BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — The holiday season is coming up, but before we delve into the more family-focused festivities such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s time to celebrate the most exciting and spine-chilling months of the year. Halloween brings tales of terror, sweet treats, and frightening features to every state, and North Dakota is no exception. Fortunately, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the perfect place to celebrate the season — and during the month of October, it takes on an entirely new light as ND’s most famous haunted house experience.
“This is the twenty-first year of the Haunted Fort ,” explains Park Manager Erik Dietrich. “It was originally started by the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, and over time, it transitioned more into being run by the park itself. Now, we have a partnership with the Mandan Progress Organization to co-manage the exhibit.”
“When the foundation changed its mission and focus, there was a need for a partnership out here if the Haunted Fort was to continue,” recalls the Mandan Progress Organization’s Executive Director Matt Schanandore. “Our organization was always somewhat of a silent partner when it came to helping promote the event and get it out to the community. In the last few years, we’ve taken a bigger role in helping the park with infrastructure, staffing and core infrastructure, as well as continuing to do the marketing. It’s really become a signature event for the Mandan community, and a tradition for many people.”
Generally, the staff behind the fort’s creation tends to not start from scratch every year as much as add onto already existing ideas. This isn’t to say that the terrifying experience has never changed, however: throughout the decades, as both horror trends and the technology used to scare others have changed, the Fort has slowly been improving its Halloween showcase as time goes on, and eventually, the one-day event came to extend over several weekends. Over time, their original haunted house has grown and divided into four large and well-designed ‘scare zones’ — each of which includes its own unique set, theme, and costumed actors. The growth of these locations has become even more efficient with the assistance of the Mandan Progress Organization, who aid by providing more manpower, advertising, and brainstorming for the Fort’s operations. Recent years have also added a series of extra special nights where the Fort is run differently — including a ‘Spookless Night’ for kids to walk the houses without jumpscares, a Kids Bash featuring tours and carnival games, and ‘Darkness Unleashed’: the final day of operations, in which guests must use a glowstick to navigate through completely dark houses while encounting frightening figures.
“It’s definitely gotten bigger,” Dietrich states. “Right now, we do it every weekend in October. It’s grown tremendously in recent times, and a lot of that is due to the ingenuity of our staffers and the Mandan Progress Organization. They have so much passion for this, and they’re always coming up with new ideas and changes every year.”
“We follow a lot of the modern movies and ideas,” Schanandore says, “but Fort Abraham Lincoln has always been referred to as one of the most haunted places in North Dakota, so we don’t have to go too far outside of that boundary. A lot of our work simply plays off the idea that it is haunted, and often times we can use the same roles and environment to our advantage. We can enhance it, but it doesn’t take much to enhance in the first place.”
Contrary to what some might think, while the event only takes place in October, the process behind creating it is one that begins months in advance. If anything, the construction and scarer training — which typically take the longest amount of time for larger groups — is often the last aspect to be completed.
“We’re not really in the set or infrastructure building stage all year,” Schanandore explains, “but we definitely get into the design stages early. We’re only midway through this year’s event, and we’re already looking at things we can change or expand on — parts of the event that have worked and parts that haven’t. We start the design process in February and March of every year, and once we get into April and May, we’re already working on the marketing concepts. We don’t actually start building the mazes or working with the scarers until mid-September, so it ends up being a marathon to get everything ready to go by opening night. It really is a year-round process, and not about the build itself as much as what’s happening in the background. “
The work that goes into preparing and creating these haunted houses can be exhausting, but they’re all worthwhile — the Haunted Fort is the largest annual event at the park, and every year, the event draws in thousands of guests, both old and new, to experience thrill unlike any other in the state. In order to help display everything that the Haunted Fort has to offer, KX News’s digital columnist (a survivor of both fabricated haunted houses and actual ghost towns alike) took a brief spin through each of the event’s many scare zones to provide a few snapshots of what one can encounter in the depths of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Be warned, though… the spirits tell us that photography in the haunted houses is typically forbidden. While they were able to make an exception for a fellow creature of the night, should you try to break the rules during your own visit, they will evidently be far less merciful.
Despite being labeled as one of the five major zones of the Haunted Fort, Jack Attack (which focuses on a haunted farm with monstrous scarecrows and pumpkin ghouls) is technically not a ‘haunted house’ as one would typically view it. Instead, the set — which is located in the Commissary — mainly serves as a welcoming area for fort visitors, and features a large theater where guests are asked to view an introductory video bracing them for the horrors to come. This is not to say that there’s nothing terrifying about it, however — the dim lighting and eerie figures placed along the path are excellent at creating an uneasy atmosphere and offering a glimpse at what else lies in store for guests during the evening.
House of Shadows
As Matt Schanendore pointed out during his conversation with KX, the park’s Custer House is already a building notorious for being one of the most haunted places in North Dakota — meaning that transforming it into a haunted house during October is only a logical conclusion. The house’s historic nature and design make it a perfect place to take advantage of the classical, more gothic style of horror. By taking a laid-out path through the house, guests can come face-to-face with shadowy figures, vampires, eerie memorials, and even the ghost of a vengeful general.
Following their homage to classic terror tropes in the Custer House, the Haunted Fort shifts to a more modern fear in CarnEvil Nightmares, the second house on the trail. As the name would imply, this building takes guests through a demented carnival-like atmosphere (with attractions such as moving floors and a room covered in yarn), in which they come face-to-face with monstrous clowns. Despite providing a far brighter atmosphere than the other themed buildings during the evening, we’re told that this house tends to be the most terrifying to many visitors — if not for their personal fears, but because CarnEvil Nightmares tends to be home to the most enthusiastic, mobile, and determined scarers, who will use any method possible to elicit screams from their victims. On top of this, there are a massive number of small alcoves, nooks, and crannies scattered throughout the building, meaning that these scarers have their choice of many angles to strike out from.
Labyrinth of Darkness
The Haunted Fort’s final scare zone offering is the Labyrinth of Darkness, which guides guests through a series of twisting corridors in the Although the theme of the building seems to vary depending on the room, it features some of the Haunted Fort’s most interesting structural designs and technical features — including tunnels of wooden boards and a spectacular ‘swamp’ created by mixing a fog machine and laser projections. By the end, the building focuses more on loud, sudden sounds and flashing lights to create a frantic and frightening atmosphere rather than cause physical terror, making it a truly unique and haunting experience that deviates from the norm of the event.
Apocalypse Survival Training
For those seeking a more ‘hands-on’ experience this October, the Apocalypse Training Zone — located near the Commissary and entrance to the Haunted Fort — provides a fun opportunity to unwind and test your aim by shooting a series of targets, including signposts and model zombies with paintball guns. There aren’t any real zombies to be found , but it never hurts to practice… just in case.
Between finding additional partners to help carry out the event, the advancement of the project’s available funding and technology, and its ever-growing number of volunteers, the Haunted Fort has come a long way since its’ initial inception in 2002. The more things change for the annual event, though, the more they stay the same — the park’s Halloween event is still a a draw for not only Mandan residents, but thrill-seekers across North Dakota as well.
“There are a lot of returners from the general public,” Dietrich states, “who come out or camp out here with the intent of intending or volunteering at the Haunted Fort — I think a lot of North Dakotans love getting scared. This is a big draw, and not just for those in the Bismarck-Mandan area. You have people coming down year after year from Minot, Dickinson, and even South Dakota. It’s got a lot of hype, and is further reaching than you would expect. We get people paying to go in again, or coming back multiple weekends in a row. “
The Haunted Fort, those responsible for the event claim, is not just an annual event that serves to chill the spines of North Dakotans — it’s one that brings the community together for the sake of fun and fright, and also provides a boost to the town’s economy. Judging by the number of individuals who turn out for the event each year, it’s a tradition we expect to continue for quite some time.
“Just being on the community side of this program,” Schanandore states, “I see kids, teenagers, families, and adults who ask what there is to do in the Bismarck-Mandan area during the fall. This is one of the attractions you can offer as a fun activity for everyone, and helps to create an overall community connection. For the city of Mandan, it’s an economic driver — as people come to the park, we hope that they stop, get gas, or have something to eat — which will bring them into the community and see what it has to offer.”
There is still one more week to experience the Haunted Fort this year — the event will be open for regular visits on Friday, October 27, and the Darkness Unleashed one-night-only finale will take place the following evening. In order to learn more about purchasing tickets for or volunteering for The Haunted Fort, visit its website here.