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From Howl-O-Scream to Lowry Park Zoo, scare actors share their secrets

They get punched in the face and covered in fake blood, and their bosses love it when they make someone wet their pants.

It's the height of the season right now for "scare actors," the creeps, ghouls and zombies working by the hundreds at theme parks, haunted houses and even the zoo this Halloween.

Many of these monsters are aspiring actors and comedians, but many also have pretty dull day jobs. They generally make minimum wage for the short-term gigs, but it's more about experience than money.

When he is hiring scare actors for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, show producer Charles Gray looks for general demeanor and attitude. He has even hired some of the construction workers who built the haunted houses to work in them as ghouls and zombies.

Their primary objective is to stay in character, he said, and that can be difficult.

"If you scare some huge linebacker and he ends up screaming like a little girl, it's hard not to laugh," Gray said.

He should know. Gray was a scare actor himself. He was in the park's Bill and Ted show for two years in the early '90s and played "a construction worker trapped in a vat of acid."

Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal once came through his haunt, he said.

"I was in an elevated spot in the house and I saw the top of someone's head and I was thinking, 'I can't believe this person is trying to climb over the wall.' Then I realize that the reason I could see his head over the others is because it's Shaq and he's 7 feet tall."

Gray reined in his celebrity worship and stayed in character. "Hey, you got me man," he said O'Neal told him after.

Geof Kledizk, 49, the attraction manager at Dade City's Scream-A-Geddon, said his crew is keeping a running count of how many visitors have wet their pants in fright. He would only reveal that it had reached double digits by mid-October.

"Let's face it," Kledizk said. "People are paying to be scared. They know they are in a safe place. So if someone wets their pants and falls to the ground and has to be carried off, the actors are doing a great job."

HOWL-O-SCREAM

Now in its 16th year, the Halloween event at Busch Gardens is known for macabre haunted houses and open-air scare zones where you may encounter a creepy zombie bride or a clown with an ax. There's also a live show, seven haunted houses and a bumper car ride invaded by zombies. Howl-O-Scream ends Oct. 30. $65.99 and up. buschgardenstampa.com.

A.Z. Edwards, 40

The Ruskin financial planner for Zenith Education (operator of Everest University campuses) has played a crash test zombie for three years, riding in the park's bumper cars with park visitors, taking swipes at them as they drive or spooking them when they get on and off the cars.

Performing BACKGROUND: “I don't have a history of being an actor, but always wanted to be. There's nothing like getting off work and scaring the mess out of people."

Finding a target: “Either I can sneak up on you or I have an awesome stare technique. I can smell the fear in people sometimes. I see you from afar cringing, and some people I get just by walking toward them. They jump 2 feet in the air when a 200-pound zombie is charging at them."

Funniest reaction: "I've had a lot of those moments, like there was this young lady getting off the bumper cars and I take two quick steps toward her and she cleared the gate. And she almost stumbled, but she got away."

Lindsay Weppelman, 19 ON THE COVER

The University of South Florida biomedical science student plays a zombie bride in one of the park's open-air scare zones.

Performing background: "I haven't really performed before, other than orchestra and marching band. I just auditioned on a whim as an elf for Christmas Town and loved it, so I tried out for Howl-O-Scream. I'm in a scare zone in the Moroccan Palace. People like to pose with the zombie bride. I call them 'zelfies.' "

Finding a target: “The weakest link is usually in the middle of a group, kind of cowering. The element of surprise is best. They don't know you are there until you are on top of them. And then you charge. It's pretty fun. I'm pretty small, 5 feet 4, so I attribute it to the makeup."

Staying in character: "I had to run to the corner to laugh when this woman didn't see me there and she shouted, 'Oh Lord!' and threw herself across the walkway."

When it goes too far: “A few people have started crying and I try to turn my face away. But it's only the adults. The kids are fearless. The kids want to hold my hand or take pictures. I try not to startle them. I get no pleasure in scaring children."

SCREAM-A-GEDDON

Deep in rural Pasco County, the Dade City "scream park" set in the woods has a Monster Midway and a series of six haunted houses, including an interactive house where wearing a glow necklace means you've given the actors permission to physically grab you. Runs through Nov. 5. $19.95-$29.95. screamageddon.com.

Tracy Hattan, 32

He plays a "backwoods cannibal hillbilly."

Performing background: "I'm a bartender by trade. I did a little acting in high school and I've always been a horror fan. This is an acting job."

Acting skills needed: "In every house you have a specific character and there are suggested lines. Like, we had a dentist once and one of his lines was, 'It's time to add a new hole to your head.' I would recommend this to anyone wanting to step in the acting field to get an idea of what it's like because this is a boot camp of sorts for that. It entails showing up, putting on makeup, putting on the costume and going to the house and doing your show all night."

Staying in character: “One of the hardest parts of the job is not to laugh. The No. 1 rule is make sure you stay in character no matter what the situation."

Best reaction: “I think the funniest one was when I had a group of six walk by and they were all buff and burly and the leader of the group, he screamed like a little girl."

Why be a scare actor: "I'm a horror fanatic. I've always liked haunts and I've been to haunted houses all over the nation. This is the first time I got to work in one instead of being a customer."

Protecting yourself: "I had one guy take a swing at me, but I saw it coming. I've never been grabbed but I was pushed once. I was standing in the pathway and one of the chain saws in our attraction started up, and this girl took off screaming and sprinting and I happened to be standing in her path and we both ended up on the ground. I said, 'Well that was interesting,' and then she screamed and took off."

CREATURES OF THE NIGHT

This year, Lowry Park Zoo introduced a new event balancing family-friendly fun with just a wisp of danger to make it thrilling for the kids. Creatures of the Night, which wrapped up Oct. 29, gave scare actors a chance to take a softer approach.

Ashley Hauss, 20

The University of South Florida student and Tampa resident played a mummy in the zoo's Scarab Point dance party.

Performing background: "I have performed in two feature films. I can see myself taking part in more interactive performances. This is just a blast. After my first performance I knew this was the right role for me."

If it gets too scary for little kids: “I break out with a smile or I'll put my hands together — 'Namaste' — and bow."

Staying in character: "I have no trouble staying in character, it just takes practice. Yes, kids do get scared sometimes at my appearance, but I smile and dance with them. It helps. "

Hardest part of the job: "Making the occasional person cry, but it makes up for it when they laugh."

The most fun: “Working the 'drop doors' (a sliding door opens to reveal the mummy's face behind it). It gets the best reactions from people."

Keeping the makeup on in the heat: “I only very rarely have a problem when it's really hot. We use a professional high-grade makeup, so that can help to maintain throughout the whole performance with little maintenance. My pet peeve is losing my wig."

UNIVERSAL'S HALLOWEEN HORROR NIGHTS

The biggest scare fest of them all is Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, which has grown from a small off-season attraction 25 years ago to a blockbuster event that draws some 850,000 people to the Orlando theme park through Nov. 5. Close to 1,000 scare actors work in the nine haunted houses and lurk in unexpected corners or roam in the park's "scare zones." $55.99 and up with multiple add-ons available. halloweenhorrornights.com.

Cassie Hemmann, 34

The Orlando office worker acts in a scare zone called Banshee's Lair, a forest where evil spirits and horrific creatures of the ancient world roam.

Performing background: “My very first year at Halloween Horror Nights was in 2005, and that was the first acting I have ever done. When I'm not a banshee, I'm actually a training manager for a large company. So it's nice to have the difference from being in an office all day and then coming here and being outside."

Interacting with guests: "You really want to judge the situation and make sure you're being safe the whole time and that you are engaging. We have these wonderful performance captains that come and help us so we learn what our character is and how we are supposed to scare. But it's really reading the situation and making it fun for the guest."

Best reaction: “I think my favorite is the kids that come to the event that you would think would be terrified, but they know that this is just make-believe and supposed to be fun. And they just come through with a giant grin and smiling. They see you and you go to scare another person and look back at the kid and they are just laughing and having a great time."

Finding love: “This is my 12th year working Halloween Horror Nights and it's the cast and crew that really make it fun every single year. My very first year I actually met my husband. I was a dancer on a platform and he was a terrifying chain saw character. It was love at first scare and now we've been married for almost six years."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

SCARE ACTORS' TRICKS AND TREATS

• The longer you wait at the end of a hallway debating where to go next, the more time the actors have to think of a way to scare you.

• Don't hesitate to verbalize what just happened. Say, "Holy cow that was awesome" or "I hated that guy." The actors love it.

• Hiding in the middle of your pack of friends isn't fooling anybody. That's the scaredy cat they often target.

• Enough with the selfies. This is a live performance. Would you ask an actor in a play to stop and pose for you? In the open scare zones, selfies are encouraged. But they are banned in haunted houses.

• Do not run. You could damage something in the haunt or hurt someone.

• When you leave the house, don't warn people in line about what's ahead. It's like revealing the end of a movie.

From Howl-O-Scream to Lowry Park Zoo, scare actors share their secrets 10/27/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2016 12:31pm]
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