In the spirit of total transparency, we, at School District 13 have decided to openly discuss how we do what we do. John and Jennifer Shipp have been designing and building haunted attractions and orchestrating Halloween events since 2004. Recently, Lydian, their daughter, now a high school graduate has joined in to help.
The idea to open a haunted attraction happened on a trip from Grant, NE to Denver, CO back in August of 2004. Roughly 7 weeks before Halloween, the Shipps discussed the idea of corn mazes in Nebraska and doing one on the farm where they were living at the time. It seemed improbable that the idea would come to fruition at the time. It just sounded fun. Lydian was four years old. She was game for anything. When they returned back home, Jennifer asked her dad, Tom Kosmicki about the possibility of doing a corn field maze on his land. Surprisingly, Tom thought the idea sounded fun too.
This was unexpected. A surprise. So the Shipps hurriedly cut the corn maze using a weed wacker with circular saw blade attached and set about marketing the event. Jennifer learned carpentry. John, an ex-pro musician, made the sound effects and used his skills in computing and electronics to set up the theatrical lighting. The family worked together not just to cut the corn field maze, but also to haul all of the corn stalk out of the maze too. Some things went more smoothly than planned, other things went much worse than planned. It wasn’t as easy as originally thought to design a corn maze. Nebraska corn can be pretty thin when it isn’t irrigated. But no worry, the Shipps forged ahead and by opening night, they were mostly ready.
That first year, we had 500 patrons paying $5.00 per person for a corn field maze that was actually just a straight path through an un-irrigated patch of corn and a hay rack ride. John and Jennifer were ambivalent about opening again the next year. The Shipps had moved to Bird City, Kansas by that time and John was working for the school system there. Jennifer was working on a doctorate in psychology. She returned to the farm in late spring and walked around, trying to decide whether to do it all again. It seemed like an impossible project. She needed fencing and a way to entertain a lot of people in order to make enough of a profit to keep the business going. She and Tom sat down and stared out over the field. Tom wanted to keep it going. He was pretty good at scaring people.
This is how Cornstalk, the Shipp’s first haunted attraction, started. Over the course of 7 years, Jennifer built 15 buildings herself to create a village. John electrified the buildings and put sound effects in each one. They moved several times while Cornstalk was open, but Jennifer would draw concept drawings, build the components necessary for the haunts and the village and then take them to the farm on a trailer several times a year. She designed and sewed over a hundred costumes that were one-size-fits-all. The costume and make-up area was located first in three 8×8 buildings, then in the barn loft, and finally in a grain bin near the other haunted attractions.
By the second year of the event, Jennifer had developed a haunted attraction with three outdoor haunts in one location out at the farm. The haunts spanned a five acre plot, which was, needless to say, unwieldy in terms of security.
But no matter what the Shipp’s did, they were never able to make a profit at the farm in Grant, NE. In their last year, only 2,500 patrons were able to find the farm, though apparently, a number of patrons made the drive but never arrived. The haunt was simply too difficult for people to find and the county wouldn’t allow the Shipps to market the event with signage along Highway 61. In 2010, the Shipps closed Cornstalk and began the long, arduous process of removing the materials to move them to Brule, NE. It was a sad reckoning to close down Cornstalk after all the hard work that had gone into it, but the Shipps learned an important lesson: LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION! Brule is the perfect place for a haunted attraction! John and Jennifer purchased the old school building and decided to use the festival as a way to build the economy in Brule. The town is located right on the border of Nebraska and Colorado, only an overnight from Omaha, NE and a day trip from Denver, CO. Haunt enthusiasts can easily find the event. It’s right off Exit 117 along I-80. And Brule is a tiny town, definitely creepy at night, and the perfect set for a horror film, or in this case, a haunted house.