Homer City-area attraction offers fright-filled walk through woods
Now in its third season of being open to the public, Scary Harry's haunted trail near Homer City provides visitors a fright-filled backwoods experience using creepy settings, props, live actors, noises and music.
“We introduced pneumatics and animatronics for things that jump out, drop and fly around,” said Paul Ondo, 43, of Clymer, whose family operates the attraction on weekends through Halloween Week.
“We take modern-day horror and gore and mix it up,” Ondo said. “Sometimes we have comic relief, too. You'll have intense scares and then you'll bump into someone who is acting goofy. You might want to chuckle, but you'll wonder if they're out to get you.”
There are two trails. One, designated for younger children, is a simple walking trail that also includes a maze. The other is geared to provide a more intense experience for older children and adults.
Ondo's 9-year-old daughter, Adalynn, guides young visitors along the children's trail as they encounter heavy fog, dim lighting and spooky props. Children must be accompanied by an adult on either trail.
Scary Harry's, located at 210 Long Road, Homer City, operates 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in October and Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. Admission costs $7 for the main trail and $1 for the Scary Jr. trail.
Since everyone has different fears, the Ondos have a variety of ways to startle and scare as many people as possible.
“We want to highlight the senses,” Paul Ondo said. “We try to prey on everyone's fears.”
His wife, Amanda Ondo, 31, who handles customer service for those entering the attraction, noted, “It starts as soon as you get here.” She said some people are nervous as soon as they arrive in the night at the dark, wooded area.
“I like the beginning when everybody is smiling,” said Daniel Pierce, 69, who escorts visitors in a truck-drawn hearse made from an eight-foot trailer. “I enjoy the party atmosphere. It's like the excitement when you're going to the top of a roller coaster.
“People ask me if I'm Scary Harry. I'm not. When the people are on the trail, I listen to the laughter and the screams.”
Visitors are transported to the top of a hill, where they disembark to walk along a nearly mile-long mulched trail that winds through six of the property's 26 acres. It takes up to a half hour for visitors to traverse the Halloween-inspired, spooky trail as they try to avoid a run-in with Scary Harry.
“The quickest is 20 minutes, and that is if people are moving fast,” Paul Ondo said of typical walks through the attraction. “It is about 30 minutes for most people.”
Visitors can expect to face some of their fears though there are no live animals — nor moving floors or steps due to insurance reasons.
Chills may result from such scenarios as facing snakes, cobwebs, being disoriented, walking through dark or dimly lit places and encountering a sudden, unexpected sensory stimulation.
Sometimes, simply the passing of time when there is nothing happening causes people to fear what is to come.
“Some people are afraid of snakes,” Paul Ondo said. “We're not going to just send a snake across the path. We're going to send you through snakes.”
Perhaps in those moments that frighten visitors the most they will have forgotten it is all make-believe.
The idea for the scary site first came about in 2007, when it began on a smaller scale — as a way to provide extra Halloween thrills for family, friends and neighboring children who came to the Homer City-area property of Paul Ondo's mother and stepfather, Cora and Daniel Pierce.
Cora Pierce's birthday falls on Halloween, and she always celebrated it by embracing the holiday's spooky theme.
Paul Ondo grew up also appreciating the holiday's festive spookiness, which he was able to take to a new level as he developed his interest in the theatrical, technological and electronic aspects of scaring people.
Paul Ondo, who has a degree in electronics and a technological background, is the creative director of Scary Harry's. As such, he draws inspiration from many sources.
“I get inspiration from feedback and consultants for ideas,” he said. “I watch a lot of horror movies and videos. I've done a lot of research.”
He enjoys designing the props and settings that create a frightening atmosphere. Some props have been purchased from the same vendors used by television and movie producers. Many others he made himself.
“Anyone can go buy props and use them,” Paul Ondo said. “At one point, about 50 percent were made. I build them.”
There are four main sections of the trail including an unsettling hillbilly settlement, an old ghost town, a cemetery and a bayou. Visitors to the trail may bump into creepy and silly characters that may harass them.
“I judge the success rate by the amount of screams,” Paul Ondo said. “We have a couple areas that are really intense. Most of the things are to startle, like a blast of fog, lights, making people disoriented.”
While thrill-seekers come to enjoy a good fright, the Ondos initially had to dial back the fear factor when some of their visitors had extreme reactions to experiences along the trail.
“We had to cut back on some things that were too scary,” Paul Ondo recalled.
There are changes made for each season to keep the trail new and exciting for those who return. Some things are changed because they fail to reach the audience as planned.
“In the past we have had scents. We used the odor of decaying flesh and people thought it was a dead animal and they didn't understand it was part of the cemetery,” Ondo noted.
To increase the effectiveness of the thrills at Scary Harry's, Paul Ondo explained, the number of people walking in groups is limited.
“In scare houses and other popular places when there are a lot of people, everyone is rushed through and the people in the back see everything that happens to the people in front of them,” he said.
The actors watch as groups of visitors make their way along the trail and manage the timing of their characterizations to keep things moving, depending on the pace of the groups.
“I try to keep mine to 90 seconds,” said Cora Pierce, 67, who plays a character she would not disclose. “Some people walk through slow, some go fast and some run. We don't want them to run.”
She also decorates the trail and most enjoys dressing the skeletons that populate some of the scenery.
“I love dressing the skeletons,” Cora Pierce said. “I've got cowboys, dance hall girls, a masquerade ball and men in Victorian suits and top hats.”
After making it through the scary ordeal, most patrons make a hasty retreat to their vehicles.
“You see them come off the trail and make a beeline to get to their cars as fast as they can,” Amanda Ondo said. “It's funny. You can tell they've had enough.”
Local fire departments are also involved this year, raising funds through food concession sales.
“My dad was a volunteer fireman,” Amanda Ondo said. “I know the Black Lick VFD needed pagers. We asked what we could do.”
The Ondos, who had in prior Halloween seasons operated the food concessions at Scary Harry's, decided to invite local fire departments to provide and manage the concessions and collect the proceeds.
Homer City, Coral/Graceton and Black Lick firefighters will alternate selling food concessions.
Paul Ondo said he hopes to eventually increase Scary Harry's to two or three times its current size. He said plans are being considered to develop the site into a park and hold events during other holidays.
For more information, visit scaryharrys.com.
Debbie Black is a freelance writer.