On a recent Friday in October, hundreds of children and their families are excitedly milling about the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.
Clutching flashlights, glow sticks and steaming cups of hot chocolate, visitors have come to the state-run zoological center — which houses wildlife native and introduced to West Virginia — for the ninth annual Spooky Night Tours.
This story is part of a Halloween episode of Inside Appalachia, which features ghost tales and legends from across Appalachia.
While many enjoy the scare factor and spooky monsters, ghouls and ghosts associated with Halloween, heart-pounding scares are not for everyone.
“We are honored to provide a family-friendly Halloween event,” said Judy Channell, secretary for the state wildlife center and organizer of the Spooky Night Tours. “We're just spooky. We don't do anything really bloody or gory or anything like that.”
The event began almost a decade ago - inspired by the nocturnal nature of most of the center’s creatures.
“The initial premise was … the animals are nocturnal and they're actually kind of more active [at night],” Channell said. “And so it was just going to be interesting to walk through the woods with a mountain lion and wolves and black bears and everything, and we just built on it every year.”
These days, Channell and others at the center begin thinking up new Halloween-themed tableaus months in advance.
“Usually in the spring, we really sit down and try to think about, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do different?’” Channell said. “And then usually in July and August, we go around and start talking about the placement.”
The 1.25-mile paved trail that winds through the center is decorated with different spooky motifs, mostly funny, including a graveyard and giant dancing spider.
For the cost of admission — $4 for adults and $2 for kids — visitors can partake in all of the evening's events, including an open air hayride through the wildlife center and visiting a spooky maze.
Jayden Straley-Smith, 9 years old, is vibrating with excitement as he waits to get on the next hayride. He is unequivocal that the Spooky Night Tours are not too scary.
“Nope,” he said. “Not scary at all.”
Outside the maze — a tarp-covered building located past a herd of grazing elk — a cobweb-covered headstone warns visitors: Enter at your own risk. Spooky skeletons hang from the walls and orange fairy lights cast a ghoulish glow.
Buckhannon resident Adrienne Tucker and her family are standing outside the maze. She jokes that her kids have been through it dozens of times and cannot get enough.
Tucker said she enjoys the Spooky Night Tours because it is not heavy on the horror.
“It’s just good simple fun,” she said. “Not too scary.”
The highlight of the center’s Halloween-themed festivities begins when the sun goes down.
As night falls, excitement mounts. In small groups, families are unleashed onto the trail to interact with the spooky decorations and center’s animal exhibits. One volunteer actor, dressed as a fortune teller, predicts, “You will be very tired when you get to the end of the trail.”
The highlight for many are the animals. The kids are especially impressed by three mountain lions, one of which is standing right up against the chain link fence.
“Those are huge!” exclaims one excited child.
The kids stalk past the huge cats, waving their glow sticks and flashlights.
To help keep the scare factor low, many of the actors participating in the tour are kids. At a newly-installed staged scene, which is supposed to be Area 51, a crashed UFO is shrouded in green, glowing lights. Gavin Marsh, 11 years old, is dressed head to toe in white plastic, as he is playing a hazmat worker on cleanup duty.
One of his brothers is dressed in a suit — he is playing a government worker. Another brother is dressed as an invisible alien; even though he is really in plain sight, the group is supposed to imagine the government workers cannot see him.
And while none of the actors jump out or grab people, some may induce a bit of a fright. During one particularly dark stretch of trail, one actor, face painted white like an evil clown, clicks on his flashlight and says “boo.”
After the tour, attendee Krystal Bevans recalls her experience.
“Very exciting, very good. Very, very nice decorations,” she said. “We had a good time as always. It’s very worth the trip to come to it if you’ve never been.”
This story is part of an upcoming Halloween episode of Inside Appalachia, which features ghost tales and legends from across Appalachia.