trailer filled with cameras provides views of everything inside the house. Volunteers watch for actors who are feeling ill or if something in their room broke and needs to be fixed, and for guests who want to quit.

The Haunt has self-explanatory code yellow and code brown levels.

“People do strange things when they’re scared,” Fritz said. “I was going to sell adult diapers.”

The event recommends children be 10 or older to come through, but they’re not the ones who always get scared the most.

Fritz said that years ago a father came through with his young son and a friend. The kids were scared before they entered, but by the end they were fine and the father was nearly in tears.

The house is made for accessibility.

“It’s the only haunted house that is wheelchair accessible,” Fritz said. “Everyone gets the full scare.”

Attendance ranges from 500 to 600 each of six nights in October.

It takes a minimum of 25 minutes to travel through The Haunt.

“We say, ‘As fast as you can run but there’s no running,’” Fritz said.

The Haunt wasn’t held in 2020 due to the pandemic, then moved for one year to Ozaukee Pioneer Village and was held outside due to Covid-19, Sue said.

“At night it’s creepy already,” she said of the outdoor scene.

This year, cornstalks were collected from area farms to decorate some of the tight walkways. Volunteers found a way to make it rain inside, and new this year are  crash test dummies donated by a local fire department.

“They look awful but they’re so perfect,” Sue said.

Sue doesn’t scare people anymore, but instead serves an array of edibles in the snack room, where she can overhear attendees’ feedback.

“We’ve had so many good comments,” she said.

There’s more to The Haunt than just capturing the spirit of Halloween, however. Sue said the young 4-H workers are taught a host of skills.

“They learn all aspects of it,” she said. Everyone helps with community outreach, and some do script writing and construction work, including building walls following specific instructions The Haunt has developed over time.

The event has its creation down to a science, teaching people how to build its walls and other infrastructure.

Take down lasts a couple of weeks, and organizers get December off before starting to plan again in January.

Ages of volunteers run the gamut.

“I sometimes wonder who’s having more fun — the kids or the adults,” Sue said.

While some object to the concept for religious reasons, the Dowes said it’s all in good fun and helps support 4-H.

From the proceeds, $5,000 goes to The Haunt scholarship, which is aptly presented on cardboard cut into the shape of tombstones. Becca was excited to earn it for that reason, and Sue said she still has her daughter’s cardboard cutouts.

Despite their passion for the season, the Dowes home has no Halloween decor. They’re too busy at The Haunt.

Becca said she has a ghost on her dorm door at Carthage College.

She has always been into scary movies and made her parents see “Insidious 2,” she said.

Sue helped encourage it.

“I showed her ‘Poltergeist,’ which tormented me for a long time,” she said.

Becca is responsible for a chilling fear for her father, who answered without hesitation about what scares him.

“Her tuition.”

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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