1. Arts & Entertainment

Howl-O-Scream at 20: How Busch Gardens won fans with fear

What was once a slow time of year at the Tampa theme park is making a killing with a cast of more than 800 creeps and ghouls bringing nightmares to life.
A prop is pictured inside of the Howl-O-Scream costume shop at Busch Gardens on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times]
A prop is pictured inside of the Howl-O-Scream costume shop at Busch Gardens on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]

TAMPA — On the first day of “creep school” in September, a steady stream of actors filed into the cavernous rehearsal hall in the back lot of Busch Gardens. Vanity mirrors sat atop tables with pictures of vampires or zombies neatly taped to the side, a baggie of makeup and sponges by each station. Makeup artists coached the new recruits on the best ways to get that hollowed-eye look.

Makeup artists coach this year's ghouls of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens during a September dress rehearsal. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]

Morgan Malice commandeered the back of the room. The perfectly named special effects manager has spent 10 years creating terrifying masks and easy-to-apply stitches, puss, warts and wounds using latex and gel. He goes through about 200 scars a night, he said.

“Mouthpieces are the hardest to work with, or if they have beards I don’t have much surface left of the face to play with,” Malice said. “But they are good sports. I have a girl who shaves her eyebrows for this every year.”

Howl-O-Scream is now open at Busch Gardens. [Busch Gardens]

This year, Howl-O-Scream celebrates its 20th birthday. More than 800 people have been hired on the entertainment side alone, working as scare actors and special effects wizards.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, September and October were slow months at theme parks.

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Busch Gardens needed a fall event to help fill the “shoulder season” between summer and Christmas vacation. Scott Swenson, who helped create Howl-O-Scream, said the team at first thought it should avoid haunted houses. Universal Studios, then approaching its 10th year of the mega-popular Halloween Horror Nights, seemed to have cornered the horror market.

“We looked into everything else and then realized we can’t do anything else but a haunted attraction,” said Swenson, who ran Howl-O-Scream for 15 years before he left Busch Gardens in 2015. Now 56, he runs his own creative consulting company, and his clients include UnDead in the Water, the SS American Victory ship’s haunted attraction at Port Tampa Bay.

“Good haunted attractions benefit all other attractions in that market,” Swenson said, because horror fans want a variety of choices.

Theme parks don’t release attendance figures, but industry analysts have estimated that more than 300,000 people will visit Howl-O-Scream, a crowd that rivals spring break at the park.

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Insiders called Howl-O-Scream “our 13th month,” Swenson said, because in 12 to 18 nights it could generate as much revenue as an entire month of full operation. This year there are 22 nights, six haunted houses and a record nine scare zones spread across the park, as well as “coaster creeps” next to guests on rides.

When it debuted in 2000, Howl-O-Scream had only three haunted houses, one a mild kiddie zone. A band of 70 costumed actors called the Creature Crew roamed the park. There were appearances by Butch Patrick, who played the original Eddie Munster, and the mentalist known as the Amazing Kreskin. Tickets were $25, $10 for pass holders.

The spookiest scene was a bride in a coffin crawling with live rats.

Birgit Blommel portrayed the Rat Bride at the first Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream. [Tampa Bay Times (2000)]

“The rat lady was one of our zookeepers and she quite enjoyed the rats and was willing to lay in a coffin with them,” Swenson said. “We learned rat urine is black light reactive and we’ll leave it at that. We had to change the lighting.”

Market research told them to drop the kiddie stuff and increase the scares. Two years later, Howl-O-Scream was mobbed on opening weekend. Staff didn’t think they needed the park’s auxiliary parking lots at night in 2002, a mistake that created a traffic jam of vehicles stretched along Busch Boulevard.

“We frankly did not anticipate the vast amount of walk-up and drive-up traffic,” a park spokesman said at the time.

James Holzwarth, 54, has worked every Howl-O-Scream for the last 20 years. He’s a data entry clerk by day, but at night, he’s one of the demented inmates of an asylum in the Insomnia haunted house, or he’ll work one of the scare zones.

Long time scare actor James Holzwarth practices his makeup techniques during a dress rehearsal for Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]
James Holzwarth, 54, has worked every Howl-O-Scream as a scare actor since Busch Gardens first started the Halloween event 20 years ago. Here he plays one of the demented inmates of an asylum turned sleep institute at a haunted house called Insomnia. [Busch Gardens]

“I like scaring the bratty teenagers best,” Holzwarth said. “You can’t just have the old ‘distraction and scare.’ It doesn’t work every single time. They are expecting it. I had a kid looking at a window and pointing and saying, ‘Someone’s coming out of there!’ and I walked up behind him and I said, ‘Where?’ And they jumped a foot.”

In 2017, Busch Gardens assembled its veteran scare actors into one scare zone called the Silver Devils. They were murderous senior citizens who escaped from a penitentiary. They still call themselves the Silver Devils and made T-shirts of their crew, even though they are now scattered around the park.

“There are friends you don’t get to see a lot and it’s like a reunion,” said Nicolas Ebinger, who is working his ninth Howl-O-Scream. There’s a reunion with guests too, he said. “I actually have people who come every year just to look for me.”

In 2017, a group of older scare actors at Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens were put together in a scare zone called the Silver Devils. They made T-shirts, seen here in 2019. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]

Marilyn Turner of Hudson worked the first Howl-O-Scream in a “camo crew," hiding in the bushes to jump out at people walking by. She was also a murderous grandma in the Silver Devils. “My family thinks I’m nuts," she said.

Marilyn Turner of Hudson worked the very first Howl-O-Scream in 2000, hiding in the bushes to jump out and scare people walking by. “My family thinks I’m nuts," she said. [Busch Gardens]

It’s a family affair for Marilyn Troncoso, who has worked 18 years at the event. She talked her 21-year-old granddaughter Kaitlyn Bailey into joining her.

“It gets in your blood the first time you get a scare,” Troncoso said. “Sometimes they drop to the ground or start running and you can’t believe you did that.”

Marilyn Troncoso, right, has worked as a scare actor for 18 years at Howl-O-Scream. She so enjoyed it that she talked her granddaughter, Kaitlyn Bailey, 21, into joining the cast. [Busch Gardens]

Actors talk of getting beer spilled on them when a guest jumps or getting a high-five when someone wets their pants. One got poked in the eye because the guest thought he was a fake statue.

“The Bucs cheerleaders were there once and I held them up for 45 minutes because I was between them and the door and they refused to pass me," recalled Whirley Metheney, a retired deputy who has worked the event for 18 years. He shaves his head for Howl-O-Scream to look extra creepy. He covers himself in blood, makes a disturbing gurgling sound and goes by the nickname Capt. Bloodbath.

“I helped somebody start walking again,” said Victor Morales, who works as a pediatric cardiology nurse by day. “He was in a wheelchair by himself and couldn’t make the curve fast enough and I popped out of a window at him. He flipped the wheelchair and ran off, left the chair behind. People came over to ask me what happened and I said, ‘It’s a miracle!'"

The success of Howl-O-Scream marked a turning point for Busch Gardens.

Howl-O-Scream's former creative director Scott Swenson, shown here in 2013 lurking amid some creepy props, says adrenaline junkies have found a safe place to be scared. [Tampa Bay Times (2013)]

“In the early days nobody thought of Busch Gardens as a place for older teens or a late-night date night,” Swenson said. That led to concerts and fireworks during Summer Nights, showing the park could expand its appeal, reaching a new class of adrenaline junkies.

“They come to a location they know is safe and they are allowed to suspend disbelief and be scared and get that adrenaline rush. Like whitewater rafting. Only it’s much safer than whitewater rafting.”

If you go

Howl-O-Scream runs on select nights through Nov. 2. Tickets are separate from regular admission. $39.99 and up. Get unlimited admission for $79.99. A Front Line Fear Pass starts at $35, and a Fright Feast of $29.99 includes a dinner buffet, early access and front-of-the-line access to all haunted houses until 8:30 p.m.

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