About this time every year, the festival grounds at Conner Prairie in Fishers undergo a haunting transformation into "Conner Scairie," where a creepy collection of characters is vying to be elected mayor. Just off the campaign trail, brave souls can get into the spirit of the Halloween season by taking a haunted hayride where they encounter ghouls, ghosts and goblins of all kinds - including the legendary Headless Horseman. Will the ethereal equestrian ride home with the most votes, or will another candidate be victorious when the last ballot is pulled from the cauldron? Only time will tell.
One of Conner Prairie's most popular events, Headless Horseman returns to the interactive history park this month for its 32nd installment. Inspired by Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the annual celebration has signaled fall's arrival since long before pumpkin-spiced everything marked the change of seasons. It's a central Indiana tradition.
Of course, even traditions evolve over time. So the 30,000 visitors expected during the upcoming 11-night run will find some changes among their favorites at Conner Scairie:
• Ed the Mad Scientist and his assistant, Esmeralda, introduce a live chemistry show, "Ed's Incredible Chemicals," after retiring their previous electrical spectacle.
• Beautisha, the bewitched cosmetics company CEO, hosts a runway show for kids in costume to conjure up confidence in their inner and outer beauty.
• Aspiring comedian Dr. Acula hosts "Monster Mayhem," a new game show featuring trivia questions and the wheel of misfortune, among other challenges.
• Perpetual 7-year-old Hollyween is the playful hostess of an entertainment area for younger children, where she also reads them stories.
New activities include the Scarecrow Trail, a lit path adorned with different variations of the traditional straw man, and a one-man storytelling performance of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Guests also will have the chance to shoot "ghostly vortexes" at monsters with the help of an air cannon. Also this year, Conner Prairie is trying to break a Guinness World Record by folding 6,000 origami bats.
Returning favorites include the Stevens Puppets marionette's version of the classic story, Scary-o-ke, and fortune telling.
There's no doubt Headless Horseman is a major undertaking, but I had no idea how much went into the production until I talked to Kelly Backus, events manager for Conner Prairie. Ed, Beautisha, and the other main monsters aren't museum staff in makeup, for example. They're paid actors who've been refining their roles for months - wardrobe, rehearsals, the works.
Then there's the Horseman himself, or (SPOILER ALERT) herself, as it were. The person under the Headless Horseman costume isn't an actor, but an experienced equestrian. And more often than not, Backus said, it's a woman in the saddle. In addition to learning the route and how to navigate "headless," the riders and horses have to get used to potential distractions like the tractors pulling wagons on the hayrides.
And when the last scream echoes Oct. 25, hundreds of volunteers will have helped keep the Headless Horseman riding for another year.
6-9 p.m., Oct. 9-11, 15-18, 22-25
Tickets-Thursday and Sunday: $10 presale, $12 at gate; all members get in free; Friday and Saturday: $14 presale, $16 at gate, plus-level & above members get in free