Halloween Haunters: Fun and Business

Some people love to be scared and are willing to pay for the experience, accounting for the popularity of haunted attractions ranging from the tiny involving only a few people to the nationally known with a cast of hundreds. Traditionally tied in with the Halloween season, most are open Thursday through Sunday in October. Known as “haunts” to those who work such seasonal operations, they attract actors who might be teenagers volunteering for the first time or adults into their 60s who have been doing it for decades. Like “carnies,” these “haunters” form something of a professional guild that, in a few cases, launched careers in related areas of entertainment.

A typical haunt might be set up in a warehouse space, although larger haunts might occupy multiple buildings on rural farmland. In Rhode Island, Scary Acres in western Cranston (see scaryacresri.com) and Field of Screams in West Greenwich (see hauntedhayride.net) are examples of the latter kind. Smaller haunts are often operated by volunteers to benefit a local charity, while larger haunts may be serious theatrical productions with elaborate sets and props. Occasionally a haunt might be located in a place of historical significance, such as Barnaby Castle (see facebook.com/events/124564021496527) on Federal Hill in Providence, whose owner was the victim of the first murder by mail in American history – she was sent a bottle of wine laced with arsenic – where an elegant, catered party will be hosted, presumably with arsenic-free wine.

One of the most fondly remembered large-scale haunts was Spooky World where many long-time local haunters got their start when it was at the football stadium in Foxboro, Mass., until moving in the mid-2000s to the Bayside Expo Center in downtown Boston. (Spooky World still operates in Litchfield, N.H., which is too far away for most RI haunters to work there.) One RI haunter who goes by the professional name “Ray Zombie,” now in his late 30s, has been haunting professionally for 17 years so far and this season is at Field of Screams in West Greenwich.

“The first haunt I ever did was for the Boy Scouts when I was a kid, but the first professional haunt I ever worked for was Spooky World in 2000 [then in Foxboro, Mass.],” said Zombie. “They wanted higher-energy people to act like psychotic clowns in this messed-up looking circus that they built. I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I owned my own clown costume already and I came up with a makeup arrangement.”

Ray Zombie as Frankenstein's Monster (Photo: Ray Zombie)

Ray Zombie as Frankenstein’s Monster
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

Zombie is an accomplished makeup artist, working on himself and on models for a personal project he calls “Monster Maidens,” which he describes as “creepy sexy monster pin-ups, body paints where I turn women into sexy monsters.”

He also works extensively on costumes, notably his scarecrow character. “Buttonz N. Bonez is based on the idea of a scarecrow and he has a patchworked-together face… I used to have much longer hair in dreadlocks, and when I cut the dreadlocks off I didn’t want to throw them away, so I actually sewed them to that mask… He wears what I call ‘the coat of ten thousand stitches’ because it… took me and my mother four months of stitching hundreds of patches to it.” A scarecrow, he said, is particularly effective because it can hide as part of the scenery and surprise people.

The Possessed Makeup: Ray Zombie Model: Serenity Monster (Photo: Ray Zombie)

The Possessed
Makeup: Ray Zombie
Model: Serenity Monster
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

“There’s a thousand tricks. In a long career of haunting you pick up a lot of things based on subtlety,” Zombie said. “It’s about reading people but also taking a very educated guess as to what the kind of person you’re going for is and how much they are actually paying attention… It’s relatively easy to get up close to a person, get their name from their friends without ever actually talking to them, and get close enough to whisper their own name into their ear which usually makes people drop to the ground.”

Werewolf Makeup: Ray Zombie Model: Matt S (Photo: Ray Zombie)

Makeup: Ray Zombie
Model: Matt S
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

“I’ve had people fall down, what I like to refer to as ‘human bowling’ because when you get a constant queue line of people and you can lean in and whisper just the words ‘Hi, how’re ya doin’?’ and you’ll scare someone so badly that they’ll jump out of their skin and roll backwards and they’ll take out two or three people in the line behind them,” he said. “Haunters like to amass certain statistics like ‘I’ve gotten this many people to pee themselves,’ ‘I’ve gotten this many people to poop themselves.’ Personally, I’ve had one confirmed pee-er, two unconfirmed pee-ers, two unconfirmed poop-ers, two people puke, two knockouts – and I never laid a hand on anybody.”

The Glowing Reaper Makeup: Ray Zombie Model: Ella Puck (Photo: Ray Zombie)

The Glowing Reaper
Makeup: Ray Zombie
Model: Ella Puck
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

The knockouts, he emphasized, were unintentional. “The whole fear of clowns thing isn’t so much that they’re afraid of a person who’s covered in greasepaint and looking like a happy or a crazy clown,” he said, but “is much more about the idea of people’s physical traits being completely covered and making them unrecognizable. You can’t recognize them as a specific human because of the makeup, which is more of what that fear is about.”

“One guy entered the clown house and he had an adverse reaction to clowns. He got stuck between multiple clowns at one point, and he hyperventilated so quickly and so fast he passed out. His friends had to pick him up and carry him out of the house.” He recovered in 30 or 40 seconds, Zombie said.

Medusa Makeup: Ray Zombie Model: BB (Photo: Ray Zombie)

Makeup: Ray Zombie
Model: BB
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

In his second year at Spooky World, he was “the guardian of Mouse Girl, and Mouse Girl is exactly what you’d think she is: she’s a girl lying in a tank set in the wall with 200 live mice crawling all over her. There’s no trick, it’s all real, it’s a girl covered in makeup, lying in an aquarium, with 200 live mice.” The most common reaction is “Ugh, that’s disgusting!” Zombie said. “Three middle-aged women rounded the corner… and one of them came creeping forward until she got halfway through ‘Ugh, that’s disgust–’ and she lost it. She screamed and jumped out of her skin, landed, put her head down, and ran full-speed eight feet into a wall. Knocked herself out cold. Dropped down like a sack of potatoes. It was a Wile E. Coyote moment in real life.” Larger haunts fortunately have emergency medical personnel on site, he said.

Celebrities often visited Spooky World, Zombie said. Mick Foley came through with a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) camera crew and friends told Zombie he appeared on “Sunday Night Heat,” but he said he has never seen the episode.

Zombie Makeup: Ray Zombie (Photo: Ray Zombie)

Makeup: Ray Zombie
(Photo: Ray Zombie)

Some of the cast of Mystic River came through, he said, explaining his zero degrees of separation. “I was chasing a kid around… dressed as… a five-foot tall goat with dreadlocks… so I’m in a big black coat and I’ve got this huge mop wig and ram’s horns on, I’m under two inches of latex prosthetics, and I’ve got claws hanging off of every finger, and I see a kid about a hundred yards off, eight or nine years old… I gave him about 20 seconds or so of me sitting there, and…I started running at him on all-fours, and I chased him around a couple of attractions and then he ran straight around a small group of adults, and then he stopped on one side so I stopped on the far side, I’m hugging a person’s legs at that point… and the kid was holding onto an adult, looking to the right, looking to the left… trying to figure out where to run… I thought the scare had been enough so I let him go, and then I looked up and the legs I’d been hugging were Kevin Bacon’s. He’s looking down at me, stroking his chin, he’s smiling, ‘That was awesome.’ … Apparently the kid I was chasing was Hopper Penn [the son of Sean].”

Sharing a similar zero degrees of separation experience is Zombie’s colleague J. Chris Quint, also a Spooky World alumnus since 2002. He was working the “Hellevator,” a lift that held him up to rest his head against the ceiling beam and trick people into thinking he was a hanged man prop rather than a real actor, and he could jump down and surprise people. “I remember jumping off the platform and landing nose-to-nose with Kevin Bacon, and I remember thinking in my head ‘Holy shit, this is Kevin Bacon,’ but then realizing if I said anything I probably would be fired on the spot.”

Quint scored his own unintentional knockout, too. Jumping off the platform to surprise a woman, “I land with a big, loud noise right down in front of her, right in her face, she turns around and just runs… full-speed without looking, and she ends up running right into a support beam… She was clearly injured so… we immediately put out a flash alert. I took my hood off, I told her my name and I told her ‘I’m going to escort you out of the house now,’ and she was still screaming just barely trusting me, but she allowed me to escort her to the medical tent.”

“I remember scaring one person so bad that he punched me in the face… he was mad that I had scared him instead of his girlfriend. A lot of times, guys would come through super-confident, and they’d point at their girlfriend and expect us to jump out and scare their girlfriend, because they wanted to see that,” Quint said. “Instead of scaring the girlfriend, we scared the boyfriend. Typically us scaring him would make him run and bolt and leave her in the haunted house, and make him look like a fool.”

“The funny thing is you don’t always target the group expects you to target,” Quint said. “Sometimes, reading the group, instead of finding the weakest person you find the strongest person in that group, the one that assumes through confidence and perhaps cockiness that they’re not going to be scared… It’s super-easy to scare someone who is already scared; the tough thing is to scare the ones who are not scared.”

With Zombie, Quint, and Keither Woods (known for his decade-long involvement with the Tight Crew dance party organization) – all of whom in interviews credited him as the driving force behind it – Zephyr Goza got a new haunt going under the name “Fright Crew.” A succession of obstacles, business and otherwise, forced the unexpected relocation of the project from West Warwick to the Orpheum Theater in Foxboro, Mass., and it ran for only a single year with, at best, limited success.

Goza comes from an extremely non-traditional family. “My parents are a traveling theater troupe,” he said. “We would tour nationally, perform at libraries and at school assemblies and that kind of thing. We would act out folktales on stage, content that was family-friendly and relatable to the curriculum. Kind of a home-grown business, I grew up doing that, I grew up on stage, and that’s how we happened to end up in Indianapolis one Halloween.” His parents, he said, now in their 50s and 60s, continue to volunteer for haunts.

“When I was eight years old my parents took me to the children’s museum of Indianapolis that had a haunted house, and it scared me out of my wits. I just became fascinated with fear and how it works, and started reading a whole bunch of stuff about fear and haunted houses and the psychology of them. I got really into this and started volunteering at them as a teenager,” he said, describing an unusually precocious interest. “There’s an old saying that Disney ‘imagineering’ uses, which is ‘Fear minus danger equals fun.’”

“I was 14 when I first volunteered at Field of Screams in Pennsylvania [no connection to the one in RI], which is one of the biggest if not the biggest haunts in the country in terms of attendance. Their revenue is easily in the millions of dollars every year just over the one season,” Goza said. “I really wanted to check it out. We happened to be close enough. It’s out in Lancaster, Pennsylvania… so I showed up three hours before they opened and was like, ‘Hey, do you work here? I read about this place and I’d like to look around.’ And they said, ‘Do you want to scare people?’ And I said, ‘Yes I do!’ And so I ended up in a house that day, they put some makeup on me and threw me in the corner with a nail gun… that didn’t have any nails in it but it was hooked up to a compressed-air supply so you could blast people with it.”

Eventually, Goza decided with Fright Crew to make a business of haunting. “I did, which was probably ill-advised, but it was something that I always wanted to do and I think it’s one of those things that, until you try it and fail at it, you’re just going to do it anyway,” he said. “I hesitate to say that it wasn’t successful because I could still run it again, I have all the stuff, I could bust it out and make a profit on it in theory, but it’s very hard to make a profit on it, and the only way to do it is really to have it in storage most of the year where it’s much cheaper to pay for and then pop it up for a couple of months unless you can afford to do it the other way.”

“A huge haunt, if they’re doing really well, will be from midway through September until the first weekends of November. I like the idea of breaking away from Halloween so it’s not just for Halloween, it’s fun all the time.” The limited season is too short for economic viability, he said. “If the weather is terrible on the Saturday before Halloween, which is your best day, you don’t get another, and that’s it.”

That led to a career, and Goza is now in management at 5 Wits, a provider of live, interactive, adventure experiences similar to escape rooms. “I came on with the company in 2010. I started at the very, very bottom… I worked my way up to management, and I’m now running my second store for the company. We’re expanding. It’s really, really cool to see it take off. It does tie in: It’s not a haunted house, but it’s similar in that it’s a walk-through environment where people get experiences they’re paying to see… I love what I do. It’s not haunting but it’s close, and I’m happy with it.”

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