4 Horrifying Realities of Working at a Haunted House
If you haven't been to a haunted house recently, you're missing out on something truly unexpected: At some point they actually became scary. This isn't the dangling plastic skeleton and "Jello mold shaped like a brain" shit they put on for the kids. This is an intense form of full-contact live theater intended to make the customer piss their pants (and we mean literally: they have to clean up piss from their floor).
To get an inside look at what we figured has to be a thoroughly weird job, we spoke to two experienced spook mansion performers, Lillian Sharrow and Alexander Kraft, who told us about all the real blood, mutilation, and terror shit that goes into making these haunted houses worth the price of admission:
The Customers Punch and Sexually Harass the Performers All the Time
When startled, it's normal for the human body to instinctively go into full fight-or-flight mode, when you have to decide in a split second whether to hammer-punch a perceived threat or run away shrieking like a poltergeist. Consequently, it's equally normal for haunted house employees to end their workday covered in knuckle-shaped bruises after intercepting a few too many "fight" responses to the face from frightened customers. Literally one of the first things covered in a haunted house employee handbook is what to do if/when a customer physically attacks you.
The customer then gets to meet the scariest monsters of all: lawyers.
"Getting punched is basically a job hazard in this field," says Lillian Sharrow, speaking from experience. One fellow performer was almost crippled this way. "The customer freaked out and physically threw him across the room, where [my co-worker] hit one of the statues and kind of crumpled to the ground." Yeah, that's the thing -- unchecked terror rage kind of gives you super strength.
"I don't know about this, Betty ..."
"It'll be fun, Bruce. What's the worst that could happen?"
The other performer we spoke to, Alexander Kraft, had it a bit easier. At his job, the customers were placed in handcuffs for an enhanced fright experience before they ventured into his scare area (scarea), because being led through a dark maze with your arms in restraints is tons of fun for any Halloween fan looking to re-create the experience of being in a haunted military prison. Still, he took the occasional elbow to the chest from male customers, because his character was tasked with obsessively touching the guests, and nothing triggers an aggressively heterosexual guy's fight-or-flight response (and a spew of homophobic slurs) faster than vaguely implied homosexuality.
Sitting in the dark while being called a f****t all day? It's just like being a professional gamer!
"Strangely though," Alex says, "some people seem to transfer fear into sexuality on a base instinct. I had one girl in particular shiver in response to my act, moan lightly, and then ask if she could touch me." This sounds like a funhouse of a different sort, but unfortunately, not every customer is nice enough to ask for permission before they molest the actors. In Lillian's haunted house, for example, a guest decided that the female performers were actually a complimentary All-You-Can-Grope Buffet, because, hey, it was dark, who's gonna know? Alex himself has had a number of customers try to grab his dick, which is the quickest way outside of having a heart attack to be escorted out of a haunted house.
The Actors Are Encouraged to Make You Shit in Your Pants
We mammals also have a tendency to let go of our bowels when we're scared, apparently due to a cruel prank played by evolution. And yes, if you work in a hardcore haunted attraction, you'll see it happen in person. Among haunted house performers, there is no greater compliment -- in fact, at Lillian's haunted house in San Antonio, there was a $200 reward if anyone could make a customer shit their pants. We are not kidding.
"All the walking could tire us out. Better hit the diner first for some chili mac and coffee."
Essentially, staff members would walk around the attraction, making sure that everything was in order, and if they detected an unmistakable aroma of Haunter's Brown Gold, the performer in that section would be given the cash bonus. Lillian has seen it happen only a few times, though, because it's (thankfully) not easy to terrify someone to the point of full-on, social-contract-destroying shit release. There is no bonus, however, for making customers piss themselves, because while friendship-ruining trouser cakes are uncommon, haunted house patrons apparently piss their pants all the time.
According to Lillian, "Another actor friend of mine was hiding under a table as a group of people walked by. He crawled out and screeched at them and promptly saw a nice stream of pee run down the leg of a girl wearing a skirt."
"We don't mark the path. We just tell customers to follow the yellow drip road."
So, the floor of the next spook house you tremble through might be slick, but not necessarily with condensation from the ghostly fog machine. There's a pretty solid chance that your sneakers are squeaking through urine. If that makes it sound like haunted attractions can be disgusting places to work, well ...
They're Almost as Horrifying Behind the Scenes
As we mentioned at the top, the modern haunted house isn't about saying "boo" from across the room in vampire makeup -- today's customers expect to be mildly assaulted, dammit. So, for instance, in the scaring business there are people called "sliders" whose specific job is to scare people by running out and sliding on their knees towards them. If all goes well, the customer jumps, screams, then writes "I shat my trousers, five stars!" on the survey card later.
"Excellent experience. Would shit again."
But consider it from the performer's point of view -- running out, going to your knees, over and over again. For six hours. Every day. Even with pads, being a haunted house slider will fuck your knees up more than being in the NBA. And that's just one example -- these are physical performances, with actors jumping and wailing and contorting in the name of being convincing zombies/murderers/monsters. And if they end up, say, smacking their hand against the wall and breaking their fingers, they'll just put some ice on it and keep working, because the scaring business rarely offers health insurance.
"Emergency room? You've got all the bandages you need right there."
At her job, Lillian worked in full zombie makeup that was alcohol-based, and therefore dried up her skin. "By the end of the season, my face looked like it was growing its own red pustule mountains," she says. As a bonus, when you're getting your makeup airbrushed on, the alcohol occasionally gets shot up your nostrils. If you want to know what that feels like, have a friend get some booze and waterboard you with it.
And then there are the dilapidated settings these attractions are usually held in. The key to a good scare is to make the customers believe that they are walking through a real haunted house. Less-reputable scarehouses achieve this effect via the "cheapskate artisan" approach, which is another way of saying they fire their entire maintenance staff and let the building deteriorate around them like a cardboard box that six generations of rats have been using as a cemetery.
Alex was fortunate enough to work in a professional establishment with standards and regulations, but Lillian wasn't so lucky. "A lot of the spooky noises you heard inside? Rodent infestation," she says. "The haunted house I worked in was inside a very old building with a huge mice problem; you could hear them scratching through the walls. It's an incredibly eerie sound, and there was more than a fair share of droppings scattered everywhere."
There's also the fact that the attraction was in Texas, in an old building with not much in the way of air conditioning -- temps got up to 112 degrees where the performers worked. "Actors had to work six-hour shifts inside that oven with only a single 15-minute break to recover from the hell they were living through." That means the actors' costumes are spending entire days cultivating a nice marinade of sweat and hatred, and at Lillian's old job, the costumes were washed only once every two weeks to save money. So, yeah, by the end of a cycle they probably smelled worse than actual zombies.
So what sort of person would sign up for this low-paying, seasonal acting work? Well ...
"Haunters" Take Their Jobs Very Seriously
It's easy to think that haunted houses are operated entirely by some RV-living subculture of carny psychopaths looking for a way to simultaneously fund their meth addiction while satisfying their need to wear elaborate costumes to terrify strangers. But, as Alex explains, most of the people who work at these places take their jobs very seriously: "We refer to ourselves as haunters, part of the haunt community. Some of us are gore freaks, others are just dark, and at least in the context of our full-contact haunt, most of us were trained actors." Alex's attraction actually has a Ph.D. on staff to specifically study and analyze the customers' reactions so that they can deliver more frequent and higher-quality pants-shittings in the future.
For the performers, the job is less like community theater and more like professional wrestling: they dress in bizarre costumes and put on a sometimes-violent show for people that, while fake, still requires tons of hard work and operates under the ever-looming threat of actual physical injury. The pro-wrestler analogy becomes even more fitting when you consider that haunters generally place a low value on subtlety and have ironclad rules about never breaking character, even if an audience member is lunging for their dick.
"Let's see if wolfman really does have nards."
According to Lillian, "You're injured? You stay in character until you're out of sight." She tells a story of an actor who found his contact lens was glued to his eyeball (hours spent in a room with a fog machine had dried out his eyes) and wound up slicing open his eye trying to get it off. "He continued scaring people while bleeding from one eye until the on-site medic let him go home for the night."
Meanwhile, she would see actors come in on their days off to help build sets, fix lights, repaint walls, move equipment, or just practice their scare moves, all off the clock. Why? Fucking this:
Seeing visitors just absolutely lose their minds, screaming at the top of their lungs, flailing away in a mad panic. At most jobs if your customers react like that, somebody's ass is getting sued. And think about it: what other form of theater gets that kind of a reaction from an audience? You might get some laughter and tears doing a local performance of Fiddler on the Roof, but we're betting you hardly ever see anybody shit their pants.
Alex is currently constructing scares with his partner at Alexandra in Zombieland and might molest you if you ask him nicely on Twitter. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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