Monsters Incorporated

Graves Hotel and Sleepy Hollow Hayride continue a frightful tradition in Newtown, Pa.

By: Daniel Shearer


Staff photo by Daniel Shearer
Midnight Productions takes its scares seriously. Producer Newton Gilchrist walks down the staircase at the elaborate ‘Graves Hotel’ on Active Acres Farm.

   An October moon rises over a 230-acre farm near Newtown, Pa., bringing with it the first chills of the season. Through the efforts of several families, Active Acres Farm, owned by Bill and Eleanor Gunser, once again readies for weekend mayhem.
   The fun is good natured, of course. During the day, visitors come to pick pumpkins and see goats and other farm animals. At night, however, the place takes on an altogether different aura. That’s when Buckingham resident Newton Gilchrist, his partner, Allen Doak, and the other members of Midnight Productions bring their elaborate haunted house to life.
   "We’re theater people," says Mr. Gilchrist, whose wild hair makes him seem perfect for the job. He walks toward a large metal barn, where workers behind the façade are busy hammering, painting and sawing, preparing to deliver the perfect scare.
   "Right now, we’re adding another crypt," he says, menacingly raising one eyebrow. "We’re always changing. We work before the season, during the season. Things are always different, sometimes drastically. That’s one of the things we do best.
   "This building wasn’t here five years ago. We built it in five days. Then the inside, that’s taken us four years to get that correct."
   With the haunted house in full swing, nearly 150 groups of up to 10 people can make their way through the Graves Hotel’s 16 different rooms over the course of an evening. Active Acres farm also offers a haunted hayride that takes visitors perilously close to a fire-breathing dinosaur, past rows of scarecrows, some of which spring to life, and through the newly installed Hillbilly Heaven, with scenes reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Down another lane, an old harvester seems menacing enough, even without theatrical enhancements. The farm also has a concession stand, camp fires and an outdoor stage with music every night.
   "When you’re riding a hayride with 35 to 50 people on a tractor, it’s a whole different experience," Mr. Gilchrist says. "You don’t have the same scare factor involved. I think the hayrides can be very frightening, but people feel safer in the group. With the haunted house, the biggest group is 10 people at a time."


Staff photo by Daniel Shearer
Active Acres Farm in Newtown, Pa.

   Midnight Productions got its start 14 years ago in a rented house on Newtown-Yardley Road. The group eventually began looking for a larger venue and moved its home to Active Acres Farm, which welcomed Midnight Productions as a way to offset the ever-rising costs associated with running a small farm. Active Acres then began another attraction, the Sleepy Hollow Hayride, which runs concurrently. Tickets for the haunted house and the hayride may be purchased separately or as a package.
   "We have a lot of people who are into the haunting business," Mr. Gilchrist says. "Allen Doak has been doing haunted houses for almost 30 years. He started when he was 12 years old. His parents turned their whole home into a haunted house. The first year he did it, people came from all over, stood in a line around the block and paid 25 cents to get in.
   "Now, we have Jeffrey Hearn, who comes up from Atlanta. This is his fifth year, and he does the same thing down there with his home every year."
   Mr. Gilchrist’s sisters, Virginia Dowd and Bej Jones, also lend their efforts, along with Allen’s brother, Scott Doak, and other family members. Not counting behind-the-scenes contributors, nearly 20 actors populate the haunted house on most nights, most of them wearing makeup instead of masks.
   Midnight Productions rents theatrical lighting equipment and does musicals on a regular basis, including recent stagings of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., and the Villa Victoria Theatre in Ewing. Mr. Gilchrist has been working in theater for 30 years, with Broadway credits in State Fair and Camelot, although his interest in haunted houses didn’t take root until he began working with Midnight Productions.
   "We don’t start until you’re inside," Mr. Gilchrist says. "We lull you into safety, because when something finally happens, then it’s scary."
   None of the actors at the Graves Hotel intentionally touch visitors. Fire regulations require a limited amount of light in all scenes, which means the Graves Hotel does not rely on visitors fumbling around in the dark for its creepiness. Even so, Mr. Gilchrist says he’s seen some people become overwhelmed.
   "There is a very fine line between scary and too scary," Mr. Gilchrist says. "Sometimes when we have lots of kids we’ll tone it down a little. The hayride does that, too.
   "Sometimes people get claustrophobic because they can’t go through the maze or they’re afraid of spiders or clowns, but it doesn’t happen often. We’ve had people go to their knees and scream and carry on. Really, though, that’s what we’re trying to do."
Active Acres Farm, 881 Highland Road, Newtown, Pa., hosts the Graves Hotel and Sleepy Hollow Hayride through Nov. 2, Fri.-Sat. 7-10 p.m., Sun. 7-9 p.m. Hayride and haunted house tickets cost $12 each, $19 when purchased together. Parking costs $2. Pumpkin patch, pony rides, hay rides and climbing wall open through October, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. For information, call (215) 860-6855. On the Web: