Getting Their Shriek On
The area is top territory for Halloween haunt attractions, full of scare-me-please and scare-you?-glad-to types.
By Yvonne Jones
It’s hard to project menace while wearing a tube top, pink velour sweatpants, and flip-flops, but Lisa Michelle Tornetta manages to pull it off.
The slender 21-year-old Norristown resident had come to open auditions at Eastern State Penitentiary, which selects approximately 130 actors for its annual haunted attraction, Terror Behind the Walls. She has only a few minutes to make an impression before Eastern’s panel of judges.
Asked to improvise as either a prisoner or a prison guard, Tornetta goes all out. “I’ll pick up your eyeballs, and I’ll eat them, too!” she screeches, nibbling on a disturbingly realistic plastic skull. Finally, she bounces the skull off the penitentiary’s historic walls, tugs at her tube top, and steps back in line.
The judges exchange purposely neutral glances. Then Eastern State Penitentiary program director Sean Kelley asks, “Lisa, I’m just curious. What’s your availability?”
Tornetta is about to become a small part of Philadelphia’s thriving haunt scene, one of the most vibrant in the country. Boasting a collective cast of thousands, area haunts such as Field of Screams or the Bates Motel lure performers to their rusty doors each fall, most eager to shed dull day jobs to come to life each night as, say, a cadaverous Philadelphia Flyer or Ghoul No. 17.
While most haunts started with little more than some fake blood, a flashlight, and a dream, major players such as Shocktoberfest and Eastern State Penitentiary soon realized that Halloween was no longer a day. It’s a season, and, as trick-or-treating goes the way of the phone booth, a scarily profitable one at that.
The go-to man for haunted and other themed attractions across the globe is Lynton V. Harris, the Australian-born founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of the New York-based Sudden Impact! Entertainment Co. The company made a name for itself with the hugely successful debut of Madison Scare Garden in 1996, and produces large-scale live attractions year-round in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, and the United Kingdom.
While the challenges of haunt productions are similar around the world, Harris says Philadelphia is special.
“Philly’s got this interesting and tough personality which I really love. People here are just up for it! They get pissed off and annoyed if you don’t put on a real show,” he said.
Harris is also the creator, executive producer, and director of Nightmares X-treme Scream Park featuring Prison Break Live, which is in its third year at the Wachovia Spectrum. The annual event debuted in 2004 as a way to repurpose the Spectrum during a seemingly endless NHL lockout.
“Haunted attractions only get bigger with each passing year. Who doesn’t want to be scared in a safe but completely entertaining way?” Harris asks.
No one, it seems. Halloween spending is expected to reach $4.96 billion this year, according to a study released recently by the National Retail
Federation, up significantly from the 3.29 billion spent just one year ago. And of the nearly two-thirds of consumers who will celebrate Halloween this year, more than 17 percent plan to visit a haunted house.
Brett Bertolino, assistant program director for Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls, thinks many of them are coming his way.
“We’ve seen our attendance grow from what we thought was an all-time high of 60,000 in the year 2003 to last year’s new high of 74,000,” he said.
“They just keep coming.”
Pat Konopelski, president of Shocktoberfest, a Reading-based haunted hayride and haunted house attraction now in its 12th year, agrees.
“People are increasingly desperate to be entertained in an interactive, heart-racing kind of way that’s not passively sitting in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Here you are in the video game, and our business gets bigger every year. People just love the language of Halloween.”
Ah, but it’s not that simple. The “dark amusement” industry, as some call it, is a unique society with specific lingo, where figuring out how to maneuver a smoke-belching 400-pound gargoyle is just another Tuesday.
Haunt professionals rely on trade journals such as Haunted House Magazine and Haunted Attraction–which features helpful articles such as “Build a Talking Skull”–and network via organizations like the International Association of Haunted Attractions.
Serious haunt professionals who skip the annual Chicago-based National Haunts and Attractions Show can expect some razzing. The trade show boasts a dizzying exhibit floor featuring the latest in animatronics, special effects, prosthetics, sound and visual effects extravaganzas–all of which help haunters move their attractions forward.
“You can’t just do the same thing over and over again for 70 minutes,” Harris insits. “Freddy Krueger masks, demonic pumpkins, roaring chainsaws–our visitors have been there and done that.”
Known throughout the business for avoiding words and phrases such as ‘haunted house’, ‘terror’, and ‘horror’, Harris strives to make his haunts as non-cliched as possible. New attractions this year range from Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic Nightmare and Dead Elvis in Concert to Snakes in a Tomb.
“My fake-blood budget will once again be one of the smallest in the industry,” he says. “But I’ve dramatically upped my live-snakes budget this year.”
Money isn’t the only symbol of success in the haunt industry: Scaring the bejesus out of visitors is important, too.
“It sounds a little gross,” Konopelski admits, “but a scream, a faint, a brief loss of bladder control or worse–that’s one of the haunt industry’s biggest applause.
At Terror Behind the Walls, Bertolino and Kelley keep a nightly score of similar incidents of “applause” in the performers’ green room. Last year’s tally: 20 people lost bladder control, and one, er, did worse.
Killer set design, Hollywood-caliber make-up, and costuming and atmospheric effects–such as the 250-plus gallons of fog and haze fluid Nightmares X-treme uses each October–help get visitors to that losing point.
But mostly, the success of the scare rests with the 100-plus performers that each haunt hires each season. The majority are regulars–65 to 80 percent of the performers at Terror Behind the Walls, Fright Factory, Nightmares X-treme, and Shocktoberfest return each season.
Who are these people?
“Counterculture folks, straight arrows, and South Street-frequenting kids with heart,” says Aven Warren of South Philadelphia’s Fright Factory.
“Soup to nuts,” says Konopelski. “Doctors, students, administrative assistants, accountants, fast food managers, everybody. Our actors realize that working in a Halloween event is a perfect way to step out of society’s norms in a safe and socially approved way.
“How often do you get to scream at the top of your lungs in public and get paid for it?”
“We don’t treat performing here as a fill-in job,” Harris warns. “Nightmares X-treme is not a substitute for McDonald’s.”
Not that haunt performers necessarily do it for the money; pay typically ranges from $6 to $12 an hour. But those who inspire customer raves and repeat visits to see, say, “that creepy little guy who skitters around like a giant spider” might find a little extra in that week’s paycheck.
“It’s way different from my regular life.” says Jabbar Wright, a historical reenactor by day who has rotated through several roles at Terror Behind the Walls since his first stint in 2003. “Everyone here wants to scare or be scared or both. Scaring people is like a high.”
Comparing notes after the show over drinks at Jack’s Firehouse, just steps from Eastern State Penitentiary’s administrative offices, is a big highlight, Wright says.
But he also looks forward to the show’s seasonal reunion with like-minded coworkers that allows him to spend weeks hanging out with them in the green room, fighting for pizza, Cup O’Noodles, and handwarmers.
“It’s cool that I get paid for this,” he says.
“We love what we do,” says Shocktoberfest’s Konopelski. “But the haunt business is such hard work, all year round, that it’s a relief and a pleasure to work with performers who also love what we do enough to rearrange their lives and schedules so they can come back. And they know all the rules, written and unwritten.”
Rules like “go after the guys,” says Dave Smith, a longtime Fright Factory actor who cheerfully donned oozing makeup to help wannabe haunters get in the spirit of things during September’s auditions. “Girls are easy to scare. Not that I want to be sexist or anything.”
“Move on after the scare,” Bertolino says. “”If an actor…just sort of lingers, staring into their eyes after spooking someone, you completely lose the effectiveness of the scare. It’s the definition of awkward.”
And all staff members, not just the actors, have to be reminded of the importance of scaring all night long.
“We remind actors they can’t just let the costume do the work for them,” says Warren. “No one wants to go to Disneyland to see Mickey Mouse take off his head to smoke a cigarette or use a Port-A-Potty.”
Philadelphia-area haunts have a strict “no touching” policy. To do otherwise not only invites lawsuits, it’s the mark of a haunt that is, quite simply, lame.
“I’ve been to haunted houses that let actors touch patrons,” Warren says. “And they do that because they’re truly bad at scaring people.”
But haunt visitors aren’t always hands-off with the performers. Some, especially women and children, can’t help but reach out and explore a ghoul’s blistering face or dangling chains.
“Scare people can knock you out,” Warren says. “Happens every season.” He says his business partner, Robert Dudzieck, “got a bloody nose from a 110-pound job applicant who got freaked during the haunted house walk-through.”
Which is why those auditions are so important. Scaredy-cats need not apply, though they do, in droves. “This isn’t the place to be if you don’t like darkness or loud noises,” Warren says. “We really try to spook the hell out of people. You can’t do that if you’re too scared to be scary.”
Lewd isn’t good either. When asked to creatively get the judges attention at the final audition for Nightmares X-treme, one woman stunned the panel by flashing her breasts. She wasn’t hired.
Massaging his ears at the second audition for Terror Behind the Walls, Kelley wishes auditioners understood that while a voice that projects is a plus, it’s not a contest to find the most deafening scream.
So what do haunted house owners, managers, and directors look for?
Unflagging enthusiasm and a natural comfort with going with the flow are key. Bonus points for unexpected talents like running in place while wearing Rollerblades, being double-jointed, or simply whispering sour-nothings in a foreign language. Two thumbs up if you don’t even need makeup to look menacing.
“Can you scare me or creep me out–and then make me happy you did?” asks Fright Factory’s Dudzieck. “That’s what we look for, what it all comes down to.”
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