It’s October Friday the 13th, one of the most chilling nights of the year. It’s time to get bundled up, get outside, and get scared. It’s haunted house season.
To get inside the mind of a person who terrifies people in haunted houses for a living, I went to Spooky World presents Nightmare New England and received a scare actor makeover, while discussing scaring people as a trade, industry, and a hobby.
LITCHFIELD, NH – When I arrive at Mel’s Funway Park, home of Nightmare New England, the parking lot is deserted. It’s a Wednesday, and they’re closed. The sky is gray, and there’s an autumn chill in the air as I make my way to a trailer behind the batting cages for an interview with Spooky World presents Nightmare New England’s haunted house employees.
But I’m not here just for an interview: I want the real experience. I’m here to become scary. I want to know what it’s really like to be a haunted house actor.
I enter the trailer and sit down on a high stool facing my two make-up artists: Kayla Gagnon and Shannon Burnor. They’ve been working for Spooky World for the last six years, and transitioned from acting to make-up after finding they had more talent in cosmetics. Also with us is Chase Denamur, a ghoul by trade – well, now he’s technically a director of ghouls.
The girls each pick a side of my face – Gagnon on the left and Burnor on the right – and decide they want to make me into a decaying zombie with exposed bone and muscle.
As they begin applying liberal amounts of paint to my face and eyelids, I wonder aloud (with closed eyes) about becoming a scare actor. Is there training, or do you have to “come scary?”
The whole group laughs. “It’s a little bit of both,” says Denamur. “That’s what I always tell the new kids, after they’re telling me they love horror movies and haunted houses, but they don’t really have any idea how to walk in and just start scaring somebody. We’ll have some veterans go in and make sure they have an idea of what to do, and if you’re in a house we’ll show you areas to pop out from.”
Denamur’s career in the Halloween industry began in Wisconsin, at an event called the “Terror on the Fox” in Green Bay. At 13, he worked on a train for the National Road Museum, which was where the event was located. One night, the haunted house was short on actors and Denamur was suddenly pulled off the train and thrust into the haunted house as an impromptu scare actor.
“The first night I was out there I was terrified, I had no idea what to do,” says Denamur. “From there I acted every other night and came off the train to help however I could.”
Denamur continued to work at the haunted house every year, and ended up traveling to Massachusetts to help break down Spooky World when he was 22. His old boss from Wisconsin now worked for Spooky World, and offered Denamur a job as an actor the following year if he wanted to move out to New England – and Denamur accepted.
Today, Denamur no longer dresses up as a scare actor. He’s the director of Spooky World presents Nightmare New England (and Mel’s Funway Park) which consumes all of his time – though he does remember his scaring days fondly.
“I still get asked to each year, and I still have my costume, but I can’t act and direct at the same time,” says Denamur.
So it’s not as simple as a training manual and a Michael Myers mask – it takes a lot of time.
“It’s a growing process,” says Gagnon as she dabs my cheek with a make-up pad.
Apparently, there are different levels of actors. There are those that are assigned to a certain attraction like the Haunted Hayride or The Colony, and they’re usually given a costume and assisted by makeup artists. And then there are those who are allowed to have free reign of the whole huge 80-acre property, called the “Monster Midway.”
These Midway actors have usually been scare acting for 3-4 years, can do their own makeup, provide their own costume, and have developed their own unique persona.
“That’s one of those things that takes time,” says Denamur. “You have to build your character, you have to own it. In a house, you see an actor for five seconds, they scare you, you walk away. On the Midway, I’ve had people follow me around for literally three hours. You get to the point where you need to know exactly what you’re doing and how to do it. It’s kind of crazy.”
How do you get into that mindset – of a crazed, horrific stalker who’s out to terrify tons of people?
“You’ve got to be willing to just let go. Like me, when I put my mask on, I shut my door behind me, and from that time on I’m in character,” says Denamur. “It was shoulders up, face down, and I just went right out into the crowd. Then for the entire night, that was me, I walked around with that ticked off look and feeling.”
Denamur would even pump himself up before going out: taking pre-workout drinks for energy, busting out some push-ups and pull-ups, and blasting angry music. Method acting at its scariest.
As the paint thickens on my face, I notice how close this team is. They have their own inside jokes, their own memories, their own culture. Being the largest haunted house event in New England, Spooky World presents Nightmare New England has a crew of about 200 people – and about a third of them return every year.
“We like to call it a family here in general, and I like to say we’re growing the family,” says Denamur of hiring new recruits. They stay connected during the offseason, and often have gatherings as opening day approaches.
“It’s more than just a job, it’s a family atmosphere. You don’t get sucked into something like this for this long unless you really love it,” says Denamur.
With shared experience comes unforgettable memories, and as my makeover is close to completion, the group reminisces over some of their favorite moments working at Nightmare New England.
Denamur describes a time when he was working the Midway as a “slider,” a job which involves wearing kneepads, special gloves, and steel-toed boots in order to sprint across the parking lot and literally slide on your knees up to a group of customers, before suddenly popping up in their midst.
“I scared a girl on front-Midway doing the sliding technique, and she ran and jumped over a barrier and literally hid behind a carnival game, and refused to come out until I left. She was about 17 or 18, and there’s video of it somewhere,” says Denamur.
Gagnon shares one of her most memorable scare tactics: using her height to her advantage. Gagnon, standing at about six-feet-tall, would hide under a much shorter co-worker’s costume, who was in a Victorian-style dress. After her friend would get the initial scare from customers, Gagnon would step out from under the dress and nail the crowd again on shock value.
Burnor remembers her first year working the haunt, when she managed to terrify a poor woman so badly she lost control of her bladder:
“We had an actor who made the bathroom ‘his room.’ I was coming back from my break and there were a bunch of customers, so we tag-teamed them and made one of the girls pee her pants. It was awesome! He would make these Tootsie Rolls look like poop, and he’d be eating them, it was nasty, and they were freaked out so much one girl actually did pee her pants,” says Burnor.
This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, and the group giggles and shares other stories involving terror-provoked “bathroom accidents.”
“That’s when you know you’re messed up, when your whole day has just been made by some girl peeing their pants,” says Denamur with a twisted grin.
Is that what keeps workers coming back? The make-up? The costumes? Or people peeing themselves?
“All of it,” says Burnor, chorused quickly by Gagnon and Denamur. “The experience that we get from it all,” she finishes, as my makeup is finished simultaneously.
“We did good!” yell the girls in unison. “High five!”
Pictures of the final product are taken, and I struggle to maintain a scary face between laughing and grimacing. As I look in the mirror I am audibly astounded.
“Whoa! Look at the splatter!” I say. I am an exposed-muscle zombie, and I am terrifying. “I can be two different people!” I am literally two faced:
I feel like part of the family now, in body and spirit – for a bunch of people who get off on making people wet themselves in terror, the Spooky World employees are genuinely friendly.
If Denamur, Gagnon and Burnor are part of the family, then who are the “parents?” Enter Mike Accomando, who co-owns Spookyworld presents Nightmare New England along with Wayne Caulfield.
Accomando agrees with the family-style approach to business.
“We had a few guys coming over from Wisconsin who are probably our key element,” says Accomando. “Due to their work ethic, they’re part of team, one of them is now director and the other one, Ken Fruzen, is head of maintenance, but he’s more than that.”
Accomando describes their relationship as very close: he’s been known to exchange texts with his staff as late as 2 or 3 a.m., about ideas or problems with the business.
Denamur confirms their ongoing communication: “The owners are honestly the best owners I’ve ever worked for. They’re more than just my bosses – they’re the kind of people I know that if I got into an issue, they’d drop whatever they were doing and come get me, even at 4 a.m.”
“They make sure that we’re happy and things are going really well. We see them almost every day. They’re actually fun to be around,” says Denamur.
Accomando says he and his partner’s decision to go into the Halloween business was a natural extension for them. They’d owned video rental stores before that industry went belly up, and wanted to stay in entertainment.
After purchasing Mel’s in 2006, the owners were brainstorming ways to prolong their season past the summer. Halloween seemed like the right fit, and they created Nightmare New England in 2008. The long-running Spooky World brand was up for sale soon after, and Accomando knew how important that name was for New England.
Combining the two, Spooky World presents Nightmare New England was born.
The haunt has won various accolades since then, including “Best Haunted Attraction” by the Union Leader’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
What brings all these people out to haunted attractions – why do people like being scared so much? Especially in a time when everyday news can be nerve-racking enough? Is it better to choose how to be scared?
“They like to escape,” agrees Accomando, “and they like to test themselves.”
“They might not get scared through most of the show, but finally when they let their guard down, that’s when it happens, we hit you hard,” says Accomando. He says one of his favorite moments was watching a group of large men coming off the Haunted Hayride, and hearing one of them quip, “man, that hayride was legit!”
“If we can make you come and have a night on us of just pure fright where you feel good afterwards, then maybe the sleepless nights are worth it,” says Accomando of the pressures of running a business. And Accomando and Caulfield are working hard – they plan on building three new haunts in the next few years, and purchasing another 42 acres of land to build both Spooky World and Mel’s.
Do yourself a favor and check out Spooky World presents Nightmare New England this weekend. It’s Friday the 13th, so there may not be a better time (besides Halloween, of course). The haunt includes five different attractions, food, beer, and a fire pit to warm up at. Accomando says there’s so much, it takes at least two hours to get through the whole ordeal.
However, there’s no need to rush through: your ticket is marked as you complete each haunt. If you can’t make it through all the fun in one night, you can come back with your ticket another day and complete what you haven’t already seen.
I know where I’ll be this weekend – and hopefully, my drawers will stay dry.
Spooky World present’s Nightmare New England is located at Mel’s Funway Park in Litchfield, NH. Buy tickets here or at their box office, open from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sun. – Thurs. and 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.