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Zywiec's celebrates 20 years of 'Haunting'

As a kid, Bill Zywiec remembers, he wasn't much for trick-or-treating.

"I was more interested in scaring people," he said, recalling Frankenstein costumes more fondly than buckets full of candy.

Maybe, then, it's no surprise that the Haunting Experience, the 47-year-old's brainchild, is celebrating its 20th anniversary of scaring the daylights out of fright fanatics after dark at his family-owned Zywiec's Landscape and Garden Center in southern Cottage Grove.

It began humbly, just Zywiec, family and friends taking a few hundred people on a one-and-a-half mile haunted hayride, with a few scary movie-like scenes and characters jumping out of the dark.

"We had a fun time," Zywiec said. "I don't know if we scared anybody, but it was fun."

Two decades later, a veritable Halloween theme park has sprung up in the fields along Highway 61, where almost 7,000 people visited last October to walk -- or, for the more easily scared, run -- through a haunted house, ride that same old haunted hayride route with more spine-chilling scenes and haunters, or hang out in a heated greenhouse filled with food, games, family-friendly scary movies and music.

A 3-D house was added this year, not intended to be a real scare, Zywiec said, but to give visitors -- on the busiest nights there can be around 1,000 of them, he said -- one more option at the Haunting Experience.

Each evening they put on a show -- Wednesdays through Saturdays the rest of the month -- the 50-or-so people tasked with welcoming, ushering and frightening guests start to gather behind the scenes at 6 p.m. to prepare for the night's work.

Zywiec himself air brushes makeup on the 30-plus haunters -- what he calls the employees who do the scaring out on the hayride and in the haunted house -- a group made up of mostly middle school and high school students.

They talk strategy: "Chainsaw or no chainsaw?" "You know how to turn on that heart?"

Brian Hurley has been helping Haunting Experience for 17 years. At first, he said, "With the tractors we started with it's a surprise we made it through the night."

Zywiec's Haunting Experience is one of the best because of the group's dedication to it, Hurley says -- brainstorming year-round ways to make their 20-year-old fright fest scarier, more horrifying.

"It's just, basically, nice to see people screaming, crying," Hurley said with a laugh.

Hurley said he didn't envision their haunted hayride through south Cottage Grove woodland and farm field becoming south Washington County's largest.

But Zywiec isn't too surprised.

"In the back of my mind," he said, leaving Haunting Experience's haunted house, "I thought we were on to something."

If you go

Here are the details if you plan to pit yourself against Zywiec's Haunting Experience.

- Where: 10900 Pt. Douglas Rd., Cottage Grove,, (651) 459-3001

- How much? Tickets: $18 per person, 5-years-old and under free

- Dates: Runs Wednesdays through Saturday nights through Halloween

- Time: Dusk to 10 p.m. weekdays; dusk to 11 p.m. weekends