14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted House Actors

Courtesy of the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania
Courtesy of the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania

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.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

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.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

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.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

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.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

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.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”