Ulster Park, N.Y. - She holds a cursed deck of Tarot cards in her hand. The moment you hop aboard the fortune teller’s wagon, you’ll get the sense that this is not going to end so well.
Be forewarned, you are about to become part of a terrifying story—your future—that will unfold around you on a dark, mile-long journey.
The final card the gypsy turns over is the death card carried out by the headless horseman, whom she summons forth.
Perched on his muscular steed, he gallops out of the darkness and locks onto your trail.
From that point on, terror fills your soul as he cuts the wind with his blood-stained sword and relentlessly hunts you down.Of course, none of this is real, though it will feel that way for visitors at this year’s Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park.
Using the fortune-telling theme, founders Mike and Nancy Jubie plan to scare the bejesus out of their guests during the 2013 season, which opened Sept. 21.
The horror enterprise, celebrating its 21st year, has been named the No. 1 hayride in America by American Airlines Magazine and among the top 10 Halloween attractions in the nation by media such as CNBC, USA Today and even AOL.Because of its far-reaching appeal and professional theatrics, Headless Horseman is the ninth in our monthly series “Destinations.”
The yearly fall attraction happens to be very good for the area economy and was named Tourism Business of the Year five years ago by the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
It consistently brings in visitors from seven surrounding states and from as far away as California, Colorado, Florida and Ohio and even international tourists, according to the Jubies.
Jubie said many of those heading into the Mid-Hudson Valley from outside the area often look for overnight lodging and eat and fuel up their cars before they head home.
Some even stay for the weekend, going apple-picking and visiting other area attractions, he said.Each year, Headless Horseman gets re-themed and re-scripted, and its props and theatrics change accordingly, Jubie said.
The headless horseman, however, always has a preeminent role.
He, of course, gets his substance from Washington Irving’s mythological murderer in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” based in nearby Tarrytown.
“This year, we’ve added quite a lot of different illusions along the mile-long hayride,” said Jubie, a former Kingston police officer. “Your journey lies within the cards.”
Jubie, a man with exacting standards, has hired close to 350 people this year to carry out the divination theme, including 14 “mystics,” who will narrate the hayride.
Nancy, the mastermind behind most of the production, said as soon as the attraction opens for the season, she’s already working on next year’s theme.
She painstakingly researches each idea to make sure there is an element of realism, which is what guests have come to expect at Headless Horseman.
“I’ve had my Tarot card read, and it’s another way we can take people on an adventure. It was just a great theme to follow and research,” she said.
All of the Tarot cards are made-up and bear fictitious names like the Leviathan card. Historically, the cards originated in northern Italy 500 years ago.
“The deck of cards that our fortune teller has was buried, and it’s cursed,” Nancy added.
Guests on board the hayride, about 30 at a time, can expect it to make several stops along the trail.
Actors and Universal Studio-type sets come to life based on the Tarot card drawn.
After that, there is much more to see on the grounds, including a haunted corn maze and the Lunar Motel as well as the Nightshade Greenhouse, which is patterned this year after a demented “Alice in Wonderland.”
In addition, there are six haunted houses—one of which has been fashioned after London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, where Jack the Ripper killed several women in the late 19th century.
Dahlia Blood Manor is not for the craven crowd or those with squeamish stomachs. The “corpses” of the disembowelled, slashed victims, who died at the hands of Jack the Ripper, are strewn across a library, laboratory and mortuary in the walk-through haunted house, which has additional frights around every turn.
“I spent months researching that, and I had the opportunity to buy authentic embalming material (for the set) from an undertaker going out of business,” Nancy said with a hint of pride.
That’s just the thing about Headless Horseman. Its realism and sudden scares are magnets for thrill seekers of all ages.
Jubie said the hardest people to scare often are young males (mostly in their early 20s), who want to impress their dates.“Believe it or not, they’re about the first to go down, and we get a kick out of that,” Jubie said. “We’ve had them leave their girlfriends in the corn maze and run…and that is very rewarding for our actors.”
Some of what occurs isn’t so funny.
Jubie recalled a time when a middle-aged man suffered cardiac arrest while on the grounds, though he got immediate medical attention and survived.
In another instance, a panicked woman on the hayride dropped her wallet and medications and ran off—never returning to retrieve them.
For these reasons, Jubie has posted warning signs on the grounds to alert those with medical conditions that the attraction can cause anxiety.
He said the safety of his guests is always paramount, but he said he’s come to realize over the years that the attraction is not for everyone.
Those who can take it, however, are almost guaranteed to get that adrenaline-rush they are seeking, Jubie said.“The ones that want to come expect to have some kind of fear factor here, and we try to supply that,” Jubie said.
Having been in the horror business all these years, he and his wife said they have seen it all and have even experienced a few paranormal experiences outside of the production.
In one such instance, an Ouija board that had been used in a set went bonkers, Nancy recalled.
“I had set it back on the shelf, and it kind of moaned. We figured it had to be air or something, so we moved it on the shelf, and it did the same thing,” Nancy said.
“My feet didn’t work when I walked by it. There was something about that Ouija board that affected me.”
Another instance had her even more numbed with fright.
She claims to have seen a dark apparition in the Headless Horseman gift shop that followed her home one night while her husband was out of town.
“I’m pretty scare-proof, but I didn’t know how to defend myself,” she said. “It just gave me this horrible feeling of dread.”
Nancy admits she is, in a sense, playing with fire with some of the occult themes she has immersed herself in, even though, she tries to brush most of it off.
“I’ve had some strange things happen to me over the years,” said Nancy, a registered nurse who formerly worked in Kingston Hospital’s emergency room. “I do believe there is another whole world that exists beyond us.”
Even so, the couple continues to build its terror empire. Nancy estimates that this year alone, they’ve poured in $600,000 to carry off the fortune-telling theme.
The attraction, of course, is weather-dependent, and, in recent years, it’s been plagued by freak snowstorms and hurricanes, so Nancy and her team are crossing their fingers for the best.
“Every year, it’s a gamble,” she said.
What isn’t a gamble, her husband said, is that people looking for entertainment are bound to get their money’s worth on the grounds, where they can expect to spend up two hours to see everything.
Industry experts have consistently backed that up, Jubie said.
“Just this past Monday, we received an email by someone who did a survey on the scariest haunted attractions in the world, and we were listed as No. 3,” he said.“That was above Universal and above Disney and above everybody else. We just do a fall event, and we put all our concentration into the fall event, and I guess it shows.”
Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses is open Saturday and Sunday beginning next weekend and the following weekend, it begins its Friday run. A toned-down children’s day called “A Tiny Taste of Terror” will be held on Oct. 12. The season ends on Nov. 2.
Admission onto the midway is free.
Tickets are $39.95 (tax included) per person; Children's Day tickets are $11. The attraction is not recommended for children under 10, and children 14 (or younger) must be accompanied by an adult.