Years ago, for reasons not worth recounting here, I was briefly forced to live in suburban Maryland. Maryland, for the uninitiated, is objectively the worst state in the union—even the considerable charm of Baltimore (I am not being facetious) is not sufficient to raise Maryland's station above that of "paved garbage heap." If you're from Maryland, I apologize, not because what I'm saying is rude, but because you were forced to grow up there and that must have been just terrible.
But Maryland does have one incredible feature that made life there almost bearable. Markoff's Haunted Forest is the haunted attraction against which all others must be judged: Located on acres of private property in the 150-year-old Civil War town of Dickerson, the forest features, among other things, a haunted zipline, a haunted maze, a haunted giant swing, and most importantly, a long and involved haunted hayride. My memory of the hayride has dulled with time, but I'll always remember with fondness the feeling of scrambling to avoid the grasping fingers of whatever blood-covered ghoul had attached itself to the tractor's exterior, and the mounting terror when the engine was cut in the middle of the blackened forest.
Naturally, I was delighted to learn that New York would be getting its own haunted hayride, and while I understand that the city simply does not have the open space to dedicate to such a sprawling enterprise, I was optimistic: It's located on Randall's Island, which, in addition to being relatively open, also comes with its own blood-freezing history, having at turns been home to cemeteries, hospitals, homeless shelters, two psychiatric hospitals, an "idiot asylum" (!) and a state police station. Randall's Island has seen some shit.
It's also just a stone's throw from The Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane. The place was featured in perhaps the most chilling radio piece I have ever heard in my life, in which reporter David Isay spends several days with its inhabitants, unaccompanied by guards. The facility is always there, easily visible across the East River from the Upper East Side, but seeing the imposing concrete structure rise in the distance, lights twinkling from some floors and not others, is a stark reminder that those of us down here are paying to get our annual dose of terror, while the residents of that building live unimaginable horrors every day.
The bus for the hayride is the same bus that heads for the hospital, and I was grateful to be among those getting off where we did. Along with a group of teens, I made my way past some soccer fields to an arrangement of tents, one of which was labeled "Ticket Crypt." Cute.
Unlike at Markoff's, there were few time-wasters or diversions to enjoy while waiting for the hayride. In a tent labeled "The Psychic," a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt offered palm readings, and another tent sold T-shirts. A hunched, 12-foot-tall corpse clown with enormous clawed hands wandered around and caressed those waiting for the Port-O-Potties, its creepy face causing me to jump even when I was watching it walk toward me.
A ghoul and some jerk.
After a few moments of menacing, we were ushered into a chain link cage, where we awaited the arrival of the wagon, which showed up in short order. About 15 of us piled into its bed, a hay-filled box that made me feel like a baby bird. An undead farmer in overalls went over the rules, which included, among other things, "no twerking and no flashing," which really did get my hopes up for the forthcoming 30 minutes.
I won't divulge the particulars of what happened during the ride, but I will say that it was lackluster. Scares were delivered in a series of disjointed vignettes, and while some of them were visually quite striking, the actors seemed half-hearted about their commitment to terrifying us. A good hayride finds the actors crawling all over the side of the wagon, getting in patrons' faces (and sometimes in their laps) and rapping on the side of the cart with whatever blunt object they happen to be wielding.
It wasn't the actors' fault they were clearly visible emerging from behind rocks and trees—I blame the crepuscular glow of nearby Manhattan for that—but they seemed uncertain what they were supposed to do once they reached us, often opting for meek whimpering over all-out shouting, and slunk away far too soon.
It did have some interactive touches, such as the time a gruesome child burn victim, involuntarily housed at the "Sister's of the Burning Hearts Children's Home" stuffed a crumpled note into my hand. I struggled to examine it in the darkness, and saw that it appeared to depict a child or very short person speared by a crucifix, blood raining from its body while another child or person looked on from inside a nearby watchtower. "Sister say stop..." The fuck was that last word? Urine? I don't know, look for yourself.
Another fascinating thing was the number of selfie sticks employed during the journey. One man filmed the entire ride, with actors pausing their screaming and heavy breathing to pose behind him, adjusting themselves in the light to ensure he got a good shot. On the one hand I pity the friends and family members who will be forced to relive his experience secondhand; on the other, they'll see exactly the same thing I did, minus the long trip to Randall's Island and the $35 entrance fee.
The ride wound to a close, and the half-hearted menacing of the actors fell into the background as I stared at the psychiatric hospital rising from the distance. The hayride was not worth the trip to Randall's Island, but I'll tell you one thing: I'm sure glad I got to board that bus afterward and go back to where I came from.
The hayride will run on selected dates through rest of the month from 7 to 11 p.m. (Click here for specifics.) General admission is $35.