Dueling 'Field of Screams' Halloween venues pit Md. nonprofit against Pa. group
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 6:00 AM
Each year around this time, visitors to the Field of Screams in Olney encounter roaming zombies, homicidal maniacs, deep-fried Twinkies and "all of the creatures from your worst nightmares."
But for organizers of the wildly popular Olney Boys and Girls Community Sports Association's Halloween fundraiser, there is something much scarier going on. A Pennsylvania attraction by the same name has asked a federal judge to declare it the true Field of Screams and ban the nonprofit association from using the name.
The battle is brewing in U.S. District Court in Maryland and has brought a spooky world of ghosts and ghouls into the typically staid judicial halls. Court papers say that actor Gunnar Hansen - Leatherface in the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" movie - has visited the Pennsylvania venue. Mention has been made of Scared Stiff magazine, R.L. Stine and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Here's the dispute: The Mountville, Pa., Field of Screams, which was launched in 1993, says it had the name first. That means, the company argues, it holds the trademark for a market that they say includes the Washington metro area.
Thrill-seeking visitors can get confused and end up in the wrong hayride or startled by the wrong zombie, attorneys for the Pennsylvania attraction claim. They say their for-profit venture offers a higher-quality haunt, and their reputation could suffer if people mix up the destinations. The Pennsylvania group's Web site is www.fieldofscreams.com, while the Olney group uses www.screams.org.
The Olney group, which started its Field of Screams in 2002, says in court papers that there's plenty of fright to go around and that the two venues - about a two-hour drive apart - aren't competitors. They found at least 25 other "Field of Screams" attractions, from Snohomish, Wash., to Saint Petersburg, Fla. Besides, Olney says in the court papers, Field of Screams is "a common and generic description for a haunted attraction."
In short, they aren't backing down.
"We don't plan to give up our Field of Screams name, or the reputation for excellence we have built over the past eight years in our market, to a large for-profit organization located hours away in Pennsylvania," said Dan Dionisio, volunteer chair of the board of the Olney group.
The Olney group expects between 20,000 and 25,000 customers this season, while the Pennsylvania site had about 70,000 in 2008. Neither side will say how much money the attractions bring in.
Dionisio said the Olney association, which has 7,000 kids who come to play football, soccer, softball and other sports, just wants to make money to support the youth sports programs and give people a high-quality fright.
On Friday night in Olney, Zoe Sadugor, 13, and Danielle Sklarew, 12, both of Rockville, giggled and clutched each other as they made their way along the haunted trail. They screamed as a man wielding a chain saw jumped from behind a tree, and a zombie-like creature sidled alongside them and shouted: "Run, he's coming for you!"
"Oh my God, we made it," Sadugor said as they finally emerged. "I've never been so scared, ever."
Dionisio said the event, which includes a hayride and fires to make s'mores, is the group's biggest fundraiser. Proceeds go to operating costs, including equipment, upkeep of fields and insurance. All that, he said, helps keep down the fees the group charges to participate in sports programs, which are open to anyone.
Jim Schopf, a former high school math teacher who runs Field of Screams LLC in Pennsylvania with his brother, said he wishes the Olney group well and supports local youth groups. But he said a few years ago he began to come across customers who would call in or order online tickets, thinking they were calling the Olney group. Some customers bought non-refundable tickets online for the Pennsylvania event, according to court papers, thinking they were for the Maryland one.
Schopf said the company first sent a letter in 2007 asking the Olney association to find a new name for its fundraiser. Eventually they filed the lawsuit.
"This isn't Wal-Mart coming in to stop the little hardware store around the corner," Schopf said. "We don't want them to go away. They can be Field of Terror, or the Scream Zone. The choices are endless."
But both sides are attached to their names.
When the Olney group was building its sports facility, they called the capital campaign Field of Dreams. So Field of Screams was a natural choice for the Halloween fundraiser, court records say.
The event has grown over the years, attracting 700 visitors in 2002 and growing ever since, Dionisio said. Actors, including University of Maryland theater students in elaborate makeup, scare visitors, but don't touch them. Teenagers who belong to the association help staff the concession stands, tend the bonfires and make hot chocolate. Most nights the event isn't for children, but Sunday night it will tone down the horror for family night.
Schopf said the Pennsylvania attraction began in 1993 after a friend suggested a Halloween hayride event. After some brainstorming it became Field of Screams, which has grown ever more elaborate. It now features bands, magicians and even a morgue that smells of formaldehyde.
According to court papers, the Pennsylvania company has spent over $1 million in advertising over time.
There's no telling how the judge will rule. But chances are most people will stumble across the phrase 'field of screams' again, perhaps even this Halloween season.
According to court filings by the Olney group, the phrase has been used in the titles of television shows including episodes of "Married With Children" and "The Simpsons," and it appeared in headlines in several newspapers, including The Washington Post.