Palouse offers homegrown horror

Haunted Palouse, small-town frightfest for students, opens tonight and runs through next weekend


CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen

Janet Barstow, one of the main organizers of Haunted Palouse, stands by the coffin she’ll lie in to scare people during the event.

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Janet Barstow glanced across the room at her coffin.

Another woman stood over the open casket, lined with velvet and decked in red roses.

“I think they’re too cheery,” she said. “Can we paint them black?”

This evening Janet will climb into her coffin. She’ll spend the next several hours writhing, adorned with deathly makeup, and will emerge after Haunted Palouse ends for the night.

The spooky annual event has raised more than half a million dollars for the city of Palouse since the early 2000s. About 100 members of the 1,000-person population, with help from outside volunteers, transform the town into a frightfest, spanning two haunted houses and a hayride along a forested trail named Shady Lane.

Janet and her husband, Ben, are in charge of the haunted house that takes over the Newspaper and Printing Museum for the month of October.

“There’s nothing like having this building full of screaming people,” Ben said, standing with Janet amid the Haunted Palouse construction. “It’s just the best.”

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Aaron Johnson, a mentor for the Palouse Area Robotics Team, tests
an air-pressurized prop for Haunted Palouse.

By the first Saturday in October, they had pieced together the structural foundation of the house — assorted lumber and plywood, erected into winding pathways across the museum. During event nights, costumed volunteers lurk around corners and in shadows throughout the maze.

They refer to “scenes,” the different horrors they have designed and placed around the haunted house, but they don’t want to give away too much beforehand.

For all his involvement in the setup, Ben prefers not to brave the haunted house himself.

“I don’t like that kind of stuff,” he said. “I don’t like being scared.”

He laughed.

“It is [ironic], isn’t it?” he said. “Kind of sick and twisted.”

Creating a haunted house

Haunted Palouse originated in 2001 after heavy rains flooded the Palouse River — which runs parallel to the downtown stretch — and damaged numerous buildings.

“There was two feet of water in the museum,” Janet said, looking around her at where that water would have been. “People were in boats on Main Street.”

With no money for repairs, Janet said, they devised a plan — they would host a haunted house, targeted at the two nearby college student populations (children under 12 are not allowed).

Two years later they were able to reopen the museum. But the town realized the money they could make for community organizations and projects, and they have established Haunted Palouse as a yearly tradition. It has so far financed a playground, a community center and about 10 local entities, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Palouse Area Robotics Team.
Some, like Ben and Janet, don’t always receive money from the event.

“We’re just making Haunted Palouse happen,” she said.
About a dozen people in the museum’s haunted house have earned the status of “veterans,” Janet said. They have been involved from the first year, and they are instrumental throughout the process.

“We start out with one meeting a week,” she said, “and it’s a chaos meeting where everyone throws ideas out.”

“And then,” Ben added, “somebody else puts some crazy spin on an idea and it just gets better and better.”

Janet said they try to engage all the senses, though workers are not allowed to touch anyone. Besides scary sights, visitors will hear strange animal and human noises, and feel unknown materials brush across their skin as they pass through.

“We try not to repeat things,” Janet said. “If you come as a freshman, you see something different as a sophomore.”

The scenes blur together over the years, Janet said. One she remembers is an “elevator,” into which they usher visitors and tell them they’re “going to the top floor.” The elevator rises — though not as high as it seems to — and suddenly drops.

In another scene, visitors enter a “gas chamber,” which then slides across the room. When they exit, in the dark or amid strobe lights, they can barely understand what happened.
The experience can be so disorienting, Janet said, that even she is not immune to it during rehearsals.

“I know that place in and out,” she said, “and I got turned around in one of the scenes.”

The art of terror

In the second haunted house, the Palouse Area Robotics Team began piecing scenes together early this month.

Mike Milano, one of the club’s mentors, explained the art of terror: They must take people through a range of emotions, combining jump scares, disturbing sights, and moments of relief.
“That formula kinda builds the suspense,” he said.


CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Kevin Jacobs, left, and Alex Tuck, construct the haunted house. Both are members of WSU’s Sigma Chi fraternity, which volunteers at Haunted Palouse each year.

“You’re putting on a play,” added Matt Klarich, another mentor. “It’s theater.”

They create a theme each year, and link the scenes together. Last year it was phobias, Klarich said. Perhaps the scariest scene was a snake projected on the floor.

This year the theme is movies, stretching over several decades to the present. With the recent release of the “It” movie, one thing is certain.

“There’s going to be clowns,” Klarich said. “It’s mandatory.”

The skills of the robotics club open up a world of more sophisticated techniques, from animatronics to night vision for the workers to see participants during the event.

“They’re my trouble-shooters,” said Alexa Beckett-Bonner, who has helped with Haunted Palouse for seven years. “I go to them and say ‘I have an idea, is it possible?’ and they find a way to make it possible.”

Beckett-Bonner walked through the house, which weaves around the bottom floor of the police station and into one of the public works buildings. The scenes were beginning to take shape — a bathtub, an ax protruding through a wooden door, an air-pressurized contraption — but they were still ambiguous.

This house, and the Shady Lane hayride, are more recent additions to Haunted Palouse. Beckett-Bonner said she sometimes daydreams of further growth, perhaps even permanent sites for the haunted houses.

“It’s kind of morphed over time,” Becket-Bonner said. “I like to think in the future we’ll find a place for more spaces.”

An evolving tradition

In its first year, Haunted Palouse earned the town $3,000. Tickets are now $20, and the event rakes in roughly $50,000 annually.

Janet said the “veterans” will all be 60 soon. They have no plans of slowing down, but eventually the next generation will have to take over. She expects Haunted Palouse will be around a long time, in one form or another.

Over 15 years, she said, it’s been a time for the community to assemble and work toward a common goal. For many, it’s an opportunity to spend time with people they don’t normally see.

On the sidewalk outside the museum, Janet spoke with Paula Echanove, who owns The Green Frog cafe nextdoor. Her husband Michael, the mayor, had gone to hang signs on the highway for Haunted Palouse.

For the small town, this event has brought much-appreciated publicity.

“We want people to know Palouse exists,” Echanove said.

To their right, Mary Welcome, a traveling artist, constructed a humanesque prop wrapped in black tape.

“He’s a new part of the family. He needs a name,” Janet said, stopping to think. “He’ll get one before event night.”

Janet joked that Welcome, who has been spending more time in Palouse recently, will take over Haunted Palouse.

“Next generation of whip crackers, right here,” Welcome replied with a laugh.

Visitors to Haunted Palouse receive three tickets, Janet explained as she walked around the block that encompasses the two houses and hayride. They can use one ticket each for the three, or do more than one run through any of them.

She continued around the block to where the hayride begins, in front of the Palouse Caboose Bar and Grill. From here, visitors are taken down Main Street, across the Palouse River and along Shady Lane, where workers charge out of the forest at visitors.

In everything they do, Janet said, safety is paramount. They go through the houses to make sure nothing will pinch, snag or trip anyone. They will also have police and firefighters on duty during event nights, from 7 – 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, this weekend and the next.

“We’ve done this for years,” she said. “We know what we’re doing.”

A woman approached, carrying a red pillow for Janet to rest her head on in the coffin. She held it out for Janet to see.
“How’s that?” she asked.

“Oh, lovely,” Janet replied. “It’s perfect.”