It’s hard to say what will emerge as the showstopper at CarnEVIL, the Halloween fright fest that is set to debut at Merriweather Park on Friday the 13th.
It could be the six-foot-tall mutant dog with the head of an evil clown that leaps out at unsuspecting visitors, or it might be Wolf Boy, the sideshow freak who roams the haunted woods.
But then again, the biggest thrills are being kept under wraps until opening night.
Gene Ryan, a DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department sergeant who lives in Columbia, is the mastermind behind the haunting of Archibald Evil’s century-old abandoned circus.
“We don’t go for anything gory,” Ryan stressed. “Creepy fun is what we do.”
On behalf of his nonprofit, Disaster Preparedness DC Inc., Ryan is partnering with the Inner Arbor Trust to produce the festival, which will run for 14 nights in October and early November.
Ryan’s share of the net proceeds will go to the charity he founded in 2015, which trains and equips first responders and provides support to local public safety agencies during emergency disaster responses.
He also serves as a first responder, and was recently deployed as a human remains detection canine handler to locate trapped and missing persons in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and José.
“My professional life is full of destruction and disaster,” Ryan said. “This festival provides as an alternate place from that day-to-day reality where I get to create something that makes people laugh and have fun.”
The journey will begin innocently enough, or so it will seem.
Guests will be whisked from the parking lot to the Chrysalis stage in a circus car, and “things can happen even on that short trip,” Ryan warned.
They can then meander along the Menacing Midway and play carnival games with a Halloween twist.
There will be an eyeball toss into transparent skulls filled with fluorescent fish illuminated by black lights, and a version of the iconic “Operation” board game that involves using barbecue tongs to extract body parts from a six-foot clown on a turntable. Visitors can also throw severed heads into a basketball hoop.
Roaming performers such as fire swallowers, jugglers, plate spinners, stilt walkers and unicyclists will add to the circus atmosphere.
Refreshments for sale will include s’mores made in a fire pit and a specially canned CarnEVIL beer from Laurel-based Jailbreak Brewing Company.
Guests will be entertained by a DJ or a live band while they wait to enter the Abandoned Circus haunt at the pre-selected time on their tickets instead of standing on a long line.
About 1,300 people a night will be permitted to pass through the main attraction – which will feature 13 ghastly scenes – at a rate of 24 every three minutes, according to Ryan’s detailed calculations.
His goal for the festival is to raise $750,000 before expenses.
While the festival’s target age group is 17 to 55, the first two shows at 6:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. each night won’t feature live actors or animatronics and will be more suitable for ages 12 and under.
Four of Ryan’s fellow firefighters have been volunteering 16 hours a day for weeks to get CarnEVIL up and running, working alongside paid temporary employees to build sets and props, among other tasks.
“We work 24-hour shifts for a living, so we’re used to getting by on a few hours of sleep,” Ryan said, who estimating he’s put in close to 1,500 hours on the project.
He has also hired college students and recent graduates from the theater arts departments of Howard Community College and the University of Maryland – and still has other slots to fill.
On top of his career job and overseeing the festival, Ryan is completing his doctoral dissertation in disaster epidemiology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
But no matter how busy his life gets, he still finds time to ramp up Halloween’s creepiness quotient each year.
Ryan almost can’t believe he is bringing to Symphony Woods, on a much-larger scale, the type of special-effects extravaganza he once assembled for fun at his family’s home each Halloween, starting in New Jersey in 2006 and then in Kings Contrivance after moving to Maryland in 2011.
In 2014, vignettes that featured a sparking electric chair and a ghoulish girl singing a haunting melody from a decrepit swing-set were among the displays that attracted hundreds of visitors from around the region to his driveway until county police were forced to ask Ryan to shut the attraction down due to traffic concerns.
Last Halloween, Ryan set up a haunted house fundraiser for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that drew thousands.
He pitched his idea for the abandoned circus earlier this year to the Inner Arbor Trust, which is charged with developing Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. He’s also coordinating with the county school system to bring students with physical disabilities to the ADA-compliant site during the day to enjoy a pumpkin patch and hay maze.
Nina Basu, who became president of the trust on May 1, was all in from the start.
“My mission is to bring great arts and culture events to downtown at Merriweather Park, and we need to make money to be able to provide those experiences,” she said.
“This festival will be a really great theatrical production, and it was fortuitous that Gene and I each needed what the other had to offer.”
Ryan said his years of experience with creating larger and larger Halloween events has proved to be his own “Field of Dreams.”
“I find that if we build it, people will come,” he said. firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
CarnEVIL will be held on select nights from Oct. 13 to Nov. 5 at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Opening night will not be suitable for children, organizers caution. For festival rules, free-parking information and to purchase general admission tickets ($40.33) or VIP tickets ($63.93), go to carnyfest.com.
Note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect web address for the event. It has been corrected here.