You may know them as the deranged clown, the mad scientist, or that guy with the chainsaw who won't stop chasing gaggles of shrieking girls down a dimly lit hallway. But behind the fake blood spatters and caked-on makeup, they’re just regular people trying to have some fun while making money. To find out what it takes to be professionally terrifying, we spoke with three people who served as "scare actors" (as actors at haunted houses are known in the industry) and lived to tell the tale.
1. THE JOB ISN'T JUST FOR HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.
Sure, you’ll probably see some high school students working at haunted houses, especially smaller operations run by community centers. (Some work for free to rack up their volunteer hours—a requirement at many high schools.) But students aren't the only people employed at haunted houses. Christine Mancini, who works at the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania, says the actors at her establishment come from a diverse array of fields. “We have anywhere from doctors, lawyers, and psychologists to college kids working at McDonald’s and waiting tables,” she tells Mental Floss. Mancini and several of her ScareHouse colleagues are mental health professionals by day—a job that's not unusual in the scare industry. “We actually hire a lot of therapists and psychoanalysts [as actors playing torturers] because they actually get a kick out of seeing how this all plays out,” Joshua Randall, the co-founder of Blackout in New York City, told CNN.
2. MANY ATTRACTIONS MAKE YOU AUDITION—AND RE-AUDITION—EACH YEAR.
Hiring protocols vary from place to place, and some haunted houses don’t hold auditions at all. For those that do, managers generally want to check out an actor’s improvisation skills and ability to think on their feet. The ScareHouse, for instance, has prospective actors complete a traditional interview first. Some questions are standard, while others are more specific to the job (Why do you want to work in a haunted house? Are you allergic to latex or makeup? Are you physically able to wear heavy costumes?). Once the interview portion is out of the way, candidates are asked to act out a spooky scene.
Actors have to re-audition each season—which generally begins in early September—and “not everyone is always hired back,” Mancini says. This could be for several reasons. For one, the sets are usually already designed by the time auditions are held, and managers might be looking for certain skills or body types to fill a particular role. For instance, a petite person might be needed to squeeze into a tighter space, and some of the costumes might require an actor of a certain height. Then there’s the competition. “Better talent [at auditions] is a thing each year as well,” Mancini says. “ScareHouse is consistently upping the performance expectations each season.”
3. SCARE ACTING IS NOTHING LIKE REGULAR ACTING.
Acting in a haunted house requires more improvisation and audience interaction than most other types of acting. Some people come in with extensive theater experience and fail miserably in their auditions. “Just because you’re a good actor doesn’t meant that you’d be a good haunt actor,” Mancini says. Others get hired but end up quitting halfway through the season because they hate the high level of interaction and demands of the job (both physical and mental).
Shawn Lowry, a railroad construction worker who used to volunteer at the Haunted Hillside in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, says being confronted by customers is often the hardest thing for new actors to adjust to. Patrons might scream in your face, mock you, try to get you to break character—and you have to be able to take it. “You’re going to get heckled. It’s not going to be like being on a stage where people are paying to watch and be quiet,” he says. “You’re being challenged by the audience.”
4. THEY MIGHT GET PUNCHED.
Getting hit in the face is one of the many occupational hazards of being a haunt actor. If actors are doing their jobs really well and scaring the living daylights out of people, it could trigger a “fight or flight” response in their patrons. The former reaction is when things start to get pretty scary—not just for customers, but for the actors, too. “They forget that they paid to have fun and play along with the show, and that they are not really in any danger,” Lowry says. “I’ve seen some hairy situations with drunk folks showing up and getting rough with actors.”
Jacob Hall, a former haunted house actor in San Antonio, Texas, wrote about his experience with drunk customers for Esquire. “On Friday and Saturday nights, the bar-dwellers came out. So did their inner demons. The first time I was ever punched in the face came courtesy of a frat bro,” he wrote. “The scariest thing in a haunted house is often the people who visit it.”
Because of the potential for danger, many haunted houses are well-equipped with security cameras and guards. Mancini says a security guard is always stationed inside the ScareHouse’s camera monitor room, and if any of the workers need assistance, they can turn to the nearest camera and make a hand signal that they've been briefed on in advance. That will summon backup immediately.
5. THEIR BODIES TAKE A BEATING.
In addition to the risk of getting clocked in the face, the job is also physically exhausting. Some actors have to sit motionless in a rocking chair or stand quietly in a corner for hours on end, pouncing only when a group of people walk in. Others are required to slide across the floor on knee pads or hobble around on stilts all night. Ky Scott, who volunteered at a couple of haunted attractions in Vancouver, British Columbia, told Mental Floss she worked three-hour shifts with no breaks, lying quietly in a coffin and popping up whenever a group walked through. “To stay in character doing the same thing more or less over and over again is hard on the voice and hard on the body,” Scott says. “By the end of it, your voice is hoarse, you’re sweaty, and you need a shower and a nap.”
6. THEY MIGHT WEAR ICE VESTS TO KEEP COOL.
It can get really hot in the haunt, especially early on in the season when temperatures might be upwards of 80 degrees. This is especially true if you happen to be wearing a full-body costume. “In the past we've had a full grizzly bear costume—head-to-toe fur, fairly realistic. It can be too much for some actors,” Mancini says. “But if someone does one of those characters, the haunt has ice vests for folks to wear so they don't overheat and stay as comfortable as they can in it.” The many-pocketed vests are filled with little ice packs, and a manager goes around replacing the ice packs in the pockets when they melt.
7. THERE’S A RIGHT AND WRONG WAY TO SCREAM.
When it comes to voice protection, proper screaming technique is crucial. “If you scream all night from your throat, you’ll lose your voice after night two,” Mancini says. The actors at her haunt are taught how to growl and snarl from their diaphragms instead of their throats—the same technique many professional singers use.
Even if there's no screaming involved, different character voices require a bit of preparation. Scott studied theater arts at Vancouver's Studio 58 training school, so she knew she should do lots of vocal warm-ups before talking in her “weird little girl voice” for the role as a possessed doll. If all else fails, tea and honey are a scare actor’s best friend.
8. THEY MIGHT BRAG ABOUT MAKING YOU FALL DOWN.
When customers aren't around, one actor might call out to another “I dropped them!” In haunted house parlance, this means a visitor was so scared that they fell to the floor—and it's considered an accomplishment. “It’s always great every time an actor does that for the first time because it is one of the cooler things to do,” Mancini says. It's an even bigger win if someone “melts into the floor” in fear and has to crawl out of the room on their hands and knees.
Some might even lose control of their bowels. One time, a ScareHouse patron was so petrified that she pooped her pants, Mancini recounted with a tinge of pride in her voice. (She's not an outlier, either. One haunted house in San Antonio offered a $200 reward to any actor who could make a customer defecate.)
Sure, it might be a little sadistic to enjoy scaring people, but Lowry says adult customers are fair game because they knew what they were signing up for. “I’ve seen actors high-five and laugh because they had grown-ups crying—like, ‘Oh man, did you see that woman? She was bawling,’” Lowry says. But for him and many other actors, kids are an exception. Lowry has broken character before to stop other actors from tormenting children who were already terrified.
9. CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE OFTEN KEPT NEARBY.
Considering the loss of bodily function that happens from time to time, cleaning supplies are often tucked away where customers can’t see them, according to Mancini. Someone from management will come clean up any puddles of pee or piles of poo that may have escaped their frightened guests, and this can usually be taken care of quickly without interrupting the flow of foot traffic. For bigger spills, an actor might be asked to stay in character and prevent customers from advancing to the next room while other staff clean up. Staff have also been known to hand out garbage bags to patrons who have had accidents—“to protect their car seats when they leave,” Mancini explains.
10. TWO ACTORS MAY TEAM UP TO GET A BIGGER SCARE.
It’s a classic scare tactic: One actor is the designated “distraction” while the other swoops in from some dark corner to scare you silly. The decoy actor then does something even bigger to keep ramping up the fear. “It’s a team effort,” Mancini says, adding that she loves being the distraction.
For example, in one outdoor scene this season, she plays the role of a demon. She starts out by crouching down in the middle of the path and staring creepily at guests, which freaks them out without her having to do anything big or bold. She adds: “Then they scare themselves more by continuing to move by me, still wondering what I'm going to do. Then the other actor in a hidden space amongst the trees in the yard scene comes out to do their scare. Then I would pop up and scare them from the rear. So, four or more scares by two actors in a relatively small space by using distraction and timing to our advantage.”
11. IF YOU’RE VISIBLY SCARED, YOU’LL PROBABLY BE TARGETED.
Feel like you’re the only one being chased and taunted? You probably are. Many scare actors look at a customer’s body language when choosing their next victim. “You always know who’s going to be an easy scare because they’re walking in a guarded [way],” Lowry says. “They’re holding their boyfriend or girlfriend tighter and they have their arms crossed.” Other actors, like Mancini, prefer to target patrons who look like they’ll be more of a challenge to get a reaction out of. “Our goal is for every customer to ‘get got’ at least once,” she says.
12. THEY HAVE FEARS, TOO.
Longtime scare actors might be desensitized to haunted houses, but that’s not the case for every actor. For some of those with fears, it’s a lot easier to work in a haunted house than to visit one. “I’m petrified of going into haunted houses but I really like acting in them because I’m on the other side of it,” Scott says.
Similarly, Lowry is claustrophobic—a common fear that many haunted house designers try to tap into. Once, while visiting a new haunted house, he freaked out in one those “giant sphincters” (officially known as squeeze rooms) that you have to push your way through. “Other people’s faces have been exfoliated on those things. I’m walking through and it smells like a locker room and I literally had a panic attack when I went through it,” he says. Fortunately, the haunted house he worked for didn’t have any super-tight corridors.
13. IT’S NOT ALWAYS EXCITING.
Haunted houses have plenty of slow days early on in the season, so there’s a lot of standing around. Sometimes, things can get a bit too sleepy: Lowry says once one of his fellow actors was supposed to ring a bell to alert actors in the next room that a group was about to come through, but since there were so few customers that day, he fell asleep at his station. Patrons thought he was a prop so they kept walking into the next room, where they were puzzled to see Lowry and a few of his co-workers “BSing out of character with masks off.” Oops.
On the other hand, Lowry recommends not waiting until Halloween day to visit a haunted house. Not only will it be crowded on Halloween, there’s also a good chance the actors will be tired and “phoning it in,” so you probably won’t get to see their peak performance.
14. THEY’RE NOT IN IT FOR THE MONEY.
Scare acting jobs tend to pay around minimum wage, or roughly $20 a night, Mancini says. However, this varies from one haunted house to the next. A couple recent job postings on Indeed, for example, offered a rate of $50-$75 per night. Suffice to say, it’s not exactly a money-making venture. Both Lowry and Mancini love the macabre, and Scott says volunteering at a haunted house was a fun way to develop her acting chops. “Everyone who loves haunt acting does it because they get something out of it,” Mancini says. “No one continues to be a haunt actor for an extended period of time for the money.”