A construction marquee warns “FESTIVAL TRAFFIC AHEAD” as cars grind to a halt on U.S. 12 West in Onsted.
The area, part of a normally sleepy resort community known as Irish Hills, is bustling with commuters on this particular July afternoon. Faster Horses — a country music festival held annually at the nearby Michigan International Speedway — is the draw.
I’m not here for country music, though — I’m here to be scared. At least, that’s the hope for Toledo-based indie horror filmmaker Nate Thompson, who plans to transform the courtyard of the Stagecoach Stop attraction on U.S. 12 into Horrortown, which he describes as “a Halloween or horror version of Greenfield Village.”
“We’ll have a Michigan Museum of Horror, a year-round Halloween store, potentially haunted areas, and also a year-round horror movie theater,” Thompson explained on the phone prior to my visit. “You’ll walk a couple of feet and you’ll run into random performers just kind of hanging out on the property — fire eaters, sword swallowers, and aerial gymnasts. We’ll have a whole line of food trucks, too.”
Home to the Cowboy Creek Lodge, a Western-themed motel resort and restaurant, the Stagecoach Stop originally hosted an Old West- themed strip mall for travelers wishing to step back in time. Although the lodge remains, the old-timey photo studios and antique stores at the west end of the complex lie vacant, lending an ideal canvas for Thompson’s concept.
Despite initial plans to open by August, the filmmaker’s vision is far from realized when I stop by in late July. According to Tony Bush, an Ida native and a maintenance worker on the property, the storefronts in the Old West-themed strip mall are kept looking weathered to give it an old-time feel.
It’s also very creepy.
“It’s definitely haunted,” says Bush. He says he’s seen doors mysteriously open and close during his time spent in the buildings — and once, he even felt an invisible entity pulling at his hair. “I think it was a little ‘Hey, we’re here!’ to kind of let me know that their presence was there.”
That unsettling presence permeates the stretch of U.S. 12 on which the Stagecoach Stop lies. Formerly a bustling thoroughfare, the highway is littered with shuttered tourist traps, most of which opened in the ’60s to catch the eyes of unsuspecting road-trippers. Locals tell me that when I-94 opened in 1972, much of that pass-through commerce dried up, leading to a long and steady decline for many of those roadside stops.
Mystery Hill, an attraction that claimed to defy the laws of gravity, lies just west of the Stagecoach Stop. It’s now permanently closed (and available for purchase), according to its website. But its giant bright-yellow, arrow-shaped sign still beckons travelers in at the intersection of U.S. 12 and Boardman Drive.
Further west still, an ivy-covered brontosaurus looms over an abandoned dinosaur park called Prehistoric Forest, which closed to the public more than 20 years ago. A sale of that property was reportedly underway in recent years but is now stalled for unknown reasons, according to the Cambridge Township Clerk’s Office.
“We went there when I was a kid — Mystery Hill and all that junk,” says Julie Kipp, a longtime resident of nearby Lake LeAnn. Now, she says, the area seems to be coming back to life a bit, with wineries and other boutique businesses popping up to entice a new generation of road-trippers.
“It really hasn’t gotten too commercial, you know. It’s still nice to come here, and it feels like you’re getting away.”
Kipp has a point — although it’s only a 90-minute drive from metro Detroit, Irish Hills feels very far away indeed. According to the Irish Hills Chamber of Commerce, the area is home to more than 50 lakes, which are surrounded by rolling green hills and pastoral farmlands. The Irish immigrants who settled here in the 19th century reportedly found it reminiscent of their emerald-green homeland, and thus the Irish Hills moniker was born.
The idyllic surroundings make the cheesy attractions along U.S. 12 stand out like sore thumbs. For folks who prefer to appreciate the area’s natural beauty, they’re an eyesore. But for horror lovers like Thompson, the weirdness is ripe with opportunity.
Horrortown is scheduled to open to the public as an outdoor experience in early October. To stay up to date, visit natethompsonvideo.com/horrortown.
This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.