Nathan Stutte and his sister, Sophia, 8 get a good scare while riding the haunted train ride at Wheaton Regional Park. Behind them are parents Rich and Yoon. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Ten-year-old Nathan Stutte and his sister, Sophia, weren’t scared as they climbed aboard the train at the depot. It had been a spectacular October day, and they were ready for a little playful Halloween horror.

But if you’ve ever taken a haunted train through a forest full of ghouls and ghosts, then you know: Even on a warm autumn night, your blood can still run cold.


The train’s whistle blared as the cars jerked into motion. In the darkening sky, Sophia looked up to see the moon, bright and white, rising from the treetops. A shiver ran up her neck, and she squeezed a little closer to Nathan.

“Don’t be nervous,” laughed her mom, touching Sophia’s shoulder from behind. At 8, her mother thought Sophia was old enough to know the real from the unreal — but just barely. The train chugged out of the station, rocking past waving visitors, tilting around a long, easy curve.

A cleaver-wielding ghoul pops out from behind a tree trunk to terrorize riders on the train ride, which is geared for kids 8 and older. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Up ahead, a coffin rested on a tree trunk. Nathan saw it first.

“I know what’s coming,” he said anxiously. As he stiffened to prepare for the shock, a towering ghoul burst from the coffin, ax in hand and covered with gaping wounds, running right toward the moving train. The monster’s blood-curdling wail mixed with desperate screams from passengers.

But then he was gone, and everyone laughed. This is pretend, isn’t it?

There was no time to relax before a bloody maniac with wild hair and giant bear hands lunged from a clump of trees, waving a roaring chain saw overhead then quickly disappeared. The people on board cried out, but the train rocked on. It would be a long trip.

A foggy cemetery came into view, with a shadowy black figure standing motionless over a decaying grave. As the train whined by the formless phantom, a woman’s piercing howl shocked the stillness, and the figure collapsed to the ground, leaving nothing but a pile of black robes.

On the train, there was only confusion. This horror was so simple it had to be real. Could it be?

Then the lights on the train went out.

A chain saw-wielding ghoul waits in a darkened tunnel for the arrival of the haunted train. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)


Even through the darkness, the red sign was clear. Sophia read the words as the train blew past it, gathering speed and jerking onto the forbidden side track. Did the driver miss the sign?

There was a distant scream; Sophia crossed her arms tight. “Nathan,” she wanted to say. “Nathan, this can’t be right.” But no words came out.

“CAUTION, BRIDGE CLOSED AHEAD,” warned another sign. But still the train sped on, screeching noisily toward the danger ahead.

“Stop!” Sophia screamed. “Stop!” But the words were only in her head. The train gathered speed, and crazy jumpers rushed at the passengers over and over, bloody in their torn rags and waving weapons of torture and death. Always they missed, but they seemed more real now, in the darkness of the thick woods.

Up ahead, the rusty, decaying bridge drew closer, covered with caution tape, yet the train screeched on faster and faster. The whistle blew loud, and Sophia buried her face in Nathan’s shoulder, unable to look, holding her breath. The sound was deafening over the bridge, then all of a sudden, it stopped.

Sophia opened her eyes, calmed by the train’s more peaceful movement, and squinted into the passing field. Behind a veil of twirling smoke she could just make out a grisly scene: a guillotine, the blade down and a headless body still on its rack.

Nothing seemed familiar now.

Nathan and Sophia clutched each other and wondered how they would get back — if they would get back. They looked for anything they recognized from the park they had left behind, but there was nothing. Only woods and darkness.

Heading helplessly for a black tunnel, ominous and huge, Nathan longed for his child’s life in Silver Spring, where the only monsters were from the computer game Minecraft, and the scariest nights were watching spooky reruns of “Doctor Who” with his family.

That life seemed distant as the tunnel loomed ahead. Nathan covered his face with his arms, a buffer against the deafening screams and pulsing lights. When will it stop? When will it stop?

And then, it did. Out of the tunnel, like passing into another dimension, everything again became familiar. In the fields beside the track, the torture chambers were gone, the monsters were no more. In their place there was only normal life: construction equipment, a wooden fence and smiling families.

“Look! A Port-a-Potty!” Sophia yelled. “We’re back!”

She smiled; her body relaxed.

The train pulled into the station. Sophia, Nathan and their parents pulled themselves out of the tiny cars, stiff and stumbling to the exit. It had all been make-believe after all.

Hadn’t it?

— Margaret Webb Pressler