Entering Screamworld, a group is first led to a queue area where a monster sits in a chair -- or what's left of him. His upper torso is intact, but all that's left below his chest is his spinal cord. A girl in the group asks the others if he's real.
"Of course I'm real!" he screams and is met with shrieks. "Now come closer." The group walks up to his five-foot high throne surrounded by Jacob's ladders and looks up at his horned, devilish face. He tells them a story about a little girl who loved to play with cockroaches, but one day they got the best of her. He tells them to look for her remains inside and points toward the coffin-shaped entryway. They look toward the door and back at him and then toward the door again, shuffling as they decide whether to turn back.
"It's too late," the monster says.
Haunts: Acting Gigs
The group doesn't move.
"Go!" They scream and run into the house and the monster turns to beckon his help for "fresh meat."
The monster is actually a construction worker named Brad Davis who doubles as Screamworld's welcoming face. He got his start scaring people in New Orleans and came to Jim Fetterly's haunted house after moving to Houston six years ago. Fetterly owns The Haunted Hotel.
"Over there it was volunteer, here we get paid for it. It really doesn't matter to me, too much," he says. "But don't tell Jim or Mike I said that."
Haunted house actors, unless they are volunteers, do receive a paycheck. Traditionally they have been considered part-time seasonal employees who report directly to the owner or manager of the house. Recently the IRS ruled they could also be employed as contract workers. The plus side to this is that actors can choose their own hours. The downside is that, since they're contract workers, their employers don't pay their Social Security or federal income tax.
Davis says acting in a haunted house gives him the chance to express emotions that otherwise are not acceptable in society.
"You get paid to yell at people and unless you're some boss with a pretty messed-up company that doesn't keep employees around, then you don't do that," Davis says. Unlike many actors in haunted houses, Davis has a speaking role. He has to think quickly and his scares have to be more personal. His job is to frighten people, but still keep them moving into the house.
"If the customer has something appealing to him or her that I can use then I'm going to go for it and try to get that much more out of them," Davis says. He has a privileged place atop a chair in the entryway.
Acting in a haunted house works like many jobs; promotions are based on performance. Frank Faerman started out at Screamworld eight years ago as a scene actor.
"If you work a scene you are stuck in that one spot. You can't go anywhere, you are stuck in that little hole," he says. After five years in his scene, Faerman was moved up to a "reliever."
"You go from scene to scene to scene and give people breaks," he explains. Being a reliever takes more skill as the actor has to adjust to multiple scares every night. He has to figure out how the scene works and the best angle of attack. If he does well, he gets the whole house to himself.
"I've been here for eight years, so I get to be a roamer from now on," Faerman says. A roamer -- the highest honor -- is the actor who sneaks up on people in the middle of a dark hallway. He might be seen again as he works his way through the secret passageways of the house and pops up a few hallways later.
"Little girls will scream no matter what. Big guys, the trick is to be real quiet and in their face," Faerman says, adding that no one is immune to the perfect scare.
"Especially a big football player guy, you can just whisper in their ear and it drives them crazy, you know?" Some actors even keep trophies of successful scares. The actors at Screamworld can count the number of times they've scared somebody out of their shoes, literally; the fence of the actors' waiting area is lined with footwear. They point to them proudly and say that, though some customers have asked for their shoes back, they're told "too bad."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Fetterly looks for actors who understand the sense of timing and have a high energy level. "Do they already know how to yell from their diaphragm instead of their throat? Can they go all night long doing it?" Fetterly explains. Most of the actors share an appreciation for Halloween and all things creepy. Fetterly says many share stories about scaring their friends and family and bring up their addiction to horror movies.
When it comes to moving up, Fetterly chooses actors who bring their own ideas to the table. They will ask for certain props or specific makeup and clothing. Standout actors will make a scene their own and do it better and unlike anyone before them.
"I mean, you just know it's in their blood," Fetterly says. Once he hires an actor, Fetterly goes over the ground rules, especially "no touching" -- a rule that guests are advised of as well.
"A lot of times the customers feel like, 'Well, I'm in a dark environment, I got the license to be dumb,'" says Larry Kirchner, who runs Hauntworld.com, a Web site devoted to haunted houses. "A lot of times they'll grab the actor's mask, they'll hit the actor, push the actor." "Everyone has their own personal space and if you jump right into somebody's space they might whack you," Kirchner says. "A lot of our actors learn the hard way what personal space is."