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Elaborate costumes, heavy makeup, broken arms: Inside the life of haunted house actors

Three haunted nurses perform open heart surgery while covered in blood at the Dead City Haunted House in Murray. Haunted house actors work hard and volunteer their time to make these experiences enjoyable for complete strangers. The job also opens opportunities for people who often feel like they don’t belong in the average workplace.
(Photo Courtesy: Dead City Haunted House)

Several customers wind down the dark hallways, squinting their eyes through heavy smoke to prepare themselves for the next jump scare. 

They walk past a wooden wall with uneven holes carved out and arms reaching out to grab their next victim. A frightened customer screams, kicking one of the arms in reaction. 

Crack. The girl gets away. The arm? Fractured. 

This is common for many haunted house actors and how Sara Shouse, a former haunted house actor, broke her arm while on the job.

“But that [kind of thing] happens all the time,” said Shouse, who now teaches stage makeup at Westminster College.

Shouse said several of her co-workers have had similar experiences while being head-butted, punched and knocked to the ground while haunting. 

“You can never judge other people’s reactions,” she said.

Max Harper, senior computer science major, and prepares for a shift at Nightmare on 13th Street. Harper has worked at multiple haunted houses since he was in high school, saying he has always loved scaring people since he was a kid. While working as an actor can be a lot of fun, the job comes with its challenges – including intense physical activity for three to four hours at a time, while screaming and running around in heavy costumes.
(Photo Courtesy: Max Harper)

Shouse has been involved with haunted houses since she was 11 years old, beginning as an actor and now working as a makeup artist for Lagoon’s Frightmares. 

The two jobs are different from each other, Shouse said, pointing to the intensity and hard work actors go through. 

Every night they perform intense physical activity for three to four hours at a time, screaming and running around in heavy costumes. 

“If it’s very busy, you can get absolutely no breaks,” said Max Harper, a Westminster senior and haunted house actor. “You have to keep acting and running. So, I’ve lost a lot of weight doing this job.”

Harper has worked at multiple haunted houses since he was in high school, spending two years at the Strangling Brothers Haunted Circus and another two years at Nightmare on 13th. 

Harper said he’s always enjoyed scaring people and haunting houses are fun because they’re designed to put people into a different world.

“People need to realize it’s a show,” Harper said. “It’s like an interactive horror movie. […] We’re just there to enhance the experience. We’re here to scare you but also here to entertain you.”

Harper, along with several actors who work at haunted houses, has an acting and theatrical background which they use to immerse themselves in their characters. 

Viviane Turman, a Westminster alum who majored in theater, said her acting experience helped her to improvise and compel customers to react in certain ways. 

“It’s similar to the stage [because] you still use tactics,” said Turman, who acts for Nightmare on 13th. “It just might not be as ‘high brow’ as others like to think. It’s a lot more improv. You have to feel out the group that’s in the room at the time.”

Turman said although it’s hard work, her favorite part about the job is the camaraderie between the actors. 

Scary faces are carved on pumpkins at an entrance to Nightmare on 13th. Haunted house actors work hard and volunteer their time to make these experiences enjoyable for complete strangers. (Photo Courtesy: Nightmare on 13th)

“Everyone who does it is really close, everyone’s really positive,” Turman said. “Everyone thinks it’s always these weird old men who work at haunted houses [but] most of them are college students.”

Turman said the job also opens opportunities for people who often feel like they don’t belong in the average workplace. 

“It gives space to some people who don’t always feel included in the outside world,” Turman said. “People who have always felt different […] there’s always a space for them somewhere in the haunt.”

The actors work hard and spend a lot of time making these experiences enjoyable for complete strangers, Turman said. So, customers should be respectful to both the actors and the props. 

“[The actors] just want to have a good time too,” said Sara Shouse, haunted house make-up artist. 

One of the most important things to keep in mind, said Shouse, is you never really know the person underneath the costume and it’s important to remember they’re just putting on a show. 

“[Although] these people are trying to scare you, they’re still people,” Shouse said. “So, you shouldn’t attack them. It’s supposed to be fun, so have a good time.”

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Cami Mondeaux
Cami Mondeaux is a junior communication major with a minor in sociology. Cami got her start working as a local life and government reporter for the City Journals and spent a summer interning at KSL NewsRadio. She hopes to one day report on national politics and is excited to bring her skills to The Forum for a second year on staff.

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