A behind-the-scenes look into life inside haunted houses
Rachel D’Sa // Arts & Culture Editor
Like clockwork, every autumn is accompanied by an onslaught of filtered pumpkin patch Instagrams, annoying slippery patches of fallen leaves, sketchy firecracker pop-up shops and Halloween.
While there are many ways to enjoy the questionable holiday, one of the most common ways to celebrate is by attending a haunted house. Whether you’re forced into one by thrill seeking friends or family members, or you decide that marching your way through one is the only way to impress your date, these attractions are inevitably experienced by almost every carnival goer at one time or another. While the act of trying not to scream can be quite strenuous, it doesn’t even come close to the dedication that comes with crafting each scare.
Haunted house actress, Ashley Johnson, found herself working the atypical job after stumbling across a Craigslist ad advertising a casting call for actors while looking for seasonal work. She had missed acting since graduating from her high school theatre company.
“It was incredibly intimidating at first, because I’d been to the haunted house in previous years as a customer and knew the actors there were very good at what they did,” she said, “Apparently they thought the same about me, because they asked me back the next two years.”
Having worked as a haunted house actress for three years, playing characters ranging from a pirate, to a victim of Jack the Ripper, Johnson is well aware of the hard work that goes into creating the temporary attractions.
“The thing that shocked me the most would probably be how much time and effort it took to set up the houses and whatnot from start to finish, compared to how quickly the scare season came and went,” said Johnson. She wasn’t provided with any training in the haunted houses that she worked in, which left her learning the ropes herself.
“Because everyone scares differently, I came up with a base personality for my character of the night and played around with it my entire shift rather than having a set character or role for the entirety of the scare season,” she explained. What scares one person may not scare another, and she found this to be the biggest challenge, having to adapt her characters to feed off each customer’s energy.
Unlike with most acting roles, Johnson was assigned her characters upon showing up for her shifts each night, as actors had to be switched due to scheduling conflicts and no-show workers. Last-minute character preparation wasn’t the only thing she had to deal with on the fly. Along with focusing on her many characters’ roles, she also had to prepare for the reactions that come with the job.
The normal human instinct to a threat is to protect which can come in a defensive or offensive manner. Most of those who have set foot in a haunted house know the protocol. Before entering there is always a rundown of a set of rules that each attendee needs to agree to before they venture in. This rundown typically consists of rules such as: no touching the props and actors, no pushing, keep moving forward, no running, etc.
“When you scare someone, you have to be prepared for flailing limbs and flying fists,” said Johnson. While some of these rules (like the ban on bringing umbrellas inside) may seem a bit silly and unnecessary, not having these rules in place can put actors in danger of potential assaults from the occasional customer that gets caught up in the realism of the environment.
“Some customers would definitely take it too far by getting in the actors’ faces, pushing us, threatening us, and hitting us moments after we initially startled them. There were also customers that would get very grabby with female actors, and sometimes we would call them out directly, other times we called security to deal with the issue.”
For Johnson, the number of amazing customers far outweighs the number of rude or aggressive customers, making the job well worth it. However, she advises those looking to try it out, to do their research and ask questions to get a feel for which company is right for them and to make sure that the company takes care of their actors. She also recommends questioning previous employees of the companies to make sure some sort of security procedures are in place.
What started out as an act of curiosity and a love for acting has led the actress to meet fellow talented actors, building friendships through the bonding experience. She also noted that she has gained an incredible amount of self-confidence with every successful scare.
Johnson experienced a change in perspective through the work having come from a background of having nightmares from viewing horror content and running through haunted houses, barely looking up and on the verge of tears. However, since working in the field, she has been able to walk through the houses, recalling her experiences comparing each character that she views.
“Above all, I have a huge amount of respect for the actors that work so hard to put on an amazing show every night.”