Dawane Harris is a self-described “haunted house freak.”
Every October, the Salem resident makes a point of visiting as many as he can — so much so that he is rarely surprised anymore.
“You can expect to see a guy with a chainsaw at the end,” he says. “There will be someone who will jump out at you, and you will be poofed with a gust of air. You will also walk through spider webs, or something that feels like spider webs.”
The 40-year-old decided that this year, he wanted to experience something different — so he created it himself. His company, Spirit Expeditions, already offers walking history tours and ghost shuttles visiting Salem’s creepiest and potentially haunted locations.
This month, he added the 10,000-square-foot Maze of the Undead to the mix — complete with rabid, blood-soaked zombies.
Located at Pink Ribbon Farms, 10953 Silverton Road NE near Silverton, the hay maze spooks visitors every Friday and Saturday night through Nov. 2.
“There is something about a short little kid, rocking back and forth, eating a leg,” Harris says. “You will be terrified.”
Dawane and his wife, Denise, first got into the haunted history tours business in 2002 by offering expeditions in their town of Tombstone, Ariz. Dawane, a former high school teacher and actor, researched the history. Denise, 38, who identifies herself as a medium, attempted to communicate with the dead using divining rods and ghost boxes — handheld radios that search airwaves.
“People find it interesting,” she says about the juxtaposition. “My husband can tell you all the creepy history. Me, on the other hand, I love playing with the equipment. I do all the ghost-hunting parts.”
Denise says she discovered her abilities when she was 4, when she claims a poltergeist moved a wardrobe onto her bed. Since then, she’s had many experiences that defy explanation.
Once, she says she heard voices while taking a shower. When she opened her eyes, she says she saw blood. She later did an investigation in her home and discovered a nurse had been murdered there.
One of her most memorable encounters occurred five years ago in East Bethany, N.Y. With a sensitive recording device, she heard an electronic voice phenomena (a sound that resembles speech, found in recordings with static and in radio transmissions) of what she believed to be a little girl’s voice.
“She said, ‘Down here, down here, I’m down here,’ and something about being up in a tree,” Denise says. “Thirty seconds later, I heard what sounded like her mother calling her daughter — Emily.”
Despite his wife’s experiences, Dawane says he doesn’t necessarily believe in ghosts. His skepticism, combined with his wife’s belief, makes his company’s tours memorable, he says.
“We wanted to be different. We wanted to be innovative,” he says. “We get people who come just for the historical facts. And we get people who want to know how to use the equipment and search for ghosts. We make a good team.”
When the Harrises moved to Salem in 2010 to be near family, they intended to offer haunted history tours in their new hometown. But when they shared their plans with others, they were encouraged to reconsider.
“Everyone said we were crazy,” says Dawane, who grew up in Albany. “They said there were no ghosts in Salem, that it would be a flop and that no one would buy tickets.”
But the couple didn’t listen to their critics. Instead, they spent months digging through archived records to learn about Salem’s ghoulish past. And they found a lot.
“We’ve had two different serial killers who’ve left bodies in the same location in Salem,” says Riley Nix, one of the tour guides. “We also had a Chinatown that ran beneath Liberty Street from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. There are a lot of rumors about what happened in those tunnels.”
The IKE Box (a former mortuary turned coffee shop), Pioneer Cemetery and the State Capitol grounds are among the sites they visit on their tours, which are based on historical lore grounded in facts. Tour-goers learn how to use divining rods and ghost boxes to try to communicate with the spirit world.
The couple began as a business of two. Now they employ nearly 40 seasonal and three year-round employees.
In addition to two Salem-based expeditions, they offer tours in Corvallis, Albany, Independence and Silverton. Through next spring, they plan to expand their business to Eugene, Newport and Astoria.
Dawane’s five-year goal is to offer his tours in every state on the West Coast.
“People pay to get scared because they love being scared,” he says about his growing enterprise. “Everyone is afraid of what they don’t know.”
Creatures in the Night
Back at the hay maze, the teenage zombies arrive on opening night in early October, caked in dirt and gore. Their skin looks slashed and bloody, and their arms are laden with severed limbs.
Upon seeing the crew, the Harrises spring into action — checking that the zombies are sufficiently scary and that they know their places in the maze.
“In here, you don’t know what is going to happen,” Dawane says. “We have zombies hiding in every nook and cranny. Then they chase you. Your job is to get through the maze without running into a dead end. It’s scary.”
The owners of Pink Ribbon Farms partnered with the Harrises by letting them use the hay maze at night. After a weeklong delay in the opening due to unseasonably stormy weather, the actors are eager to start. That includes Sarah Lemos, a self-proclaimed psychic medium who provides readings at the maze.
“People say, ‘Keep Salem alive.’ I say keep it dead,” Lemos says. “People complain about Salem, saying there is nothing happening. But this couple is keeping things going at night.”
Nix agrees, adding that he’s learned more about Salem in the six months he’s worked for Spirit Expeditions than he ever thought possible.
“It’s crazy how much you can not know about a place you’ve lived your whole life,” says Nix, a student at Western Oregon University. “Dawane is a historian. Denise is a medium. Between the two of them, they’ve got this genre covered.”
With less than 30 minutes to go before the hay maze opens, Dawane knows there is no turning back. The sun is setting. The zombies are retrieving their props, and the parking attendant has taken his position.
Now, Dawane waits.
“This is exciting,” he says. “Whether people believe in ghosts or not, it makes no difference. We want to make people smile. Our purpose is to make sure they’re happy when they leave.”
The Maze of the Undead is open Fridays and Saturdays from 7 to 11 p.m., through Nov. 2. The cost is $15, and it is not recommended for children younger than 8. For more about the maze or Spirit Expeditions’ haunted Salem tours, visit www.spiritexpeditions.com.
A native of Fargo, N.D. (yes, like the movie), Erin Dahl spent a decade working as a newspaper journalist before joining the communications staff at Willamette University in 2011.
Originally from Iowa, Frank Miller came to Oregon via Japan, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y. His photography can be viewed at www.fmillerphotography.com.