The whole world is pretty frightening these days. So, to get scares out of increasingly cynical and desensitized people, you have to do more than simply sneak up on someone and yell "boo" at them.
But "that's not as easy as it sounds," according to Whitney Duhaime, a veteran of Utah's haunted house industry. "People see so many horrifying things in their everyday lives that they're not startled or scared by very many things."
She should know. Duhaime has been at Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City for more than a dozen years. And her thoughts were echoed by Cori Hoekstra, a former performer at the now-defunct Rocky Point Haunted House.
Both women have put their experiences to work. They now serve as casting directors for different haunted houses Duhaime is still at Nightmare, while Hoekstra has moved over to Castle of Chaos.
That means it's up to these two women to choose which wannabe ghouls get to play vampires, killer clowns, chain-saw-wielding maniacs and other haunted-house terrors.
"You get a lot of people who think they want to work in a haunted house. But they have no idea how much of a responsibility it really is, how much of a commitment it is," Hoekstra said.
James Bernard, the owner/producer for Castle of Chaos, agreed. "To be a good haunted-house performer, you've got to love scaring people or at least trying to scare them and you've got to be fast on your feet and quick-witted.
"You never know what people will say or do to you," he continued. "Things can get pretty crazy in these things. People react to being scared in different ways."
Bernard often gets into costume and character himself at Castle of Chaos by "greeting" patrons as a hulking brute. "This is the best part of the job," he said with a laugh.
Of Duhaime's 13 seasons at Nightmare on 13th, 10 of those have been as a casting director. She says that in that time she's "pretty much seen it all."
"We've gotten performers who were more scared of the crowds than (the crowds) were of them. That may have been the funniest thing I've seen here," she said, laughing.
Duhaime and Nightmare owner/operator Troy Barber say they spend the months building up to the fall trying to find people to play more than 50 roles at the haunted house.
"We get a lot more people coming to audition now than when we started," Barber said. "That's nice, but unfortunately casting takes up even more valuable time when we're trying to come up with the scariest possible haunted-house experience."
Castle of Chaos actually comprises three different attractions: a year-round, interactive murder-mystery, a 3-D, and "a traditional, blood-and-guts spook alley," Bernard said. (Patrons can pay separate admission for one, two or all three of these.)
That means Duhaime has to cast 70 different parts, and "obviously, some of these are pretty involved."
"To be part of something like the murder-mystery, you have to be able to improvise and interact with people," she explained. "You've got to be as funny and clever as you are scary."
Complicating matters is a high turnover rate in the haunted house industry. Most, if not all, of the casts volunteer their nights for an entire month.
(As of this weekend, Nightmare on 13th will be open six nights a week, while Castle of Chaos will be open seven nights weekly through October.)
So, Bernard stresses that his casts be serious about being there and about having fun. "If they're not having a good time, we'll ask them to leave. Not because we don't appreciate what they're doing, but because we don't want to waste their time."
Also, both the attractions have performance classes, as well as acting workshops and other training. "When you have this many parts to cast, sometimes you have to choose people as much for their enthusiasm as their acting experience," Barber said.
And there can be some surprising revelations. "We'll get the quietest, most mild-mannered people to come out of their shells. It's like this is what they've been waiting for their entire lives," Duhaime said."It's weird, you can put makeup and a costume on a person and suddenly they're someone who's completely different, more outgoing or louder," she continued. "And that's one of the more rewarding parts of this job."
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