Christine Lajewski, writer and haunt actor, presents 'A Haunt Actor's Life: I Am the Trigger', a discussion on the value of fear. Read her description of a haunt actor's motivation to scare people, their limitations, the unexpected effect the 9/11 attacks had on custom, and a moving account of one little girl's overcoming of her fear.
A Haunt Actor’s Life: I Am the Trigger
I wait in the shadows for my next victim. My garments are caked with grave dirt and my hair is matted with dead leaves and twigs. I flaunt the grays, greens and purples of putrefying flesh. A man and a woman in pristine business attire pass my corner and I lunge, threatening in a gravelly voice: “Bite, bite, bite.”
The woman drops her handbag and shrieks. She grabs me by my shirt and slams me into the plywood wall. She shakes me back and forth, her wails rising and falling like a ululating siren. Her defensive moves are feeble. I could easily slap her hands away, but I am shaking with laughter. Her companion is laughing, too. He’s doubled over, in fact, breathless with hysteria.
Abruptly, she stops, looks into my eyes, then at her own hands gripping my blouse. She flushes crimson, releases me and says, “Wow. You really got me.”
In 19 years of haunt acting, this scare, at the crypt in Spooky World at the Bayside Expo Center in Boston, is one of my top five favorites. I am now on Medicare and I’m still at it. I plan to keep on haunting until my knees give out. If I’m lucky, 20 years from now, I will drop dead mid-scare and get written into the legend and lore of haunt acting. Maybe I’ll have a second career as a prop.
I am a retired alternative high school teacher and a teacher/naturalist at Massachusetts Audubon. In other words, relatively normal. I am also a horror writer (Erring On The Side of Calamity, Riverhaven Books, and Bonebelly, Divertir Publishing). My haunt friends are actors, first responders, IT specialists, nurses, workers in retail and the trades. So why do we love to scare?
The short answer is: it’s wicked fun. I know of no other employment where one is paid minimum wage to make people scream – and where the paying customers will complain if they aren’t treated badly enough.
If you believe, as I do, there is something wrong with teaching young adults they should never experience a tremor of discomfort, then haunt acting is for you. Scare actors must avoid politics, religion, terrifying little children (who have no business in a haunted house), and abusive behavior of any kind. Each attraction suggests age limits and warns patrons what to expect. But once they’ve crossed the threshold, there are no trigger warnings. I would be lying if I said I didn’t find this deeply satisfying.
Experienced haunters understand that horror is good medicine. I am not the first to make this observation. An excellent article by Greg Ruth, Why Horror Is Good for You (And Even Better for Your Kids) can be found at Tor.com. It makes the point that childhood is already scary. If you remember getting lost as a small child in some big, unfamiliar place, you know this is true. Children – and adults – are empowered when they learn how to handle safe scares.
I worked at Spooky World at Patriot Place, Foxboro, in 2001. The management held a meeting with the actors after 9/11 to discuss the possibility that we might have a shortened season. People were so traumatized by this real-life horror, it was assumed they might avoid any Halloween entertainments. Instead, Spooky World set attendance records that year, without dialing down any of the scares. We all continue to be bombarded with images of real world frights, both natural and man-made. It is wonderfully cathartic to wander (or run) through realistically rendered terrors, then grab a beer and a pizza after you’ve survived it. I’m thrilled if I can play any part in helping our patrons work through their angst.
Of course, the horror must be age-appropriate. No child under the age of 10 should be taken to any haunted attractions beyond Audubon’s Halloween Prowl. I don’t care how much fun your seven-year-old had at your neighbor’s garage haunt or how often she repeats back to you, “I know it’s fake.” In her mind, it’s all real. Once inside the dark woods or claustrophobic hallways of a professional haunt, she will sob with genuine terror by the second scene and she will be traumatized. If an actor breaks character and offers a quick exit, you need to take it.
This brings me to my all-time favorite scare, three years ago at Trails to Terror in Wakefield, Rhode Island. I was a woodland witch near the start of the walkthrough trail and I frightened a ten-year-old girl. My scene wasn’t all that intense but she burst into tears and refused to take another step. I walked her group backwards to the entrance, telling her about the actors and who we were in our “normal” lives.
The next weekend, someone came up behind me in my hiding place and tapped me on the shoulder. (I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I almost jumped out of my skin.) A little face smiled at me and asked, “Remember me?”
The girl had returned with her mother and remembered where I would be lurking. She said, “I decided to come back and face my fears.” I broke character, told her I was proud of her, and gave her a hug. She grinned and went on her way down the shadowy trail.
I don’t doubt for a second that my little friend made it all the way through that night. And I hope, when she turns 18, she returns to join the haunt actor community.