Courtesy Willie E. Scandalz
Nowhere does Halloween quite like Kahnawake, and nobody in Kahnawake does Halloween quite like James Day.
“It’s the biggest labyrinth around,” Day said. “It’s like the biggest clubhouse in town…and everyone is invited.”
This is the 17th year that James Day’s Haunted Woods has been in operation, drawing in thousands of people across its four-day run, according to Day.
“I got people coming from far out of town,” he said. “It’s a very welcoming place like that.”
Attendees took guided tours of the haunted woods from Day’s cast of creepy characters, collected heaps of candy, received tarot readings from the witches coven, and even watched horror movies on a 25-foot screen as they waited in line for entry.
Gene Deer was one of the actors working the door each night, letting groups into the woods.
“The turnout was amazing,” Deer said. “I tried my best to keep count, but after a thousand people and talking with the young ones, I lost count. We had lineups to the road the majority of the time during the night shows.”
In the interests of ensuring everyone feels the true spirit of Halloween, Day has been working annually to make sure that his event has been accessible. One of the ways he’s made sure of this is with the haunted drive-by.
“That can be for people who are older that can’t make it through the woods, or people that are disabled,” Day explained.
The drive-by idea has been brewing over the last few years, as COVID limited Day’s ability to host his annual production. Refusing to compromise on fear factor, Day worked something out that was safe and scary.
“You drive down the street and there’s lights, and animatronics, there’s Michael Myers, actors, and they’re trying to rip you out of your car,” he said. “And you’re in the car, your doors are locked, but you have all these monsters shaking your car…if you’re disabled, you can come through there and you can share the passion that I want to give you in the woods.”
Though the drive-by hauntings were initially a pandemic-related measure, they will now be a permanent part of the Haunted Mansion.
Deer noted that with the event growing each year, it only gets better.
“This year’s event was insane,” he said. “This one felt like the best one yet. Every year they find better ways to improve the woods and make it better. And they always pull through with the best.”
For Day, Halloween is all about community, which is why he donates all proceeds from his events to charity. This year, he raised $5,505.89 from his haunting alone, which will be entirely donated to the Kateri Food Basket. He also collected a trailer full of food to replenish the food basket’s supplies.
Day also hosted a special ‘Halloween in July’ event this summer, to give the community a taste of what he’d been working on over the past year. With donations from that event, plus ongoing fundraising over the past months, Day is closing in on his $10,000 goal for the food basket.
“I do this out of my own pocket,” said Day. “All the actors that come in are volunteers. They have the same passion.”
One of those volunteers this year was Bailey Phillips, a first-time actor participating in a very special witches coven on the Haunted Mansion route.
“The turnout was amazing, absolutely amazing,” she said. “Kids were excited and obviously filled with fear. My highlight was people admiring the creativity we put into the event.”
Day is touched every year by the impact he has on the community. For him, seeing the shrieks and smiles on kids’ faces is what makes it all worth the effort.
“It’s an emotional feeling. I feel it in my chest, I tear up sometimes. I’m so proud of everything and everybody. I really totally believe in Halloween.”
This year, Day’s production saw a slight hiccup when one young actor got pepper sprayed when a group passed through the haunted forest. Since the child was wearing a mask, he didn’t suffer any severe injuries.
Day is taking the incident seriously and has spent the past days trawling through hours of footage on his trail cams in an attempt to track down the perpetrator.
“I’m all about safety, and I almost shut the woods down on Halloween night because of this issue,” Day said.
“I wanted to address that I’m not playing around. I really care about these kids. As a father, when they’re in there, those are my kids, you know what I mean?”
In spite of this incident, community members remained understanding, commenting outpourings of support on an apology message that Day posted to the Haunted House’s Facebook page on Monday morning, demonstrating that no bad eggs could spoil the community’s fun.
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.