Over the past four decades, thousands of people have come to Conner Prairie to be chased by a headless man on a horse — some go every year and bring their families along to share the thrill.
The Headless Horseman Festival celebrates 40 years of thrills this year. Senior Manager of PR and Communications Holly Pasquinelli said that represents generations of people coming out to enjoy the annual event.
“We always say it’s central Indiana’s most beloved fall festival and truly it is,” she said. “We welcomed a record-breaking number of guests last year — well over 50,000 people through that time — and we’re really excited because a lot of work goes into this. As soon as it ends, the crew starts planning for the next year.”
Pasquinelli said this year’s event offers the traditions people have come to expect and some new features. One new offering is a special beer by Sun King Brewery called Conner Scary. And while the corn maze isn’t new, it has a new twist.
“The maze is such a big draw every year. It’s been voted in the top-10 corn mazes in America in years past,” she said. “And they go all out. It’s a really fun design. If you’re up in our balloon or you’re flying over, you’ll notice it kind of looks like crop circles and maybe some alien spaceships. That kind of gives away the theme.”
The story told to participants before they enter the maze builds each year on the previous year’s story, she said. And the maze is on the scary side, but there’s an option for the faint at heart.
“We have the scary version where they have scares in there that will jump out, and that one’s a really large maze, and then we have the not-so-scary one that’s smaller and there aren’t any scares in,” Pasquinelli said. “So if you have little ones, I wouldn’t take them to the scary maze but would take them into the smaller portion that doesn’t take as long to go through and it doesn’t have any of the frights along the way.”
The festival also offers rides, a bounce house, a barrel train for kids, the scarecrow contest and the Bizarre Bazaar, a mini-museum experience that’s all about the Headless Horseman festival.
“We’re focusing on pulling photos from the past to kind of see his evolution,” she said. “There are also some photos that have been sent for us. We put some requests out on Facebook and social media saying, ‘Hey, send us your photos from the past 40 years of Headless Horseman to put into this museum and to share out.’”
The Headless Horseman part of the festival is a hayride that goes through Prairie Town, the outdoor living-history museum where it’s always 1836. For the festival, though, the village offers a few scares as the hayride comes through.
“They’ll have the headless horseman at the end chasing you through, but you’ll meet some different characters along the way as well, and that can be a little bit scary,” Pasquinelli said. “My suggestion would be if you have little ones, to go in the early hours when it’s still light out. Because obviously when it’s dark out, it can be a little bit scarier when you just hear that horse come running to you, but you don’t see it yet.”
She added that the wagon holds quite a few passengers, and there’s safety in numbers.
Tickets for the Headless Horseman hayride are sold ahead of time, she said, and the ride lasts about 15 minutes. She suggests booking a ride early.
The Headless Horseman Festival is every Thursday through Sunday in October, starting Oct. 5, at Conner Prairie, 13400 Allisonville Rd., Fishers. For more, visit connerprairie.org/explore/things-to-do/headless-horseman.
Origins of the Headless Horseman story
The Headless Horseman is a character in Washington Irving’s 1820 classic horror story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” According to the History Channel’s website, the short story is considered one of America’s first ghost stories.
Headless riders were part of old-world horror tales, though, and, according to the History Channel, European stories of men riding around without a head can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
Irving’s tale is set in 1790 in a Dutch settlement in New York. A superstitious schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, riding home after a party, is chased by a headless horseman carrying his head on his saddle. The horseman eventually throws the head at Crane, knocking him from his horse, and Crane is never heard from again.