Rania Peet stands in the backyard of a Silver Spring home, wearing skeleton arm warmers and holding a cup of coffee in an effort to keep cozy in the crisp autumn breeze. Halloween decorations surround her, from a boatful of skeletons, to cobwebs, to an angry looking gargoyle. Peet sighs. With three days until opening night, there is still much to do to prepare for The Haunted Garden, a community event she has produced for the past four years. As stressful as it is, she knows it will come together and she wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
“My best Halloweens have been these past years, doing this,” she says today. “I found my passion, and I just want to take it further. Although this year has been…” she pauses, with a disgruntled look on her face, “…a bit more difficult.”
Peet has been the creative mind behind The Haunted Garden, a haunting Montgomery County attraction, since its creation in 2010. Her enthusiasm for Halloween is undeniable, so much so that when a court order almost shut the event down this year, she fought right back. Any true Halloween enthusiast would.
Just weeks before, Peet and the owner of “The Haunted Garden” house, Donna Kerr, faced scrutiny when members of the community filed a temporary restraining order on “The Haunted Garden”, claiming that it was a commercial event that turned local traffic and parking into a nightmare. The garden’s creators were forced to publicly cancel their event. Peet and Kerr wouldn’t stand for that, so they decided to fight back.
“It was one of those things that sends you into a whirlwind. You’re trying to focus on the production of your haunt, and then all of the sudden you’re trying to create a campaign to save it,” Peet says. “There might be 11 neighbors that don’t like us, but there are thousands of people that do support us. They were on our side and they wanted to help us.”
And help they did receive. Peet and Kerr gained support from local fans, families and children who made signs in support of the garden. Peet made a website to help protect their event, and the haunt quickly gained hundreds of online supporters as well. Soon thereafter, the pair went to court, where a judge ruled that the law was in favor of the garden, lifting the restraining order and allowing the haunt to open for two nights.
“Two nights, and thousands of more people knowing about it,” Peet says, referring to the immense amount of press the conflict received. Peet says that her and Kerr are both concerned about the inevitable crowds that will attend the haunt on October 25 and 26, but they’ve taken measures to ensure safety and don’t want these concerns to have a negative impact on Halloween.
“It sucks to have these people that just want to shut you down. But you’re always going to have those people,” Peet says as she sips on her coffee.
Kerr agrees completely, and wishes more people would adopt a “live and let live” mindset that both she and Peet so obviously embrace.
“They don’t have to like it, but why do they have to try to stop it for everybody else?” Kerr asks today.
“One woman said we ruined Halloween. Like…what?” Peet squeals. “That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to make it better, not ruin it!”
Still, Peet is in tune with her own love for Halloween, which she says is hard to even put in words. When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters to her.
“At the end of the day, we’re here, we’re able to open and give this to people. We’re able to give people Halloween memories, and that’s just beyond words, really.”
A Daytime Tour of The Haunted Garden
History of Halloween
Of course, Peet is not the only fan of Halloween. But unlike Peet, most people think of candy, costumes and pumpkins as October 31 draws near. Even fewer would think of Halloween as a religious holiday, although it started out as such.
Celtic people, who roamed Europe thousands of years ago, started the concept of Halloween, which they referred to as Samhain. This day marked the beginning of winter and it was believed that the ghosts of the dead roamed earth on this day also.
As Christians wanted their holidays to coincide with those of
pagan religions, Nov. 2 was deemed All Saints Day, or All Hallows. The night before this day, All Hallows Eve, was a time when people believed that evil spirits roamed the earth. As so, people set out food and drink for the spirits to take in hopes of making them happy. All Hallows Eve became known as Hallow Evening, which then became Hallowe’en.
Throughout the 20th century, Halloween has been associated as a children’s festival. Whether making costumes, trick-or-treating or carving pumpkins, there is also something for children to do. Some events, like the Haunted Garden, attract both children and older crowds, although the greater the haunt, the greater the opposition.
Other attractions are less controversial. One such event that has been happening in Maryland for 27 years is the PumpkinFest, held by Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills.
This two-day event for children and parents helped them get into the spirit of Halloween. There was pumpkin bingo, facing painting, and a magic show. The more Halloween type activities included making apple cider, painting pumpkins and making a scarecrow. Since Irvine is an educational institution that promotes outdoor learning, there were also alpacas for children and parents to pet and feed.
Another kind of Halloween event in Maryland seeks to combine haunting and philanthropic work. One Lutherville couple strives to do this.
The Timoniac Makes Lutherville Scream
Steve Bauer stands in a dressing room at Towson University with a white lab coat on. The left pocket reads: “The Jokesters: You want blood. We have blood.” This is the slogan of “The Jokesters”, a local production company owned by Bauer and Marianne Wittelsberger.
“Quite honestly, I’m not so good with real blood. But the fake stuff is fine,” he laughs. Wittelsberger, wearing a matching lab coat, is seated next to Bauer, laughing along with him.
The couple loves Halloween, although they engage in spookiness year-round. In addition to working in Towson’s theatre department, they also co-own a production company called the Jokesters. Together, they’ve worked on everything from television, movies and live events. They’ve written, produced, directed and even provided special effects and stage makeup. More recently, they worked on their annual Halloween event that raises money for Lutherville firefighters. The event is an original creation that they’ve dubbed “The Timonium Scaregrounds”, a play on the better known Timonium Fairgrounds.
The face of the event is the Timoniac, a demented clown who finds teenagers at the state fair, locks them into cages, dismembers them, grinds their bodies up and makes corndogs out of them to sell back to teenagers at the State Fair.
“Marianne made up that one,” Bauer says chuckling and pointing at her.
“I did, I did!” Wittelsberger says, throwing her hands up in admission. “I know it’s kind of demented…but it’s funny!”
Whether demented or a source of humor, one thing is for sure: Saturday’s event was a hit.
“We were slammed last Saturday night. Just constant people coming through. Some of them have gone on to go to other haunts but they are writing to me saying ours is clearly the best! We scared up some fun,” Bauer describes it with utmost satisfaction.
“We really did,” Wittelsberger says, “This was the first time that I’ve seen people just back out of the line and turn around. I mean, it was pretty funny.”
Over 300 people attended the event on Saturday. Attendees included families within the community as well as people who traveled on the Light Rail to get a good scare. Still, the Jokesters know that not everyone loves Halloween hauntings as much as they do.
We’ve had [the event] in Lutherville for two years now. All of our neighbors are great, but sometimes you’ll run up against some people who question you,” Wittelsberger admits. “They’ll ask, ‘what’s going on down here?’ Someone always wants to stick their nose in it. You just have to try to smooth things over with everybody, that’s all you can do.”
The Jokesters try to do just that. Bauer speaks highly of his community and the importance of looking out for his neighbors. The couple knows there will always be opposition, but that doesn’t seem to matter to them. The Jokesters will continue to try to foster the community with their work.
“The Timoniac is here to stay,” Bauer says.
More Maryland Hauntings
The Timonium Scaregrounds event is one of Baltimore County’s only chilling attractions, but it is certainly not Maryland’s only Halloween event.
From Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson to Field of Screams in Olney and Bennett’s Curse Haunted House in Jessup, there are an abundance of Marylanders who can’t get enough of Halloween. People like Rania Peet and The Jokesters provide entertainment on a more local scale. Other events draw Halloween devotees together on a larger scale.
Halloween groupies from far and wide come out for an event called Run for Your Lives, which benefits Kennedy Krieger Institute and Project Sole, among other organizations. In its second year being held in Maryland, Halloween fanatics and especially those intrigued by the zombie apocalypse, converged at Run for Your Lives to celebrate the season of fright.
Marylanders Run For Their Lives
“BUZZZZZZZZ!” The loud horn ripped through the dry, hot air signaling the beginning of the race. As runners began the dusty, uneven course, they were met with more than just sunshine and heat. The entire 5K race had zombies throughout the course, all of whom tried to “kill” the runners. Runners had a belt around their waist, which contained three flags on it, like the ones used in elementary school football games. For zombies to “kill” runners, each one of the three flags must be taken off the belt. The total number of survivors was calculated at the end of the race.
Maryland’s Run for Your Lives was held on Oct. 5 in Charlotte Hall, Md. Reed Street Productions held the first event in 2011 at Camp Ramblewood, near Havre de Grace. People can sign up to be a zombie, runner or both.
Mariquit Lu was a first-time zombie and loved it. She has always loved Halloween and creepy, spooky things, so being a zombie was a no-brainer.
“Growing up, my family has always taken Halloween and Halloween decorations seriously,” she said with a big smile while waiting in line to register. “This year I finally have the opportunity to be a part of Run for Your Lives and I’m so stoked to transform into a zombie! Now I get to be around other people who love Halloween as much as I do.”
While some racers were dressed in average running gear, others wore costumes. Included among the massive crowd were doctors, runaway brides and superheroes. Zombie volunteers, however, underwent the work of professional makeup artists to destroy their clothes, paint their faces to make them appear undead, and have fake blood thrown onto them.
Once her shirt was ripped and her face splattered with black dots, she waited in line for the blood. She didn’t mind that the man throwing it threw it mostly into her mouth instead of onto her body.
“I’m so short he must have miscalculated my height,” she says with a laugh, blood dripping down the right side of her face and into her teeth, making her look like a skeleton.
Even though this event was held in the beginning of October, this particular Saturday was as hot as the middle of summer. In the 90 degree heat with little shade and no water, runners continued running the race as far as they could and the undead stayed in their positions till their shirt was over.
Lu was lucky enough to be stationed in a shaded corner in the woods that marked the halfway point of the course. The area started on top of a hill with a slight decline, then plunged into the steepness of the hill, and finished with a sharp left that led into the woods. Runners, who were sweaty, dehydrated and cramped, stopped at the hill’s beginning to regain their breath and rest for a minute. Staring at the undead and Lu starting back at them, they chitchatted about the race, the weather and how many more miles were left on the track.
Once the runners were ready to continue, Lu transformed back into her role and began moaning and stumbling towards them. Most of the runners’ flags were already taken off at that point of the course, but as Lu collected some throughout her shift, she began distributing flags to runner who did not have any.
“I made up an acronym called Z.E.T.H., you humans!” she shouted to runners who ran away from her, disregarding her contribution. “It means Zombies for the Ethical Treatment of Humans. Take this flag, human! Become alive again.”