Lessons From The Haunt

Both 2016 and 2017 have represented a change in season for my life. Likely, the 2017 Halloween season was my last as a full-season haunted house actor – at least for a while. As I move on to yet another new chapter, I’m amazed at how much the haunt taught me as a person.

In no particular order, I present the 10 life lessons I learned from working in a haunted house over many Halloween seasons. Hopefully, they’ll provide some amusement and a glimpse behind the scenes others might like.

Confidence Is Key

“I probably look like an idiot.” My first thought on the first night of my first season. They gave me the largest size costume they had for the part – a Victorian period suit – and the sleeves still fell 2″ short. Our costume lady hid this with some white ruffles and makeup.

As a born NERD with serious social anxiety, the whole experience was about as far from my comfort zone as possible. I’ve jokingly told younger actors in recent seasons, the key to playing a part is “no sense of shame”. No sense of shame though, is just the beginning. It takes complete confidence to play a part – to be the bump in the night – to loose yourself in a character that brings fear and owns the room – while also knowing that not everything is about you.

Don’t Trust Terrified People

Not only have I lost count of how many stupid things I’ve seen scared people do, I’ve lost the ability to recount the stories in any meaningful way. Every haunt actor with more than a few seasons will have battle stories. I’ve been punched, kicked, and ran into more than I care to remember. A core skill of the haunt is to ‘scare and dodge’.

The most dangerous times are when you see someone that looks “harmless” or at least predictable. “Harmless” has landed a night-ending groin kick on more than one occasion. At least as an actor, we can somewhat control how and when things happen. More than once, I’ve seen a relationship destroyed by a scared guy throwing his girlfriend at the action in fear (chivalry ain’t dead folks). In some ways worse (or funnier?), numerous noses have been broken by the recoil of a terrified group leader.

A terrified person moves from reason to instinct – and from what I’ve seen, fight or flight is an unbelievably real phenomenon. When someone is scared, they will act as a dangerous animal.

You’re Not Special

After watching a few thousand people walk through a room, you start to reach this point where people coming in seem to be clones. A group will come through and there will be a sense of deja-vu. They’ll have the same super-clever smart-ass remark, the same general appearance, or the same group dynamic.

It seems that especially with the “trendy” folk – I’ll see the exact same clothing combination and haircut on multiple people. Over the years, I’ve developed a litany of responses for “unique” smart-ass remarks. More than once I’ve heard surprise at my ability to “improvise” retorts that where planned months in advance – because at the end of the day, the initial insult wasn’t creative or unique.

Insults are Often Lies

One of the favorite ways for someone to “break the spell” or dispel their fear is to insult the actors. Some of the favorites: “your breath smells”, “you smell bad”, “your accent stinks”, “that line is stupid”, “I saw you first”.

In earlier seasons, I’d worry as costumers said any of these things. In later seasons, I began to notice that some of insults would come in such a way that it was obvious they were saying something just to get under my skin. Any of those insults may have been true for that person or that day, but over time it becomes obvious that when someone was insulting you – it was just a way to get under your skin.

It’s Always Business If Money Is Involved

A lot of the haunted house actors aren’t in it for the money. Many of us just really love scaring people or the holiday season. At the end of the season, a cast will generally have a family-like vibe.

Its easy for an actor to spend far more money than they make at the houses. After a few years, we learned to pace ourselves and our expenses. But, on multiple occasions a clear business decision would damage the “fun” that we felt working there. On those occasions, I’d have to remind myself that at the end of the day, while extremely fun, it is a ‘job’.

You Can’t Please Everyone

I never really learned this in my experience at other jobs. For whatever reason, I always thought that if someone wasn’t happy – there was something we could do to fix it.

A younger me would listen to criticism or (if in a position to do so) try to refund people not entirely happy with their experience. Now? They paid, they got in – that’s it. As an actor, I try to give a consistent performance for every costumer that comes in. Even if they seem bored and unhappy, I’ll say my lines and move them through. I kept 3 priorities in my area at all times: 1. Everyone is safe, 2. Everyone is having a good time, 3. Everyone is scared. Despite that, I’d see some groups that there was no saving.

At the end of the day – some people are just assholes. There is nothing in this world that will make them happy. They are simply miserable and will attempt to spread their negativity and misery to anyone who will listen. Any wasted energy to make them happy simply hurts good customers. If you’re a business owner, watch for these miserable people. Kick them out, just like the Soup Nazi – “No Soup For You”. Use whatever energy you might waste on them to create a better experience for costumers that will bring in more business.

Over the years, I’ve learned the joy of hearing “this is what I came for” from repeat costumers. Those are the ones that matter.

Let Late Night Workers Go Home

It’s 11:50pm and you’re out looking for food. Do you stop at the 24-hour joint or go to a sandwich shop closing at midnight?

Every season – there was at least 1 group of people that would stop by just past the time we closed the doors. Despite constant documentation in everything we do that ‘doors close when the line dies’, and ‘closing times subject to change’ – there would always – ALWAYS – be someone pissed off that we closed the opening doors. Sometimes even when those doors were kept open past the posted closing time of the house.

A slow group could easily take over 45 minutes to wander through the Haunt. That means, if we have a posted closing time of midnight, and the line shuts down at 11:45 – we’re all going to be there until at least 12:45, maybe later. I’ve often said “nothing good happens at a haunted house after 11:00”. Depending on the night, actors will have been going on for over 4 hours without a break. Worse, as night falls, groups go from families to drunks out partying.

At the end of the night, actors are ready to go home. Even the best begin to break and the quality of the show goes down. Don’t flirt with the closing time of anything open late – people want to go home. Don’t be the dick that hits the sandwich shop 5 minutes before closing with a large group and is shocked they are cranky.

Bullying and Encouragement Dance a Fine Line

“We give you shit because we love you.” It’s a line I’ve heard and seen multiple times. The psychologist Michael Gurrian coined the term “aggressive nurturance” to cover behaviors that might appear as bullying but in reality were nurturing.

I can’t begin to explain how much a father / daughter pair walking through the Haunt could melt my heart. I’d see it with other parent/child pairs as well, but there always seemed to be something special about a father bringing a young girl through and making sure she enjoyed the show.

Then, there were the complete asshole abusive parents and friends.

The funny thing is, I’d often see the abusive person say and do very similar things to the parent / child pairs that I loved to see. Bullys often couch their bullying in the “we give you shit because we love you” mantra.

It’s a lie.

A loving parent can tease a child about shrieking with the last pop scare. A bully can use the same words. As an observer, it’s hard to spot the exact difference – but perhaps it’s something as simple as the motivation of the bully making them carry it farther.

At times, I’d leave a group alone simply because of the interactions between a bully and someone in the group. For those in groups with a bully like that – no, they didn’t love you – they were just an asshole.

Beware of Forced Perspective

I’ve heard it said that magic is all about misdirection. That’s somewhat true in a haunted house as well. Lights are calibrated and aimed, sound tracks are played, and props are utilized. Low light, shadows, and fog obscure the reality of cheap set pieces or incomplete areas.

As actors, we see a lot of the ‘magic’ behind the show. Much of what we do is attempt to control what a costumer is seeing. Controlling perspective and context allows a plastic snake to feel real, or for an indoor room to feel outside and back in time. When we control what someone sees and how they are seeing it – we can tell a story and elicit emotion.

After working with these sets for years, I’ve come to realize that much of life works the same way. Beware anyone trying to show you certain things or tell you how you should feel about it – they’re building a story that may be as real as a cheap plastic prop sword at the haunt.

Avoid Assumptions

One of the truly astonishing things about haunted house actors is there shear diversity. High School and College students from multiple disciplines and levels with different family backgrounds. For older adults, I’ve lost count of the number of professions / jobs: Software Engineers, IT, investment bankers, mechanics, handymen, plumbers / electricians, teachers, nurses, fishermen, factory workers, actors, and more make up the cast from year to year.

In one of my early seasons, I remember a younger actor informing me that he worked a certain way “because of the higher tax bracket” [than other actors]. I had to laugh, knowing multiple people there with yet even higher tax brackets. I’ve heard snide comments from costumers about rednecks and carnies working the haunt. Some, when interacting with my character, attempting to make jokes or revel in a lack of knowledge of someone that must be a high school drop-out.

It might shock them to find out that every last person working the haunt has to pass a criminal background check. Due to press interaction over the years, they refuse to hire anyone with a felony – a policy I have some personal issues with, but understand.

When the show starts, there is no telling who you are dealing with under the makeup. Over the years, I’ve heard stories from so many actors, watched people grow and change – I’ve learned the wisdom in not making assumptions on what someone can do or where they will end up based on a small snapshot of life. Pretentious assholes talking about carnies should get out a meet some people – they should watch and see just how far anyone can swing up or down. If anything, the vast majority of people I’ve known at the haunted house tend to be swinging up and growing.

Conclusions…

I hope that next season I’ll find some time to rejoin the haunt and see some good scares. But, if nothing else, the past few years have taught me a lot about life. My parents never let me take Drama classes – I regret that some now. Seeing the magic of the stage (or learning the Haunt) gives a lot of insight into our humanity.

 

 

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