Emmanuel is focused.
The senior at Wylie High School is sitting in the stands of the Choir Room during the final acting workshop for this year’s Haunted Armory. Two veteran haunt actors, Michael Edwards and Rob Cory from Dan’s Haunted House in Denton, TX, are leading the class, trying to give the incoming cast the quick and dirty details of how to haunt. Emmanuel did this once before, in his sophomore year, but the sometimes rowdy group of kids will not deter him from taking in every detail. Anything that can help him achieve his goal here, he’s going to take in.
After the class, I ask him what he’s here for, what he wants to do. “In all of the horror movies I’ve seen that people have shown me, it’s all based on the same formula. It’s all based around jump scares. I don’t think that’s the way you should scare people. I think it should be based in disturbing people. Completely and utterly wrecking their concepts of normality. Nothing I’ve seen did that, so I wanted to see if I could do it. I want to be something people remember. I want them to walk around weeks later with me in their head.”
Emmanuel is not to be trifled with.
The Haunted Armory is held at the National Guard Armory in Wylie, TX, and is a charity haunt benefiting the Wylie High School Theater Booster Club. Held in different forms, names, and locations since 2012, the Haunted Armory is the passion project of Angie Stephens. Stephens is a veteran of several major haunts in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and still finds time once or twice a season to guest haunt at one of the big houses.
Each year, Stephens creates the haunt itself from concept to final build with the help of a team of adult volunteers, many of whom come from the haunt community in DFW. She holds auditions at Wylie High School to find a cast to work the three nights the haunt is open to the public. It’s not limited to students in the theater group, anyone can audition. Students also help with makeup work and as “floaters” to check on the cast inside the haunt to make sure they don’t need anything.
I followed the cast from that workshop through the final night of the haunt to have a look at the next generation of haunt actors.
Anna is tiny.
The freshman could easily be mistaken for a 5th grader. At the workshop, she listens intently while occasionally hugging her bright blue backpack which matches her polo shirt. I spoke with her after the class ended, curious about what brought her into the haunt. “I like scaring people.”
When I asked when she’d had opportunity to do that before, she just shrugged. “I would rather scare people than be scared. I’m excited.” She goes on to show me the glare she gives people who have displeased her, sliding her glasses down her noise and giving me a gaze of extreme intensity. She keeps it up even after I’ve laughed it off and asked another question.
Anna is fierce.
By the time the workshop takes place, parts have already been assigned. The theme this year is Stranger Things, but also the 80’s in general. Many pop-culture figures from the 80’s appear, including Freddy Krueger and Beetlejuice. Emmanuel has been assigned Pinhead.
The role would require a mask, as Pinhead’s makeup would have been too time-consuming and expensive. The mask concerns him; he’s done acting before, but has always been able to use his face. He also hasn’t seen the films yet, so he’s seeking some advice on how to pull off the character correctly. I give him some basics on the character and on mask work in general: using body language and vocal work to make up for the lack of facial features. As I describe Pinhead, his background, his voice and attitude, Emmanuel transforms in front of me. He adopts the stance, raises his chin, takes on the nature of a high priest of hell. He’s determined to get this right and truly terrify those who enter the haunt.
Anna has an off-stage role. The maze is split in two halves: one the mirror image of the other existing in the “Upside Down” universe from Stranger Things. In that version of the kitchen of the Byers house, Anna is to manipulate tentacles on the floor while hidden beneath a table. It isn’t a glamorous position, but she’s intent on making it work.
It’s Thursday, the 27th, opening night. The cast is being prepped for the show on the second floor of the armory. The energy among the cast is cranked even for average high school kids. Those done with wardrobe and makeup are evicted from the prep room to a ready room next door to reduce the chaos for those still being worked on. I join them there, spotting Emmanuel immediately. The tall, slim senior is in the trench coat that makes up his Pinhead costume, and part of me deeply wishes they’d made him Candyman instead, as he resembles a young Tony Todd when he’s not wearing his glasses. His mask perched on top of his head, he’s pacing back and forth, clearly ready to go. I ask if he’s nervous. “Of course not,” he replies, without pausing in his circuit. No, of course not.
Anna is at the windows at the front of the building, looking at the grounds below where a crowd has started to form. Cory and Grady Birge, another veteran of both Dan’s Haunted House and Dark Hour, have come out to help entertain the line since their haunt isn’t running on Thursdays. For reasons unknown outside their warped minds, they have chosen to appear decked out in evening wear…female evening wear, beards and all. There is glitter involved. This amuses the kids to no end, and now Anna spots the, ahem, glamorous pair outside. “Oh my God, come here you guys, they’re actually TALKING to people looking like that!!!” The other younger kids flood to the windows. “What are they so excited about?” asks one of the older kids. “They’re freshmen, they’re excited about everything,” answers another, with a roll of her eyes.
With Cory and Birge outside, I’m the last adult in the room, so it’s not long before I’m peppered with questions and requests for advice. What would Beetlejuice say and do? Who’s the Keymaster from Ghostbusters, anyway? I advise as best I can, convinced “Classic Horror Movies 101” should become part of the high school curriculum.
This last minute Q&A is interrupted. It’s time to go. The room empties, the cast heads downstairs to be placed in their sets, and the show is about to begin.
The line when the haunt opens is a who’s who of local haunts. Owners and haunters from Reindeer Manor, Dark Hour, and Dan’s Haunted House are present, including Edwards, who has brought his daughter to see his handiwork in haunt training come to life. Shop talk starts up quickly, as we all start reminiscing about our first haunts, our minds focused on the new blood getting ready in the darkened maze ahead.
The groups start to go in, four to six at a time, and I slip between them so I can be one of the first through the maze.
Everyone is in their place, but it’s clear some are still working out what they will do. One is, surprisingly, Emmanuel, who jumps out of a doorway without saying anything. An early technical problem has Freddy Krueger’s room quiet, and the final scare of the maze misses me entirely, as I’m quiet and alone so the Demogorgon waiting in a “drop window” (a sliding panel allowing a haunter to pop out of a wall without warning) doesn’t see me coming.
Overall, though, things are working. The kids are playing their parts, the scares are doing what they need to do, and Stephens’ sound and haunt design functions well above the budget and time used to create it. One special needs boy was great in his part as a werewolf. I was actually worried about him after the workshop, that he might not be able to function well inside the haunt, due to his abundant energy and difficulty focusing. He burst from his drop panel with a snarl, swiped at me with a claw, and followed it up with a howl as I walked away. Outside, the haunt royalty are all comparing notes, and the word is resoundingly positive. For a group of kids, many new to haunting, it’s a great start.
I talk to Stephens before I leave, and bring up the werewolf. She never doubted him. “No, I was thrilled to have his energy!” She worked hard to put him in the right part, and it worked perfectly. It’s abundantly clear how much she cares for these kids, and makes their ability to thrive and have fun her focus.
I return two nights later, on Saturday the 28th, near the end of the night. It’s now been three nights of haunting, and I’m curious to see who’s left and how everything has evolved. It’s 10:30pm, so I jump behind a small group of teens and follow them through the haunt.
The evolution is clear and effective. The few “gags” that needed to be sorted out are sorted, and everyone is firing on all pistons. Emmanuel now bursts from behind his door with purpose, while shouting “WELCOME!!!! ….to HELL…” It’s effective, creepy, and finished with a flourish of his hand. Randy, Angie’s husband, was appearing in a lab scene as “Papa” Brenner, tormenting an “Eleven” in a cell. The Eleven is gone now, and Papa is alone in the cell shouting at those passing, “Where’s Eleven?!? Where is she? She escaped!” A great way to convert a scene when a part is empty. All of the effects are still working, and although some voices are ragged, the energy level is still high.
Our Keymaster, a slim girl named Taylor, has abandoned the Keymaster, Louis Tully, and made use of her nondescript clothing and position hiding in a kitchen to threaten those passing with a cannibalistic cooking session. It breaks theme, but it’s a million times more effective than her role as designed, so it works perfectly. Beetlejuice is still in the lobby of the afterlife, cracking jokes a mile a minute, as the receptionist delivers a spot-on rendition of her lines from that scene in the film. The finale, with and appearance by Barb followed by the big scare with the Demogorgon, works just fine now, and scares my group thoroughly.
I check in with Stephens at the exit, and discuss how things have gone. Crowds were down this year, likely due to a conflicting Homecoming game, but she couldn’t be happier with the cast and performance. She tells me of a great deal of musical chairs in the early hours of Thursday night, resulting in some changing roles and alterations made to scare positions. One location, designed to hide a girl with a tentacle arm, was so hot the poor thing vomited multiple times Thursday. A quick rebuild of the position by Stephens and her crew made it workable by the time Friday rolled around.
Before long, 11pm arrives, and with it the end of the Haunted Armory for another year. I make my way upstairs to the wardrobe room as the cast begins to filter in.
Emmanuel is one of the first to arrive, eager to remove his mask and get his glasses back on. Less then 30 seconds later he is on his phone, as is the teenage way. The energy of the cast doesn’t diminish, for the most part, even as costumes begin to come off. A handful are quick to leave, claiming exhaustion, but most of the cast engages in what all haunters do once the haunt closes: a comparing of notes, scares, and highlights of the evening.
Beetlejuice, played by the class clown, Justin, is out of his costume in moments, and suddenly has the Barb wig and glasses on, hamming it up. The Demogorgon, a girl named Audrey, has removed the mask (made by one of the freshmen by hand, who was rewarded for her efforts with a chance to intern on a horror film soon to watch their FX process) and strikes up a conversation with me as she uses a wipe to start taking the makeup off from around her eyes. She wasn’t the first choice for the role, but fell into it when the original choice had GPS problems and showed up late on Thursday. Audrey stayed in it all weekend, and is eager to tell me all about the way she worked the part, while asking my opinion of her performance. She did amazing, looked amazing, was amazing.
Anna, clad in her blackout leotard, has no costume or makeup to remove, so she’s only hanging around long enough to have her dad sign the release for the video Exit 98 Group shot earlier in the night. I ask if she got what she wanted, and she says she did. “It was fun scaring people!” Asked if she would like more of a “face role” next year, she replies, “It depends. I’m flexible.” Her form signed, she’s out the door with her folks.
I finally get Emmanuel alone near the wardrobe rack, his voice shredded from three nights of doing his Pinhead voice. I ask if he achieved his goal. “Yes, definitely. I was able to play a character that I don’t traditionally play. I’m normally cast as a much more expressive character, and doing this kind of mask work is a good experience for me that I can use in the long term.” While he’s a senior, and will likely be at some remote university next year furthering his efforts to take over the world, he said he’d consider coming back to help out, as a couple other recent graduates did this year. His voice is shot, and he’s ready to rest. He vanishes quickly, leaving the rest to continue making merry.
Most of the cast made it through all three nights, and almost all of them seem ecstatic. As they filter out, one by one, they’re talking haunts, haunting, parts, and acting. I leave with Stephens, one of the last out at around 12:30am, convinced that most of these kids would come back tomorrow night and do it all over again. Some of them will graduate both high school and The Haunted Armory and move on to the professional haunts. They’ve been taught well, and have priceless experience that will serve them in that goal.
You never know, next year Emmanuel or one of his fellow seniors may be disturbing you deeply at a haunt near you.
The Haunted Armory runs annually in Wylie, TX. Their Facebook page contains information about tickets, times, and locations.
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