The cowards are almost always in the middle of the pack.

And they make the best targets for the ghouls and goblins who spook visitors of the "haunted" trails and forests that are this Halloween's scary rage.

Think of them as the outdoor version of the haunted house. Set up on dark, woodsy pathways, these nighttime destinations -- with admission fees and actors playing elaborate scenes -- are scaring Halloween revelers from Prince George's to Loudoun, each with its own blend of homespun horror, no flashlights allowed.

The combination of a natural setting and the supernatural has strong appeal, playing on the unpredictability of the outdoors.

The haunts have proven enormously popular. A spooky woods in the Montgomery County community of Dickerson attracted 1,100 people on its opening night this year, up from several dozen 12 years ago.

Haunted events are not new, and no one tracks how many exist. The haunted attraction industry, which has its own magazine and trade show, estimates that there are 3,000 to 5,000 each year.

"Woods, no matter where you are, are very scary at night," said Bill Livingston, who produces Goatman's Hollow in Hyattsville, where visitors make their way through the woods and in and out of a spooky house. "I think people are yearning for the nature effect -- being inside of nature and not being able to control the circumstances."

The movie "Blair Witch Project" has had an effect as well. Since it became a cult favorite in 1999, there has been a surge of haunted trails nationwide, said Leonard Pickel, editor of Haunted Attraction Magazine.

In the movie, three college students disappear while shooting a documentary about a witch in the woods in Burkittsville, Md.

The creepiness of a forest, where anything might spring from behind a tree, is all the more frightening when actors create the scenes and can manipulate the audience for maximum effect, Pickel said.

"An actor [knows] where the girl is, and that she's probably going to be the easiest to scare. And they know where the middle of the group is. . . . That's where the chickens are," he said.

"The people in front are the most brave. You want to scare the whole group, but they always know that soft underbelly is going to give the biggest scream."

At dusk yesterday, about 20 patrons, parents and children, were among the evening's first visitors to Tales of the Trails at the Claude Moore Park in Sterling. Four storytellers used ghoulish sounds, costumes and actors to frightening effect. McKenzie Silk, 8, was cowed by the "Man with the Chain Saw."

"Maybe I was a little afraid, because I thought he was going to come toward us and kill me," she said. Her sister, Maddie, 6, was so scared she had to leave with their mother, Tracey Silk, 36. a Leesburg homemaker.

At Markoff's Haunted Forest in Dickerson, visitors pay $20 to pass a cemetery with skeletons in open graves, a junkyard with smoldering cars and a crashed plane with a pilot trapped inside. Men bearing chain saws, clowns on stilts and gorillas lurk in trees. Thirty actors play the parts.

"We like to say that we draw families closer together -- literally," said Nick Markoff, 35, who with his two brothers and staff runs the haunted forest on his family's 150-acre property.

On its first night in 1992, Markoff's forest attracted 40 visitors. This season, Markoff expects more than 8,000. Last Saturday night, 2,200 came through, and staff members predict that this Saturday night is going to be "crazy."

"I think people just love to do something different during the Halloween season," Markoff said. Visitors view costume parties and trick or treating with a "been there, done that" attitude, he said.

The outdoors gives organizers flexibility to design scenes, but the weather doesn't always cooperate.

At Claude Moore Park last night, the clouds lifted so visitors at Tales of the Trails could see the eclipse of a full moon.

The sight would fit perfectly into the tale park manager Pam Sheets planned to tell: the legend of the werewolf.

"It's totally bringing out the actress in me," she said.

Potomac Falls youngsters Alexana LaRosa, 6, and Kyle Weeks, 7, look out for a descending spider in Sterling. Tales of the Trails, the haunted trail at Claude Moore Park in Sterling, includes legends told by storytellers such as Bob Lewis.