Trail of Fears

Trail of Fears

Ghosts, ghouls and ghastly grooms lurk at 8th annual Johnson Haunted Trail.

Suzanne Johnson was an infant when her father started the haunted trail that has become a tradition in their Potomac neighborhood. The trail, which raises money for charity through voluntary donations, is in its eighth year.

Suzanne, 9, says she’s been through the trail every year, even if she had to be carried. And as she’s grown, so has the trail.

Paul Johnson started the trail eight years ago because neighborhood children weren’t coming up the long driveway to his house, set back in the woods on Cragwood Way, off Lake Potomac Drive. “We thought, ‘What can we do to get neighbors to come here first?’” before going trick-or-treating, he said. “That’s how it got started.”

The trail was a success from the start. “It really brings the community together,” Johnson said.

Johnson has invested a significant amount in generators, lights, wiring and animatronic ghosts and ghouls over the years. He now has a small addition to the house completely given over to storing the trail supplies — enough to fill a two-car garage.

Johnson says he never thought to charge admission, but four years ago he realized he could use the popularity of the trail to raise money for charity. He started collecting voluntary contributions, which he donated to Cure Autism Now and other charities. Last year he raised $4,300 dollars.

“People are very generous. … They’re extraordinarily generous in [this] community,” Johnson said, noting that his collection box sees “a lot of 20 dollar bills” while a few people give checks for $50 or $100.

IT’S CLEAR HOW MUCH the trail has grown. The small circuit behind Johnson’s house that was the original trail has been beaten down by about 500 pairs of feet in recent years, and every year further and further into the forest. The trail now has 40 volunteers working on a single night and is open both on Halloween itself and the Saturday of the preceding week.

It’s not just bed sheets strung up in trees. The trail now features dozens of animatronic monsters, bubbling cauldrons, smoke machines, coffins that pop open, a haunted shack, a haunted pirate ship, a giant tarantula, two graveyards, a maniac with a chainsaw and a very scary mad surgeon. And a lot more.

Some of the animatronics shoot out on pneumatic pistons. One spits water. However, “there’s no substitute to live people,” Johnson said.

Johnson starts arranging the trail two months in advance, spending most of his time on wiring the lights and generators. He takes three days off to work on the trail full time the week before it opens.

Those who have been to the trail before shouldn’t be discouraged from coming again. Johnson introduces new elements every year and redesigns the trail so that familiar frights come at different spots. For the first time this year, the trail is arranged with a way out partway through. Younger children can enjoy the tamer first section and then exit while older kids can continue to the biggest scares.

Either way, Johnson said, “Almost everybody goes twice because they miss stuff the first time.”

THIS YEAR’S RENDITION opened Saturday. Johnson said the trail had “had a great opening night — by far the best over the last eight years,” and raised nearly $2000. Since the trail usually raises about two-thirds of its total money on Halloween itself, it is on pace to earn more than $5000, breaking last year’s record—if the weather holds.

“We have been just blessed” with good weather, Johnson said. “We’ve had a couple of times that you get that lump in your throat,” but nature has consistently held out for the good cause. Saturday was “perfect” Johnson said. “It dried out during the day…. You don’t realize how much the lights give off heat. There was still moisture and it was like there was this thin mist everywhere. It was really eerie. It was great.” He has his fingers crossed for more of the same Sunday.

THIS YEAR, SUZANNE plays a dead bridesmaid in a morbid wedding tableaux near the beginning of the trail.

She says that the trail attracts friends, classmates, even her teachers. “I feel so accomplished because they like really come to my house,” she said. “A lot of boys in my class are saying ‘Oh, can I be in it?’” but scaring duties are only open to an elite few.

“I really enjoy it,” Suzanne said. “I get to scare a lot of my friends.”

But Suzanne can also see that putting on the trail is no small task. “Dad, this is a lot of work,” Johnson recalls her saying. “When I grow up and have kids, I’ll probably just come to your house.”