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

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