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.

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!"

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.

"This was still fun three nights ago," Josh said, his voice muffled through the rubber of his mask. "Now it's just a job."

Haunted-house work is tough on roamers and character players alike. Roamers are in constant motion. Characters must remain alert and stock-still for long periods of time, and the Haunted Attraction's owners have hidden security cameras to make sure employees stay in position. Shifts are six hours long, with just one 10-minute break. The maze's interior is a sweat box, if you're wearing a costume (several customers complained of hygiene problems among the Haunted Attraction work force, prompting a manager one night to remind us to take showers; "If you scare them before they see you, that's a problem," she said).

The work can be hazardous as well. Some customers, especially mortified children and drunk or tripping men in their 20s with spiked-in-the-front, long-in-the-back haircuts, respond with violence when startled. My only injurious encounter, though, was with one hysterical, middle-aged woman, separated from her group, who I surmised has more than one Tae Bo video in her workout collection. When I came at her with a curved plastic knife in the Giant Spider room, she front snap kicked me in the groin.

The week I worked the Ultimate Haunted Attraction, employee turnover and no-show ratios were high. Foreseeing this, managers had overstaffed the haunted house with roamers, who stepped into character parts as they came open. This was how I lucked into the role of Chain Saw, indisputably the best role in the production (the namesake implement, by the way, is rendered mostly harmless via the removal of its chain).

Working Chain Saw wore on me, but I was never bored, as the screamers and the Vivarin kept me on a fine point.

My first night on break, I hung out with Maggot, 19, whose mom is Baroness something or other in the SCA. Earlier in the week, Maggot had been on Chain Saw when a woman fell and broke her finger. She said Maggot pushed her. He said she just wigged out when he fired it up, turned, tripped and fell.

Maggot popped two caffeine pills, washed them down with a Pepsi, then took a drag on his smoke with practically postcoital satisfaction.

"It's good, isn't it?" he said. "Scaring people?"

I said yes, it is.

Maggot and I listened to the thumping, the crackling, the scattered choruses of screams.

"Fear's the greatest aphrodisiac," Maggot noted. "Guys are gonna get lucky tonight because they brought their dates here. That's what we're here for -- scaring little kids, and getting guys laid."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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