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Interview with a zombie at Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream

Grandmother and bookkeeper by day, Deb Johnston turns into a zombie at night.

She's among 900 performers hired for seasonal jobs staging Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa. For five weekends through Oct. 29, the no-kids-under-13 gorefest draws 25,000 paying customers on peak nights to scare zones, shows and seven haunted house attractions.

Over 11 seasons Johnston has played a ghost, voodoo queen, nursing aide to an out-of-control surgeon and the caged mother of a serial killer. This year she's paid $10.50 an hour as a grotesque scare-actor called "Front Door Francis" in Zombie Mortuary, the park's haunted house homage to Night of the Living Dead.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Johnston, 53, talked about the jobs, tools of the zombie trade and why she keeps doing it.

What's the appeal of a job scaring people?

I'm the epitome of an easy scare. My boys have been sneaking up and scaring me at home for years, so this is payback. It is an adrenaline rush to bring some big, bad macho dude right down to the floor. Teen girls are the easiest scares, but some of them cop an attitude when you get them. I mean, if you don't want to be scared, what are you doing here?

How does a team work?

We essentially scare two ways. The startle, a sudden movement or loud noise when somebody doesn't expect it. Or an atmospheric scare where you're hidden in a spooky setting or sitting very still like a mannequin, then spring to life. Some people put their hand right in front of my eyes and say, "No, she's not real." Then I nail them.

You learn to read people. Sometimes I just move a leg, and people think I'm coming after them. Or I sneak up behind and breathe on the back of their ear. In our room we have four characters and "Fluffy," a huge animatronic Great Dane that lunges, growling and barking, out of the darkness. Once Fluffy gets them, they back into another scare-actor who scares them back to me. We go for the ultimate pingpong scare. That's when we get them six or seven times in a row before they can escape to the next room.

Any tips?

If you show any sign of fear or hide behind friends, scare-actors really go after you. We try to push people already feeling uncomfortable just beyond their comfort zone. On break, I've heard scare-actors brag when someone wets their pants. Sometimes people just drop into the fetal position. One couple walked in, looked around and walked right out. Last week a guy was scared out of his hair. We found his wig.

What about the hours?

We work 30-minute shifts and a single one-hour turn from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. We target every third person, but when we have a continuous conga line passing through, we move around and pick our shots.

How did you get into this?

A classified ad in the paper. I've always had an interest in performing, costuming and makeup. At Halloween I made costumes for the kids. I have a collection of 2,000 movies. I was singing in a family quartet at age 5 and in musicals through college. I appeared at Carnegie Hall and toured Europe for a month with America's Youth in Concert. At church I've produced children's programs and sang in the choir. With a range in four octaves, I sang Doris Day's My Secret Love at my Busch Gardens audition.

You grew up in a religious family. What do they think?

Most of them love it. But before my mother died, she would say, "You're not doing that Halloween thing again, are you?" She thought it was demonic evil. I just told her, "The brightest light shines in the darkness." Besides, the people here are phenomenal and fun-loving. Only occasionally someone who had too much to drink acts up, but they are ejected quickly.

Does the extra money help?

I've always juggled three jobs. Balancing the books at an insurance agency and at my church. Doing people's taxes. But this year it's really needed because my husband, Martin, has been out of full-time work two years, and my boys are grown up but still living at home. One finished training and is looking for an X-ray tech job. The other works backstage here. Martin has been a Busch scare-actor for six years (currently a creepy-looking grease monkey who keeps the ambulances rolling that deliver corpses for the 58 resident zombies' meals). He's always been a backstage type, but this really brought him out of his shell.

Is there much character development?

Some. In training we learn zombies only moan the last thing they said before becoming the living dead. I say "Get out. You're driving me nuts." But it always comes out: "gahtowurrfturdrrrrvnggggmntsss."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Interview with a zombie at Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream 10/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 9:53pm]
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