The making of a nightmare: Behind the scenes at Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream

Published September 20 2018

TAMPA ó Once the scare actors were made up, they headed toward the haunted house to rehearse.

But it wasnít quite time for them to be scary yet. Busch Gardens, which opens its Howl-O-Scream Halloween scarefest on Friday, was still open for regular business, and there might have been little kids around. The actors, made up to look like crazed insomniacs, shielded their faces with big, black umbrellas.

"You look like Scary Poppins," said Rebecca Romzek of the parkís public relations team.

As Busch Gardens prepared to open Howl-O-Scream for its 19th year, we got a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a new haunted house, Insomnia. Itís bananas.

The idea surfaced about 18 months ago, said Ben DeWitt, the parkís senior production manager. It takes a full year to write, design, build, outfit and rehearse a haunted house. The new one tells the story of asylum for sleep disorders, turning into several rooms that represent common nightmares.

Victor Morales, a pediatric cardiology nurse by day, began a recent rehearsal getting dark blue veins airbrushed on his face by makeup artist Morgan Malice. Yes, his real name is Malice and heís in charge of the dozen makeup artists and their helpers who have four hours to transform hundreds of scare actors. Moralesí victim, played by University of South Florida student Sergio Myers, 23, was made up to look like an insomniac with dark eyes, bulging veins and blue lips and teeth.

"The goal is to make it look like he hasnít slept for awhile," said Malice. "That bloodshot mania will play well in the lighting."

DeWitt leads a team of 900 actors, producers, technicians, chefs and mixologists who put on what has become one of Busch Gardensí most popular events. An estimated 100,000 guests will pay $40 or more to get frightened on select nights until Oct. 28 in crowds that rival spring break in size.

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The park has six haunted houses and six open-air intense scare zones. Hundreds of scare actors will jump out of bushes, roam in packs, sidle up next to you on a coaster and even hop on the tram ride from the parking lot this year.

Without movies to draw on like Universal or Disney, Busch Gardens has to turn to classic scares.

"There is something inherently creepy about medical institutes," DeWitt said of Insomniaís inspiration. Sleep-deprived patients inside the haunted house will endure nightmares including water phobia, spiders, fear of falling, a devastating car accident and more.

Producers have added smells to the maze, so you smell coffee in the hospital waiting room, that distinct "hospital" smell in a patientís room, a mix of barnyard and blood while counting sheep and the acrid odor of gasoline and metal next to a smashed car.

An infomercial-style video explains the storyline in the first room, made to look like a normal medical office, "because we really want to turn that upside down later," DeWitt said. The next room takes advantage of a long hallway to place scare actors in tight spots.

Next comes a series of rooms that bring nightmares to life.

Digital projections cast dozens of spiders up the walls. Myers, who has a genuine fear of spiders, didnít have much acting to do. There are scenes involving a monster under the bed and fear of falling, with furniture on the ceiling so it feels like youíre walking up a wall and falling through the bed.

"We wanted to do something new," said DeWitt, 32, who worked as a stilt walker in the park when he was a USF student before joining the production team in 2013. Heís now in charge of all the festivals at the park, from Christmas Town to Food and Wine and Howl-O-Scream.

"Itís like putting on a play," DeWitt said. "We tried to come up with nightmares that are incongruous in some ways that you can put an artistic twist on, but also some very clear fears that people suffer. We tried to make it realistic and bring back some nightmares you may have had."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.