In the city of Palouse council chambers, Sharon White and Brenda Brown are trying to get their hair just right.
They rattle a can of super-hold hairspray before spraying liberally.
“Here let me spray and then you pick [your hair],” said Sharon White, a director of events at nearby Washington State University and Palouse resident.
They were dressing up like zombies for a night out on the town — and they wanted their hairstyles to be hair-raising. Mirrors, hair paint and dozens of tubes of fake blood and green zombie face paint littered the desks where official city business is usually discussed.
All over Palouse this fall, townspeople prep for volunteer roles as ghosts, ghouls and dead children.
After The Flood
This annual Halloween fundraiser started after a devastating 1996 flood damaged the town’s sidewalks and gutted the buildings on Main Street. Haunted Palouse took up the slack after the grants and insurance money ran out. Janet Barstow was one of the event’s founding volunteers.
“We’ve got new playground equipment at the playground,” she said. “And [we built] the community center and the skate park. And [Future Farmers of America] is dear to my heart; they get funding every year.”
Twenty-five bucks buys admission to two haunted houses and a pitch-dark hayride through the woods. Inside the old jail and fire station, black plastic and wooden beams create a labyrinth of dark rooms. And a pig-tailed woman wearing a clown mask acts as the bellhop in an elevator to nowhere.
The sound of a creepy bossa nova jazz standard loops on a boom box, punctuated by patrons’ screams.
Outside these plastic walls, co-founder Mike Milano tends to hidden pulleys that open and shut doors behind terrified visitors.
The attractions at Haunted Palouse are so intense that children under 12 aren’t allowed to attend.
“Local kids here in Palouse just wait and wait and wait for that twelfth birthday so they can come and go through the haunted house,” Milano said. “And after a few times through they ask when they can come help decorate and scare. We have generations of kids that come and help out here.”
Over the years, the event has raised more than $650,000.
Bucking The Trend
Washington State University historian Robert Franklin has spent a lot of time exploring small struggling towns in the Inland Northwest.
“You saw a lot of faded glory and opportunity,” Franklin said.
But, he says, Palouse is different. It’s become a bedroom community for two nearby college towns — homes to WSU in Pullman and the University of Idaho in Moscow. There are shops downtown and a busy restaurant — all of which also make money during Haunted Palouse.
“Palouse is bucking the trend,” Franklin said. “Many of the towns around it, they are becoming more and more marginalized. And many people leave them, or have left them to seek greener pastures elsewhere.”
Town librarian Bev Pearce said the months of work on Haunted Palouse each year is when people get to know their neighbors. Farmers, university professors, retirees, conservatives and liberals all work side-by-side to build disturbing sets.
“Just talking about our everyday lives at the end of the day, when we’re done building for the day,” Pearce said. “It’s probably brought me a lot closer to with people that I probably wouldn’t have interacted this close with here in Palouse.”
In recent years, the fundraiser brought in enough money to build a new community center. This year’s proceeds are expected to pay off that mortgage. Janet Barstow tears up a little as she explains that Haunted Palouse has become a large part of the town’s identity — and hers.
“It makes you proud of Palouse that we can do this,” Barstow said.
After 18 years, she and other key volunteers are retiring. But Haunted Palouse will always welcome fresh blood.