It’s the best kept secret at Georgia Southern University — but it’s also a long-standing tradition that benefits local children and the community overall.
Professor “Mouse” Blankenbaker and his students began hosting the Haunted Forest of Statesboro in 1980 as a class project. When he retired in 2003, the tradition stopped, until community volunteers brought it back. The event was held at the GSU campus from 1980 to 2003, brought back in 2009, and then moved to The Clubhouse in 2013. This year, it’s being moved to the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fairgrounds.
Upon its resurrection in 2009, proceeds from the Haunted Forest were shared between the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County and the Center for Addiction Recovery. The Boys & Girls Club became the sole beneficiary in 2013 with the relocation to The Clubhouse. So far, the event has generated more than $250,000 to support local services.
Each year, volunteers and community members look forward to this spine-tingling tradition that ushers in the fall season and is appropriate for the old and young and heart. Volunteers, behind the scenes and up front, coupled with the support of a worthy cause, make the Haunted Forest a long-standing tradition.
Willingway Hospital stages the event each year, completely staffed by volunteers, including actors, makeup artists and set designers. They all come together to create a spooky experience unlike anything else. It’s a trick — or a treat — depending on your taste. However you choose to look at it, it’s a spooky good time.
The other host of the HF is Pi Sigma Epsilon, a co-ed marketing and sales fraternity at Georgia Southern. The group has been very active behind the scenes each year, promoting the event, particularly for this year. In April 2021, the student organization presented a marketing plan to event organizers, because they had found that since the event moved off campus, student engagement and participation has declined.
Pi Sigma Epsilon conducted on campus research that spring and found that nearly 60% of the student body had never heard of the Haunted Forest, despite the event taking place less than a mile from campus. The research also discovered that nearly 83% of the student body had never attended the Haunted Forest. Pi Sigma saw great growth potential, and the students have donated their time to make sure their peers are more engaged.
With Pi Sigma Epsilon as a partner and host, promotion is being brought back to campus with the support of GSU administration. Other initiatives include building a new Haunted Forest eCommerce website, www.hauntedforeststatesboro.com, aided with social media promotion and student volunteer recruitment.
The theme for each year’s event pulls from pop culture, and this year, with a new location, the Haunted Forest will be going back to basics with the fear of the unknown and what might be hiding in the dark. What goes bump in the night is certainly a fear for some, and the tagline for the Haunted Forest — “Come if you dare!” — certainly applies.
The Haunted Forest includes a lot of props, lighting, sound equipment and costumes each year. Over the history of the event, a large amount of those supplies have been collected, used and recycled. But with the wear and tear that they gain each year, some of those items have to be replaced, and the Boys & Girls Club invests more than $5,000 annually for the purchase of new supplies and equipment that are necessary for hosting the event.
Being at the fairgrounds will mean a larger event and a larger audience, says organizers. There will be less restrictions, more parking, and coming off the heels of the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair, which happens the week before the HF, there is a great opportunity to attract more people through the turnstiles. Organizers say the Statesboro Kiwanis Club has been easy to work with and because of their hospitality, the Haunted Forest will be even bigger and better this year.
This year’s event will consist of five scare stations, each with a unique fear/phobia theme. The length of the trail and the amount of time taken to complete it still depends on “how quickly the victim can run.”
Preparations were underway in August as volunteers worked on preparing the trail through the trees at the back of the fairgrounds property.
“With a clean slate, we are able to introduce new scares and build a course that will help more efficiently usher visitors through the forest from start to finish, hopefully minimizing bottlenecks and long wait times,” said David Brickey, who is a lecturer of Marketing at Georgia Southern with the Parker College of Business. Brickey has been working with the Haunted Forest for some time.
“We hope that in the near future, the new location will enable us to offer more opportunities and experiences for the customer. Some peripheral additions may be a pallet maze, ‘Kill the Zombie’ paintball range and a classic horror film night,” he added.
The majority of the cast each year is provided by Willingway Hospital and Leelee’s Place, as well as student organizations and community members who all share a love for Halloween. More than 100 volunteers are needed each night to provide the ultimate fright experience. Much of the technical expertise is provided by Jim Becker of Beck4 Properties, and Alex Smith of Pride Pools and Spas.
Hosting the event is a year-round process for Tracie Smith of Willingway. As soon as the event closes on the last night, Smith hits the liquidation sales for leftover Halloween stock in all the major retail stores. In early spring, she begins choosing the themes for each scare station and orders the appropriate costumes and props. During the summer months, you can find her organizing the work crews that prepare the trail and build the structures that enhance the experience.
Each night, the cast and crew arrive at least an hour before opening to begin setup and staging, and get into costumes and makeup. The crew also checks power and lighting equipment, and distributes sound equipment to each station.
But beware: the Haunted Forest is intense and geared for an adult audience. However, people of all ages are welcome, and the cast is eager to provide equal opportunity scaring for all audiences. Although the event is scary, children can enter the forest, depending on their maturity and the discretion of their parents. The event is advertised for ages 10 and up.
Cost to enter the forest is a $15 donation for adults and $10 for students. A fast pass can be purchased for $20. All proceeds will benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County. The event is open from October 25 through 31, from 8 p.m. to midnight each night.