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Darkwood Manor: Luray haunted house celebrates 10th year

By Josette Keelor – jkeelor@nvdaily.com

LURAY – Moans, shrieks and wails carried to a line of waiting visitors at Darkwood Manor on Friday at nearly 10:15 p.m. — and those were just the sounds made by the guests.

Counting the more than 30 ghosts haunting the dark, decrepit old building and terrifying the living who wander into their midst, the location at 104 N. Hawksbill St. in Luray is a site — and sight — to remember.

Its website, www.darkwoodmanor.net, advertises that for 10 years Darkwood Manor has been serving up blood, sweat and fear to those looking for a frightful time, and judging by the frequent screams and even occasional laughter, owners Louis and Wendy Brown have hit their mark.

“I’ve always been into Halloween,” said Mrs. Brown, 41. She said her husband came up with the idea for Darkwood Manor 11 years ago after hosting a Halloween party for a friend.

Brown, 43, began to wonder whatever happened to the traditional haunted houses he remembers from childhood, and he decided to build his own, drawing on his background in painting.

The business also donates a portion of its proceeds to local charities, this year the Page One Food Bank and Page Free Clinic.

“I think it’s definitely one of the best shows,” Brown said of this year’s theme, a Darkwood Family Reunion. “Some people are screaming their heads off.”

“And some people aren’t affected,” said his wife. The couple take what they can get, though, and the hard-to-scare make the Browns try even more diligently to up the ante for the following year.

So far, this year’s house of horrors seems to be a success, judging by those who attended opening night.

“It was better this year,” said Heather Breeden of Luray, who comes every year, and last year came every weekend of its October run.

•••

Darkwood Manor wasn’t always the multi-room maze of madness it is today. The house was located at the Page County Fairgrounds for three years before it moved, but it still managed to draw a crowd, and the Browns were confident in their abilities not only to create a believable back story for the production but also to recruit talented actors and make realistic costumes.

After all, even the Browns’ home has a reputation of being too scary for Halloween night.
One year “we had four cars that stopped by,” Mrs. Brown said. All four cars sped away, the occupants too terrified even to attempt approaching the Browns’ front door … and that was before the couple had the chance to pop out from their hiding places to startle unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.

The haunted house is different, though. People come to be frightened; they, in fact, challenge the house and its ghouls to scare them. The ghosts at Darkwood have accepted that challenge, and every year build upon what works and change what doesn’t to do what they do best: Scare up a little bit of fun.

•••

The ghouls came out to play Friday night, not even waiting for guests to enter the manor.
A towering creature trolled around the yard outside the front door of Darkwood Manor, coughing into a holey, clammy rag before offering it to guests, wheezing out a quick “For you,” and sometimes missing the rag, instead coughing at the guests.

In the entrance way, guests traveling in groups of four or five met Calvin, a spiritual leader who promised to lead the living through the mansion, but then promptly abandoned them into the care of the man of the house, Leroy Darkwood, who hastily threatened intruders to be gone.

Most other ghosts in the mansion also speak warnings, some pleadingly and others with malice, but there is no backtracking through the entrance. The only way out is through the maze of rooms, some more gory than others and all with secrets and surprises and more details than one will notice on a first run-through.

“We drove all the way out here for it,” said Ashleigh Cumba, 21, who came with a group of friends from Loudoun County. “The actors are really good. … I liked how they had the lights off [toward the end].”

“I think for a house it’s scary,” she said.

“No, this is crazy,” said Jordan Winstead, 23, who made it through the house in one of the last groups of the night. “I was watching my back [to] make sure nothing snuck up on me.”

“That was ridiculous,” he said with a hint of awe, explaining that he had never before experienced a haunted house. “No, I went to a haunted forest, though. This is better.”

“It’s fun. People enjoy getting scared,” said Brent Wolfe, 37, now in his fourth year performing with Darkwood Manor. “We enjoy doing it, they enjoy getting scared,” said the Stanley resident.

“It’s for a good cause. It supports the food bank … plus it’s free acting classes,” he said.

“I’m the son of Darkwood,” said actor Mike Blood, who lives in Ida. This year’s theme introduces the son of Leroy Darkwood, Thane, a character never before mentioned in promotional materials.

“I’ve done it so far two years in a row, and it’s the greatest,” he said.

•••

The stage at Darkwood attracts all sorts, Brown says, from aspiring actors to those who simply enjoy being a part of the show.

“It definitely takes a special type of person,” he said. “Oddly enough a lot of shy people like to work in a haunted house, because it lets you let your monster out.”

“It’s all volunteer,” Brown said. “Some of ’em have been here almost for … 10 years.”
The haunted house and its art department have also contributed to local movies, Brown said.

The upcoming movie “Way of the Wicked” and Conrad Brooks’ “Gypsy Vampire: The Final Bloodlust” made use of the Browns’ expertise.

“He used a lot of our actors,” Brown said of Brooks, a Martinsburg, W.Va., resident whose movies are reminiscent of those of Ed Wood.

“It’s just the campiest thing you’ve ever seen in your life,” Brown said. “Conrad just carried on in the Ed Wood tradition.

Brown makes all of the masks used at Darkwood Manor, spending 42 to 60 hours on each, first sculpting it in clay, then making a mold and casting it in silicone or foam latex. Each costs more than $100 to make and can sell for up to $600 at Wickadella.com, he said.

Luckily he can recycle masks and costumes, since each year builds off the Darkwood Manor theme, simply adding onto the story line each time.

“Last year we did all shows based on H.P. Lovecraft,” he said. An American author who wrote in the late ’20s and ’30s, Lovecraft wrote what Brown calls “weird horror stories.”

“A lot of people talk about him and Poe in the same vein,” he said. He worked the tales into the Darkwood backstory by explaining that a traveler came to the manor bringing the stories with him.

The constantly evolving plot lines also allow Brown to add to his collection in the creature shop backstage, which doubles as a makeup room during the October season.

“I really like this because I’m an instant gratification monger,” Brown said of running the haunted house. He said it’s difficult to judge viewers’ reactions to art hanging in a gallery.
Their reactions are often the same, whether they love it or hate it, he said. But at a haunted house, reaction is a sure sign of what guests think, and almost any reaction is a good one.

“There’s a lot of response, so you get a lot of feedback,” he said. “I get to create wonderful environments. … Creating environments is very cool.”

Darkwood Manor is open through Oct. 31 on Fridays and Saturdays 7-11 p.m., Sundays 7-10 p.m. and on Oct. 28, 7-10 p.m. Tickets are $10 per person. A portion of proceeds from this Saturday’s show will benefit the Page Free Clinic. The Scream Freak Scream Contest will take place Oct. 16. For more information, visit the Web at www.darkwoodmanor.net.