Halloween Horror Nights XX: Becoming a scareactor

Creepiness is all about eye contact.

That’s what I learned after a night spent as a Halloween Horror Nights “scareactor” (rhymes with character). Universal Orlando invited me behind the scenes to see what it is like to be one of the nearly 1,000 employees hired each year to scare up guests during the theme park’s Halloween festivities.

And what I found after two shifts on the streets of the park is that the best way to scare is to get close, and look ’em in the eye. It seemed to be natural instinct for people to try to avoid looking at my face.

Of course, this was the face I was showing them, so I can’t really blame them for looking away. (Another life lesson learned: There are no pretty zombies.)

But when I looked them in the eyes, I got inside their heads. They shielded their faces, turned and walked the other way, or, in the best cases, shrieked and screamed.

I would not describe myself as a horror afficionado, but eliciting those screams was surprisingly satisfying. I guess that’s what keeps hundreds of the same scareactors coming back to work the event year after year.

The scareactor experience (which Universal has cleverly named “Boo Camp”) started in wardrobe, where I was assigned a garishly colored, blood-stained Mardi Gras costume.

Then it was on to the makeup chair. My makeup artist, Tabitha, mixed up a blood-colored epoxy to attach a prosthetic wound to my face.

My face and hands were airbrushed in purple, black and red with white highlights, which Tabitha said would make everything pop on the dark streets.

Voila! I was officially Zombie-fied. The whole process took about 20 minutes.

I was given a bloodied rubber brain from the bucket of body parts, and then an acting coach came in to help us find our inner zombies.

The back story in the scare zone I was going to work is that my Mardi Gras parade float had been attacked by zombies, and I was infected.

“Your brain is only working on eating flesh,” he said, and I raised the prop brain in my hands to my lips.

We were also told two cardinal rules from the scareactor playbook, designed to minimize the chance of guests’ instincts to fight kicking in:

  • Get in guests faces, but back away quickly.
  • And never, ever touch a guest.

With an inspiring cry of “Let’s go scare the hell out of ’em,” it was time to hit the streets for a 30-minute shift.

It is hard work. Scareactors are constantly in motion, gliding through their assigned theme park scare zone, sneaking up on people and working for those screams.

I lumbered. I grunted. I posed for dozens of pictures with park guests who leaned over to pretend that they, too, were eating the brain in my hands.

And, after some experimentation, I found my preferred technique — walking straight into a crowd of people to get in the face of an unsuspecting person somewhere in the middle of the group.

In what seemed like about 15 minutes, my 30-minute shift was over and it was break time. Then we headed back to the streets.

At the end of the night, it was time to remove the makeup. (I couldn’t stop for gas on the way home with that face, could I?) With a big assist from a container of baby wipes, it took about 10 minutes to scrub off the airbrushing and peel off my prosthetic wound.

My fun but exhausting zombie day was done. I fell into bed that night and dreamed of…

Wouldn’t it be cool if I dreamed of zombies? But alas, I was so tired I don’t remember.

Here’s my video look at the experience:

Halloween Horror Nights continues through Oct. 31 on select nights at Universal Orlando Resort. Check out the event Web site for ticketing information.