For being such upbeat people, the Molitors can get downright sinister at dinnertime.
“Pass the chicken soup, please.”
“How was your day?”
“Let’s terrify people.”
That’s casual conversation for the central Minnesota family this time of year. Tammy and Ron, 54 and 58, are the figureheads of the extended Molitor clan — which has specialized in down-home haunts for nearly two decades in Sauk Rapids, Minn.
These days it seems like Halloween haunted houses are all about being bigger, faster, louder. In Minneapolis, the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement gets all the buzz for its adults-only theme. In Shakopee, ValleyScare transforms its entire theme park (charging a hefty $34). Elsewhere, other big-budget haunts have come and gone in recent years.
But across Minnesota, another style of fright fest keeps chugging along — and the crowds haven’t faded. These mom-and-pop haunted houses rely on volunteers and family support and often give back to their small-town communities.
The Mill Town Haunt is big in the Rice County town of Dundas (pop. 1,433) and donates to local charities. Chanhassen’s Olson House is in its 10th year after founders Holly and Bruce Olson conceived the venture to help stock food shelves. The Support Our Troops Haunted House (whose name is self-explanatory) is in its 13th run in Farmington.
The Molitors’ Haunted Acres maybe exemplifies these DIY haunts best. The couple own a 20-acre property in their river town just outside St. Cloud.
More than 10,000 people shuttle through Tammy and Ron’s backyard during the 14-night run that ends Oct. 31. Tickets start at $22. In daylight, the plot of land seems like a picturesque Midwestern homestead: porch-wrapped house, small fishing lake, plenty of woods. (The Molitors also own a bar and grill on the property.) But it is transformed at night: haunted hayrides, ghoulish scenes and a newer attraction, zombie paintball, in which attendees shoot pellets of paint at undead humans. The Molitors donate a percentage of proceeds to various causes annually.
Last Friday on opening night, it was easy to see why this homegrown haunt has prevailed for so long. Tammy looms over the operation larger than life: big personality, big voice, big hair. Ron is the opposite — a quiet, behind-the-scenes busybody with an intimidating handlebar mustache.
“Oh, I just eat it up,” Tammy said of the couple’s dedication to scaring people. “It’s just a hoot.”
Ron’s take: “We just work well together. I’m just not comfortable in the front of the game. … I like being the maintenance person.”
Ron showed Tammy the parcel of land in the late 1970s on a date. She thought he just was looking for a spot to “go parking” (aka fool around). The high school sweethearts soon bought the property and were married. “What is that — 33 years?” Tammy assessed. “Oh, my gosh, Ron probably knows.”
Today, the whole shebang is a family affair. In its 18th year, Molitor’s Haunted Acres has become a tradition that incorporates Tammy and Ron’s adult children, Caden, Cara and Ronnie.
“Christmas is fun,” said Caden Molitor, 30. “But nothing holds a candle to Halloween in our family.”
She said the annual haunt is just in their blood. “I just hope … that someday I’m able to do as good of a job as they are.”
Ron has passed on his passion for building to son Ronnie, 24, who gave them a metal spiderweb sign this year.
“Isn’t that cool? I mean, jeepers,” Tammy said while donning a Molitors sweatshirt and a walkie-talkie clipped to her waistband, fiddling with it occasionally to page, “Ron, you got a copy, Ron?”
For the Molitors, the details matter — right down to the summerlong training of a real horse that plays headless for a few seconds during the hayride.
The Molitors’ show begins with that very ride, as guests are transported through the Woods of Darkness on the Wagon of Doom. Afterward, they brave the haunted house, a five-room century-old dwelling that the Molitors transported from a nearby farm about a decade ago. Patrons encounter the bloody and bizarre: the battered bathroom, a mad scientist, a bat tunnel and dangling baby dolls. Plus, some familiar horror movie characters, including Jason Voorhees, Chucky and the ivory-masked killer from “Scream.”
“Everybody has that certain nightmare, that certain movie,” Tammy said, as her iPhone started ringing, “and so we just brought those nightmares to life.”
On her smartphone, she dished out snappy, peppy orders about group tickets to an employee. “Yep, just give them 100 tickets … that’s all you’ve got to do,” she instructed, barreling along in a golf cart to the night’s next order of business.
Falling into family
As her staff got into character, Tammy delivered a pep talk to the group of 45 “scare masters” (as she calls them) and security personnel, like a coach amping up a football team.
Working for the Molitors is much like showing up at a family holiday. (And yes, Tammy reports that Ron is a very distant cousin to Twins manager Paul Molitor.)
Donna Sherlin, 64, returned for her eighth year as a scare master after her daughter, who since has moved to the Twin Cities, introduced her to the gig. Sherlin is playing a gypsy this year, donning a thrifted printed skirt and blouse. She gave the look a twist with face paint and a fake mouse glued to her cheek.
“We form a lot of fast friends up here,” she said of central Minnesota. “At my age, it’s a little tough to be out in the elements — I used to be out all the time.”
The other volunteers call Sherlin “grandma” or “ma” because she bakes cookies or fudge every year. She doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. She’s a widow and “going like a bat outta hell,” despite a recent illness.
“If they’re good-looking, I’ll drop a kiss on ’em,” she joked about some visitors. “The most fun was the year I dressed up as a nun.”
On this night, a group of teenage boys waved their arms for her attention. The guys were hanging out in the rest stop between the hayride and the haunted house, where guests can get refreshments and fire off some paintballs at zombies. “Wanna get a picture together?” one asked Sherlin.
Posing, the boy snapped a selfie with his smartphone. Another friend looked at her with a bemused expression.
“So, it is makeup,” he confirmed.
“You think I look like this all the time, darling?” she responded.
Like any family history, the Molitors’ Haunted Acres has been around long enough to have its own share of hardship.
Joey Pierce was a regular scare master and nailed the role of Chucky, Tammy said. Unassuming, Pierce wandered onto the Molitors’ property as a teen looking for a job. “That was the highlight of his year,” Tammy said. “That was everything to him. And he was so good.” He worked sometimes in lapses because of an addiction.
Pierce died in 2012. He was 20. The Molitors have since retired the mask he wore. “I just loved Joey; goddangit, he was such a great kid,” Tammy said. “Really soft-spoken. Had a really big heart. He could make Chucky come alive.”
As the opening weekend of Haunted Acres came to a close, the Molitors settled in for another tradition: Monday is a day of rest. Tammy had been feeling ill. Ronnie brought her a card. Cara brought her flowers. Caden brought her medicine.
As they gather around the dinner table this season, the family recognizes that one day its seasonal custom could be different. Tammy and Ron can’t run it forever.
“If they want it, you betcha,” Tammy said of her three kids, who each live a few miles away. “They’re devoted first to being a family and, then, as a business.”
Caden, who has three kids, recently found her sixth-grade yearbook. In it, at 12 years old, she made the leaping projection: “Someday, I’m going to own Molitor’s.”
“I have every desire to do that. When I look at my kids, I hope that they have the same amount of passion as I do,” she said, “and the most amount of respect for my family that I do.”