There’s a line snaking through Brett Wegner’s driveway that’s longer than some amusement park rides. Scarier, too.
Guests can hear children screaming in the distance. Chainsaws buzz in the dark as they approach the entrance to this year’s Wegner family haunted house. Just before 8-year-old twins Luke and Connor Skluzacek prepare to enter the unknown, they test their miniature flashlight.
“What are you afraid of?” hisses gatekeeper Julie Wegner, who’s decked in convincing snake makeup and pointing to a list of phobias — this year’s theme.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Connor answers triumphantly.
“We’ll see about that,” she says, ushering the boys inside a pitch black revolving door.
After meeting what’s on the other side, they squeal – loudly.
A few days earlier, as Brett Wegner is making last-minute touches to his fall project, neighbors rubberneck to try and get a glance at the elaborate Halloween construction.
One couple riding up the block on bicycles inquires about his progress:
“How’s it coming along?”
“Wanna take a look?” Wegner asks, gesturing a hand toward an impressive corn maze in the front yard — just one small portion of his homemade haunted experience, which features 600 real cornstalks.
What began as a small porch production at his family’s New Prague home eventually grew into a commercial-sized endeavor. The haunted house winds guests through about a dozen makeshift rooms and obstacles, which consumes almost every inch of his property. Animatronic characters and about 50 volunteers — affectionately called “scareactors” — work together to spook those brave enough to cross their path.
It’s the kind of thrill people pay upward of $30 for at ValleyScare in Shakopee. But it’s free.
“I remember growing up, there was always a house kids were scared of — that’s what I want this house to be,” said Brett Wegner, who began the annual charity event five years ago with his wife, Julie, and two kids.
Although there’s no cost for admission, guests are asked to donate canned goods, as all proceeds go to New Prague’s Peace Center, a local food shelf.
“We said ‘If we’re going to do something big, we want to make sure there’s a cause attached to it,’” Wegner said.
In the past four years, the event has collected about 2,000 pounds of food, which translates to 15,000 meals.
Some residents who occasionally rely on the food shelf for assistance with groceries have shown their gratitude by volunteering at the haunted house each year. Summer Haugen, a certified nursing assistant, visits the shelf to help tide over her three children when money is tight.
Through donations, the family was able to make a spaghetti dinner for $1.50 — all they had to buy was sauce.
Haugen and her 14-year-old daughter, Mia, became scareactors when they heard that a large portion of the Peace Center’s donations were provided through Wegner’s annual event.
“Mia said, ‘I can help the haunted house and pay it forward,’” her mom recounted. “‘I can’t give anything, but I can at least scare people.’”
“You never know what impact it will have on the families until you’re in that situation,” Haugen said. “It means that next month they’ll have something to eat. It’s the little extras that matter.”
Each year since its conception, the event has become more elaborate.
This year, the house is constructed with about 180 wood pallets, dozens of tarps and countless lights. The Wegner family invested about $1,500 to get the project off the ground, but has since relied heavily on donations and free Craigslist finds to keep operating.
“We had bins and bins of stuff show up on our doorstep and we didn’t even know it was coming,” said Wegner, who starts building the set the week after Labor Day and typically spends about 30 hours a week on the project through fall.
Those time-intensive stressors have led the Wegner family to decide that this will be the last year they run the haunted house. “It’s sad,” said Julie Wegner, with tears in her eyes, “because that’s a huge chunk of what the Peace Center gets. We’ll find another way to donate.”
Although the family is excited to have time for other fall activities in upcoming years, Wegner said, they’re determined to go out with a bang — and hopefully convince another resident to take up the annual production.
When the haunted house opened last weekend, more than 250 people showed up each night for an adrenaline rush only monsters in masks can provide. The family is expecting about 500 people to run through the house on Halloween — the last night it’s open.
As of Sunday evening, the family had gathered in at least $1,200 in cash donations for the food shelf, beyond the food items themselves.
Before each run-through, Wegner reminds his scareactors that less is more.
“There certainly is an art to the scare,” he said, describing some of the motionless actors throughout the house. “Peoples’ imaginations will scare themselves far more than we ever could.”
But Wegner also provides “Scaredy-cat tours” for young children and frightened adults who wish to do a less daunting walk of the course. He will lead small groups through the house with a lantern and have actors take off their masks.
On Sunday, even guests who came out screaming ran back in line to experience the fun all over again. Twins, Connor and Luke, wanted to go a third time before the event closed for the night.
“He outdoes it every year,” said Al Kilian of New Prague after emerging unscathed. “It just keeps growing.”
Wegner will catch himself standing near the exit and watching the crowd’s reaction. Most of the time, guests will come up and praise him, listing off their favorite part: the clowns, a chainsaw-wielding man, the snake pit.
But once in a great while, a disgruntled teen will complain it’s not scary enough. To them he replies, “You get what you pay for.”
Liz Sawyer • 952-746-3282