Learn how scare and develop a character for professional haunted house acting

Sat, September 19, 2020
Being Monsters
By: Drew Cothern
I have a problem. Perhaps it’s my mischievous nature or a pathological impulse, but I need to hear people scream. It’s an addiction, I can’t help it. I’m a victim of my upbringing, of my childhood fetish for horror movies, of my desire to transcend boring humanity and become something monstrous. Trick-or-treating for me as a kid was more tricks than treats, as I would forgo the rounds around the neighborhood in order to crouch in the bushes along my street, waiting for anyone unlucky enough to pass by, enjoying the rush of their fear before cackling and running off into the night. For people like me, there are no support groups or rehab clinics. There are haunted houses.

I’ve worked at The 13th Gate for five years and have largely gotten my addiction under control. Over the years, I’ve played a variety of roles – from a cannibal cook to an escaped mental patient – and have learned the ins and outs of scaring. There’s more to it than just wearing a rubber mask and wielding a bladeless chainsaw. While plenty of time and effort goes into building the scenery and establishing the proper atmosphere, a haunted house is only as good as its actors. No matter how impressive the set, a gawky, unprepared actor in blue-jeans and a Leatherface mask delivering an ill-timed BOO! will drain the scene of its power. So, how do you maximize your scaring potential? Take a seat on that headstone, son, and I’ll tell you.

Develop a character.
Developing a character is key and what separates a good haunt actor from some idiot in face paint. Behind a drop-wall? Develop a character anyway. After all, when you’re stuck in the dark for hours at a time waiting for victims to come by, what else do you have to do? Consider your surroundings. What’s the theme of the area you’re in? What does your makeup look like? What are you wearing? Work on your posture as well, notice how you hold yourself. When you have half a dozen chainsaws buzzing around you and screaming patrons in your ear, body language becomes the biggest part of the scare. Do you walk with a limp or have a hunched back? Play around, see what works. Come up with a back story for your character: a name, a reason for being there. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to do, watch a few movies with performances that you like and steal from them. Mix and match famous characters to come up with something new. For example, one of the roles I created was the grumbling, not-quite-dead janitor of The 13th Gate, Frankie. For him, I combined Jimmy Stewart’s unique drawl with some personality from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Chop-Top and a hobbling, zombie-like gait to create a new character. For the mental patient I played last season, I cribbed Robin Williams’ manic performance as Batty in Fern Gully and adapted it. Inspiration often lurks in unexpected places. However, if you’re cast as a character from a movie, all the work has already been done for you, just be sure to watch that movie. This is Acting 101, folks. You can’t convincingly play something that you don’t know anything about.

Use your makeup.

Now that you’ve created your character or at least have some idea of the direction you want to go in, it’s time to complete the transformation with makeup and a costume. The makeup situation varies from haunt to haunt depending on supplies, time, budget, and the number and talent of the makeup artists. While it’s true that a good makeup job and a convincing costume can help you get into character, all of this should be irrelevant to your ability to perform. It’s the way you play the character that matters. If your makeup is nothing more than smeared grease paint and fake blood, work with it. After all, Heath Ledger wore little more than that in The Dark Knight, and he delivered a threatening and terrifying performance. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas with your makeup artist to help flesh out your character. In my experience, they enjoy the feedback. If your haunt stocks Dental Distortions or other prosthetic teeth, I highly advise using them. They can be awkward to talk through, but use the way they distort your mouth and your normal way of speaking to your advantage. I’ve worn several different types of teeth and each one affected the way I played the character. For Frankie, the set I wore required that I talk out of the side of my mouth and draw out my vowels in order to enunciate properly, so a large part of his development came from working around the teeth. Contacts help, too. If your haunt doesn’t stock teeth or contacts, you may want to consider getting your own pair. They’re worth it.

As for costuming, you rarely have any control over what you wear, but voice your opinion to the costume shop manager anyway. If they have the ability to help you do your job better, they will. NEVER, EVER WEAR BLUE JEANS OR TENNIS SHOES. This should go without saying, but you’re in the dark, so wear black. Even your socks. Anything else will stand out like a Goth kid in church and undermine your scare.

How to scare.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Do you look suitably ghoulish? Good, then it’s time to go to your spot. Once you get there, take a moment to get in character and look around your room. Walk through it and see it through the eyes of the patron; note where your eyes are naturally drawn, where there are heavy shadows, and the overall feel of the scene. After working the same room for a few nights, it can become stale, so be sure to take a moment to see it with new eyes and remember what’s scary about it. If you have freedom of movement, take some time on the first few nights you’re working a spot to figure out where you should stand when a group is coming to maximize the scare.
Work out bits, such as lines of dialogue or moments of action to play to the victims. Draw on your character’s back story. Avoid using lines directly from a movie (unless you’re playing a movie character) as they can often come off as hackneyed. Be creative! You’re Dr. Frankenstein building your very own monster. If you’re working with someone else, work out a tag-team scare. Tag-team scares can be among the most effective, with one actor distracting the victims while the other one goes in for the scare.
How do you scare, exactly? That depends on you and your creativity, but here’s a list of tips that might help you:

1. Learn to distinguish when someone isn’t looking at you and how quickly you can approach them without getting in their peripheral vision. Be wary of other patrons that might alert your target to your presence and ruin the surprise.

2. Timing is the most important part of a scare. Say you’ve managed to sneak up on somebody and they haven’t noticed you. Do you scare them immediately? No. Wait until the best possible moment, maybe when they begin to turn your way, then hit them with everything you’ve got.

3. When going in for a scare, move quickly and quietly. Learn how to creep up on people.
4. Utilize your stupid-human-trick. Everyone has one. Double-jointed? Use that. Have an unusually long tongue? Use it. Can you turn your eyelids inside-out? Gross. Use it.

5. Don’t settle on scaring teenage girls. Teenage girls are the easiest victims and they’ll be scared of you no matter what you do. Go for their dad, the big, burly, bearded guy in flannel. You might not be able to make him scream, but if you do, you’ll have something to brag about later.

6. Know when to quit. If you’ve got someone hyperventilating on the floor, back off. You’ve done your job.

7. Use your space. Don’t limit yourself to using only part of your area if you can help it.

8. Be unpredictable. Don’t do the same routine over and over. Mix it up. Often, haunts get repeat customers. Give them a new show every time.

9. Don’t let jerk customers get to you. Every haunt has them. Don’t give them the satisfaction of getting angry.

10. NEVER DROP CHARACTER. Ever. As soon as you drop character, you and all of the other actors in the haunt are reduced to nothing more than people in funny costumes.

The Three-Tier Scare.
It’s an unfortunate fact that you won’t be able to scare everybody, but don’t let them walk away without affecting them in some way. Make them remember you. That’s why I’ve come up with my three-tier scare system:

1. Go for the scare. Obviously. Do your best to give them what they came for. If that doesn’t work

2. Make them laugh. Use a Crypt Keeper-style bad pun or some other joke to loosen them up. There’s a reason horror movies are packed with comedy relief: laughter acts as a reset-button for the patron’s emotions. After laughing, they’ll be ready to scream again. Of course, not everyone has a sense of humor, so:

3. Gross them out. It’s cheap, but if you can at least make them recoil in disgust, then it was worth it. When I play Frankie, I’ll often sidle up to a pretty girl with a big smile on my face, exposing all of my broken and crooked teeth, then hawk and spit in my hand and rub it in my hair to flatten my cowlick before hitting them with some disgusting pick-up line. It works. There’s a reaction every time.

That’s what you should be looking for as an actor: a reaction. If the victim is capable of ignoring you, then you have failed. NEVER LET THAT HAPPEN. Make every customer remember you.The lights are going down. You can hear your future victims laughing and screaming around the corner. Are you ready? Go get them. Make them believe in monsters.
Drew Cothern is a veteran 13th Gate haunted house actor

Trending blog

We recently visited Monsterpalooza 2024 and walked the ENTIRE show.  See the entire show as we walk every inch of monsters, make up, and more.  Please subscribe to our Youtube Page and see m

Hauntworld.com has launched a YOUTUBE page to help would be haunted attraction owners and operators to learn how to build and operate haunted houses.  Please join our Youtube page and follow our

Hauntworld documented the entire Transworld Haunted House and Christmas Attraction tradeshow.  Watch the video below to see every Halloween animation, prop, and so much more.  The show was f

Transworld Haunted Attraction and Christmas Light Show is about to happen in St Louis Missouri March 7-11, 2024.  Learn more about the show at www.HaaShow.com  Hauntworld will be document

Today Hauntworld goes behind the SCENES at one of the World's best haunted houses 13th Gate in Baton Rouge.  We take the tour with Dwayne Sanburn and explore the entire attraction and try

The Darkness announced a Haunted House tour during Transworld Haunted House Tradeshow in St Louis, Missouri.   Transworld is the World's Biggest Haunted House and Halloween Trades

Hauntworld on Youtube has started to visit Haunted Houses again this offseason.  We're setting out to learn about the best and most iconic haunted houses in America.   In 2024 we

Hauntworld takes you on a tour thru the IAAPA amusement park show.  Watch the video below and be sure to like and subscribe.  The IAAPA show is an amusement park show with arcades, amusement

Hauntworld teaches you how to build your own haunted house from SCRATCH!  Watch the video and be sure to like and subscribe to our Youtube Channel for more haunted house content. 

Hauntworld created a video series many years ago called 'Hauntworld The Movie' and now all the movies which document the haunted house industry from the 1990's are finally uploaded. 

Trending Articles

Top Ten Icon Haunted Attractions in America Ranked - Best and Scariest
Article Logo

Icons of The Haunted Attraction Industry - Hauntworld Names the Top 10 Icons of the Haunted House Industry.  See which haunted attractions currently in operation are named the ten biggest ICON haunted attractions.  

America's Top Rated Scariest Haunted Houses 2022 - Top 13 Rated Haunted Attractions
Article Logo

Hauntworld ranks the top scary places in America to get SCARED and Scream 2022.  The best and top rated haunted houses, and Halloween Attractions in America.  Did we rank a haunted house near you find out by clicking on this article.  

The Darkness Haunted House - Review 2022
Article Logo

Are you ready to experience the best haunted house in America? How deep into the depths of The Darkness can you plunge before your next breath is your last? The all new Darkness Haunted House, located in Soulard, off South Broadway in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, has been rated as America's BEST haunted house.

America's Top Rated Scariest Haunted Houses 2021 - Top 13 Rated Haunted Attractions
Article Logo

Hauntworld ranks the top scary places in America to get SCARED and Scream 2021.  The best and top rated haunted houses, and Halloween Attractions in America.  Did we rank a haunted house near you find out by clicking on this article.  

America's Scariest Haunted Houses 2020 - Top 13 Rated Haunts
Article Logo

Hauntworld rates the top 13 best and scariest haunted houses in America.  Hauntworld rates and reviews the scariest, best, longest, haunted houses and Halloween Attractions in America 2020.

America's Best Haunted Houses 2018 - Top 13 Scariest Haunts
Article Logo

Hauntworld rates the top 13 best and scariest haunted houses in America.  Hauntworld rates and reviews the scariest, best, longest, haunted houses and Halloween Attractions in America 2018.

Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride New York - Rating and Review
Article Logo

Read Review and Ratings of Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride located in New York.  Headless Horseman features hayrides, haunted houses and much more. 

Creepyworld Haunted Screampark - St Louis Missouri Haunted House Review Rating
Article Logo

Creepyworld Haunted Screampark is America's biggest haunted attraction with over 13 attractions including a haunted hayride.  Learn more and read the review click here. 

Escape From Blood Prison - Mansfield Ohio Scariest Haunted House
Article Logo

Escape From Blood Prison in Mansfield Ohio site of one of the single most famous Prisons in Hollywood History ( Ohio State Reformatory) famous of the film "The Shawshank Redemption".  Now its one of the biggest scariest haunted houses in America.  Read about Escape from Blood Prison! 

The Queen Mary's Dark Harbor California Best Scariest Haunted House
Article Logo

Haunted House Review The Queen Mary's Dark Harbor is Los Angles California's biggest, scariest and most haunted real haunted house.  Read the full review of this haunted attraction click here. 

Find a haunted house near you by state, city, zip code, rate, review and share all types of haunted houses, hayrides and everything Halloween.  Hauntworld rates and reviews more haunted houses than any other website on the web now featuring over 200 haunted house reviews and over 5000 haunted attractions.  Find a haunted house to hayride near you.
All images, content and information contained on this website is © 2019 Halloween Productions/Blacklight Attractions. Developed and Maintained by iSummation Technologies. All Rights Reserved  Condition of Use | Privacy Notice