Pulling into Forest Park on a rainy, dreary day, the quiet isolation of the uninhabited outdoor retreat center already sets nerves on edge.
But visiting after dark, with the expectation of zombie encounters, it’s downright terrifying.
For its first year, Forest Park is offering a trifecta of fun and haunting attractions for visitors. The park is partnering with the Jayhawk Council of the Boy Scouts of America and a number of other local organizations to provide a haunted woods hike, zombie laser tag and three escape rooms for guests to attempt.
Utilizing just a small part of the park’s 40 acres, the Topeka Haunted Woods takes place every Friday and Saturday in October, with the escape rooms and laser tag from 6 to 11 p.m., and haunted hikes beginning at 8 p.m.
“I really wanted to have something robust to offer people, and I know we don’t have a whole lot of haunted houses here in Topeka,” said Mark Arganbright, event manager of the haunted woods. “We have the project terror that happens with the Topeka Civic Theatre, that’s a great thing, there’s a couple of scared straight houses that are put on by churches, but we wanted to have a little bit different experience.”
In recent years, the idea of escape rooms, using clues and ingenuity to escape a locked room — has inevitably merged with the fear and adrenaline that comes with Halloween and all its spooky offerings.
Keynundrum, a local business specializing in escape rooms, has created three rooms for the haunted woods, that can act independently, or as an overarching plot.
Arganbright explained that the rooms have varying challenges, one required being chained with your partners, to negate the risk of zombie escapes while solving the puzzle, another is discovering the antidote to the diseases, and the third — deploying the findings.
The idea for how the zombie virus occurred evolved from an experience Arganbright had when he moved to Topeka. There were a few turkeys that liked to interact with him on a daily basis, and that’s where the idea sparked.
The haunted woods originates from the fictitious story of a group of campers who were scratched and pecked by a particularly friendly fowl named Thanksgiving. The campers then had a reaction to the bird bites, which doctors diagnosed as “Turkey Fever.” They may act and talk like zombies, but in the haunted woods, Arganbright explained they’re known as “bird brains.”
Camper-zombies have since taken over the woods, which provides a particularly authentic expereince thanks to assistance from the Boy Scouts of America. Older campers have designed scenes along the haunted trail, and others will be dressing up to scare visitors as well as stumble through the laser tag course as the un-dead.
Corey Davis, the Assistant Scout Executive of the Jayhawk Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said that the idea of a haunted attraction was something the scouts had been working on for years, and once approached by Forest Park, were excited to participate.
“From the scouts point of view, as we go in future years our goal is to grow our involvement more in the operating and building of the event,” he said. “It’s a major fundraiser for Forest Park to keep it alive and thriving, it’s also a fundraiser for the scouts in the jayhawk area council. … It will help our general operations of providing the scout program to our scouts and our leaders.”
Davis said creating a scene taught the troops organizational skills, and how to plan and delegate all the responsibilities that went into making their gruesome campsite stop along the haunted hike.
At the pinaccle of the haunted woods hike, which is a guided half-mile walk, guests are corraled into a clearing that’s swarming with zombies. An 1,800 square-foot towering pallet maze fills the space, which guests have to navigate.
Adam Jenks, an employee with the park, was a collaborator of the maze, and affectionately referred to it as “his baby.” The pallets are stacked end to end and about two or three high, and cast menacing shadows as guests make their way through.
Zombies fill the space, which Jenks said could be anywhere from 17 to 55, depending on the volunteer turnout.
As a whole, the Topeka Haunted Woods fundraiser helps pay for needed infrastructure improvements of the park, programming, and the park’s summer day camp, which feeds about 80 children for three weeks out of the summer months, in addition to the boy scouts fundraising.
Tickets range from $5 for zombie laser tag to the ultimate $60 package. This package includes a haunted woods hike, three escape room sessions, zombie laser tag plus one bonus session and a T-shirt. Participants must be 14 years or older to participate.
The Topeka Haunted Woods are located at 3158 S.E. 10th St. For details, visit topekahauntedwoods.com.
Contact reporter Savanna Maue at (785) 295-5621 or @CJFoodFun or @SavannaMaue on Twitter.