News & Politics

Dead Zone: Behind the Scenes at Markoff’s Haunted Forest

Severed heads, stumbling zombies, and other ghoulish surprises await brave souls who dare to wander through Markoff’s Haunted Forest.

Beware, all who enter Markoff’s Haunted Forest. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Scaring Washingtonians, it appears, is good business.

There are other haunted attractions—Haunted Hollow in Warrenton and Field of Screams in Olney, to name two—but the area’s classic is Markoff’s Haunted Forest, a woodsy labyrinth of spooky trails, sudden frights, and raging ghouls on a 170-acre family farm outside Poolesville. In a contrast Stephen King would appreciate, part of the farm is a camp for kids, though camp hours are over well before the sun sets and the haunting begins.

A ghoul raiding the boneyard—a.k.a. Charlie Carp, a Bethesda real-estate agent. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Twenty years ago, brothers Nick, Matt*, and Alex Markoff wanted to raise money for the camp and created a “haunted bus” that they toured around the area. The bus did well, so they bought Calleva Farm and moved their haunting into the woods, where Markoff’s had its debut in 1997. “The first night at Calleva, only 24 people showed up,” says Nick Markoff. “We were bummed. But the next night, those 24 people came back with their friends.”

This year on a typical night, they expect 3,000 customers between dusk and closing, at approximately 10:30 pm. The self-guided 20-minute walk in candlelit darkness takes visitors along one of two twisty trails through a graveyard, a boneyard, a junkyard, old shacks, a mock church, a couple of cottages, a tattered circus with tent and ferris wheel, over crooked bridges, under ruins, and through a swamp—every step of the way loaded with terrifying scenes and sudden jolts.

Most of the haunts were built by hand using found items—“We are scavengers,” Nick says—or made from scratch with wood and fiberglass. But the scariest features come with real flesh and blood: Instead of relying on animatronic characters, the Markoffs deploy 40 to 50 actors who pass through a costume and makeup department to be transformed into grotesque clowns, dolls, hillbillies, witches, hunchbacks, priests, Neanderthals, and, of course, zombies.

“Haunting is my work,” says Keenan Futs Smith, who has been portraying characters at Markoff’s for seven years. And the best part? “After work, we go to Taco Bell with our makeup on and scare the guy in the drive-through line.”

Watch how Markoff’s is set up below.

Markoff’s Haunted Forest opens tomorrow at dusk. For more details, visit the website.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

*This article has been updated from a previous version.