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.

Actors perform at 'Terror Behind the Walls' haunted house in Philadelphia
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.

An actor scares visitors posing for a photo at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
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.

Two actors in scary nurse costumes at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
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.

An actor in a scary clown costume at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
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.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. Extras Are Not Professionals.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”

And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.

3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.

A glass of apple juice spritzer
stephanhartmann/iStock via Getty Images

While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”

“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)

4. Smokers Get Paid More.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”

5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”

6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.

Row of men's shirts in blue colors on hanger
Tatiana Dyuvbanova/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.

8. Extras Are Great Mimes.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.

10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”

11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.

Young people taking photo with smartphone
YakobchukOlena/iStock via Getty Images

Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”

If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.

12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.

Vats of catered food
kckate16/iStock via Getty Images

The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.

13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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