By day, the Filan family farm on 5 Mile Road soaks up the autumn sun in an idyllic basin; removed from the bustle of town, the farmers farm, the dogs bark and the occasional car passes. By night, the screams of adults and adolescents are accompanied by growling chainsaws and unsettling music, while fog and flashing lights peek through the corn. Such is the magic scare nights at the annual corn maze.
Ten years ago, Leon Filan, the owner of the farm, learned about corn mazes being operated in the Midwest. The family needed additional income to hang onto the farm (which grows wheat, peas, and garbanzo beans), so together they decided to give it a try. The Filans never dreamed that their scheme would be become what is now considered by many a Walla Walla Halloween tradition.
The process of creating the maze starts in mid-May, when the corn seeds are planted. Every year, the location of the maze is rotated in order to give soil time to recover from continual pounding. When the corn gets knee high, it’s time to start designing the maze. The design is drawn out on a sheet of graph paper in which each square corresponds to a 10 foot by 10 foot area of the six acre stretch of corn. Flags are placed as markers and the corn is cut down on a riding lawn mower.
Leon’s son Stace Filan, 33, is in charge of most of the corn maze operation. This year, lacking inspiration, he asked his 6-year-old daughter to help him come up with an idea for the shape of the maze. She suggested a castle, but when that proved too complex, the Filans decided to go with an image of the number 10 to mark the 10th anniversary.
The maze opened in September, but the majority of visitors tend to hold out for the horror nights on the last two weekends of October. The family has considered adding more scare nights, but the corn would not be able to withstand it.
"When we go out to scare ’em we really scare ‘em, so the corn gets pretty hammered. We didn’t want to start it too early or there wouldn’t be any maze left!" Stace said.
The financial success of the maze all hinges on the fact that the Filan family is able to run it independently. From mowing the corn, to working the concession stand, from putting on the masks, every role is filled either by one of Stace’s sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews or family friends.
"It’s hard on you to work your regular job and then come out here and work until 10, 11, almost midnight some nights and have to get up for work the next morning. It takes a toll on you," Stace said.
Stace suspects that this year’s maze may be slightly easier than that of previous years, but also one of the scariest. The direct route is also seven or eight minutes longer than usual.
Gene Dawes, Stace’s brother-in-law, has overseen the horror aspect of the maze since its birth. He named "the anticipation of not getting scared and being on edge because you’re just waiting for it" as a key element to scaring maze-goers.
Inspiration for scare tactics has come from horror classics (both Filan and Dawes name Halloween as a favorite) and the imaginations of the 20-30 scarers that help out each year.
"Until you see people go through, you don’t know if it’s going to be cheesy or scary," Dawes said. Dawes admits some past experiments have failed but he said he considers most of their ideas successful.
The other part of the equation is enthusiastic customers.
"As a scarer, the ones that you can tell are enjoying themselves, those are the ones you try to scare because you want the reaction out of them. If you see that somebody’s out there and they don’t want anything to do with it then they don’t get picked on as much," Stace said.
Some of the best memories from the decade of scares have come when members of stereotypically "brave" demographics lose their cool. Stace said that kids often are harder to scare than adults, and that guys grabbing their girlfriends for protection is not an uncommon sight in the maze.
"I guess it’s survival of the fittest out there," said Stace.
In the end, the months of preparation and long hours required to keep the maze going are worth it for the joy that it provides attendees.
"That’s what makes it all worth it is just people coming out and enjoying it and thanking us for doing it. At first I never would’ve pictured that it would’ve been this popular with people. I didn’t think we’d have it last this long, but a lot of people enjoy it year after year and even week after week."