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.”

7 Top-Rated Portable Air Conditioners You Can Buy Right Now

Black + Decker/Amazon
Black + Decker/Amazon

The warmest months of the year are just around the corner (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and things are about to get hot. To make indoor life feel a little more bearable, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the top-rated portable air conditioners you can buy online right now.

1. SereneLife 3-in-1 Portable Air Conditioner; $290

SereneLife air conditioner on Amazon.
SereneLife/Amazon

This device—currently the best-selling portable air conditioner on Amazon—is multifunctional, cooling the air while also working as a dehumidifier. Reviewers on Amazon praised this model for how easy it is to set up, but cautioned that it's not meant for large spaces. According to the manufacturer, it's designed to cool down rooms up to 225 square feet, and the most positive reviews came from people using it in their bedroom.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black + Decker 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner and Heater; $417

Black + Decker portable air conditioner
Black+Decker/Amazon

Black + Decker estimates that this combination portable air conditioner and heater can accommodate rooms up to 350 square feet, and it even comes with a convenient timer so you never have to worry about forgetting to turn it off before you leave the house. The setup is easy—the attached exhaust hose fits into most standard windows, and everything you need for installation is included. This model sits around four stars on Amazon, and it was also picked by Wirecutter as one of the best values on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Mikikin Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $45

Desk air conditioner on Amazon
Mikikin/Amazon

This miniature portable conditioner, which is Amazon's top-selling new portable air conditioner release, is perfect to put on a desk or end table as you work or watch TV during those sweltering dog days. It's currently at a four-star rating on Amazon, and reviewers recommend filling the water tank with a combination of cool water and ice cubes for the best experience.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Juscool Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $56

Juscool portable air conditioner.
Juscool/Amazon

This tiny air conditioner fan, which touts a 4.6-star rating, is unique because it plugs in with a USB cable, so you can hook it up to a laptop or a wall outlet converter to try out any of its three fan speeds. This won't chill a living room, but it does fit on a nightstand or desk to help cool you down in stuffy rooms or makeshift home offices that weren't designed with summer in mind.

Buy it: Amazon

5. SHINCO 8000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $320

Shinco portable air conditioner
SHINCO/Amazon

This four-star-rated portable air conditioner is meant for rooms of up to 200 square feet, so think of it for a home office or bedroom. It has two fan speeds, and the included air filter can be rinsed out quickly underneath a faucet. There's also a remote control that lets you adjust the temperature from across the room. This is another one where you'll need a window nearby, but the installation kit and instructions are all included so you won't have to sweat too much over setting it up.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Honeywell MN Series Portable Air Conditioner and Dehumidifier; $400

Honeywell air conditioner on Walmart.
Honeywell/Walmart

Like the other units on this list, Honeywell's portable air conditioner also acts as a dehumidifier or a standard fan when you just want some air to circulate. You can cool a 350-square-foot room with this four-star model, and there are four wheels at the bottom that make moving it from place to place even easier. This one is available on Amazon, too, but Walmart has the lowest price right now.

Buy it: Walmart

7. LG 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $699

LG Portable Air Conditioner.
LG/Home Depot

This one won't come cheap, but it packs the acclaim to back it up. It topped Wirecutter's list of best portable air conditioners and currently has a 4.5-star rating on Home Depot's website, with many of the reviews praising how quiet it is while it's running. It's one of the only models you'll find compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, and it can cool rooms up to 500 square feet. There's also the built-in timer, so you can program it to go on and off whenever you want.

Buy it: Home Depot

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Ice cream scientist Maya Warren.
Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.