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Nerdy Jobs: Meet the haunted house actors who are paid to scare the crap out of you
Fall is here; the leaves are changing color, the weather is becoming a bit brisker, and haunted attractions are gleefully frightening those looking for a good scare.
Anyone who's been to a theme park Halloween-inspired event such as Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, Knott's Scary Farm, The Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, or Kings Island's Halloween Haunt has run into more than a few ghouls, ghosts, and zombies jumping out of dark corners in hopes of making you scream. Behind the horror makeup, however, are mere mortals — professional scare actors whose jobs, come October, are to terrify.
SYFY WIRE interviewed three scare actors — Brad Ruwe, Brad Hills, and Rachel Robinson — to get a behind-the-scenes perspective of what it's like to make a living frightening other people.
GETTING STARTED IN THE SCARE BUSINESS
Becoming a scare actor isn't often the initial goal. Ruwe and Robinson — who have worked horror events over the past decade — stumbled into the profession in college when they heard that a local theme park was hiring for a Halloween horror event. Hills, who has played the ghoulish Captain at Queen Mary's Dark Harbor for eight years, entered the scare world a bit later when a bunch of actor friends pulled him in to do a one-night haunt at a private event in Los Angeles.
"I'd never worn facial prosthetics before," Hills says when recalling his first haunting gig. "I was put into a full face mask, which ended up being a good experience to prepare me for The Captain."
But no matter how one gets started in the business, being a scare actor requires a particular set of skills, not least of which is the ability to emote pure terror and transform one's body into an otherworldly, evil creature. The audition process for larger haunts reflects this, with talent direction teams asking applicants to play out spooky scenarios such as pretending they're transforming into a monster or acting as if a killer is chasing them. Different haunts may be looking for slightly different things as well.
"One of my favorite audition processes included reciting a nursery rhyme in character," Ruwe recalls. But regardless of what they're asked to do in an audition, the main component a scare actor must have is, well, the ability to scare.
How they terrify, however, can be quite different.
THE ART OF BEING SCARY
Expectations are high once the official haunting begins, and each actor often has their own preference for how they like to scare. "Personally, I've always had an affinity for playing killer clowns," Ruwe admits. "Most of my haunting career, I've played serial killer characters, though. I'm a fairly big guy who has 'resting angry face,' which translates very well into that 'I'm going to kill you' look."
Robinson usually plays some version of an evil little girl when she haunts. "I ask [guests] about my dollies' heads or tell people to tell me I'm pretty when I'm dripping blood and have boils on my face," she says. "The 'tell me I'm pretty' line has actually been the thing most people relate to me if they see me out on a normal day."
Hills' haunting process is slightly different, given that The Captain and the serial killer character he plays for Dark Horizon, Dark Harbor's sister event in Orlando, are inspired by actual people. "Some guests aren't there for the scare but for the stories," he explains. "To be able to talk about yourself, in character, both fascinates and resonates with some people. They all want to know, 'So how did you die?' Having a true backstory is far more creepy."
FRIGHTENING IS A TEAM EFFORT
When and how to frighten people is also more complicated than a layperson might think.
"You can't simply try and scare every person that walks past," Hills explains. "You need to read people, quickly figure out who the scared one is in every group, and then know at any given moment whether you are the scare or you are the distraction for another monster to do the scare."
"Haunting is very much a team sport," Ruwe agrees. "We'll coordinate with the other actors who share our spot and with the talent direction staff to share feedback, like if a certain spot is working really well or if we may need to work the space a bit differently."
The location where an actor is situated, which can be as broad as roaming the streets to as specific as jumping out of a certain corner in a horror maze, also informs the coordination and the scare tactics actors use.
"If someone in a room before you scares people at the end of their room, odds are people are going to be running into your room," Robinson explains. "So having another scare right at the beginning will either be great to feed off of, or would totally die because they're not focusing on your section yet."
Figuring out which way a group will go is a fickle thing, and something the actors get better at with experience.
HAVING FUN WITH IT
And although their jobs are to terrify, being a scare actor also comes with funny as well as surprisingly sweet moments. Hills, for example, recalls that his first experience with a full-face mask was less than glamorous. "The first haunt I did, I was the only actor wearing full facial prosthetics, so they hadn't planned how I would eat and drink," he says. "Whilst everyone was eating a beautifully catered meal, I was pushing soft breakfast bars through the slit in the mouth."
Robinson also has memorable experiences from some of the guests who go through the haunting experience. "My favorites are always the big guys," Robinson says. "The one that's trying to be all tough. There is always something that will get him… I've had guys throwing their girlfriends towards me so they can run."
Sometimes, however, guests are looking for something more than just a scare from the characters. "Every year I get asked to officiate someone's wedding on board the ship," Hills says about his experience on Dark Harbor. "So far I have never been able to do it, but it would be amazing to do."