SPRING HILL — None of the accused in the witch trials of colonial Salem, Mass., escaped with their lives. But the Haunted Trail extravaganza staged by Mike Witherow and some 60 scaremongers, taking creative license, claims that one witch did.
Halloween revelers will stalk the spell-casting specter over four nights in Witherow's 2 1/2 acres of woods off Golddust Road, where executioners, zombies, werewolves and ghosts will attempt to thwart their search.
For the ninth year, Witherow, a veteran of Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream, has gathered a troupe of volunteer hooligans to celebrate the fall holiday with a unique theme-centered, scare-up-some-fun event that will play out for the public from 7:30 to 10 p.m. today, Saturday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
"I had the time of my life," Witherow said of his part as a voodoo head shrinker at Busch Gardens, "but I knew I could do it better."
According to visitor comments in a book the retired Marine offers at the hunt's end, he has done so. "Better than Universal and Busch" appears over and over.
The trail features about 30 "scare zones" of the old-fashioned type, such as a graveyard, troll bridge, skeleton garden and castle, Witherow enumerated.
"No Freddy Kruegers. No beheadings. It's finding the witch," he said.
That's not to say the trail is tame.
"It's actually outside, at night, in the dark. That alone will run chills down your spine," Witherow said.
Guides carrying lanterns direct groups of about a half-dozen at a time along the trail, where breaks of a few minutes are interjected so the screams of a leading group don't forewarn followers of what's to come.
Planning starts the weekend after Easter each year, Witherow said. The scenes and scares change annually. Construction begins the weekend after July 4.
Volunteers began gathering late last month for screening, orientation, character tryouts, performance training, and finally makeup practice and dress rehearsal, much of it led by Taylor Witherow, the 16-year-old daughter of Mike and Linda Witherow and her dad's "administrative assistant."
Most of the volunteers are local teens earning community service hours toward their high school graduation.
The $5 admission for visitors goes to the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, the favorite charity of Taylor Witherow.
While numerous visitors have told the family the admission price is too little, given the expanse and quality of the production, Mike Witherow insists, "We want it to be affordable for families. We do this for fun."
As for the event's purported proficiency, the character witch is a professional thespian who literally flies in from Phoenix. Other longtime participants come from "Maryland, Pennsylvania, all over the place," Witherow said.
Visitor guides who tell the witch hunt story are returnee volunteers selected for their people skills.
Witherow says the staging costs "a couple thousand dollars" each year, footed by the family. They buy clothes and other props at thrift stores.
"Bury them in the ground for a while and you've got zombie costumes," he explained.
Much of the physical construction is of lumber from used warehouse pallets.
As for negotiating the trail, visitors are advised to wear appropriate footwear. Parents are asked to use their judgment about whether very young children will enjoy the event.
Volunteers with the humane society will sell refreshments.
Previous visitors have numbered in the hundreds annually, learning of the haunting production through word of mouth. A volunteer publicist signed on this year, so the event is being announced more widely.
Leo Krahula, 59, a volunteer carpenter who built the trail's castle throne and a vulture with an 8-foot wingspan, predicted, "This will be the biggest one it's ever been."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]