DADE CITY — Richard Reedy scanned the clearing, his eyes shadowed by crescents of candy red makeup.
Concession stands and game booths lined the grassy midway before him. Around a picnic table at its center were the 23-year-old's next victims.
The spooked-out guests at the Scream-A-Geddon horror park got a good look at the scarer now standing on their table. Reedy, with his hair slicked into a half-green mess and his face painted white, flashed a ghastly red smile.
"Just like that," he said afterward to another clown nearby, a trainee at the park. "You'll get the hang of it."
Take your average haunted house and soup it up with more than $100,000 worth of design and effects. Then fill it with actors trained to terrify — and even grab and shove guests. Scream-A-Geddon boasts six haunted houses like that and says it attracts tens of thousands people each season.
For each of the past three seasons, Reedy has headed to this 60-acre field 10 miles east of Dade City, one of more than 200 performers at the park. Actors keep coming back for the same reason, he said on a recent Friday night.
"The reactions in people's faces," he said. "It's the 'I-just-crapped-my-pants' look."
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About an hour earlier, Reedy sat still while a makeup artist dabbed his face. The park hadn’t opened yet. Far from the concession area, he and dozens more prepped for the night.
Allie Losee also would be a clown that night, and she had a confession: Scaring people wasn’t easy for her at first.
“I was really awkward,” said the 19-year-old, a student at St. Leo University. “I didn’t know what to do.”
But she'd learned some tricks after more than a month on the job. Losee is a clown in the new “Rage 3D” house. It’s a maze of neon walls bathed in black lights and high-octane music, a nightmare fun house. Visitors wear glasses that blur colors and make paint pop.
When guests walk by her post, Losee shrieks and cackles. She wields a horn gun that blurts out an old-timey siren and beams a flashlight on visitors.
“So I get to see people’s reactions to it, too,” she said.
How do they usually respond?
“They either fall into the wall, or they duck down, or their face is just complete horror,” she said. “Or they’ll just start running.”
The scares aren’t always loud. Sometimes, all it takes is a shoulder tap to get guests going. Or a psychological tactic, like ignoring the point person in a group and lunging at those in the middle, who probably thought they’d be safe.
The actors aren’t enticed only by the frights. For some, their coworkers offer family and freedom.
“They’re fun,” said Britney Manley, 24, another “Rage” actor. “They don’t judge you, because they’re just as crazy as you are.”
Inside the house, her character starts in a cage, rattling the fencing when visitors enter. When people move toward the exit, she smacks the wall before they pass.
It’s partly for intimidation, but it’s also a cue to the performers next door.
Working in the park is a release, too.
“Some people need therapists. Some people to to fighting matches," Manley said. She scares people. “It’s my stress relief.”
She has a customer-service job in Weeki Wachee. Sometimes she wears her pink clown tutu to the office. Not her blue-and-red contact lenses, though.
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Between 120 and 140 actors work in the park each night. They’re readied by fewer than 10 makeup artists and motivated by six managers, one for each haunted house. All that comes after auditions, classes and lots of practice.
“Everything is big, big, big,” said David Derby, 46, another actor. “We took your local haunted house and put it on steroids.”
Derby lives in Sumter County and plays an inmate in “Blackpool Prison,” a returning attraction at the park. It’s a dank, dim facility whose occupants have taken over.
“Blackpool” and “Rage” are interactive: Actors can roughhouse visitors who choose to put on a neon necklace. They can snatch those guests from their groups and herd them into isolated rooms.
Performers get dedicated training for those moments. They learn how to touch guests with enough force to scare them, but enough restraint to keep them safe.
“You want to scare somebody, but you don’t want to offend them,” said Derby, whose character goes from creepy to violent when visitors won’t help the decapitated corpse — apparently his mother — propped on the toilet in his cell.
He appreciates that the job lets him be a part of people’s Halloween. But for him, like the others, watching guests' reactions is the best part.
“You can see their breathing,” Derby said. “They know you’re not going to hurt them, but what’s going to happen?”
In the midway an hour later, here’s what happened:
Reedy and the trainee stood for a second before he spotted fresh meat.
“Them little kids over there,” he said. “Go get ‘em.”
The pair circled some school-age girls like vultures. The girls squealed.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” Reedy bellowed. The trainee, a young woman, took a quieter approach, stalking her prey.
And almost as soon as the scare started, it ended. The girls moved along, chattering into the night.
Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.