Diary of a Madman

The bright side of scaring the bejesus out of people

I like doing screamers the best.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like I don't appreciate moaners. I still feel like I'm communicating effectively with the ones who collapse, go fetal and mew for mercy. I mean, hey, the nights get long. I like a little variation, same as the guy with the hatchet in the next room. I don't mind a little cowering, a little whimpering, maybe some bug-eyed "Oh, my God!" gibbering now and then.

All I'm saying is that when the hour's late, and the Vivarin's really puttin' the howl in Halloween, give me a screamer, and I'm a happy man in a mask with a chain saw.

It's the change in their eyes that does it for me. That horrified look of unfolding realization as I step out of my hiding place, bent and shuffling like Igor after a few good whiffs of Frankenstein's home-brewed ether, then bring the chain saw in front of me, turning it just enough for the red strobe to glint off the bare, steel blade.

That's when most of the screamers begin their sweet symphony. Some hold back, though, until I rip the starter cord and unleash the beast. The chain saw growls. It snarls. It roars, as I thumb the throttle.

Then they all scream, nostrils burning with the stench of gasoline. Most wheel and run. But a precious few simply stand there, statuesque in the flashing lights, screaming until their breath has died.

With careful practice, I've learned to guide the volume and duration of their screams by revving the throttle and wildly waving the chain saw around like a grotesque conductor's baton.

Did you know that the screams of a terrified human being, no matter their pitch and vibrato, form the perfect sonic compliment to a chain saw at full throttle? The sounds simply go together, like brandy and cigars.

Lately, I've come to commune with my inner psycho killer. I've stalked hundreds of victims through dark corridors. I've waited for them in shadowy corners, inside a tent, behind a crate, behind a bookcase, a tombstone, a skeleton, a corpse on a meat hook. I've sensed fear and gone for the throat. I've dismembered limbs, cackling as blood sprayed across my face. I've been cursed, slapped, punched, and kicked in the balls. I've had the sign of the cross made in my face. I've purposely made small children cry.

That's my job. I'm a haunted-house worker.

I'm paid six bucks an hour to go Hannibal Lecter on your ass.

It beats playing one of Santa's elves at the mall. Hell, it beats playing Santa. Not that I would know firsthand. This year's stint at the Ultimate Haunted Attraction (a.k.a. Arizona's Original Scream Park) marks my first foray into seasonal character employment.

But you have to figure dressing up like a troll or a zombie or a demon from the seventh circle of hell, arming yourself with a chain saw and stalking people through a labyrinth of terror is preferable to dressing up like St. Nick and asking children what they want for Christmas.

That this is so does not speak well of human nature. But just as it's natural for me to enjoy jumping out behind strangers and acting as if I'm going to chop them into little pieces, it's natural for those strangers to want to feel like a character in The Blair Witch Project: "alone, and scared and hunted."

My victims pay for it. They wait in line for it. They come in droves for it.

The Ultimate Haunted Attraction is one of five commercial haunted houses in the Valley this year. The weekend before Halloween, more than 1,700 persons paid $15 each to experience relentless flight-or-fight stimuli for the 20 to 30 minutes it took them to navigate the UHA's quarter-mile of traps, chambers and corridors, set inside a warehouse in Tempe's industrial sector.

Not counting managers, security guards and ticket-takers, there are about 30 haunted-house workers at the Ultimate Haunted Attraction, divided among two categories: scene characters (those who remained in one theme area performing the same part for the duration of the evening, i.e., "Car Crash Victim," "Electric Chair" or "Chain Saw") and roamers.

The latter beings move through the maze at will, stalking and improvising. One of a roamer's chief duties is to keep groups separated, so they don't bunch up and spoil the surprises.

I started out as a roamer. When I showed up for work the first night, my fellow employees pointed and chanted "New freak! New freak!" as a form of welcome. A man dressed as the Grim Reaper slipped me a handful of Vivarin.

"Big night ahead," he said. "Gotta stick together. Gotta be professional."

A costumer outfitted me in a black robe and a gruesome mask. Before I entered the maze, I received my orders and a pep talk from Jim Jacobsen, the den mother of the Haunted Attraction crew.

Jacobsen affected the manner of a drill sergeant, pacing in front of me and barking dictates. This was absurd, since Jacobsen was costumed as Alice of Alice of Wonderland. Powder blue dress, blond wig. In one hand he carried a human skull festooned with floppy rabbit ears.

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