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Memoirs of a Haunter: Life Behind the Scenes of a Haunted Attraction

For these beings, fall is ever the normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth…. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Ray Bradbury first warned of the autumn people in Something Wicked This Way Comes. I have always thought that book and prose so elegantly describe what haunters are; not so much the haunter themselves, but the creatures that possess them; at least it always felt that way to me. I have been acting in haunted attractions for almost a decade now, but it never really felt like acting; it always felt more like I would allow these creatures from somewhere beyond to inhabit my body over the course of a season.

Of course, the thrill is in the scare, but it’s more than that. Anyone can wear a costume and scare their friends. For haunters, it’s a way of life. When you put on the makeup and costume, then make your way to your room, you are no longer you. You become something else. The room of the haunt becomes you; you become the haunt; the character comes to life; more than just an act. Your everyday persona is gone. You become one of the creatures of the night; one of the autumn people.

Over the next several hours you are going to forget everything in your everyday life and focus on the task at hand: To scare the literal shit out of the patrons coming through your room. You will use every tool at your disposal, your voice, and your body. You will move like an acrobat; you will scream like a banshee. You will jolt, and twist, and growl. You will violate personal space and expose yourself to being cussed, cursed, threatened, or occasionally punched.

It’s not a sprint but a marathon, your body will be abused. By the end of the night you will be exhausted, your voice will be hoarse, your muscles will ache, but if you are like most in this industry, you will feel a sense of exhilaration that you simply cannot find anywhere else. You will be on such an emotional high, that you will be ready and willing to do it all over again the following night. Then again next weekend and every weekend for the rest of October.

There are times when you get tired. You sometimes find yourself checking the time to see how many hours are left until one of the security folks finally give you the signal of “last group”. Then there are also moments in the night when you have lost all sense of yourself and fully immerse yourself into the character that you are portraying.

When the lines blur and reality distorts and you become one of the creatures in the haunt, there is a mystical heartbeat in the night. Every actor in the building can feel it. All are tapped in at the same level of wickedly dark energy and the attraction seems alive. It is here in this moment that all of the haunters are one. The attractions in which we work become living, breathing things. The experience is shared from both the actors and the patrons and it is this magic that brings us all back to this dance every autumn.

Like I said before, the haunt industry is a lifestyle. Made up of dark artists, actors, fear junkies, and Halloween aficionados, it is more hobby than business. Ask any haunt owner and they will likely tell you that it is not about the money, as more often than not, most profit made will go back into making the attraction bigger and more elaborate for the following year.

There is no real break from the attraction either, as many haunts have tapped into building Christmas haunts and Valentine’s Day haunts. For us, a typical year in the life follows this schedule: Haunt season typically runs from the end of September to Halloween. We will then take a week off to recuperate from the main season. Sometime in this window of a couple of weeks, there will be a cast party and then after Thanksgiving work will begin on the Christmas haunt.

Again, we will break and meet up for the Valentine’s Day haunt. Afterword it is tearing down parts of the maze and preplanning, sketching, and building for the next season. Most industry trade shows take place in the spring. It is at these shows where haunt owners will become inspired to purchase new animatronics, take classes, and visit demos of other haunts.

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By late spring and summer, it is the construction and building phase of the new haunt plans. By late summer, it is back into distressing and decorating rooms, sewing costumes, casting, and actor training. By fall, the cycle begins again. In the weeks leading into the opening weekend, there is training, dress rehearsals, and the endless tinkering of animatronics, cameras, sound, and lighting. The construction rarely stops by this time, and in the final days leading to opening weekend, there are late nights of applying the finishing touches and details of every room.

For us, there was always the belief that even in the dark of the hallways and rooms of the attraction, the devil is in the details. Every tabletop, picture frame, speck of dust, and spiderweb are meticulously detailed, as all of this contributes to the memorable experience of every patron.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Since childhood I have never been adequately able to describe the thrill that this time of the year brings to me. Like most who read Dread Central, I am also an avid horror fan, but it truly wasn’t until I joined my first haunted house that all of those things fell into place. Unfortunately, I will not be acting this year because of the pandemic and am going to truly miss the release that haunt acting provides me. This would have been my ninth consecutive year in this business.

In that time, I have been involved in three separate haunts. I have created some lifelong friendships and have built a portfolio of experiences and memories that are almost too strange to be believed. I even got married in a haunt on Halloween!

I have been a fan of haunted attractions since I was a child. I vividly remember going to the Jaycees Haunted Houses and experiencing firsthand what it must feel like to be in a horror movie. The anticipation and increased heartrate of not knowing what to expect; the fear and adrenaline of expecting the unexpected. One summer in early high school, my family and I were on vacation at Myrtle Beach. There was one of those little haunted houses at the amusement park and I really wanted to walk through it. I could not talk anyone in my family into going with me.

There was an older gentleman there and his granddaughter who was around my age also wanted to go through but he was too frightened to attend. So, he told me that he would purchase two tickets if I agreed to escort his granddaughter through the haunt. So, there I was, feeling my way through the pitch-black hallways as this complete stranger hung onto my arm. It made me feel like Ash from Evil Dead. There was also an incident several years before on yet another vacation, this time in Gatlinburg, TN.

My father and I bought tickets to this elaborate haunted mansion. I distinctly remember it because after you entered, you walked into a parlor. The only way into the haunt was a secret passage hidden behind the fireplace. My Dad was a legitimate tough guy, a police officer, and a hero to me. Somewhere in the haunt, we came into this room with a circle of doors. We couldn’t find the correct door and an actor in a skeleton costume appeared to guide us. Terrified, my father turned around and karate kicked this poor guy in the chest. He shouted, “Guy in a mask, guy in a mask!” Both embarrassed and scared, this was my father’s last experience in haunted attractions.

It wasn’t until the autumn of 2011 that my current haunted journey began. A couple of years before my wife and I got married, we had just moved back to my home state of Virginia from North Carolina. She and I were really into paranormal investigating at the time and there was a notoriously haunted asylum in the town where we lived. We had both wanted to see the inside of it and an opportunity happened that October. They were hosting a haunted attraction to raise money for the building.

It had probably been about ten years since the last time I had been through a haunt. The building was really cool, the whole experience of the attraction. The rooms and atmosphere simply blew my mind. The following summer I auditioned for a role and was cast as a werewolf. My wife worked security. It was an interesting season. Not only were we immediately volunteering to decorate rooms, build sets and props, and set up for the season, but we were also spending a lot of time in an actual haunted location.

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Complete with strange sights, sensations, and sounds, there were points during the season that lights were thrown across the room by unseen forces. Folks were occasionally touched and scratched. The room where I was working was in this long creepy corridor with all these empty rooms. It was the part of the asylum that was used for experimental hydrotherapy treatments during the early twentieth century and was one of the most active areas of the hospital.

Though I never had any frightening personal experiences, I was legitimately frightened by being in that hallway by myself. At night before the attraction started, I would go to my room and announce myself to any unseen spirits by saying out loud, “I am not here to bother you, nor do I want to cause you any harm. I am here to act and to scare people. If you would like in on the fun, feel free to lend me your energy.”

I often wonder if it was this routine that started the unique way that I get into character to this very day. I close my eyes and try to pull the energy from the room inside of me, while I feel myself disappear. I become the character and every other trace of me dissipates while I am possessed by the character over the course of the night.

Though we only worked one season at that haunt, I have some fond memories and after all these years some of my favorite scares. I had a two-part scare; I would hide out in this room with a doorway and the acoustics were ideal, so I was able to create this deep rumbling growl that reverberated off the walls. I would build it slow at first and then slowly intensify as they approached; then jump at them in the doorway. I would loudly and dramatically break my chain and chase them down the hallway. I think I must have caused four human pileups that year.

Once this couple came through, college age boy and girl. The guy was behind the lady, but as I chased them down the hall, he grabbed his lady and shoved her at me in an attempt to get away. I often wonder how far that relationship lasted after that experience.

The keys to a great haunted attraction are three main factors: The quality of the sets, the strength of the actors, and the effectiveness of the scares. There is actually a science to a good scare. A few years ago, I saw a training video for a haunted attraction out west. I can’t remember specifically which attraction had distributed it, but they had a great analogy that they called the duck, the decoy, and the gun. It was so good that I have used the same demonstration in our haunt’s actor training.

If you are a duck swimming in a lake, and you hear another duck, you may think to yourself, “Hey, there is another duck over there,” even though what you heard was just a duck call. Your interest still will not be piqued until you actually see another duck. What you don’t know is that the duck is a decoy and what you don’t see is the hunter with the gun. In this analogy, the duck is the patron. The decoy is the room, and the gun is the scare.

For example, in a haunt you may enter a room covered in blood and body parts. Though this may pique your interest, but you will not be truly immersed until you see a victim chained to a wall. Perhaps they are screaming for help. What you don’t see is the chainsaw wielding maniac about to rev his engine while you are distracted by the victim, hence the gun. Most effective scares can follow a simple pattern like this.

Other tricks of the trade are to be patient, especially with larger groups of patrons. Try to wait until you can scare the center of the group. If you act too soon, you will give away your location and scare, and if you wait too late, you will miss your opportunity. Usually the least scared patron will be in the back.

You also cannot expect to scare every time. It depends entirely on the situation and the crowd. My personal motto has always been if you can’t scare them, then entertain them. Tell a joke or act out a scene. As long as they are interacting with you and smiling, they are having a good time and getting their money’s worth.

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The one question that I have been asked about for years by new actors is where to find inspiration. For me it has always been to take everything that is bothering me in life, be it relationships, or problems with work, or money, and internalizing those things, so that I can unleash all of that frustration and aggression on paying customers. It is also because of this that I find haunt acting such an emotional release. It’s better than therapy and you can get paid.

It was the acting that first attracted me to this business but over the years I have discovered that I enjoy the set design and construction just as much. It is wonderful to be able to take all these dark and creepy things in my imagination and bring them to life.

Not just in character form but also in sets, lighting, and distressing, there is nothing to stop your imagination and the creepier, the better. Just remember to always keep it fresh. People will eventually get bored if they come through the same stale rooms year in and year out. Be sure to keep the things in that folks expect, but also freshen it up every year. Add new animatronics, rooms and characters. Though it is crucial to make sure that the character that you have trained an actor to play belongs in the room that they are acting in. If these things do not make sense, then the patrons will notice.

Always put the strongest actors in the que line. These are the characters that patrons encounter first and last and will leave the largest impression because they will interact with them many times as they wait to get into the haunt. Que acting is also very different from acting in rooms. This involves a lot of unscripted dialogue, so the actor needs to be successful at improv. Also, people can be very rude and mean, so you need an actor that can handle these kinds of encounters. Personally, this is my absolute favorite spot to act. I enjoy the interaction with people and the ability to be mobile.

It is also crucial to think about your character in three dimensions, especially if you are outside interacting with customers, as they will see all sides of you. Remember to pay attention to detail; make sure that you have shoes and jewelry that all fit your character; make sure that your makeup covers behind your neck and the back of your ears; and for the love of the Halloween Gods, make sure that you’re made up to last the entire evening. There is nothing scary about sneaking up on someone while your prosthetic is hanging off your face!

Words cannot fully describe the passion that this industry brings to me. It is my dream to one day own my own haunt and unleash my own personal demons onto the world. It has also become a family passion. As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I had our wedding at the haunt, complete with costumes and torches. The original plan was to have the ceremony before we opened on Halloween night.

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Getting married at a Haunted Attraction on Halloween 2014

There was a stage in the parking lot that we often used for bands and magic shows as patrons would wait to enter the haunt. The plan was to lead a funeral march with all of our wedding party through the crowd and line up around the stage as my beautiful undead bride came through the crowd to “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. It would have been an amazing spectacle, but unfortunately it rained that night and we had to settle for a more intimate ceremony inside. It was still really cool. All of the actors were there in costume and we had our ceremony at the façade at the beginning of the haunt.

Even my family was in the crowd and stood in horror at this bizarre spectacle unfolding before them. It took us a long time to find a minister who was willing to do this ceremony as well, though in the end it all came together and was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Last season, my son got involved with the haunt for the first time. He helped me build throughout the summer and decided to act. He had such an amazing experience that it now seems to be in his blood as well. In conclusion, I ask everyone reading this that if you have ever wanted to experience what it is like to create a horror experience that you can touch and feel, get involved with your local haunts. Make plans to travel to as many as you can throughout the season and help this amazing business to grow so that it may be enjoyed by many generations to come.

Happy Halloween and stay spooky!

Written by J. Patrick Swope

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