1. Life & Culture

Here's what it's like inside a writhing, growling Howl-O-Scream audition

TAMPA — At Busch Gardens, a Howl-O-Scream manager is hunting zombies.

"We got two Sliders and a Misfit," a producer said after a particularly good group of actors finished auditioning recently. Excellent. Only the top physical specimens qualify for those roles.

Show manager John Prast has to hire 700 actors by the start of September for the annual event at the theme park. He's a little more than halfway there, and so far about 95 percent of the people willing to show up and make fools of themselves have gotten the nod.

An estimated 300,000 people will shell out $30-$100 each to get the wits scared out of them in haunted houses and scare zones around Busch Gardens this fall. The blood bank is an increasingly lucrative draw during an otherwise slow time of year.

A diverse batch of prospects filed into a Busch Gardens rehearsal hall in August, ready to audition to portray the ghouls and creeps that populate the event.

There was a guy in a big cowboy hat and a middle-aged woman who had dyed the ends of her hair algae green. She sat next to a beefy, bandana-wearing man who would look at home at a biker convention.

There was a young, deaf woman who brought an interpreter. The interpreter gave her the sign to act like a deranged clown. Next to that woman was a silver-haired showman who just turned 78 and likes to perform magic tricks.

And pretty much all of them got offers.

"Fools that they are, they offered me the job," said Bill Folwell, a Belleair retiree from the Pinellas County school system's technology department.

He was a musician and actor in Hollywood in the 1960s and '70s. He performed with the Insect Trust, a progressive jazz band, and the new wave rock band Oingo Boingo. His wife saw a story in the newspaper about the Howl-O-Scream auditions and he thought he'd give it a try. He had no idea how physically exhausting the tryout would be.

Pay starts at $9.75 an hour to work from 5 p.m. to the wee hours of the morning each night of Howl-O-Scream, from Sept. 22 to Oct. 29.

The prized Sliders and Misfits have the toughest jobs, but the most flair.

Sliders are dressed like a Mad Max character with metal studs on their shin guards. They hide in the shadows, and those shin guards send out sparks as they slide toward the crowds. It's a dramatic entrance and they need to be in good physical shape. Misfits are a random cast of characters — a clown, a zombie or maybe a werewolf populating the park's scare zones. They are cross-trained as stilt walkers and even Sliders so they can go around the park as needed.

"It's a really infectious group. I almost hate to break them up some nights," said Morgan Malice, director of atmospherics. "They are like a big, fun family."

But Prast can also use a 78-year-old in a less-taxing area to give a fright in full makeup. And stage-trained prospects like Peter Lynch, 23, a recent graduate of Florida State University's theater program, are likely to become more physically demanding ghoulies who leap out of bushes.

At the start, Jay Krause, the director of the auditions, welcomed 10 prospects at a time.

"We are going to see how you guys develop a character," he told them.

Krause himself flunked it. He tried out for Howl-O-Scream about a dozen years ago and thinks his big mistake was showing up in a business suit from his bank job. He didn't look very convincing. But his interest was more in stage management, anyway, so he talked his way into the production staff. For the past 10 years, he has worked for Busch Gardens on theatrical shows, as well as Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream.

The first stop in the audition is called the Gauntlet. It's a partially assembled haunted house with 10 places for recruits to hide and try to scare Krause. There's a heavy drop door, a slide door, a window with a crosshatched lattice made of stretchy elastic. The ghouls have to time it to jump out just as Krause is walking by.

Some missed their chance. Patrick Montello made up for it by not stopping. He kept screaming and clawing at the air from his porthole, even though Krause had long passed and was ready to turn around again.

"He would not stop screaming," Prast said approvingly. "That was probably my favorite. We look for them to be loud, obnoxious, scary and have fun with it."

Then came a much tougher gauntlet.

Krause told the actors to think of the large room in front of them as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He called out what he wanted to see from them. They crossed the room as a hungry zombie or a crazed killer. When he clapped twice, they dropped to the ground as if they were dead and awaited their new character. He clapped again and they came back to life.

"The first character of the afternoon is a hungry — hungry — werewolf," Krause commanded. With lots of snarling and sniffing and growling, some crossed the floor on all fours, leaping at times.

Clap-clap. They dropped.

For the next eight minutes, Krause repeated the pattern. "A deranged clown," followed by 30 seconds of hysterical laughing and murderous looks before they dropped again. The commands ranged from typical horror scenes to the absurd.

A mime trying to warn others there's a killer in the room … a drill sergeant … a zombie from The Walking Dead … an octopus on Red Bull … an octopus on 10 Red Bulls … a shark … an angry elderly person.

"That's me, pal," chirped the white-haired Folwell, bringing roars of laughter. By the sixth or seventh drop to the floor, Folwell was finding it hard to get up off the ground.

In about 15 minutes, the auditions were over and the ghouls, ghosts, zombies and monsters with new jobs went to Human Resources.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.