By Lauren Flynn Kelly 

Halloween starts early in my house, and this year I kicked it off by researching a local urban legend. Growing up in New Jersey, I was always fascinated by tales of the Jersey Devil, the winged and cloven-hooved 13th “child” of the Leeds family who supposedly roamed the Pine Barrens. But did you know that we have our own Jersey Devil right here in Prince George’s County? The Goatman. 

While the stories seem to vary, the most popular version (as researched by my internet-savvy daughter, June) seems to be that this goat-headed creature was an experiment gone wrong at the Beltsville Research Agricultural Center and spent the 1970s decapitating dogs, terrorizing lovers and generally stoking fear in the woods near Fletchertown Road in Bowie. This was explored in a Hyattsville Wire article that ran earlier this year, and it appears the U. S. Department of Agriculture just wishes the rumors would die.

But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about GoatMan Hollow, a former haunted attraction (yes, with an uppercase “M”) that terrorized locals for nearly a decade before mysteriously shutting down in 2011. 

From what I can piece together, based on stories from people who attended or worked there and news stories, GoatMan Hollow started in 2002 as a theatrical haunted attraction and first operated in a wooded area next to the alley behind Hyattsville Middle School. The story was based on the Goatman experiment and revolved around his fictional creator, Dr. Fletcher, but had a different twist each year. Guests would arrive and say, “We’re looking for the GoatMan,” then search the woods and outbuildings, including Dr. Fletcher’s lab. After three successful seasons in the woods, the haunt outgrew the neighborhood and riled the neighbors, according to a Washington Post article. As one source told me, it was basically “kicked out” by the city. In subsequent years, the haunt moved to two other locations in Riverdale, one of which was the building that preceded Town Center Market. It gained so much attention it was even featured on the Travel Channel’s “America’s Scariest Haunted Attractions.”

There were plans to reopen at the 94th Aero Squadron building in College Park in 2011, but according to a YouTube video posted in 2012 by one of the event’s founders, volunteers never got the chance to perform for the public, and it closed “due to circumstances beyond our control.” 

Meanwhile, the last active GoatMan Hollow Facebook post was in 2018, when the event’s organizers posted, to the dismay of many fans, that they were still not ready to reopen. To this day, the closing remains a mystery, perhaps one perpetuated by the founders, who declined to be interviewed for this story. 

So what was it like? Well, everyone I could find with a connection to GoatMan Hollow praised the story-driven aspect of the event and its attention to detail.

“GoatMan Hollow wasn’t like the other haunted houses, not even the really good ones,” recalled Mike Johnson, a sideshow performer who drove down from Baltimore every year to visit the attraction. “Everyone involved was giving it their all. No other haunt was so story-driven … . A couple [of] years, I went more than once; there was nothing else like it.”

Johnson said his favorite thing about GoatMan Hollow was the use of special effects, from the classic Pepper’s Ghost trick — which relies on lighting and a reflective surface to create a hologram-like effect — that made a “glowing ghost sit up from a tomb” to zombies clawing their way out of the grave, “with actors partially buried under a built-up surface of foam or something,” said Johnson. “It really looked like the dead rising.”

Local artist Karl Lista, who went to the attraction as a teenager, also described it as diverging from your typical haunted house walk-through. “It was really immersive and artistic. … You never saw anyone break character, even when being teased by drunk crowds,” they said. In one of the final turns of the wooded walk-through, Lista recalled being chased by a masked performer on stilts, “which must have been a real challenge in the dark and on the overgrown terrain.”

Former Riverdale resident Becky Archer, who also went to GoatMan Hollow as a young teen, said she ended up acting in the event for several years and appreciated its theatrical production elements. “It wasn’t exclusively endeavoring to scare people with shock or gore or anything of that nature. There was a genuine narrative,” she noted. Actors would often rotate roles during the season, following a loose script but with much improvisation. “There was one year I played a suicidal science experiment/ghost figure, which meant I was constantly dripping in blood. It was a lot of fun,” Archer recalled. Actors wore a variety of (mostly thrifted) costumes, wigs and prosthetics, and a special effects makeup artist was on site to assist with the ghoulish transformations. 

The prosthetic was especially important for Dr. Fletcher, whom Archer described as having “quite a grotesque visage.” I met with Dr. Fletcher himself, Riverdale Park resident Steve Wilhite, who coincidentally is a scientist specializing in genetic engineering. Wilhite confirmed much of what I’d read about the event, including that it was founded by a pair of Hyattsville residents and a Riverdale couple who’d had somewhat competing backyard haunts before deciding to join forces. Wilhite, who’d never acted before, was invited to join the production by his neighbors and described its genesis as “kind of an organic thing.” He ended up playing Dr. Fletcher for the entirety of GoatMan Hollow’s run.

Of those first few years in the woods, Wilhite said, “That was our element; it was pretty special. We had a lot of really creative people, there were a lot of cool effects, and we came up with some really good sets.” Wilhite recalled working on his own set, a room with a refrigerator that had a tube with fake blood, connected to a mannequin. He would hide and wait for guests to check out the mysterious subject, and then he would emerge screaming, “Get away from her!” 

No one I spoke with could say with any confidence why GoatMan Hollow closed, although sources suspected the condition of the Aero Squadron building caused its cancellation in 2011. The event wasn’t a moneymaker, and it required a lot of creativity and energy — organizers may  have simply been tapped out by the end of the run. But if GoatMan Hollow were to rise from the dead, a lot of people would celebrate its return.