It's Halloween season, time for a good scare. Last night, I went to Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens in Tampa. I was interested in seeing it since I worked at one of the first Howl-O-Screams in 2000 (I was Dr. Livingsdoom, "an event icon" according to Wikipedia).
Things have changed a great deal. There are many more haunted houses, more live shows and more roving monsters. The haunted houses looked great. The budget they have now looks a lot bigger. The density of people inside the actors inside the houses is pretty high. They probably had more in one house than we did in all houses combined when I worked there.
But more is not always better. With the constant scares, you could almost always see what was coming if you looked ahead. Many of the actors would scare too often. I could see them scare someone, then go back into their hiding place before I got there. Now way they could get a scare if you knew where they were. You need patience for the good scare! This was also a problem outside at times. A couple of paths had lots of people camouflaged in the bushes. Once the first person did a scare, you could see all the others. They would try a scare every few seconds, way too often.
Now there were a few truly excellent actors there. One of the houses was called "Nevermore" based on Edgar Allan Poe. They had an actor playing Poe in a tower at the beginning. He didn't get scares, but he did a great job of setting the tone for the house with his monologue. Another really outstanding actor was the greeter at the Vampire Casino. This vampire was greeting patrons with a series of wonderfully bad, ghoulish vampire jokes. One of the great effects in Nevermore is a fancy ball scene. The actors moved only when the strobe lights were off so the scene would change every time the lights came on. Wonderfully creepy.
Another problem with the houses is they were too loud. That limited the interaction you could have with the actors. I loved that part when I worked there. It's not just the scare, but what you can do after the scare.
Dr. Livingdoom's (my characters) lab was in the old koala bear house. The guests entered on a moving sidewalk and my creatures I created were in the old cages. My lab was on a platform above the sidewalk. I could hide and jump out (I had a wireless mic). They only let groups of about 30 through at one time separated by about a minute. Now the clever part. They setup a light pointing at the wall by the entrance. I could see people's silhouettes as they entered and that's how I knew when to go for the scare. You can learn a lot about people by looking at their shadows. You can usually tell men from women, adults from teens and kids. You can watch body language and tell how they are likely to react to a scare by the way they carry themselves. That's how I choose my targets. I didn't just go for the first person because I knew I got one good scare per group because after that, everyone knew where I was. Tailoring the scare to your target is key to the really good scare (and was hard for many actors to do they way some of the houses were designed).
I didn't just say "boo" or yell. I had a wide variety of bad one line jokes, appropriate for a mad genetic scientist ("Show me your genes") to get the scare. Once I got the scare, then I had ~30 people standing there. That should be showtime. I had a lot of set pieces (I had songs I riffed on like "You wont' survive", "(You won't be) Stayin' Alive" and a very warped version of Dem Bones). I could riff with people in the crowd, shake hands if they wanted (and let them know about my contagious skin diseases afterwards) or warn them that the Infinimaze was coming up (Guess how long it is? Well, we don't call it the Really Short-Amaze, let's just put it that way!) That's the type of interaction I really wanted to see more of. The host at the Vampire Casino was the only one that really nailed that (although the busty bartender at the casino did pretty good as well!) That's why I wanted a little less noise in the houses, a little more interaction.
Okay, I have to tell you about my best scare (and what may still hold the all time record for knocking the most people off their feet at once). I saw the shadows come in. They were all girls, about the same age and I could hear a lot of chatter which indicated they all knew each other, possibly a youth group of some type (yes, you learn how to tell those things when you pay attention). I waited until a most of them were on the moving sidewalk. I jumped out for my scare. I was right, there were a bunch of girls all wearing matching yellow t-shirts, obviously part of a group visit. The first two girls in the line got so scared, they fell down and the entire rest of the group went down like a row of dominoes! I mentioned you had to do follow up. I said (in character of course) "Wow! I have never seen that happen in real life before. You must be the 30 stooges!" Fortunately, no one was hurt and they all got up and were laughing hysterically as they went on their way.
So what do you find scary?
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