by Dennis Dalman
Down along the dark chilly alley, the Halloween hay wagon rolls past a series of horrors that have riders cringing, gasping and screaming bloody murder as horrific critters pop out at them: a wolf man, a creepy clown, a bloody butcher, skeletons and more than a few grim reapers.
It’s the annual Rockwood Estates Copa family’s popular Halloween Hayride, now in its third year. The entire event rivals a Hollywood production number, complete with actors, sound-and-lighting effects, costumes and props galore designed to scare the wits out of young and old alike.
Rockwood Estates is a mobile-home park just south of Rice. One of its resident families is Jeremy and Mary Beth Copa and daughter Breeanna, 11, one of their three daughters, the youngest and the one who loves Halloween the most.
Several years ago, the Copas – long-time Halloween fans – decided to create a Halloween project that could involve all the children in the Park. Mary Beth and neighbor Chrissy Becker came up with the idea for a spooky hayride that would lead from the back of their yard down a long alley all the way to the south of the Park. The Copas approached Rockwood Estates management with their idea, and they were all for it and even donated a flatbed vehicle with hay bales and a driver for the ride.
That was three years ago, and it was such a screaming success, the Copas went all out the next year and this year, adding more and more to their scary set-up of props and their actors (dubbed “scarers”) who pop out of the dark to terrify the haywagon passengers.
Just before Halloween, the Copas spend many days transforming their large yard into a fright fest: dozens of tombstones, beckoning skeletons, giant spiderwebs with spiders ready to spring out, a pale alien, a witch, a ghoulish grave digger, not to mention the overall spookum-wookum atmospherics of creepy music and eerie lights flickering and blinking. This year there will be a witch’s corner with a cauldron boiling, casting wisps of steam into the night air.
Trick-or-treaters love to come up to the Copas’ thrilling house, although some are so hesitant at first they have to be coaxed to walk trembling up to the ancient cackling hag lady dispensing treats from her kettle under the giant spiderweb.
At 7 p.m., the thrill rides begin, as toddlers with their parents climb aboard the hay wagon to set off into the dark unknown, the alley lined with trees and many sudden surprises. The scarers lurk in blind places along the alley, ready to pop up and “greet” the travelers. For the younger children, the alley ghouls just wave in a friendly fashion. On the last ride of the night, however, when teens and adults board the wagon, all hell breaks loose as one by one the hideous, bleeding, gaping homicidal lunatics burst out of the night and attack the wagon. They moan, shriek or howl as they grab the passengers. The rasping sound of a chainsaw maniac fills the air. A hairy wolf man and prison inmates stumble forth. A blood-smeared butcher in a white lab coat runs toward the wagon as its passengers cringe with fright or giggle nervously.
“Chrissy my neighbor and I have over 100 costumes,” Mary Beth Copa said. “We add something new every year. If it wasn’t for friends and family we couldn’t do this. We need them to play the roles, to be the scarers. We’ve had as many as 40 scarers. This year we have only about half that many.”
Each actor, long before Halloween night, gets to choose what kind of frightening ghoul he or she wants to be. Then they get fitted with costumes and develop their roles and lines, which they practice and polish to weird, icky perfection.
Ever since she was 6 years old, Breeanna Copa has relished her Halloween roles and chooses a different one each year, the creepier the better. Last year she played a dead doll, and this year she has a few surprises (scary ones) up her sleeve. She practices her roles for hours, like an actress pro, to get every chilling nuance just right, for maximum terror.
“She’s scared a lot of people,” said Mary Beth, laughing. “Last year she was in a cage, banging on the cage and screaming for help in the alley. “There was a hay wagon full of screams.”
Chrissy Becker plays the scientist-butcher in the lab coat and never fails to produce the wide-eyed willies and hair-raising terror in the wagon riders.
“Last year my brother Paul was the Joker,” Mary Beth noted. “I put scars on his face made of toilet paper and liquid latex. He wore a green shirt and purple suit, just like the Joker in the movie. He was really good.”
On Halloween day, Mary Beth gets up at 5 a.m. and works non-stop applying makeup and doing costume adjustments to the cast of characters. The makeup consists, naturally, of wounds, scars, slashes and blood galore. The work isn’t done until just before dark.
“My mom, Cyndy, plays the creepy old lady who gives candy to the kids,” she said. “My dad played one of the grim reapers last year. We involve our whole families and all of the friends who can come.”
Mary Beth admits the hayride production and the ambitious yard set-up can be completely exhausting and expensive. But it’s all worth it, she said.
“It shows our kids and other kids they can have fun and don’t have to be rich to have fun,” she said. “Some of the kids here get stereotyped with that ‘trailer-house trash’ label, which is so unfair. This Halloween night shows them they are valuable and loved because we all get together and have so much fun together, and it doesn’t cost them anything. It’s scary, but it’s really just good family fun.”