West Hartford’s Wolcott Elementary School held a very successful ‘Haunted Forest’ event on Saturday, Oct. 23.
By Sean Burns
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 23, and final preparations were underway for Wolcott’s Haunted Forest, organizers weren’t certain what to expect in terms of turnout.
But when the event’s 5 p.m. start time came, the line of families waiting for their tour of the forest trails adjacent to the elementary school and the spooky “scenes” within stretched all the way back to the far end of the field. When all was said and done, the annual PTO fundraiser saw an estimated 1,000 guests make their way through the trails to enjoy the sights and scares.
“Families and volunteers worked hard to make Saturday’s Haunted Forest more than just a fun and scary walk through the woods,” said Erica Nester, a co-president of the Wolcott PTO. “This was an event to connect the school community, and an opportunity to meet new friends and spend time with old ones. We’re extremely thankful to everyone who helped make that happen.”
The event was the first in-person activity that the school’s PTO was able to put on since March of 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. School administration officially gave the OK for the event in September, leading to a relatively quick turnaround, but volunteers quickly stepped up to put together scenes and plan out lighting, power, and concessions to have everything ready for showtime.
For its first hour, the Haunted Forest catered to younger family groups, allowing for a “less scary” version of the walk through the woods while the sun was still up. Families in the community – both those with younger students at the school, and others with young children who heard about the event through word of mouth in the lead-up – were waiting patiently for the gate to open.
“We had such a great time on Saturday,” said Sara Demos Avery. “Our kids are at very different ages (two in pre-K, one in third grade, and another at Sedgwick), but the Haunted Forest was something they could all enjoy in their own way.”
Scenes put together by the student groups included a macabre dinner set, a child-stealing witch, an homage to Coco and Dia De los Muertos, and a particularly spooky “ring around the rosy” theme. Other groups set their sights on dance numbers, with one featuring “This is Halloween” (from the Nightmare Before Christmas), another featuring choreography set to “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, and another built around Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The younger groups finished their laps around the trails and retired to the concessions area to socialize with friends and enjoy treats including doughnuts, cotton candy, and popcorn. Cider was also available, generously donated by Rogers Orchards in Southington.
The remainder of the night was the more frightening version, which saw some of the existing groups put a sharper edge on their acts, but also a few other additions to the walk. One that got more than a handful of shrieks was a father-son duo in the garb of Pennywise the clown and a companion in a yellow raincoat, holding a red balloon. Thankfully, that and another parent inviting passersby to “come for a swim” in the pond of Wolcott Park from the dark, were followed by the far more wholesome Coco scene to help settle any nervous guests.
“The Wolcott family works hard to celebrate the unique and powerful voices of our students and families in many ways, and this event creates a unique opportunity to expand on that,” said Dan Luongo who teaches instrumental music at the school and is a teacher liaison to the PTO who has volunteered at Haunted Forest several times. “The creative aspects of planning, costumes, music, scripts, and improvisation really offer opportunities to see students and families in a different light – literally and figuratively.
“Some skits are funny, some are scary, and many have a nice balance of both. I love seeing students and families create and immerse themselves in various characters. I found myself smiling ear-to-ear the whole time … even in line.”
By the close of the evening at 8 p.m., organizers believed the event to have been the most successful Haunted Forest to date – at least in terms of ticket sales and revenue generated, which will go towards future events as the school year progresses. Participants, many of whom had run through their skit or dance hundreds of times in the three hours as the groups rotated through, walked happily out of the woods to meet up with their friends, and grab a celebratory snack on their way out. And the organizers and families revelled in a little step back towards normalcy after over 18 months of dramatic changes made to keep the community safe.
“This year’s haunted forest was a night students and families will remember,” said Liz Bianco, who attended with her children as well as nieces and nephews brought along for the night. “This wasn’t just a frightful and fantastical experience, but a first real healing dose of community after a year and a half of uneasiness. So many smiles and laughs – what an awesome evening!”
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