Bill Zywiec never met a disembodied head he didn’t like.

He’s the fiendish mind behind the Haunting Experience, the annual Halloween theme park at Zywiec’s Landscape and Garden Center along Highway 61 in Cottage Grove.

One of the largest fright factories in south Washington County, the Haunting Experience features a corn maze, two haunted houses, a hair-raising hayride through the dark, and Big Zombie Paintball, where passengers on a tractor-drawn cart can blast attacking zombies. (Hint: Shoot them in the head or you’ve wasted a shot).

Every year, Zywiec tweaks the terror by devising new and better creepy-crawlies and more visceral visuals.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Zywiec, who describes himself as an old-school ghoul.  “It’s mostly my ideas. Over the years, I’ve always kept a nucleus of four or five guys who love Halloween. We design and build all the sets, all the pneumatics, the special effects, the painting. Everything is custom-made.”

New this year is Tinkles Playland, a house inhabited by a gruesome clown dressed in doll’s clothing. His brother, Sterno, is even more deranged. Legend has it that the two were vaudeville performers who lost a wager with a certain shadowy eminence. They are now cursed to live forever in their physically decaying bodies. 

They don’t like guests. Or maybe they like to have them for dinner.

“Tinkles is the main character,” Zywiec said. “It’s a high, intense scare. That’s the first house you go through. It’s a little darker than the manor house, with a lot of nooks and crannies.”

Visitors on the hayride will feel like sitting ducks as they pass by rows of gnarled trees and land that’s been inhabited by a 200-year-old family, including a sick unit by the name of Mr. Nibbles.

The manor house has tunnels and a “chicken door” for those who want to bail.

“I like to mess with the people’s heads a little,” Zywiec said.

The actors who play the “haunts” observe a no-contact rule, he said. They are not allowed to touch the customers, so everyone should come out with their heads still attached.

For children and their families, a daytime “low-scare” version of the Haunting Experience is available for $9.

Big Zombie Paintball is always popular, Zywiec said. For $15, visitors ride into a field on the back of a trailer cart. The place is called “The War Zone” for a reason. Riders will soon find themselves under siege by the living dead. Luckily, each rider has their own machine gun turret that fires 100 rounds. 

“You just sit and fire away,” Zywiec said. “The neat thing is, there’s a UV wash light that covers the field where you’re shooting. They have a glow to them. It’s like a tracer bullet. Once you hit the target, it splatters and illuminates.”

If you go

Zywiec’s Haunting Experience continues Oct. 14-17, 22-24 and 29-31. Hours are dusk to 10 p.m. weekdays and dusk to 11 p.m. weekends. Admission is $20, $19 with two canned food items. Kids 5 and under get in free. Admission is $16 on Cheap Thrill Nights Oct. 14-15, 22 and 29. 

The “Low Scare” version runs 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 17-18, 24-25 and Halloween. Admission is $9. Free hayrides will also be available.

The Corn Maze is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Halloween. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children under 12. 

Zywiec’s Landscape and Garden Center is located at 10900 East Point Douglas Road, off of Highway 61 near Hastings. For more information, call 651-459-3001 or visit