Lurking in the shadows nightly at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights exist hundreds of creatures and maniacs with one common goal: scaring as many visiting guests as possible. These characters are created by performers known as “scareactors” (pronounced like “characters,” with the emphasis on scare!).
Nearly 1,000 hard-working park employees are hired for the Halloween time event, hundreds of which return year after year to seek out the screams of its willing victims. And for the second year in a row, I spent a single night stalking the crowds of Halloween Horror Nights.
On Oct. 8, 2010, Universal Orlando hosted a select group of media in what they call “Boo Camp,” to not only have a chance to get transformed into ghouls, but also learn about what it takes to haunt the Universal streets on a nightly basis.
Upon arrival that night, I was excited to learn that we would be roaming the scare zone known as “Zombie Gras,” my favorite of the bunch in this year’s incarnation of Halloween Horror Nights. The area is filled with parade performers-turned-zombies who no longer lust after beads but instead brains. Not only is it placed along a main Universal Studios pathway, but it also resides at the exit of the “Zombiegeddon” haunted house, providing plenty of victims.
Witness my transformation, courtesy of Universal Orlando’s talented make-up and costuming team:
During my first trip to Boo Camp last year, I discovered that scaring is hard work. While incredibly fun and rewarding each time a guest shrieks at nothing more than the sight of your gory face, it is also exhausting to pace back and forth, trying to identify prey while not looking obvious about it, all the while stumbling around in undead character.
This year, I learned more about the grueling process scareactors undergo to become part of Halloween Horror Nights. From the beginning, actors are expected to commit to working every night of the event. When auditioning, they may request up to 3 nights off, but any more will place them in a standby role. This year, that equates to between 21 and 24 nights of work. Of course, for most of these actors, it doesn’t feel like work. I was a scareactor for just one night and was happy to fill the role without pay.
But the role as a scareactor begins long before stepping foot into a scare zone or haunted house. Make-up and costuming takes place each night, with time in the chair estimated at 15 minutes for simpler characters (like my zombie look) and upwards of an hour for more complex outfits.
This year’s icon, Fear, requires a tight-fitting, full body suit, stilts, and much more. Popular characters (and past icons) like Jack the Clown and the Usher require custom 2-piece facial prosthetic appliances added and freshly painted each night.
It is often the hard work of talent artists and designers that helps to shape the scareactors’ personalities once they begin to entertain and shock Horror Nights guests. While some actors have ideas in advance on how their characters will behave, others rely on how they’re made to look to determine their behavior.
For me, the giant gash across created on my forehead told me my motor functions and ability to speak coherently were done for, so I fell back on a lot of moaning, drooling, and hobbling. I added to that a hunger for humans, temporarily satisfied by the severed hand I carried with me, but excited by any fresh flesh that happened to pass by. But if anyone tried to take my hand-snack, I fought back, as even with my limited mental capacity as a zombie, I knew that I needed to hang onto it as a back-up plan in case all other living tissue vanished. All of these details came to me simply based on the make-up and props I was given.
Throughout the night, while I managed to land a few good scares, not only from timid girls but also a few manly men, I was upstaged by the talented professional scareactors that were mixed in with the invited media crowd. They have perfected the mix of zombie and parade performer with dancing as a distraction for the real scares that follow. Even so, I was proud of the sporadic screams I produced from guests (like the girl pictured below running away from me).
Performance aside, there is another reason I admire the Halloween Horror Nights scareactors: They put up with a lot of grief. Throughout the evening, I discovered that guests often succumb to the environment created around them, forgetting that the creatures following them are just actors. I was pushed, felt, grabbed, cursed at, and even had a few strangely sexual advances jokingly made toward me – and my blood-soaked dismembered hand – none of which I will repeat here.
I also found myself pulled awkwardly close to people’s faces, tongues, and other body parts when posing for pictures. So take note: No matter how many drinks you have, try to remember that in the world of Halloween Horror Nights, zombies are people too.
More photos of me as a zombie at Halloween Horror Nights “Boo Camp”:
(Photos by Katherine McElroy)