SCarowinds: The Carolinas’ Love Letter to Halloween
Published on October 12, 2023
By Kayla Chadwick-Schultz
The first thing I notice is the smell of the fog. It’s the artificial kind, pumping out of meticulously placed machines throughout the amusement park grounds. The only way to truly describe the smell is “instant nostalgia.” One whiff and I’m teleported back to eighth grade, when I entered through the gates of SCarowinds for the very first time.
I remember it vividly. I remember how the excitement of being out with a group of friends on a Saturday night quickly transformed into anxiety the moment I saw what awaited me. Spooky music, eerie sets, wandering monsters, and that now-familiar fog; it was sensory overload for an easily scared, 13-year-old version of me. How was I going to survive this?
What started off as a night filled with panic and anxiety turned out to be one of the best and most formative nights of my childhood. Now, a full-fledged horror fan at age 30, I can still recall the way I felt that first night. It hits me in an instant—the moment I smell the fog.
My connection to SCarowinds is personal, but it isn’t individual. Countless people across the Carolinas and beyond have similar memories of the amusement park turned horror wonderland. Year after year, the number of visitors only grows. Whether they’re from the Charlotte area or the other side of the country, people show up to SCarowinds in hordes. They pack the border between North Carolina and South Carolina every weekend from mid-September to the end of October, all because they share a love for one thing: Halloween.
We recently visited SCarowinds ahead of its Sept. 15 opening to get an inside look at how the park brings this annual event to life, and what we discovered… Well, there’s so much more to it than costumes and makeup.
A History of Haunts
The story of SCarowinds began back in 2000, when the now-defunct Paramount Parks used its Hollywood flair to bring a haunted theme park to life. During early promotions, the Carolinas proved to have a big appetite for “a comprehensive Halloween event,” according to Carowinds Digital Marketing Manager Ashlyn Pecchio. Inspired by this appetite, Paramount Parks brought in top Halloween event planners from across the country. The result? The start of what would become the Carolinas’ premier Halloween event for the next 23 years.
That first year, SCarowinds had a few scare zones across the park, a handful of outdoor-only haunted mazes, nearly 100 monsters roaming the grounds, and one soon-to-be-iconic bloody “S” in front of the Carowinds logo sign. Six years later, when Cedar Fair acquired Paramount Parks, fans of SCarowinds worried. Would this mark the end of the horror-themed park?
An old photo of Paramount’s SCarowinds, featuring the bloody S. (via Carowinds)
As with any change in ownership, changes to the existing Carowinds lineup were inevitable. However, those changes proved to be more about renaming roller coasters and attractions than completely doing away with any major elements—including SCarowinds.
The annual Halloween event had become such a phenomenon in only six years that no owner, new or old, would have even considered getting rid of it. In fact, Cedar Fair was excited about the opportunity to take the SCarowinds brand to the next level. They had already proven their Halloween prowess with the success of Knott’s Scary Farm in California, and they were eager to expand SCarowinds programming until it became Carowinds’ primary seasonal event.
The growth of SCarowinds over the last 23 years has been substantial, which is instantly apparent to anyone who once frequented the park in its early years. Today, it’s bigger, bolder, and (quite frankly) better than it’s ever been. The small number of actors disguised as monsters in 2000 has grown to the size of an army, affectionately named the “terror team.” There are five haunted mazes, six scare zones, multiple live performances, themed food and beverages, and an ever-evolving inventory of branded merchandise.
One of this year’s six scare zones: Blood Yard. (via Carowinds)
The modern-day SCarowinds experience is immersive from the moment you enter the park to the moment you leave, and that is a testament to the passion of the people behind the scenes.
An All-In Attitude
When we arrived at the park for our sneak peek of this year’s SCarowinds offerings, the first thing I noticed (other than that iconic bloody S) was an overwhelming sense of pride. The Carowinds staff could not wait for us to see what they’d created for 2023. It was clear from the moment we checked in that this was a passion project for every single person involved—even the greeters.
As we exited Guest Services, we stepped into a tableau of fake tombstones and mausoleums, accompanied by ominous music and a fresh puff of that fake fog. The nearly empty park and daytime sun made it all the eerier; this isn’t how any of us are used to seeing SCarowinds. It is, however, a great way to see all of the hard work and dedication of the Carowinds staff up close and personal.
From weathered and moss-stained stone to overgrown vines and cobwebs, the daylight brought every careful detail of the cemetery scenery to the forefront. If it wasn’t for the looming presence of the Intimidator, you might think you’d wandered into a centuries-old graveyard. Of course, it wasn’t a graveyard. It was a collection of foam, wood, and plastic assembled at the entrance of an amusement park. The entrance. As in, the area of the park people blow right past on their way to haunted mazes and roller coasters. Does the entrance really need such detail if hardly anyone is going to take the time to admire it?
Within seconds of talking with any member of the Carowinds staff, you’ll know that the answer to that question is absolutely. This crew is all in. They don’t see the pathway into the park’s attractions as just an entrance. To them, this is their first impression. This is their opportunity to welcome you into the nightmare they’ve created. They want you to take one step into the park, look around, and say, “I love Halloween.” That is why they do it.
Since its inception, SCarowinds has been the Carolinas’ love letter to Halloween. The actors, the makeup artists, the set designers, the entertainment directors, the chefs—everyone is equally invested in making SCarowinds the best, most immersive experience you’ll ever have. It doesn’t matter if you attend every year or have never attended before, these people want to “wow” you.
Finding new ways to thrill guests after 23 years of being the Carolinas’ premier Halloween event is no small task. It requires an enormous amount of passion, and that passion was on full display throughout our sneak peek. Our first stop was to The Grove, home of the terror team. Here, we saw a variety of props and costumes for this season’s mazes and scare zones. They had everything from bloody and gory to oversized and comical. Regardless, even lying stationary in a well-lit pavilion, some of these props could still cause quite the fright. While frightened visitors may not notice the quality craftsmanship behind these items as they flee from a maze, there is no denying the artistry in every bloody hammer and pig mask.
In addition to props and costumes, The Grove also houses the terror team’s hair and makeup artists. We were fortunate enough to see them in action, as they turned some of our fellow attendees into zombies and demons in real time. For me, this was the moment I realized why they call themselves a team. See, a man in an Appalachian State University polo with demon makeup is simply a man in an Appalachian State University polo with demon makeup—regardless of how good that demon makeup may be. He only becomes a monster when it all comes together. The costume, the hair, and the props all add context to the makeup and turn an ordinary man into the thing that goes bump in the night.
SCarowinds zombie outlaw (via Carowinds)
In order to make SCarowinds what it is, everyone has to work together toward one common goal. What that goal is, well, that’s open to interpretation. Some would say it’s to scare you senseless while others would say it’s to fully immerse you in the experience. Either way, it’s a team effort, and that team includes the kitchen.
Yes, the kitchen. Trust me, food is not the first thing I think about when I think about SCarowinds either, but we previewed some of the new Halloween-themed offerings, and… Let’s just say food is now something I think about when I think about SCarowinds. The Buffalo Brain Bites (deep fried cauliflower in buffalo sauce) were a favorite at our table, but we also sampled Oktoberfest Pizza, Fear the Reaper Chicken Dip, Aprokies Greek Fries, The Walking Taco, and Candy Corn Banana Pudding. It was evident that Executive Chef John Loukas and his culinary team had a blast creating this seasonal menu. The food is somehow both nostalgic for the childlike wonder of Halloween and refined enough for an adult palate. That’s certainly not to say that everyone will love a flatbread full of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, beer cheese, and German sausages, but there are enough options available for everyone to find a seasonal item to enjoy.
Similarly, there is something for everyone to enjoy throughout the Halloween season at Carowinds. If you don’t like being scared but you love the vibe of SCarowinds, you can attend the Procession of Nightmares parade or watch their two performances: The Summoning & Conjure the Night. However, you might also want to purchase one of their No-Book Necklaces. Otherwise, if you’re in the park, you’re fair game for the terror team. And as we’ve established, they take the job of scaring you very seriously. How else could they leave such a lasting impression?
Made for Making Memories
When the higher-ups at Paramount’s Carowinds thought of the idea to transform their popular amusement park into a horror destination, they surely couldn’t have anticipated the cultural juggernaut that SCarowinds would become. How could anyone? Even with positive feedback from the early promotional events, no one could confidently say that this thing would still be around in 23 years. And yet, here we are.
To be honest, I can hardly remember a time before SCarowinds. I was seven years old when I first saw that bloody “S.” Back then, I spent my days at Carowinds riding the small yellow taxi coaster and spinning hot air balloons in the family section, so believe me when I say that the sight of a bleeding “S” was enough to spook me. Once they started adding SCarowinds decorations to the park during daylight, I was out of there. I’d walk past them as swiftly as my little legs could carry me, with a hand shielding my eyes and my heart pounding. I loved Halloween, but I hated being scared. I was such a chicken.
Then middle school came around, and my desire to be cool outweighed my desire to not get scared. So, I did what all 13-year-old kids in the Charlotte area do; I went to SCarowinds.
I remember the long walk up to the gates. Each step carried me closer and closer to something that truly terrified me, but I kept walking. I walked all the way through the gates, into a cloud of kerosene fog and onslaught of haunting décor. In the near distance, I saw a man run up behind a girl and slide toward her on metal knee pads. The metal sparked on the pavement. She screamed, startled and frightened. She jumped so hard she bumped into the girl next to her, who also screamed. They were screaming, and he was screaming, and I felt like I was about to scream just watching them, and then... They laughed.
Being scared was fun. It was the first time in my life that I ever had the thought. I’m not sure why I never made the connection before. All the times I took the trip down 77 to ride roller coasters, wasn’t I doing the same thing? Wasn’t there always a brief moment of screaming terror on the first drop? Didn’t it always end in joy and laughter and the desire to ride again? If there was ever a place to have fun being scared, wasn’t this already it?
Aerial view of SCarowinds rides at dusk. (via Carowinds)
My first time visiting SCarowinds was a revelation, and every time I visited after that felt just as magical and memorable. I went every single year—sometimes, more than once. I was past the age of Trick or Treating, so for me, this was Halloween. It was the holiday I loved made anew, and I am so thankful to have had it right in my backyard.
It’s a special thing to have an amusement park like Carowinds in a major city, and I don’t just mean because of its big coasters and funnel cakes. It’s special to have a place that is so dedicated to making memories. Yes, SCarowinds is a successful, lucrative venture for the park. Yes, it pays to up your game every year and keep people coming back. This is a business, after all. However, the staff that brings SCarowinds to life doesn’t treat it that way. They treat it like they’re about to give you the experience of a lifetime. They treat it like some random 13-year-old girl is about to walk in and fall in love with Halloween all over again. And they treat it like this because they love it just as much as we do.
The Carolinas love Halloween. Greensboro has the Woods of Terror, Hendersonville has The Haunted Farm, and we have SCarowinds. This one is ours. This is where we have our traditions, visit our favorite attractions, and make our memories. This belongs to us. This is our love letter to Halloween, and I couldn’t think of a better one.
SCarowinds is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night now through Oct. 29. Visit carowinds.com for more information.