Diary of a Madman

The bright side of scaring the bejesus out of people

Jacobsen works the line outside the warehouse, which can grow to an hour's wait on weekends. He entertains the anxious throngs with demented comic patter, lovingly stroking his skull and shoving it in random faces.

On the side, Jacobsen initiates new recruits.

"Despite what you may have heard or what you think, working in a haunted house is not about jumping out and going, 'Rarrgh!'" he told me. "Not in this haunted house! In this haunted house, it's about creativity! It's about spontaneity! It's about always staying in character! It's about never getting caught by a customer with your mask off! These people are paying big money to be scared, and scared well! Never forget that!"

Kris Johnson doesn't want to hear it from the Bloody Hand Thing.
Paolo Vescia
Kris Johnson doesn't want to hear it from the Bloody Hand Thing.
The author and his tool.
Paolo Vescia
The author and his tool.

Jacobsen started to walk off, then spun on his heels.

"You have to think! Don't be predictable! Don't always go after the first person in a group! Why? Because the point person is usually the one the others have pushed forward. Don't let the cowards get away with it! Aim for the middle of the pack! Mix it up! Stay on your toes, and keep them on theirs."

Jacobsen looked me up and down, sizing me up.

"Okay. You're a big guy. I want you to use that size! I want your arms high over your head! I want you to invade some serious personal space tonight!"

There are limits to such invasions. Last year, a haunted house in Mesa was closed down by police after female customers complained of being groped by roamers. Employee policy at the Ultimate Haunted Attraction is to stay a foot away from customers at all times.

Which is fine in a memo. Inside the maze, it's sketchy. My first night, I took up a position in the morgue zone, hiding behind a Visquine-wrapped corpse. The lights went out, the sound effects came on, and I waited, tensed. A couple came around the corner from the alien autopsy room, woman clutching the man's arm, inching forward. I waited . . . waited . . . then sprang, arms high, howling like a cat in a meat grinder.

Unfortunately, the mask and strobe lights warped my depth perception, and I nailed the woman with a vicious head butt. She reeled backward and crashed into a plywood wall.

Then she did a wonderful thing. She screamed.

My thoughts of apology, still forming, were swept before a wave of delicious gratification. I howled and waved my arms some more. She screamed again and threw one arm over her face, reaching blindly for her boyfriend with the other. He took her hand and they scrambled from the room.

I felt like I'd found my calling, and it was one that paid $200 a week, four weeks a year.

All that night, I roamed and sprang. I got into a ninja state of mind, schooling myself in the use of diversions, shadows and angles of sight.

The sounds inside the haunted house were at first a bewildering cacophony of smashes, buzzes, rattles and ungodly howls, which punctuated a continuous loop of horror-movie theme music. The Haunted Attraction's bowels are outfitted with dozens of pressure plates and electric eyes that trigger special effects and traps. With repetition, I was able to organize them into an aural map of cues by which I could track the progress of all the groups in the maze at any one time. The other characters and I communicated via hand signals, and whispers between cracks in the wall. I came to perceive the maze as my domain.

Gradually, during weeknight lulls, I got to meet a few of the other 30-odd souls who had answered a newspaper advertisement for low-paying, temporary jobs as actors in a haunted house. I observed two, mutually exclusive trends among my co-workers: ownership of a skateboard, and membership in the Society of Creative Anachronism.

The pay was incidental to the Renaissance-fair types, who were older and, like me, total geeks when it comes to haunted-house work. To them, the haunted house, like a Ren-fair, was a sanctioned opportunity to dress up and participate in live theater with an audience. The pay was incidental.

The skateboarders, who had applied en masse, were in it for the money. Though as one skate punk roamer bluntly stated, "Fucking with people's definitely a bonus."

Josh, 19 and a member of the skater contingent, said he took the gig to bank an easy $800 for a backpacking trip through Europe. Josh coveted my roamer status.

"Dude, roaming rocks," he said.

Josh was stationed in the graveyard room. His job was to stand motionless on a platform until a group neared, then trigger a hidden button that caused the platform to rise toward the foot path.

Between performances, Josh played Pokémon on his hand-held Gameboy set, listening all the while for his cue, the sound of a giant, mechanical rat bursting through the lid of a barrel, a few rooms away.

"Pop goes the weasel," Josh said once upon hearing the rat's loud, hydraulic hiss.

As I frantically crouched behind a grave marker, Josh donned his mask and gloves, tightened the belt holding him onto the platform, and readied himself for launch.

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