In Purcellville, Virginia, a skeleton with an orange bowtie, a top hat and a pinstripe suit roams a 10-acre property.
Known as the Madhaunter, this character is the brainchild of Jeff Keiling, who designed a haunted attraction that is brought to life every October with the help of Arnold resident Steve Wheatley.
This year’s attraction runs for 13 nights, mostly on weekends, starting October 6.
Madhaunter’s Madhouse is not a run-of-the-mill haunted house.
“It’s a madhouse of nightmares,” Wheatley said. “You won’t see Freddy Krueger or monsters. We created a lot of characters you won’t see at other haunted houses.”
The variety of characters runs the gamut.
“A lot of houses are clown-themed or zombie-themed,” Keiling said. “Ours has insects, murderers and evil stuff. It has parts for people with claustrophobia. If there is a fear people have, we are tapping into it, so everyone is included.”
Keiling transitioned from pumpkin carver to set creator in 2005 when he and his wife, Amy, opened their Las Vegas home to visitors. The front of their house gave way to a “graveyard,” with tombstones that Keiling hand-carved from concrete. The couple eventually added their garage, driveway and hallways to the display, recruiting 15 actors for the spectacle at its peak.
“It started as a 10-minute attraction in front of our house,” Keiling said. “We had so many people. It was more than we could handle.”
Wheatley joined the haunted tradition in 2010 after Keiling moved to the East Coast.
Together they worked on the Track of Terror at Laurel Park in Maryland in 2011. Two years later, they branched out to Sterling, Virginia. Later, they expanded to Lorton, Virginia, and then Purcellville, about 86 miles from downtown Severna Park.
“What’s special about this is that we have the permits and property to control the space,” Wheatley said of the Purcellville location.
A year-round effort makes Madhaunter’s Madhouse a frightful destination for people across Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Throughout the year, the Madhaunter’s Madhouse team scours areas for items. Casting calls for actors are held in July, August and September.
Madhaunter’s Madhouse features 35 to 40 actors per night.
“We have all walks, sizes and shapes,” Wheatley said. “Moms and dads, individuals, and college-age kids.”
Offseason team-building trips inspire ideas. One trip this summer led the group to an old mansion in Southern Virginia.
Through Wheatley’s Arnold-based company, 50 East Remodeling, he and Keiling secure items from homes to make the Madhaunter’s Madhouse structures more authentic. Recycled barnwood. Wood paneling. Metal roofing from a homeowner’s shed.
“They can see their old living room transformed into a scene,” Wheatley said.
“We have footings and structured beams,” Wheatley said. “We’re not a couple guys screwing things together.”
One piece, a ghost, is so large that it cannot be moved without equipment.
“We are using Hollywood-style props,” Wheatley said. “You’re not going to go into your local Halloween store and find these things.”
Beyond actors and terrifying scenes, Madhaunter’s Madhouse adds other features to induce fright.
“You’re going to see a lot of animatronics, a lot of lighting,” Wheatley said. “You’re going to hear loud, scary noises, and you’re going to hear silence too. There are differences with the paths, with gravel and mulch.”
Keiling and Wheatley attribute the haunted attraction’s success to many people.
“A lot of blood, sweat, tears and volunteer hours go into this,” Wheatley said. “Volunteers have to build every wall, every board. You have people working in extreme heat, doing a lot of digging and a lot of framing.
“It’s a work of art,” he said. “People who come the first night will probably see something completely different from what people see the second night.”
If they are fortunate, or unfortunate, they may even spot the Madhaunter.
The outdoor trail takes approximately 35 to 40 minutes to complete. To see hours and ticket information, visit www.madhaunter.com.