The Haunted Woods Project

Even though we know much—or think we do—throughout human history there have been mysteries, things beyond the ken of human experience that fascinate, frighten, and intrigue us. Evolved from the Day of the Dead, Halloween has changed from a religious to a secular celebration of things beyond our knowledge.

For many years YSI sponsored a Halloween event called Haunted Woods. This tour of creative scenes ranging from the grisly to the fantastic attracted thousands, some of whom would wait in line for hours for a twenty minute walk on the wild side in the forest at night. A group of talented and creative volunteers worked for more than a month to put up an incredible set of vignettes in the woods designed to amaze, astonish, terrify and entertain.

What was the attraction? This question probably has many answers. Like with all theater, this tour provided a chance to travel beyond the everyday. The pilgrimage through the woods provided a glimpse of a world that didn’t follow the rules, a world that encouraged the deep, dark, fantastic thoughts we don’t normally permit to run free. It gave substance to vague fears and allowed people to look at those fears in the company of their friends and to laugh at them. It delighted with its cleverly crafted scenes, like Terminal Jeopardy, the outcome of which can be easily guessed. Pterodactyls flew over swamps, trolls popped out from under bridges, plane crashes glowed in glens, huge spiders, coffins, tombstones, blood, all were part of the passing panorama. And we as spectators always managed to survive the experience.

YSI’s Haunted Woods was not without its controversy. Why should an organization that teaches kids about bats and tarantulas and their role in the world during the day, have dark tunnels with low flying bats and menacing-looking spiders in sticky webs dangling in eerie light at night? There were those who felt it shouldn’t. For me, though, the answer was different. Just as fairy tales depict witches being shoved in ovens, wolves posing as grandmothers to trick unsuspecting children, and giants bellowing “Fee fi fo fum”, the spider tunnel let kids know that the world does indeed have perils, that it is necessary to be cautious, but that you can get beyond scary things. You don’t have to be paralyzed by your fears, and knowledge brings you power—lessons as important for adults as for children.

Maybe this was the appeal of the Haunted Woods.

YSI’s Haunted Woods have disappeared. A victim of its own success, the event became too big, too popular, too widely known to continue in its Sanborn Park location. Its success testifies to the need it fulfilled for facing the unknown.

Although YSI’s woods are no longer haunted at Halloween, the same lessons can be learned elsewhere. Many of the crew that created YSI’s woods have turned their considerable talents to the Haunted Forest at Vasona Park in Los Gatos, sponsored by the Crime Prevention Department of the Los Gatos Police Department. For information call (408) 354-6842. Other haunted abodes abound, some more, some less terrifying. It may not be everyone’s way of facing the unknown, but we humans are a mysterious lot. How frightening if we weren’t.