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Behind the scenes at Frightworld

I slam the car door and rush past the Dumpster toward the break room. It’s 5:45 p.m. and by now a line of customers has formed outside the front entrance. I almost collide with a tall, green swamp monster who is already sweating underneath his thick skin. The makeup line and the smell of e-cigarettes wrap around the room. After throwing on my ripped, floral dress and gas mask, I gulp down some Propel and pop some cough drops in my mouth. Soon, it’s time to start, and I run to my post, a room dominated by headless Barbies, antique dolls and an animatronic skeletal woman. This is not your typical 9-to-5 job. I am one of the 60-some employees at Frightworld.

Although I just started working at the Tonawanda business this fall, my fascination with all things creepy is anything but new. As a toddler, I had a fascination with Sesame Street’s “the Count” and any picture book involving ghosts. In elementary school, I would try to sneak downstairs to watch the “X-Files” with my parents and, every October, I would sit captivated in the Dodge Elementary library while the librarian told scary stories with the lights dimmed. As I grew up, I graduated to horror movies. I vividly remember watching “The Blair Witch Project” for the first time in seventh grade. From then on, I made frequent treks to the movie theater to quench my thirst for the supernatural, delighting in movies like the “Paranormal Activity” series, “Insidious” and “Let Me In.” I spent the summer before ninth grade devouring the entire “Exorcism” franchise.

Around the same time, I ventured to Frightworld. To be honest, I was terrified. My heart began to skip a beat like never before; suddenly, my horror movies had come to life. However, the moment I stepped into the first house, my fears disintegrated. Instead, I was struck by the minute detail of the house. Each room was expertly furnished with fake blood, old furniture and monsters, of course. The actors and actresses were exceptionally creepy and didn’t just “jump out at you” – each had his or her own unique character. I explicitly remember one young woman in the Asylum who called each customer her “little pepperoni.” I was completely taken with the business. I came back every year after that, relishing the hours spent in awe.

After closely monitoring Frightworld’s Facebook page for weeks, I spotted a series of open audition nights scheduled for mid-August. Here was my chance to hold the job of my dreams: an actress at Frightworld. One sweltering summer day, I journeyed to the new location on Eggert Road and was interviewed by several managers. A few days later, my home phone rang and my stomach dropped. I knew exactly who was calling. Two weeks later, I was officially part of the Frightworld Scream Team.

Even as an employee, I enjoy scares just as much as the customers. The freedom to employ any combination of tactics is quite infectious. My ambiguous gas mask and inconspicuous blue floral dress allow me to use screeches, giggles and temper tantrums all in the same night. At Frightworld, we are encouraged to create our alter egos, ranging from towering serial killers to rabid lunatics. The character I created, Dolly, is a young girl who cannot help scaring her new “friends” with her nimble crawling and raw screams. When I hear customers approaching, whether I am stationed in the doll room, hallway, bathroom or closet, I begin my routine with a “startle scare,” using a simple jump or crawl. After Dolly’s initial entrance, her true nature is exposed: Dolly loves to play with her “dollies” and will curiously ask customers if they want to play with her. Enthusiastic companions will be led to find her “Daddy,” a massive, overprotective clown. If customers are impolite or unaffected, they will be treated to one of Dolly’s temper tantrums and be chased by an enraged Daddy Clown. These instances are called team scares, accomplished by two actors working in tandem. As a foster, an actress that serves as a distracting guide to the next big scare, I specialize in comedy.

Role-playing appeals to many on the Frightworld crew.

“I love never having to break character,” says one Eerie State Asylum lunatic who asked to remain anonymous. “I just love adding parts of what freak me out into my character.”

But I didn’t arrive at Frightworld with this knowledge. Veteran monsters have helped me hone my skills and discover my talents. Every night, my house manager expertly suggests bits to add to my routine. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attempted crawling, jumping, faux seizures, screeching and hissing, bringing every nightmare imaginable to life.

However, my job isn’t all guts and glamour; it’s just as demanding as working in the fast food industry or any other typical high school student’s job. For one, my persona is incredibly taxing psychologically. I am active for seven hours straight, with two short breaks. On Saturdays, I am already exhausted after a six-hour shift at my first job at Badding Farms. Crawling and running in between rooms for long periods of time requires immense energy.

There is also an element of physicality that can be slightly dangerous. For example, one night I portrayed a victim in Condemned, a house filled with masked serial killers and cornstalks. My 6-foot-11 co-worker, affectionately nicknamed “Tiny,” was my “Daddy” that night. I was supposed to beg customers to take me away from our cabin because there was “something wrong with Daddy.” Daddy would then pretend to become furious with me and swing his mallet at my head, after which I would convulse on the splintered floor. Unfortunately, Tiny does not wear his glasses during performances and those swings would sometimes come perilously close to my head. At one point, I felt the rush of wind from Daddy’s hammer onto my face.

Beyond this, customers are often just as physical with me as the job responsibilities. Although Frightworld policy forbids the monsters from coming in contact with the customers, the customers occasionally don’t return the favor. Frightened guests have shaken me, head-butted me or worse. One terrified, intoxicated man gave me a jagged cut on my forehead that earned me the pet-name “Harry Potter” for several days.

Gabby Mameli, an Eerie State Asylum lunatic, was almost licked by one customer. “It made me laugh but I was also a little grossed out,” said the Clarence High School junior.

“Grabbers” and exhaustion aside, working at Frightworld is a scary good time.

Cari Hurley is a senior at Williamsville North High School.