Builders of Corn Mazes Hope to Lose Visitors, and One Actually Did
Mazes like this one in Olympia, Wash., aim to challenge. But one family panicked when they got lost in one in Massachusetts.
By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
As corn mazes go, the one on Bob Connor’s farm in Danvers, Mass., isn’t particularly challenging.
“It’s one of our average-to-smaller mazes,” said Brett Herbst, who counts that maze among the 2,000 he has designed in the past 16 years. A typical visitor should expect to complete it in about 20 minutes, he said.
Still, a local family had to be retrieved by the police on Monday when they were unable to find the exit to Mr. Connor’s maze before the sun set. The parents, toting an infant and a small child, panicked and called 911, setting off a chain of events that soon turned them into a target for late-night jabs from television hosts like Jay Leno and Chelsea Handler. (The punch line, Mr. Connor said, was that the family was about 25 feet from the exit when they called for help.)
Modern corn mazes are complex systems designed with the aid of sophisticated computer programs. But they are meant to be challenging, not life-threatening, according to maze builders, and getting out should never require a police escort.
“The great thing about designing mazes is it’s like playing a game of chess” against the customer, said Adrian Fisher, a British designer who holds the world record for the longest maze path ever built. “You plan all your moves in advance, yet in the end you’ve got to be willing to lose.”
Mr. Fisher says he begins every project by mapping out the most difficult maze he can fathom, then making it gradually easier. “I’ll reduce its complexity by adding extra pathways” or adding visual landmarks like bridges or “islands,” the term for a circular gathering of corn.
Psychology plays a role as well. “You’ve got to manage expectations,” Mr. Fisher said. Just as amusement parks post signs that intentionally overestimate the wait times for popular rides, Mr. Fisher said, maze owners should tell visitors that the maze will take longer than it should, so they don’t become frustrated or, perhaps, terrified.
There are tricks to successful maze navigation. “This rule doesn’t always apply,” said Mr. Herbst, “but in most mazes, if you hold your hand to the wall on the left or the right side, it will eventually bring you back out.” (True, you might end up exiting the way you came in, but it beats calling 911).
It’s not a fail-safe system though. “Once you start adding bridges and crossovers” to a maze, Mr. Fisher said, that technique becomes “unhelpful.” And many modern mazes include corn islands that are not obviously circular and can lead people in endless rotations.
And forget about the GPS feature on your smartphone, Mr. Herbst said. “That might tell you where you are in the field,” he said, “but unless that field is shown on the GPS photograph, you’d be hard pressed to make much sense of that.” One trick would be to remember which direction you entered the maze from — north, south, etc. — and let the GPS at least lead you in the right direction, he added.
While corn mazes are relatively new — Mr. Fisher said he built the first American one in 1993 — hedge mazes date back hundreds of years, when they were a luxury item at European castles and palaces. Unlike modern corn mazes, European-style hedge mazes were rarely difficult to get through.
As corn mazes have become larger and more complex, designers have come up with the idea of building in clues and help lines to avoid stranding fun-seekers. Many mazes now feature posts with trivia questions, the answers to which direct visitors toward the exits. Others have simple systems that allow people to request an escort.
But like travelers in a strange city, some people are simply better equipped than others for dealing with mazes, said Louis Pugliese, professor of educational psychology at California State University, Northridge.
Making sense of a three-dimensional puzzle requires “the ability to create a mental representation of where someone has been,” he said. People not blessed with natural mapping ability can compensate by using the sort of “metacognitive strategies” taught in Boy Scouts, like placing a pile of rocks by a path one has already taken, assuming one can find rocks in a corn field.
Mr. Connors, the proprietor of the Massachusetts farm, said that in five years of hosting visitors at corn mazes, he has never before had one who needed to be rescued — probably because he gives every visitor a “passport” with clues on how to get out. There are also signs posted within the maze advising lost customers to send a “corn text” from their mobile phone to a help number.
And if all else fails, he advises the simplest way out.
“It’s not like 100-acre field out there,” he said. “Just cut through the corn.”
- Lost In Space (chuckoliver.wordpress.com)