Haunted Sawmill draws thrill seekers, supports kids and community
BY TINA L. SCOTT
For the 13th year, Merrill’s Haunted Sawmill is drawing thrill seekers and putting on a scare with new themes focused on the haunt’s infamous ghoul, Vincent Mudgett, and other popular characters in the group’s repertoire.
Scary entertainment draws visitors to Merrill
“The 13th Annual Haunted Sawmill – ‘The 13th Door’ has started the 2023 season off in spectacular fashion. The popular Halloween event is drawing large crowds and providing great entertainment and terrifying scares for all of the guests,” said Jerry Hersil, Director of the Haunted Sawmill and the man behind multiple haunt characters including Vincent Mudgett.
“Over 8,000 people regularly attend the Haunted Sawmill and come from all over the state and beyond our borders to take part in the October attraction,” he said.
“We have had guests from all of our neighboring states visit us,” said Dick Duginski who performs each season as the fan-favorite character Buzz Buzz the Clown. “The people that love the Haunted Sawmill come back every year. We have had a family this year who have travelled four hours to get here and have made several trips from the U.P. just to see us. Their little girl came to see her favorite character for her birthday. That is really amazing and pretty darn special.”
“The Haunted Sawmill not only brings attention to Merrill every October season, it also brings money into our community,” Hersil said.
“If you just look at the guests that travel to the Haunted Sawmill from other cities, all of those people are spending money in our town for things like gas, food, and even motels,” said Kristin Woller who helps terrorize haunt guests as Phaedra the Vampire Queen. “We are proud to be something positive for our community that brings people in.”
The Haunted Sawmill is open weekends in October. Tickets and more information are available via their website: hauntedsawmill.org.
Supporting kids and community
“The Haunted Sawmill is the major fundraiser for the Friends of Vincent Foundation (F.O.V.), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to help children and their families right here in our own community,” said Hersil who is also President of the Friends of Vincent Foundation.
In addition to being haunt actors, Woller is Vice President and Duginski is Secretary. Many of those on the Board enjoy performing as characters in the Haunted Sawmill productions, but that’s just the icing on the cake.
The Haunted Sawmill provides fun and meaningful opportunities for area youth to collaborate, work together, be creative, and work toward a larger mission. It also gives them a place to hang out, provides positive interactions with adult volunteers, shows them they are capable of much, and teaches them to be stewards of their local community. The Haunted Sawmill is located in a residential area, and volunteers traverse the area each weekend after their events to clean up trash and litter that may have blown into the neighbors’ yards. And it teaches them to help others, and to contribute to something bigger than themselves.
“The Haunted Sawmill began in 2011 and has evolved and grown every year. There are upwards of 100 volunteers that participate in the event including actors, security personnel, concessions workers, ticket booth attendants, and greeters,” Hersil said. “We are all volunteers. None of us are paid, and some of us work on the Haunted Sawmill all year long. This has become a second full-time job for us.”
The true mission of the people behind the Haunted Sawmill though is to help children locally, he said.
“The Friends of Vincent Foundation is made up of people who believe that it is vital for us to give more than we take.” Hersil said. “There are so many things that all of us could do each day to help someone else. All that people have to do is look for opportunities to lend a hand, because those opportunities present themselves multiple times each day. In the end, isn’t that what life is supposed to be all about – doing what you can to help others and making their burden lighter?”
Giving back, helping kids
Funds raised from the Haunted Sawmill are poured back into the community to help area children in many ways. Recently, the F.O.V. Foundation donated $1,000 to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The Scare Crew also learned about a local family whose furnace went out, who could not afford to purchase a new one.
“The people who are part of the Haunted Sawmill are truly one big family.” Hersil said. “When Dick contacted Kristin and myself about the family in need, we knew that we had to help. We actually went to our haunt family and asked everyone to throw in what they could afford. Within four days we had enough money raised to help the family purchase and install a new furnace.”
“That’s what the Haunted Sawmill is all about,” Woller said with a smile. “Family takes care of family.”
“We also support the community in many other ways,” Duginski said. “We have our Christmas Giving program which is near and dear to all three of us.”
“The F.O.V. also has an annual high school scholarship program, supports many other charities, and funds many other events,” Hersil said.
“Parents who are having financial difficulties paying for toys for their children, or clothing, or even to put food on the table, we are here to help with that, as well,” he said. “Last year the Friends of Vincent Foundation helped over 20 families and 60 individuals with purchasing things that were necessary for Christmas.”
“We are also focused inwards,” Hersil said. “Our own volunteers have so many needs. We make sure that our own kids on the Scare Crew, for example, have essential hygiene products, or school supplies, or even warm clothes to wear in the winter. It shouldn’t be that way in our modern society, but it’s a reality. That is a void that we can help fill through our work with the Haunted Sawmill.”
Funds raised by the Haunted Sawmill events also help the F.O.V. support a grant application process where people with children and who are in need can apply for assistance. “It’s an easy form,” Woller said. “Families might need help with unexpected emergencies, or a child might not be able to afford paying for an extracurricular trip. Those are the kinds of things that they can come to us and apply for assistance.”
The application form is available on their website at: hauntedsawmill.org.