The first casting calls usually post to the Universal Orlando auditions website in May — Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort 2017
The monster was out in front of me, lurking in the far corner of the dank pit. I was rapt.
Its face, in all its oozy-bubbly-gory glory was wonderfully over-the-top, its pupilless eyes somehow knowing, somehow meeting mine in this near-romantic, girl-walks-into-a-horror-movie moment.
I wondered briefly, amid gently swaying chains, whether it would charge …
"Give me some sugar, baby!"
…and promptly jumped out of my skin. I may have cursed a little. But my smile was enormous.
It was 2009. I was deep inside the Silver Screams house at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, a brilliant and beautiful creation that combined scenes from a host of amazing films, including Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness – one of my all-time favorites.
So busy was I admiring the recreation of the classic scene – and that hideous, skulking creature across the room – that when the scareactor (rhymes best with “character”) portraying Bruce Campbell’s Ash sidled up so close he could maniacally whisper this iconic line in my ear, I was as ripe for a jump scare as any hapless Horror Nights guest could have been.
And afterwards, with potent adrenaline coursing through my veins and a flush in my cheeks, I felt as alive as any horror fan could be.
It only FEELS dangerous – the first thing scareactors learn are safety protocols — Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort 2017
It remains my favorite HHN memory to date. And it came courtesy of two unnamed scareactors, part of an unrelenting army that helps make this annual event the scare-season showstopper that it is.
"Scareactors are the lifeblood of the event," says Charles Gray, show director for Creative Development. "They really take our dreams, or nightmares, and bring them to life."
In fact, Gray has done due diligence as a scareactor. His first foray into Halloween Horror Nights came in 1994 when – while already employed as an actor in the park – he decided to spread his professional wings into something darker.
"I was a melty guy in a vat," he laughs.
"I think most people [who become scareactors] do it, myself included, because it’s really as much of a rush for the scareactor as it is for the guest. It’s a very symbiotic relationship, where I’m getting energy from you and you’re getting it from me. We’re both having a good time."
Scareactor soldier no more, these days Gray is coordinating the figurative Armies of the Dead. And much like the zombie hordes of those classic Romero films, they come from every walk of life.
"You go into the Green Rooms as they are getting made up for the night and it’s so cool to see the different types of people who are scareactors. Last year, one of my favorites was this little blond woman, perhaps about 37; she is a school teacher in her everyday life. Next to her is a guy who does construction work during the day. Next, a 19-year-old who goes to community college part-time, a kid. We had a lawyer who came down from Jacksonville last year just to work the event. It’s very exciting to see everyone get their fear on!"
Best Theme Park Halloween Event (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2017)
Best Theme Park Halloween Event (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2017)
Interested in becoming a part of the fray? The first round of mandatory auditions usually happens in May, Gray says. Even returning veterans must audition, every year.
"We’ll remember the good ones. If you’ve done a great job, we know who you are. But more importantly, it’s about type."
Each year, casting staffers at HHN know the roles they’ll be looking to cast. For 2015’s “Freddy Vs. Jason” house, for example, the preponderance of Jasons created a need for actors who were 6’5”. Last year’s “The Exorcist” warranted petite female scareactors who could portray Reagan in the various vignettes.
Though casting agents are making their notes during the process, scareactors won’t immediately know where they’ll be placed.
"Last year, a girl comes in. She’s 5’1”. She looks young. I can say to myself. ‘I’m making you a Reagan.’ I don’t tell her that but it’s been noted on my sheet. She’s been cast for the look, but afterwards I might ask her, ‘What’s your favorite Halloween candy?’ This way, I can hear her voice and get a sense of who she is as an individual. And we go from there."
Once at their assigned posts, scareactors are free to see what works best (or is that worst?!) in their environments — Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort 2017
Once cast, there is a fitting night for each house. Scareactors are brought in. Costumes are customized, tweaks are made, masks are fit.
"It’s a giant parade," Gray says. "A wonderful madhouse."
Scareactors, Gray estimates, number close to a thousand – and however many are scheduled for a given evening, guests who are paying attention will see their outdoor presence swell as the night rolls on.
Those working the streets and Scare Zones get basic instruction on everything from the optimum distance from a guest to how long to linger – always in character – for a guest photo before meandering off to interact elsewhere. They're permitted to get organic, figure out what works on the job, then fine-tune it as the event goes on.
"Traffic flow changes before or after shows," Gray explains. "You can use other guests or scenery as visual blocks to do scares. You can do a set-up with a partner – one distracts, the other does the scare, there are a lot of different strategies scareactors can use on the streets."
Rules on the street are different than in houses – scareactors have the power to go with the flow — Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort 2017
Gray says that there are so many ways to enjoy the scareactors, even for guests too fearful of the houses. He recommends finding a good place to sit, having a beverage and just watching other people get scared.
"I’ll walk the event night after night – that’s my job," he explains. "It’s a great job, but sometimes you need a breather and there’s always one place every year that becomes my breather space – and it’s usually where I find the best scare. A few years ago, it was just outside the 'Giggles & Gore' house."
Clowns. So very many horrifying clowns.
"There was a guy at the very end, a big, giant clown with a chainsaw. Shirtless. He had 'free hugs' carved into his chest…" Gray pauses, laughing. "I would stand there for about 15 minutes to get my breather and watch people just fly out of that house. Oh, my gosh, tears would be pouring out of my eyes I’d be laughing so hard!"
Though high on the HHN food chain these days, Gray fondly remembers his days of giving guests the gleefully gruesome frights they’re paying for.
"Scareactors really are the most important element of this event," Gray says. "You can make a Ferrari, but if you don’t have anybody who can drive it – well, it doesn’t matter."