Zoo Detective Series: 34 Years of Haunt the Zoo

What better time to play zoo detective than at Halloween?  Although I didn’t sport my Sherlock Holmes hat, I did pull out my magnifying glass. After looking through documents and photos, clues about Haunt the Zoo’s beginnings in 1983 have fallen into place…. 

A Spooky Beginning

Haunt the Zoo didn’t start off as a kid-friendly event, it started as a haunted house. If you could pick one Zoo building that would make a perfectly, creepy haunted house, what would you pick? You guessed it: the Herpetarium! 

Guests paid an extra fee to enter the Haunted Herpetarium. Inside, the winding hallways of the building became even darker and scarier, and ghouls shared the spotlight with the snakes. A Zoo employee from back then described the experience as, “no treats, just tricks.” 

Merry, Not So Scary

The haunted house served as a festive backdrop for two years, however, the focus of the event began to shift to become more family-friendly. At this time, the Zoo decided to adopt its “merry, not so scary” philosophy. Zoo staff worked to develop thematic trick-or-treat stations to be placed along the Zoo’s trick-or-treat trail — a format that continues today. For nearly two decades, 20 to 30-thousand children have walked the Zoo’s trail to collect goodies each year. Haunt the Zoo has grown to be the largest Halloween event in the state of Oklahoma, organized down to the smallest cobweb-covered detail–and that’s nothing to “boo” at! 

Trick-or-Treat Theming

Throughout the summer, over 200 props are pulled from storage, assembled, repaired and repainted. Most trick-or-treat stations include a 10-foot backdrop, along with free-standing elements, ranging from coffins to aliens wearing underwear. Some stations have remained timeless, such as the Wizard of Oz and Mother Goose. These stations undergo constant repairs and updates, but continue to be guest favorites.

Props must withstand visitor damage and outdoor elements, which can include rain, sleet or even snow. Thick layers of paper maché, paint and sealant are added to the carved props. One time-saving update is that the backdrops are now vinyl-printed banners instead of the hand-painted canvases of the past.

In some cases, stations have retired to make way for more relevant themes. Sesame Street and Star Trek have been replaced with Zooper Heroes and Wizards. This year, the Zoo’s newly-themed booths include Drive Me Batty, Ghost Train and Buggin’ Out. To view some of the retired stations, visit the ZooZeum’s “Haunted the Zoo” exhibit.

Green is the New Orange for Halloween

In recent years, Haunt the Zoo has become more “green.” Reusable cloth and eco-friendly bags have replaced the previous plastic sacks, guests have an opportunity to use online ticketing to reduce paper waste and all treats are palm oil sustainable in an effort to reduce rainforest destruction.

Many other changes are evident over the last 34 years, too. A variety of event logos have adorned marketing materials and treat bags, Halloween music is now piped in through speakers along the event path and last year saw the introduction of a record-breaking sized pumpkin. 

New History Being Made

This year, Haunt the Zoo has undergone another major format change. Why is there a “new way to boo?”  The event outgrew itself. Although change can be difficult to accept, the decision to move the event to the daytime meant that both props and animals are more visible, long lines are eliminated and stations are less crowded and easier to photograph.

As evidenced by the Haunted Herpetarium, only time will tell just how many decades might pass before Haunt the Zoo morphs into its next stage of life. Will the new Ghost Train stand the test of time? Will superheroes ever go out of style? We shall see. 

If nothing else, I know that future zoo detectives will find it easier to view Haunt the Zoo photos through their magnifying glasses—because until this year, they’ve all had dark backgrounds and camera flash glares. The fine details of the nighttime event have largely been in the shadows.

Looking Back and Forward

Since Haunt the Zoo lives in the memory banks of thousands of visitors, its history will continue to be of interest. You can help in our continuing quest to dig up more about the past.  Keep an eye open for OKC Zoo memorabilia at antique stores, estate sales, online or in your family collection—especially anything related to Haunt the Zoo, and particularly the Haunted Herpetarium.

Princesses meet Sonic Fries (1998)

Rodney and Brittany Payne (1997)

Tim Duggan with Capt. Hook (1990s)

Darcy Henthorn and Rick Tucker (1984)

Dracula, Little Nathan Blagg from Edmond with Robin Wossum (1997)

Marce Olsen-Lester and John Buetttner prepare props. (1993)


ZooZeum Exhibit on Display

If you enjoyed taking a trip down Haunt the Zoo memory lane, you can see more at the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, located near the elephant exhibit.  Props, costumes, treat bags and photographs are on display this fall. It’s worth noting that the ZooZeum building was the storage facility for Haunt the Zoo props for over 20 years.

 Amy Dee Stephens, naturalist instructor supervisor


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