Johnston County

Cotton maze is Clayton man’s ‘Thank you’ for Duke’s cancer support

Ben Weast, left, a medical family therapist with Duke’s Cancer Patient Support Program, visits with Glenn Boyette of the Clayton Fear Farm on Friday at the farm on Loop Road.
Ben Weast, left, a medical family therapist with Duke’s Cancer Patient Support Program, visits with Glenn Boyette of the Clayton Fear Farm on Friday at the farm on Loop Road.

Glenn Boyette sees his oncologists every Friday. He always jokingly asks, “Am I cured yet?”

The 62-year-old’s stage 4 melanoma hasn’t touched his casual sense of humor. Neither has it weakened the power of his easygoing smile, a grin you may not expect from a guy who runs a haunted farm.

For 14 years, Boyette has designed the spooky hayrides, terrifying haunted houses and less-frightening daytime attractions at the Clayton Fear Farm, about 20 miles southeast of Raleigh. After not feeling well prior to the farm’s 2013 season, Boyette went to the hospital, where doctors found cancer affecting tissue in his brain and lungs.

Surgeons removed a tumor from his brain, and he started regular treatments at Duke Medicine. That’s where Boyette and his wife of 40 years, Bonnie, found the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, a tool the family has relied on for counseling and therapy.

“When you least expect it, you get a call, and it’s someone from Duke checking in with you,” Bonnie Boyette said. “You can tell they care.”

The Boyettes were so pleased with the program that they decided to incorporate it in one of their daytime attractions this year. In a five-acre cotton maze, the family shaped Duke Medicine’s logo with the phrase, “Duke Cancer Patient Support.”

“It’s a ‘Thank you’ for them continuing to be there,” Boyette said.

The first conversation Duke therapist Ben Weast had with Boyette was about collard greens. Weast, who works with the support program, said that if you talk to patients long enough, you can usually find common ground. It didn’t take long for him and Boyette to hit it off.

“We help people cope and adjust – that’s really what we do,” Weast said.

Duke says its Cancer Patient Support Program provides counseling and support groups for more than 7,000 patients each year. The program, which also offers self-image services, is free to patients and operates largely with donations.

Weast said when the Boyettes told him about the maze idea, he thought it was a great partnership opportunity.

“Our program is all about continuing support for families,” Weast said. “You can tell they are all about family here.”

Done in a day

After Duke approved the maze design, the Boyettes used a Utah-based company called The Maize to remove the necessary cotton plants when they were about 1-foot tall. The design was finished in a day.

The maze with the Duke logo is part of the daytime attractions at the Boyette farm, which also include pumpkin picking, playgrounds and cow milking.

Things get more creepy at night, when the Fear Farm comes to life. Haunted houses like the “Slaughter House” and the “Fear Farm Academy” invite the brave to tread carefully past live actors known to pop in and out of trap doors and around corners in horrid masks. The nighttime attractions also include a different cotton maze and a dizzying experience called “The Black Hole.”

The designer

Boyette, who helps design each of the haunted attractions, may try to offer you popcorn or ask you where you’re from. In a way, his welcoming personality makes the farm even more terrifying, like he’s luring you into his custom-made contraptions.

But his kindness is sincere; just ask those who know him.

A Clayton native, Boyette bought the farm from a family member in the 1980s. The idea, initially, was to grow strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon and cantaloupe. And that’s what he did until the late 1990s, when he visited a haunted house convention in Charlotte. It was there where “the bug bit,” Boyette said, and he began building a new enterprise.

Ever more frightening

The Fear Farm opened in 2001 with a hayride and one haunted house. Since then, the farm has grown to an 80-employee operation during the fall, with seven haunted attractions, daytime offerings, a Christmas light show and vineyards. The farm’s recent success even drew the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which featured the Boyettes on the front page in 2010.

After each season, Boyette, his two daughters Anna and Kimberly, and other employees toss around ideas for how to increase the scare-factor even more. Planning starts in January and continues until opening day in early October.

Anna Boyette said her father, in his condition, needs a rest every now and then, but “he’s fine” most of the time.

“You would have thought it would have slowed him down, but it hasn’t,” Anna said.

Boyette, too, said his treatments don’t affect what he’s able to do on the farm.

“I’m good to go,” he said. “I need to keep my mind occupied and not dwell on the cancer, so to speak.”

KidsCan! coming

One of Duke’s support groups, KidsCan!, will visit the Boyette farm for daytime fun on Nov. 1. The group is designed to provide fun activities, education and emotional support for children whose parents have cancer.

During the group’s monthly meetings, KidsCan! also gives parents with cancer a place to meet, said Mallori Thompson, a Duke medical family therapist.

“Families who go through things like this can feel isolated, and this is an opportunity for them to get together,” Thompson said.

The Fear Farm and daytime attractions opened this week and run through Nov. 1. As in past years, the family expects more than 35,000 people to pass through their gates this fall.

Only this year, Boyette said he’s donating a portion of the farm’s proceeds to the Duke support program.