Under the Sun

There Are No Refunds at Tolmachoff Farms’ Field of Screams

Beware of what lurks in the corn maze.
Beware of what lurks in the corn maze. Tolmachoff Family

Bill Tolmachoff isn’t certain how long he’s been hosting Field of Screams, his annual haunted cornfield maze. “I’d say that’s been going on for, I believe, about 15 years now,” he guessed during a phone conversation last Wednesday. “I came up with the idea right around then. We been doing the ones that aren’t haunted even longer, though.”

People line up at his family farm in Glendale every Halloween season to tour one of three different Tolmachoff mazes. “I got a haunted maze, a family maze, and a mini-maze for people who just want to get lost,” he explained. “But they mostly come here to get scared.”

It’s about half an hour to get through one of his mazes, haunted or otherwise. A lot of people don’t even make it into the scary maze, Tolmachoff admitted. “They sit in line and they hear all the screaming and they’re like, ‘I’m not going in there.’”

Tolmachoff Farms has been in Bill’s family for five generations. “Just me and my wife, Gracie, own the farm,” he said, “and I guess you would say we’re just basically managers.”

When they aren’t scaring people or helping them get lost in a corn maze, the Tolmachoffs grow things for people to eat. “We do more vegetables now,” Tolmachoff said. “Years ago we did cotton and corn, but nowadays we’re strictly on the vegetables. We sell directly to the public.”

Tolmachoff wasn’t sure about the history of corn mazes or why they’re such a Halloween thing. “I mean, gosh, we been doing the family maze 20-something years,” he ventured. He had customers who’d been coming to his mazes since they were in first grade, he said, and now those kids were adults who brought their own children.

“It kind of makes me feel old.”

Those people who came back every year were the inspiration for the haunted maze, Tolmachoff said. They’d outgrown the family-friendly maze. “Every year they were like, ‘We want something different. Hey, do something scary!’”

Tolmachoff complied. He thought a nighttime cornfield was universally scary, though he couldn’t say why. “It’s just dark and spooky and, I mean, even me, when I’m working getting the crop ready for the season, it can be really creepy walking through a cornfield at night. You get into a cornfield in the dark, not knowing what’s going to jump out at you, yeah. That’s the haunted aspect of it — people in the corn, jumping out at you, whatever. It’s a pretty good scare.”

Finding people who wanted to jump out from behind cornstalks wasn’t hard. Folks came to him and asked for the job. “We call them haunters. I don’t usually have to put a help wanted ad out there — you know, ‘Haunters Wanted,’ or anything. And of course I use some of my family to do haunting, too.”

Haunters come in standard shapes and sizes, most years. “You got your Michael Myers and your Freddy Kreugers and your Jasons from Friday the 13th,” he explained. “Stuff that people are accustomed to.”

People have been less accustomed to social distancing while they were busy trying to get spooked. “We put up all the signs, you know, ‘Stay 6 feet apart,’ all that. I got hand sanitizer all over the farm. I have tripled my hand-washing units. They come in and we try to tell them, you know, ‘Wear a mask.’ I can’t force it on people, this safety thing.”

Much of his clientele is high school- and college-aged, Tolmachoff said. He doesn’t like it when families bring little kids, because he doesn’t think it’s fair to frighten a 6-year-old.

“I tell them and tell them, ‘Your kid is too young for this,’” he said with a sigh. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh, no, our child can handle it.’ And, you know, a lot of times the kids are freaked out — they start screaming, and the moms have to take them out of there.”

When this happens, Tolmachoff stands firm. “I don’t refund you on the haunt,” he said. “Because it’s like this: Once I scare you, I have done my job."
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela