Bena haunted attraction called one of the scariest in the state
Nearly 3,000 people flock to the tiny town of Bena (population 116) on Highway 2 west of Deer River at this time of the year to get their pants scared off.
Arnold and Matthew Dahl-Wooley have created NightScreams haunted house on their property behind Big Winnie Store for eight years now. Set within a forested area, two old trailers are transformed into a maze-like set where visitors make their way through frightening nooks and crannies and eventually are led outside to a cemetery and additional outdoor stages. A corps of volunteers help make this gory adventure come alive, complete with Hollywood-worthy makeup and costumes.
In fact, those who have made it a pilgrimage to travel Minnesota hitting haunted attractions every fall have deemed NightScreams “the third scariest in the state,” say Arnold and Matthew.
Arnold is a fifth-generation owner of Big Winnie Store. He, along with his husband Matthew, moved back to Minnesota 15 years ago to bring the Bena travel destination back to life and the couple has been very successful at reviving the business into the community hub of its historical fame. Not only did they completely renovate the main store and guest cabins to look as they did when Arnold’s great-great grandfather operated it, but they’ve also expanded the property with several seasonal campsites and have plans to add year-round lots for park cabins.
While focus is on business at the store and campground for most of the year, fall time is for building a new bone-chilling, spine-tingling production.
As Matthew explained, they first built NightScreams as a way to give area children something to do for Halloween.
“We got a little trailer, put it out back and charged $2,” he said. “We had over 200 people come to our little haunted house that year. Then we thought maybe we should do this every year - it’s not just a joke anymore.”
Every year they built on to the trailer, adding walls then another trailer then the scenes in the forest. Now it’s become a full-fledged Halloween hobby that obviously brings the couple much excitement - especially when they think of the fun they’re creating for their visitors.
“It’s a nice, healthy activity for families,” said Arnold as they explained that they like to keep the ticket prices affordable.
“Most go through pretty fast then they want to go again because they missed something the first time,” says Matthew.
“Because they had their eyes closed,” added Arnold.
The time and energy it takes to create NightScreams is something the men take very seriously to make it as authentic as possible. About 15 actors “live and breathe” to be a part of the haunted experience every year. They often contribute their own ideas to their characters. Thinking back on one such adaptation involving an umbilical cord, Arnold called the witch’s idea, ‘horrifying but wonderful!”
Arnold is in charge of building the scenes as well as putting together a completely original mix of sound effects. He has also perfected his craft of horrifying make-up applications. Matthew is the artist, lending his skills to props, design work and updating the choreography of the production.
“Sprayfoam is the best!” Arnold says as he and Matthew toured the site, making note of areas needing touch-ups and listing things they will want to pickup in town like red paint, more spray foam, and rusty rotten tarps.
“There is a method to the madness,” said Matthew.
NightScreams prides itself on providing an experience for all senses. The show features amazingly spooky sounds, sights and smells. And the actors work to involve the guests as much as they can whether it’s reaching out to tap a shoulder, whispering in their ears, or threatening to cut them in half with a chainsaw.
One big sign of satisfied customers is when they pee their pants, laughed Matthew.
“People will come out and thank us because they peed their pants; they’ll write five-star reviews because they peed,” added Arnold.
For those who do not want to be touched or chased, NightScreams offers a “wand of protection.” Customers who purchase a wand hold it up for actors to see they would rather take in the show from a distance of their preference.
“Most of the wands are sold to adults and men,” smiled Arnold.
Arnold and Matthew change things every year, building on what was popular. With the new “It” movie out, they say people are all about clowns right now. So, they’ve incorporated a clown theme at NightScreams this year.
As Matthew explained, the guys are “Disney fanatics,” so they gain a lot of their animation tricks from their frequent visits to Disneyland and Disney World. From the talking pumpkins on the porch to the ghost projections in the cemetery, they love to leave people wondering just how they pulled everything off.
From buses of people to small groups of friends, NightScreams welcomes them all. There is even a concession stand with picnic tables for people to sit afterwards to chat about what they liked best about the experience.
Portions of profits from NightScreams go toward needs within the Bena community such as the local homeless shelter and other charities. In fact, this Halloween affair is just one of several events Arnold and Matthew put on throughout the year at the Big Winnie Store for the community.
“Over the years, we’ve had many community events here,” explained Arnold who, as a native of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, is proud to be able to give back to his community.
NightScreams is open 7-11 p.m., every Friday and Saturday in October as well as Halloween and Nov. 1 and 2. Tickets are $8 (no refunds given). Visit nightscreams.org for more information. The Big Winnie Store is located at 1510 Highway 2, Bena, Minn., 56626.