6:14 p.m. Two hours before dark -- "Today's world is so safe," says Will Jackson, moments before picking up a handful of fake brains. "Yet we all still need to be scared."
Brains in one hand and glue bottle in the other, Jackson attaches a fake frontal lobe onto the shaved head of Marc Walraven, who's sitting down between Jackson and a table that looks like the prep station from some nightmare kitchen. A bottle of homemade blood, more brains, strips of fake flesh.
Somewhere, Mary Kay is rolling over in her grave.
"And when we're scared, it's good," Jackson says. "It's a catharsis."
Jackson runs Rock City's Blowing Screams Farm, the two-punch Halloween attraction at the base of Lookout Mountain. In the daytime, families stroll and giggle their way through the corn maze, munching on kettle corn. Toddlers paint pumpkins. Somewhere in the distance, the ghost of Norman Rockwell smiles.
But at night, the place turns crazy. Someone plugs in the animatronic vampire -- the one gnawing body parts -- while the cow heads go back on the fence post, the lights go out in the hands-and-knees tunnel and the bloody woman in the shower, well, just go see for yourself.
Jackson's job is to scare the pumpkin seeds out of people. He hires actors, manages one of the best haunt-design teams in the Southeast and, each weekend from now through Halloween, turns Walraven -- a good-looking, general manager of a nearby Sonic -- into a zombie.
"I'm usually the grossest thing out there," says Walraven, grinning. "I get to terrorize people."
7:05 p.m. -- "Here's the wood chipper," says Matt Nooga, the local jewelry designer who helped create this year's haunt. "We have a body in there, and when we push down on it, guts fly out. Over there, that's the butcher shop."
Yes, exactly. The butcher shop. Near the wood chipper. With the body parts. Nooga is walking me through the Forest of Fear and talking like a real estate agent showing a home.
But it's somewhere near the bloody prison cells that I recognize that Nooga, who's been creating guts and gore since he was a kid in his garage, is a true artist. Bloody to be sure, but a genius-artist nonetheless.
"Everything here is homemade. We built it all, by hand," says Nooga, who has worked at Netherworld, a haunted house in Atlanta. "No other haunted house around here can say that."
Along with Daniel Wroe, John McLeod, Braxton Phillips and Matt Dutton, Nooga created the Forest of Fear and Ghost Ride out of his imagination. The effect is terrifying, even in the daytime.
"We drove six hours for this," one woman from North Carolina tells me later that night.
7:53 p.m. Dusk. -- At the front of the ticket line, the man in the completely orange UT Vols sweatshirt and ballcap is digging through his wallet, trying to find his debit card. As if football Saturdays weren't already hard enough on the poor guy, here comes Walraven.
Modern man meets the undead.
Mr. Orange jumps, and in his face and everyone nearby, I see the same two-shot reaction I'll see all night: people scream, frightened and terrified. Then, they laugh, like they are having the time of their life.
"Fear and humor are the two closest emotions," Nooga told me, somewhere near the wood chipper. "We need both."
That's the same thing the half-dead zombie -- bloody brains glistening in the moonlight -- told me, before limping off into the cornfield to terrorize people.
8:34 p.m. -- "Oh-my-God-please-stop-oh-my-God-please-stop-oh-my-God-oh-my-God!" screams one girl in line.
The sun has gone down. A full moon rises. The ticket line grows. Walraven, dressed in torn overalls with blood stains all over him and his brains, has limped up next to an unsuspecting girl who moments ago, had her head down, innocently texting, probably a friend ("Where R U?").
Walraven puts his face next to her shoulder. His fake brains only inches away from her hoop earrings. He sniffs. Then growls. That's when she sees him.
I wanted to tell her a secret: Earlier, while he was having his brains glued on, Walraven -- Mr. Tough-Guy-Zombie himself -- told me the things in life that really scared him.
Terrorism? Cancer? Dirty bombs? Metro government in Chattanooga?
"Crickets," he said. "I hate crickets."
If only her cell phone had a chirping ring!
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.