Haunted houses, chaotic castles, strangling circuses, spooky corn mazes, witches out on the town and eerie asylums: It’s October, and make no mistake, Utah loves Halloween. The list of scary activities inviting locals to indulge in the spirit of the season is a long one, and each year, the haunted houses aim to step up their frightening game.
But family-friendly Halloween events also are finding a place among younger audiences and adults looking to balance their frights with spooky delights.
“I think there is a huge market for family-friendly events, especially at Halloween,” said Chelsea Kasen, product manager and designer at Utah-based Bigsley Event House.
Kasen also works as the event director for Bigsley’s Pumpkin Nights, a new event featuring more than 3,000 pumpkins artistically displayed in a half-mile radius comprising eight pumpkin lands. The event, which started last year in Twin Cities, Minn., makes its debut in Salt Lake City at the Utah State Fairpark, opening Friday and running through Oct. 29.
“We were looking for places with a big family population that are very family-oriented,” Kasen said. “Places that have a background where historical traditions are an important part of people’s live — specifically, if they were fanatical about Halloween.”
Preparing for Pumpkin Nights takes nearly a full year and includes the work of 15 artists, all of whom reside in Utah. Foam sculptors came on board to create massive pumpkins, some standing over 8 feet tall, while set designers brought in light displays that enhance the magical lands outfitted with pumpkins carved to fit each motif.
“The best part about being located in Utah is that there are so many talented people, especially on the artist’s spectrum,” Kasen said. “If you are looking to create anything, chances are there is an expert in Utah who can help you with that. It’s a lot of carving, brainstorming and concepting.”
Artists began carving foam pumpkins in July, and 1,000 real pumpkins were carved the week before opening night, resulting in a total of 4,000 pumpkins on display. Visitors walking through will experience themes ranging from Dracula’s graveyard to Día de los Muertos to an Asian-inspired land featuring two- and three-dimensional dragons; the Great Pumpkin Reef includes a mermaid and coral reef carved out of pumpkin.
Themes for the lands were determined based on how visual the artists could take them.
“We wanted to do something that could appeal to everyone by having iconic moments in the different lands but be able to translate that to pumpkins,” Kasen said.
While Pumpkin Nights offers more magic than horror, Kasen said it’s a perfect companion to the scarier activities while retaining what Bigsley Event House sees as the essence of Halloween: the pumpkin.
“[We are] using [pumpkins] in a way to elicit joy and excitement and creating great memories for people,” Kasen said. “There is something about the orange gourd. When you see it, you know Halloween is around the corner.”
Red Butte Garden also aims to transport visitors young and old to a magical world with its 18th annual Garden After Dark, opening Thursday. This year, guests are invited to travel to Wonderland, where they will encounter iconic characters such as Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and that notoriously tardy White Rabbit.
“Halloween usually is all about the scary aspect,” said Jason Alba, Red Butte’s program manager. “We were looking for something that [kids] could enjoy that would bring that fun spirit back to Halloween that’s on their level that takes that scary side out of it.”
Garden After Dark runs six nights in October, Oct. 19-21 and 26-28 from 6 to 9 p.m.
In addition to interacting with characters from “Alice in Wonderland,” Garden After Dark will include interactive activities for youngsters to discover the role the natural world plays in making Wonderland magical. Guests are encouraged to attend in costume.
Utah’s Hogle Zoo is also back with its family-friendly BooLights, a newer event proposed by the artists responsible for the zoo’s annual long-running Christmas display, Zoo Lights.
“We have lots of moms pushing kids in strollers that aren’t ready for the super creepy stuff yet, but want to enjoy the holiday and have some fun,” said Erica Hansen, community-relations manager for Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “[BooLights] is a great chance to get the kids out.”
BooLights opened a week ago and continues this weekend, as well as Oct. 18-21, and ends on Oct. 27. On Oct. 28, the zoo hosts Boo at the Zoo, a popular trick-or-treating event that runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Singing pumpkins and skeletons, bats and lots of lights make up BooLights. Visitors will also get the chance to encounter some of Hogle Zoo’s famous creepy crawly critters in an educational activity with eco explorers hosted from 7 to 8 p.m. during BooLights.
“I think Halloween has really morphed,” Hansen said. “Any time we can break up the monotony of life with fun holidays is great. We are hoping that people see us as a safe place to bring the littler ones that don’t want to be so scared.”
Utah offers enough Halloween-themed events to fill the month of October, so you don’t need to make a choice between family-friendly events and facing your fears.
“The great thing about being in a place that is so fanatical about Halloween is that it is such a tight-knit, local community,” Kasen said. “[Pumpkin Nights] is another Halloween option — and an opportunity for people to continue a celebration and make [October] an event-filled month.”