As the Haunted Fort at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan readies to welcome visitors for the 2019 season, organizers are finding ways to keep the annual event attractive.
The Haunted Fort centers around rumors that the rebuilt home of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is haunted. Custer left the fort to head to his infamous defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
This year's haunted house attraction features two new events, with one to kick off the season and another to close it out.
Family Spook-less Night opens the 2019 season on Saturday from 7-11 p.m. The lights inside the haunted houses will be on and the actors, rather than scaring people, will serve as guides for children and their parents. It's aimed at kids ages 7-12.
To close this year's Haunted Fort season, a new event called Darkness Unleashed will please thrill seekers looking for a higher-intensity experience.
The event features all four of the classic haunted houses -- Custer Manor, the Old Circus Freakshow, the Post Asylum and the Guardhouse -- but with a twist: The lights will be off and participants will have only a glow stick for guidance. The grand finale takes place Nov. 2 and requires a specific ticket. Tickets are limited in number.
"It's something to keep it fresh but also to bring people out that have gone earlier in the season to come out for a totally different experience," said Matt Schanandore, Haunted Fort creative director and Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park interpretive coordinator.
"When you turn all of the lights off, it becomes a completely different attraction," Schanandore said. "It becomes a whole separate event."
Outside of the fort is the new Haunted Fort Midway, which includes the Monster Gift Shop; concessions; Zombie Battlefield Paintball, where visitors can take shots at "real-life zombies;" and The Cellar -- a new haunted craft beer lounge which promises unique brews from Dialectic Brewing.
The Haunted Fort, now entering its 18th season, started as a weekend event in 2002, but its scale grew along with its popularity.
Schanandore took creative control of the event in 2008 and has helped expand the Haunted Fort to the full attraction that it has become.
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"I've grown with the event," he said.
The Haunted Fort builds off the myths and legends of paranormal activity that construction workers, visitors and staff have reported over the years since Fort Abraham Lincoln was rebuilt in 1989.
"Either hearing things, weird happenings, things moving -- you name it, it's been reported," Schanandore said. "We've had innumerable paranormal investigators that have spent time in the house, investigating paranormal happenings going back even more than a decade now."
"Some of the investigations came up with a lot of audio EVP's (electronic voice phenomena) from the house, voices talking back to the investigators and stuff like that," Schanandore said.
Thrillist, a site that covers food, travel and entertainment, lists it as the most haunted place in North Dakota.
The Haunted Fort attracts visitors from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota. It also attracts volunteers filled with the spirit of the season.
Kylen Mayer, a 10-year volunteer who scares visitors with his "Buster the Clown" costume, said he likes helping put on a high-quality production.
"I would say we're competing with some of the larger haunts in the country," Mayer said. "We're definitely hitting it right on the nail for the quality of those bigger haunts."
The annual event brings 8,000 to 9,000 visitors to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park each season. It runs on Fridays and Saturdays through the month of October.
General admission tickets are $20 at the gate on Fridays and $23 on Saturdays. Zombie Battlefield Paintball is considered a separate event and costs $8 to participate. The Ultimate Fear Experience pass, which allows visitors to skip the line at all attractions and gives a discount at the Monster Shop, costs $55 at the door on Fridays and $60 on Saturdays. There is a discount for tickets purchased at www.hauntedfort.com/scare-tickets.html.
Proceeds from the Haunted Fort help fund interpretive events at the park year-round.