The essence of what we do in this business is simple, SCARE PEOPLE, and that is what the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in Gradyville, Pennsylvania is all about! I first met the owner, Randy Bates about 8 or 9 years ago and he was already at the top of his game. With three events, a Hayride, Corn Maze and Haunted House he had all the bases covered, three different ways to reach deep into the minds of his guests and make ‘em scream! In a market packed with major events he always brings in massive hordes of scared patrons every year, and weather permitting, things just keep getting better.
I had the chance to visit the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride in the off season this year and walk the shows with Randy. Although they were still half converted to a Christmas event, his approach to shocking his guests was very clear to me. Blow them away with pure unrelenting action. After checking out the set up I could see why this event is considered one of the scariest haunted attractions in America! Classically hayrides work in a stop and show format, with the wagon pulling up to a scene and some sort of skit unfolding. Not so at his haunted hayride! This event is operated like a high throughput haunted house…once the wagons load they never stop, continuously moving through high action, high startle scenes with relentless attacks from all sides of the trail. Barrels hurl down from overhead, enormous living trees grasp at the riders from above, walls collapse, actors fly over the wagon and monsters jump on with the guests bringing the action right into their faces! Another big factor for Randy is the use of fire, with a huge dragon, a flaming gas station and exploding dynamite shack just the beginning of the pyrotechnics. His approach almost plays out like a high action stunt show with trained employees pushing the guests’ fear quotient to the limit!
Big sets and detail are also part of the winning equation at the Bates Motel. Surrounded on all sides by massive trees, the wagon rolls through enclosed barns and compounds full of buildings. After entering the mouth of a dragon and going almost 100 feet though its smoky strobe filled guts (to the pounding, heartbeat sound of huge 1200 watt subwoofers), the wagon passes through a series of asylum style buildings. This puts the actors right on top of the wagon with inmates swarming out of every door and window! Not only were the elaborate building constructed from the ground up by Randy and his staff, all of the wood was milled right in the farm from trees on the property. Other big sets include a King Kong style village, a zombie strip mall, a haunted church with ghostly pallbearers, a toxic waste facility, and a 300 foot long cave and mine shaft filled with collapsing beams and giant monsters. And when I say monsters I mean monsters! Randy has amassed a huge collection of the biggest animatronic beasts the industry has to offer including such favorites as the Slayer, the Giant Spawn and the 17 foot tall Pumpkin King. One thing that sets this hayride apart from the others is the use of an onboard, digital soundtrack, that is choreographed to the scenes. Using 500 watt amps, MP-3 players, and full range cabinet speaker systems, the Bates Haunted Hayride adds an element found nowhere else.
After surviving the hayride guests queue up for the famous Bates Motel itself. Already rattled, they are now REALLY up close and personal with the actors. This event is high action high startle as well, with monsters getting at the patrons from every possible angle of attack. Packed with tight set dressing and special effects, guests barely have time to catch their breath before the next scare hits! Many classic haunted mansion style scenes are found inside including libraries, kitchens, multi-doored hallways and my favorite, the Trophy Room. This scene has over 30 REAL exotic animal heads from an old big game hunter’s collection. When the actor shows up with his air powered shotgun you can guess what happens next! Another thing one notices in this haunted house is the density of special effects. Everywhere are moving props, slamming doors, overhead ghosts, unusual lighting effects and illusions, including a live action CGI style ghost greeter. After a brief dip outdoors to view a haunted playground with animated swing set and merry-go-round, it’s back inside for the conclusion of the haunt. After more cavern-like twists and turns including a body bag room, the final blow off occurs, a large room with a massive sweeping staircase. Hidden here are several intense scares designed to blast the guests out of the double doors screaming. I cannot tell you what they are (One is a custom effect found ONLY here), so you need to check them out in person!
The final element is the corn maze. Entering underneath a colossal cow skull that literally swallows them up, guests begin a harrowing journey through the tightly packed stalks. Although much of the path is through a cornfield there are many other structures hidden in the rows. First is a graveyard and crypt area loaded with another of Randy’s special collections…real tombstones! Apparently he got a deal on mis-carved and out of service monuments from a local dealer after offering him a super low price for the lot. Randy said ,“Hey don’t you go to conventions where you get together with your fellow stone carvers? Think what a great story this will make, how you sold the same tombstones TWICE!“ The guy loved the idea and made the deal! After the crypt with its automated doors comes a complete house totally hidden in the corn. The entire structure is a bloody murder scene loaded with props and animations. Another large structure near the end of the maze is a walk through mine shaft, complete with flickering lanterns and crazy miners! Scattered throughout the corn are many other sets, including a western area with a black lit forge that gives the appearance of red hot coals (and the guests are gonna get branded!) not to mention the ever present swaying corn. At any time actors can suddenly appear and disappear in the stalks, making the entire journey seemingly fraught with danger, although Randy is renowned for having one of the most expansive safety programs in the haunt industry. The maze also has a background digital soundtrack playing custom erie music, that sets each customer on edge, and makes it easier to scare them.
The entire event is wildly successful, one of the consistently most heavily attended haunted attractions in the country, and ranks highly on top ten national haunt lists every year. The combination of a wooded farm location in a major market (Philadelphia), big effects, major sets, unique scares and pure adrenaline makes it an all time fan favorite. And you cannot forget the most important thing that ultimately makes a haunt likely to succeed - ask Randy why he haunts and he will lay it out plain and simple - “I love to scare people!”