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Down dark hallways with bloodstained walls, tucked away in the shadows, there loom creatures of the dark: monsters, murderers and psychotic clowns. They snarl through bloodied fangs or swing chainsaws, letting out disturbed cackles with pale, painted faces. But underneath the facade of horror lies a neighbor, a classmate, a coworker or that stranger from the bus stop.
Alex Buck, 21, is returning this year to the business of scaring people after a two-year hiatus from the World’s Scariest Haunted House, which opens Friday in Littleton. Buck has been in the scaring industry since high school, when he worked at Spider Mansion, a haunted house in Golden.
He was a theater buff in high school and also participated in choir, which Buck thinks led him to his interest in entertainment.
“I’ve just always had that acting plug, and that, mixed with my personality…being kind of an alternative person, a haunted house just sounded appealing,” Buck said.
Chris Stafford, co-owner and producer of multiple nationally acclaimed haunted houses such as the infamous 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver, noted how versatile haunted house actors have to be. The work differs from most other acting gigs, but the demand can be very rewarding for the variety of professionally trained, improvisation and born-to-scare actors.
“We have a lot of people who come here and they seem so timid,” Stafford said. “And then you go into the haunted house and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh is that the same person?’”
People often overlook the danger of working in a haunted house. From being attacked by spooked customers to dangerous props, most actors are typically given strict instructions on how to handle less-than-ideal situations and the dangers that come with working these houses.
Stafford says most haunted houses work tirelessly to ensure the safety of their actors, but sometimes accidents happen.
“Natural reaction to fear is fight or flight, so I think the initial response is you might throw your hands up, and if someone gets in your personal bubble, there’s a chance you might hit them,” Stafford said. “We train our actors very well, and we train them to respect people’s bubble. If you get in someone’s bubble, you’re at risk.”
When it is the customer who inflicts the injury, be it a hit to the face or a slap at the chest — both of which Buck has experienced — actors of haunted houses must follow-up with customers.
“When that happens, there’s certain policy we have to go about: I have to break character, take off my mask,” Buck said. “I have to say, ‘Hey guys, I’m a person. You can’t hit me. You paid to get scared.”
Getting the customer to experience such a real level of fear requires talent. It’s a strategic blend of sensory manipulation and the ability to convince the audience the illusion is real.
“I think that there’s a difference between scaring someone and startling them,” Stafford said. “Being scared is more of an emotional reaction, scaring someone is anticipation.”
Haunted houses are dark to keep visitors on edge, Stafford said, which makes it easier to make their imaginations wonder and fear what’s lurking in the dark.
“In order to scare someone you need to take away one of their senses and mess with another,” he said.
Buck also believes the environment and mood tend to contribute the most to a successfully thrilling experience for the audience. He said he has worked with jungle sets, fog machines, plenty of eerie music and a clown role that let him to embrace his cackling and giggling side.
“It’s all about the immersion,” Buck said. “Really believing you’re the psychotic clown helps push it out onto the customer.”
The makeup and costuming process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to hours depending on the costume and intricacy or budget of the haunted house. Buck recalls spending just 30 minutes getting ready for nightly shows in the past, with the actors called at 6:30 p.m. and show time at 7 p.m.
After getting his character assignment, Buck said he is usually left to find his own way as a scarer.
“There was a huge amount of trust to perform your duty as a scarer,” Buck said. Paying customers and the adrenaline rush he gets when he steps inside the haunted house in costume push him into character.
Buck said he has not noticed any particular type of person who scares easiest. Big, buff boyfriends cling to their girlfriends just as much as girlfriends cling back, he said. It’s all about people letting themselves believe the haunted house is real.
“I think that when I can see some guy in a muscle shirt with buzz cut who’s really presenting himself as alpha male, and I can see him with that horror in his face — that’s the best,” Buck said. “It’s great to see that even they can allow themselves to be vulnerable.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Megan Curry at Megan.email@example.com.