Eyes black? Check.
Hair messy? Yup.
Teeth stained? Yes, I look pretty disgusting.
Cell phone locked? This is the worst part.
Behind the scenes at Frightworld America’s Screampark in the City of Tonawanda, a bold sign with that checklist greets scare actors as they leave the backstage dressing room and follow the long, curtained hallways to their designated houses.
On a recent Friday night, I also scanned that sign, with a face caked in fake red blood, teeth stained red and black, and hair matted in faux dirt. I wore a tattered costume, slightly resembling a torn-up journalist’s trenchcoat – everyone has a character – and held a bright white reporter's notebook that ended up nearly glowing.
As someone who has been almost reduced to tears in one of Frightworld’s haunted houses, it was time to turn the tables. What's it like from behind the one-way mirrors?
. . .
About an hour before showtime, Amanda Koeppel applies my makeup backstage. Koeppel works at a bank by day, doing hair on the side, and every fall, she applies fake blood, tooth stain and black paste to scare actors, or simply, monsters.
“It’s kind of like a fantasy… like you’re not in the real world,” Koeppel said.
At this Halloween attraction, actors dress up and try their best to petrify paying customers. It almost makes more sense from an actor's perspective: Who doesn't want to scream at someone sometimes?
Matthew Weiss applies a thick layer of black body paint, or “dirt” to my arms, neck, face and hair. He tussles blood in my hair, matting clumps of strands.
Weiss used to be a scarer, but now stays behind the scenes.
“After your first customer … you get that initial screech or scare out and you see their reaction, it’s like an addiction,” Weiss said.
Backstage, the monsters interact excitedly, getting into character with shrieking laughs and high, strange voices. Several people describe the cast as a "family."
. . .
I'm the shadow of Tyson Hartman for the night. Hartman is the house manager, as well as a scare actor in the "asylum" house.
Our stake-out is a pitch black room – "Your eyes will adjust," he tells me – with outlets to several different rooms. One with strobe lights, a couple with slam doors and one with a creepy patient's table that actors periodically jump on, pretending to be deranged patients. There are also a few one-way windows, which I spent a lot of the night behind, watching and occasionally banging my fists on to frighten people who can't see me.
Hartman's a veteran. He's been at Frightworld for 11 years.
“I’ve done a lot of weird stuff,” Hartman said. “I once actually made a lady have a panic attack and pass out once. I’ve made people pee.”
In other words, he knows what he's doing.
The bigger the scare, the better. The cast holds nightly meetings to go over each other's scares.
Hartman, a kind manager who seems to be close friends with his actors, even taking one on as a mentor, shows me all the shortcuts in the house. He tells me the morgue room includes tables from a real morgue. A few cast members said it's actually haunted. "I'll let you decide," Hartman said.
Hartman also sets the script for the asylum's characters. This year, they're all abandoned, left behind by their doctors to fend for themselves.
“Whatever feels right just kind of comes out and usually makes sense," Hartman said. "So, just, the weirdest noises are what’s the most effective.”
I learned what the other scare actors learned at their preseason orientation. It's all about timing.
There are a few surefire scare tactics, such as a distraction scare (two actors go in, one distracts and the other scares), a pop scare ("just like it sounds, pop in and pop out,” Hartman said) and the slam-door scare (peek through a peephole and when a group enters, slam a door and pop out).
I'd later learn the slam-door scare works like a charm.
. . .
Taylor Wilson is a student at SUNY Buffalo State, studying fashion. She's picking up a theater minor soon and she's been acting since age 10. This is her first year at Frightworld.
“Something we do a lot in theater is, if you have a bad day … you leave your emotions at the door," Wilson said. “But this actually, on the contrary, is a great place to come in and let your frustrations out. ... Like you can come and scream at people and not get in trouble for it.”
This job is also a "total contrast" to Wilson's daily life as a full-time student. The one thing that carries over between the two is her distinctive, cackling laugh.
“My actual laugh is my normal laugh," Wilson says, and she uses it, well, a slightly more "insane" version of it, for her self-made character, Giggles the Clown.
Wilson's character is Giggles the Clown, and she has a distinctive, cackling laugh to make it work.
“I gotta think of something funny,” Wilson said, going into a laugh spiraling downward in pitch. It's similar to the sound a Hallmark Halloween card makes when you open it up. “So that’s that one.”
“Don’t be afraid to do anything too weird or too crazy, because there’s no such thing here at Frightworld," Wilson said.
. . .
My main question when I first visited Frightworld a few years back, was why exactly do we put ourselves through this?
Mid-20th-century sociologist Erving Goffman believed social life is a stage and we’re all performers. At a haunted house, monsters lurk in the shadows, performing their character through screams and bone-chilling laughs, while paying customers navigate the set, clinging onto each other for dear life, screaming at every turn. Everyone involved knows it’s fake. Are we all performing?
Jules Struble has seen the whites of grown men's terrified eyes. So no, it's not always a two-way performance, but she thinks the understood fakeness is the appeal.
Struble, a recent Syracuse University graduate, spoke to me, then darted away at the sound of a customer to give them a hearty scare, then returned as if nothing happened.
“There are not a lot of chances in your day-to-day life where you get to be so close to terror, but safely,” Struble said. “In your day-to-day life, you don’t get to experience anything that will startle you like that. You get to test yourself, see how you would respond in this situation. ... Terror is enjoyable as long as it doesn’t get too close."
. . .
Michael McCoy is a chainsaw guy. If you’ve ever been to Frightworld, you know about the chainsaw guys.
They chase you out of houses with chainsaws. They chase you around the lobby with chainsaws. You know the chainsaws are fake, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Everyone runs away from the chainsaw guys.
“I keep track of how many guys will push their girlfriends and wives out of the way and take off running,” McCoy said, leaning against a wall backstage before he inevitably terrifies a Friday night’s worth of customers.
“So far this year, I think 10 groups that I can remember,” he said. “I did have one group where a mom pushed her kids out of the way and took off running.”
. . .
Back in the house, I would describe my scaring as barely adequate.
I jumped in, I screamed. One little boy just said "Hi," but most people at least jumped. I got a few screams. I banged on the glass so hard my hand hurt the next morning, if that counts.
The faux asylum filled with smoke, obscuring an already dark scene. Actors randomly shout things in uneasy voices, such as, "You can’t make me take my pills."
One actor, Nick Slingerland, also works overnight shifts in a hotel to pay the bills year-round. "It’s kind of boring compared to this,” he said.
Screams from customers are commonplace. Sometimes long and high. Sometimes shorter, unexpected shrieks.
At the end of the night, not even 10 baby wipes could remove my full face of costume makeup and faux blood. Rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball took care of my black-tinted teeth. A hot shower cleaned my matted hair.
And just like that, I was all back to normal.
As soon as I left through the back door of the Tonawanda warehouse, bare-faced and wearing everyday clothes, I shed my temporary ability to scream my frustrations at random people.
The scare actors would remove their makeup and bloody nurse costumes and go home, have a normal Saturday, then do it all again the next night. And a fresh crop of anxious customers would enjoy the bonding feeling of predictable, safe terror.