Why is the corn maze such a popular autumn tradition?

By Farah Bassyouni Oct 7, 2022

Autumn is the season of harvest – it conjures images of shiny red apples, pumpkin patches, bulbous gourds and, since the early ‘90s, the corn maze. 

Corn mazes involve a network of converging paths and dead ends carved into a cornfield that maze goers can navigate. The dense clusters of tall cornhusks limit their field of vision, forcing them to wander somewhat aimlessly through the maze to find a way out.

The mainstream popularity of corn mazes has emerged only in recent decades. The first commercial corn maze in the United States was created in 1993 in Annville, Pennsylvania in a three- acre cornfield. Its 1.9 miles of trails formed the shape of a dinosaur. It’s common for corn maze designs to create some kind of topographical image, sometimes in the form of an animal, character or company logo. 

The closest corn maze to IWU is on Rader Family Farms, a working grain farm on the rural fringe of Normal, Illinois just under five miles from campus. The winding turns of their 12-acre maze this year create the shape of a scarecrow standing over a cornucopia full of food. A portion of their farm opens every year for the public to partake in various fall activities. Their 50 fall activities include their pumpkin patch, tram ride, 40-foot barrel slide, bouncing pillow and chief among them, their corn maze. They created their first maze in 2009, said Adam Rader, who oversees the specialty farm operation. 

“We started by planting the [whole] field and we’d cross-hatch it in two different directions, and then had a guy who had a GPS on a skid steer who would chop the corn down,” Rader said. 

After using that production method for four or five years, they decided to utilize precision planting technology to create their maze themselves, and save a lot of extra corn seed. Their 60-foot grain planter has 24 rows. Each acts as an individual planter with the ability to stop and start with the push of a button. Today, they’re able to coordinate their planter with a GPS map of their maze design, and avoid planting corn seed in the pathways of the maze. When the corn grows up, the maze is already constructed. 

Every year they switch up the layout of their maze, and sometimes have a sponsor who’s involved in the design process. In the top left corner of this year’s maze, adjacent to the extended right arm of the scarecrow, the converging pathways read “DiPel 50 Years”, which refers to a company that sells biological herbicides out of Chicago, Rader said.  

After Rader and his coworkers build their design, they send it to the Maze Company in Utah to turn it into a functioning maze. “They do what we call, ‘mazify’ it,” Rader said. “because there is an art to that.” Rader’s maze has three bridges in different areas of the cornfield that act as vantage points– The Maze company decides where the bridges and dead ends go, how all of the paths intersect to create the design image and where the fast track paths go, should anyone deep in the maze need to be rescued.   

All kinds of people come to attempt their maze each year – from college kids trying to reconnect to their roots, to young families trying to create new fall traditions. As someone who grew up around corn and spends a lot of time working in cornfields, walking around a corn maze isn’t particularly intriguing to Radar. “Maybe it’s the mystery and challenge of getting through it, but I don’t exactly know what draws people to come do it,” Rader said. “It’s definitely put our farm on the map, and it’s something that gets people in here.” 

What is so compelling about mazes? Can the answer be found in Greek mythology? One of the most profound cultural stories about a maze is the Greek myth of Theseus, who vanquishes the minotaur after navigating the labyrinth that it’s imprisoned in. 

The myth of Theseus and the Labyrinth has been told, discussed and recreated for thousands of years. Part of its narrative resonance lies in the challenge the labyrinth represents. 

“I think that a labyrinth represents a puzzle, a symbol that represents the effort it takes for humans to piece out how to move forward in the right direction, to find a way out of a difficult situation in life,” Professor of Greek and Roman studies Nancy Sultan said.  

Mazes allow us to manifest our innate desire to conquer uncertainty. Trekking through uncharted paths between walls of ten foot high corn stocks wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if there wasn’t the possibility of hitting a dead end, and unwittingly walking the same path over and over. Then there’d be no puzzle to solve.

“I think there’s also an element of fear, because when you’re in a maze and you can’t easily get out of it, you become very scared. There’s this feeling that you’re trapped, that humans feel trapped in so many different ways,” Sultan said. 

“Most people like when we have a challenging maze, I think people really enjoy trying to navigate their way through it,” Rader said. “Some people try to do it without the map, some do it with the map, and some people just don’t have any sense of direction, so they struggle the whole time.”

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