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COVER STORY | Time to trigger treats

Up to their ears in mazes

It's chic to shriek to seasonal delights -- fright nights, tangled labyrinths and horror movie lore.

October 12, 2006|Charlie Amter | Special to The Times

SOUTHERN Californians are used to navigating the web of freeways and side streets that make up their daily commutes, but few urban dwellers are experts at finding their way around a corn maze.

So imagine them paying for the privilege of getting lost.

At a handful of corn mazes -- including one at Pierce College that might draw as many as 100,000 visitors by the end of the season -- people of all ages will stalk through fields, simulating a tradition that is believed to have started in ancient Greece and was continued in the stone labyrinths and garden hedges of Europe. For some, tackling a corn maze is a challenge, a puzzle to solve. For others, it's a chance to commune with nature -- or to philosophize about the maze being a metaphor for life.

But for most who buy tickets and set off into the field with map in hand, corn mazes are lightweight fun offering good-natured frights, especially when they are tricked up with music, costumed crazies and other gimmicks. Among fare such as haunted houses and hayrides, pumpkin patches and parades, they are yet another way to harvest entertainment from autumn.

If your idea of a laugh is hanging out with scary guys, that is.

"At nighttime you get the screams from the Creatures of the Corn," Linda Carberry says of one section of her maze at Pierce College's Halloween Harvest Festival, located off Victory Boulevard at De Soto Avenue. "You get the flashlights happening in the corn maze -- it looks like Area 51."

No, it's just the Valley. But the Pierce College layout -- a complex romp featuring two separate tracks through stalks of corn as high as 10 feet -- is daunting. Creatures of the Corn offers a haunted trail with dry ice and costumed characters leaping out at passersby. Piped-in bluegrass music serenades the walkers on the second, more sedate path through 8-foot stalks of corn.

If the notion of getting lost deep inside the ghoul-filled Creatures of the Corn maze at night (it's open until 10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends) isn't scary enough, there are surprises of the natural variety.

"There are gopher snakes, rats, bats, bunnies and lots of birds," Carberry says. "We even have a falcon that comes around and a beautiful white owl that occasionally visits at night."

The Pierce College attraction, which takes about 45 minutes to navigate, drew 85,000 visitors last year. Although the maze craze is nowhere near as big in California as it is in states such as Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, it's gaining a foothold in the Southland.

Although Carberry and her colleagues created the designs for the Pierce layout themselves using hand-held GPS technology, another Southern California corn maze, at Forneris Farms in Mission Hills, relies on one of a growing number of "agri-tourism" firms that carve out the labyrinths for farmers.

"I've spent a lot of time on planes this year," Utah-based businessman Brett Herbst says with a sigh. Since 1996, Herbst has designed more than 1,000 mazes for farmers from Portugal to Pennsylvania. This year, he says, he has designed and built about 190 as the concept of agri-tourism increasingly catches on with farmers.

Herbst works with clients such as Barbara Forneris and her husband, John, a third-generation farmer, who want to bring in extra income by entertaining urban types with just a taste of nature each fall around Halloween.

"The first two years we did it ourselves," Barbara Forneris says. But she eventually found Herbst on the Internet and decided he could do a better job. "I had seen what other farms were doing from his website and I thought, 'We could do that too.' "

The Forneris maze, just minutes off the 5 or 405 freeways in Mission Hills, was initially designed on a piece of scrap paper -- then Herbst fine-tuned it via computer. The design the couple chose this year incorporated their logo (a windmill) and the year 2006 spelled out in cursive script.

Forneris estimates her farm, which the couple lease from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, had around 10,000 people come through its maze last Halloween weekend. They expect even bigger numbers this year. "We've added a parking lot," she says.

The 58-year-old says the appeal of her maze for kids is simply a desire to reconnect with nature. For adults? It's the "challenge and adventure of doing something different," she says.

"When you come out here, suddenly you lose all of that traffic and hustle and bustle. The colors are cleaner, clear, it's quieter and you get a sense of being somewhere else even though you're in the center of the Valley."

And, yes, you occasionally get a sense of being nowhere.

"People get lost all the time," Forneris says. "This year, we have a flag people can raise in case people get lost. And you need to have the map with you."



A crop of mazes

A selection of corn mazes in Southern California:

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