Ewing resident Jennie Pennypacker plays a zombie guard at the Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls in Philadelphia.

Halloween’s a busy season for farmers, zombie prison guards

Whether Mercer County residents are looking to pick pumpkins, enjoy a hayride or scream with fright, they’ll have no shortage of options this fall season.

Mercer County and the surrounding area certainly has its fair share of spooky events; from local haunts like Windsor Farm and Corner of Chaos to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and Yardley’s Shady Brook Farm, fall festivities are easily within reach.

But as guests pile onto hayrides or bravely venture into haunted houses, they may not realize their one-night experience is the result of months-long planning and preparation.

The people who organize and perform in those frightening (and not-so-frightening) attractions often start planning when the weather begins warming up, rather than when it begins to cool.

At Windsor Farm, owner Wayne Kalinowski and his family starts working at the beginning of summer.

Kalinowski, who co-owns the farm with his cousin, Paul Keris, said the family started to rebuild and repair its 15 wooden wagons in early June, finishing them off with a new coat of paint; they repainted the farm’s picnic tables and fences over the summer, too.

In early September, Windsor Farm had already begun its transformation for the “agri-tainment” season. Windsor Farm offers a number of fall attractions; its pumpkin festival and daytime hayrides give kids and families the chance to pick and paint pumpkins, enjoy music and food, and take a ride through the woods, where they’ll see all their favorite movie and TV characters (this year with some new additions).

“To put a smile on a kid’s face, to us it means a lot… It’s all about the kids,” Kalinowski said. “I’ve had kids who came on the rides when they were young, and they come help me out now.”

On weekend nights, the hayride transforms into a spooky haunt, with Kalinowski’s family and friends all filling the roles of monsters and ghouls.

And the haunt all started with a lion suit in 1993.

“Peddie School called, and they wanted to go for a night ride but they didn’t want to get scared…So we gave them the night ride, and I just happened to have a monster suit,” Kalinowski said. “It was the lion from Wizard of Oz. We had done it for daytime for the kids. So I put it on, and I went down to the woods. I jumped out of the bushes, and I scared them on the wagon, and that’s how it all started.”

Ever since then, Kalinowski and his family have scripted different acts as part of the haunted hayride. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Kalinowksi realized all the actors had never seen each other’s performances. With that, they started a new tradition; before the season starts, Kalinowski takes out the wagon with all the actors on board, and stops at each section so the actors can get off and perform.

Kalinowski, 64, now works more as a manager during the fall events, driving around the farm to monitor the events and assist guests. But he used to be one of the nighttime ride scare actors, and smiled as he recalled one of his favorite roles in the light show section of the haunt.

“Scaring people was the best,” he said.

Not all workers at Halloween attractions are there to scare people, though. Ewing resident Anita Thompson has worked at Shady Brook Farm for 10 years, and every year she feels the same excitement as October nears.

Though it’s not until mid-June that preparations actually begin, Thompson said she starts getting excited in January.

Thompson, 56, works as the cashier manager and assistant gourmet manager, and she manages the 3D Alien Encounter attraction during the Halloween season. And once the end of September hits, she works in those positions—and anywhere else she’s needed—every single day.

“Weather permitting, we will be open every day through the end of October, and I will be at work every day, morning, noon and night, until it’s over,” Thompson said. “You have a handful of us that work every day. It’s exciting.”

Shady Brook Farm operates similarly to Windsor Farm. By day, families and children can enjoy non-spooky activities like pumpkin picking, music and other festivities; after dark the farm offers four haunted scare attractions.

Thompson has worked nearly 10 years at Shady Brook Farm, located in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and also worked and lived in the area when she was younger.

Over the years, she’s witnessed all kinds of reactions from guests who have attended the day and nighttime festivities.

“You’ll get some adults that come out who are just like, ‘that was awesome,’” she said. “Each year there is something that stays with you…sometimes I’ll remember a child’s reaction. Or we get teens who will head through, then they turn around and come out and say, ‘no, I’m not going through that.’ And you try to convince them to go through.”

Thompson never has to dress in costume—“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she laughed—but she does sometimes assist with ordering the dark robes worn by the actors in the Alien attraction. Otherwise, she said, another team helps the actors with any makeup or other costume necessities.

Thompson’s granddaughter, Jaylynn Morgan-Sanders, has also worked at Shady Brook for the past two years, though she only works part time due to her schedule as a Ewing High School student.

“I kind of grew up on the farm,” Morgan-Sanders said, noting that she’d been there many times with her grandmother, and once she turned 14, decided she wanted to start working there.

Morgan-Sanders usually works with birthday parties on the weekends, but in the fall she often helps with anything that needs to be done. This year, she even helped paint the inside of the Alien, the attraction her grandmother manages.

It’s scare actors at Halloween attractions, like Jennie Pennypacker, who often get to make the full transition into a nighttime ghoul. The Ewing resident works as a nanny during the day for 3-year-old twins, but for the month of October, she’ll transform into a zombie guard at the Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls.

Any guest who wants to walk through the haunted halls will first have to pass Pennypacker—dressed in full face makeup and guard uniform—who is stationed as a member of the line staff in the entrance area.

Terror Behind the Walls wasn’t set to open to the public until Sept. 19, but the Hamilton native already had a good idea of what to expect on opening night.

Terror Behind the Walls actors go through two weeks of training, rehearsing each section of the haunt and discussing the roles of each character. Pennypacker’s role as a zombie guard will stay the same throughout the season, but other actors may play a different role each night, she said.

The other actors and people working behind the scenes have also made her job there even more enjoyable.

“I was actually surprised how much of a family it is here, and how well everybody gets along,” she said. “Even if you don’t work in the same zone, everybody’s willing to help you do what you need to do or get to where you need to get to.”

Pennypacker, 34, hadn’t done any acting since her Nottingham High School days, but she’d been interested for a while in working at the former penitentiary.

This season marks Pennypacker’s second year working at the popular Philadelphia attraction. Last year, Pennypacker worked as a tour tail for the VIP After Dark Tours, a walking tour through the sections of the penitentiary not included in the haunt. Pennypacker would follow behind the group to make sure no one was left behind.

It’s the history of the building that intrigues Pennypacker most, she said.

“It’s fascinating to work in one of the most historic sites in the country or in the world,” she said. “That’s what draws me to it, is not only the haunt, and being part of something as awesome as the haunt, but also that it’s a part of history. Eastern State was first true penitentiary.”

She embraced that history as soon as she was hired last year, immediately signing up as a guest for the After Dark tour so she could first learn the stories of the building from years past.

Aside from the history, though, Pennypacker said she also loves meeting people—whether it’s families who travel to experience the history of the penitentiary or the cast behind the scenes that makes it possible.

“It’s fun to meet different people,” she said. “Not only [the people] I’m working with, but people that come through here.”

Here are just a few of the many Halloween attractions set to open in October:

Windsor Farm. 1202 Windsor Edinburg Road, Princeton Junction. Phone: (609) 443-9379. On the Web: windsorfarmandmarket.com.

Corner of Chaos. 299 Princeton Hightstown Road, East Windsor. Phone: (609) 426-8884. On the Web: cornerofchaos.com.

Field of Terror. 831 Windsor Perrineville Road, East Windsor. Phone: (609) 758-7817. On the Web: fieldofterror.com.

Shady Brook Farm. 931 Stony Hill Road, Morrisville. Phone: (215) 968-1670. On the Web: shadybrookfarm.com.

Eastern State Penitentiary. 2027 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia. Phone: (215) 236-3300. On the Web: easternstate.org.

Six Flags Fright Fest. 1 Six Flags Blvd., Jackson. Phone: (732) 928-2000. On the Web: sixflags.com/greatadventure.