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Behind the Scenes of the Halloween Haunt

In Cover
Great America never half-steps for its annual Halloween Haunt, which is now in its 10th year. Photo composite by Greg Ramar.

Great America never half-steps for its annual Halloween Haunt, which is now in its 10th year. Photo composite by Greg Ramar.

Wielding a skull-topped scepter and decked out in demented makeup, Brian Miller looks very much the part. The ringleader of a gang of killer clowns, he has schooled his motley crew in the art of lurking. They hide behind bushes and around blind corners—waiting for an opportunity to set upon a young victim.

Springing into action, a member of Miller’s posse breaks into a sprint, cackling devilishly, before falling to his knees and skidding several feet on plastic-capped kneepads. A girl screams and runs for cover from the menacing marauder.

Welcome to Jester Town—one of three new “Scare Zones” at Great America’s 10th annual Halloween Haunt. Wedged between the Flight Deck and Patriot roller coasters, the town is populated by a multitude of sinister harlequins, all hell-bent on coaxing a cry from park patrons.

Mentoring young jump-scare artists is just part of what Miller oversees in his role as entertainment production coordinator at Great America. He is also active in the local performing arts community. A theater major with a background in sound design, Miller helped put together creepy audio clips for this year’s Haunt; he has also worked for the San Jose Stage Company, serving as a production manager during the theater organization’s 2015-16 season and as company manager during the 2016-17 season.

His background is typical for many who work on this spooky seasonal event, which park representatives estimate employs upwards of 700 additional workers during late September and all of October. Sean Lee, entertainment manager for Great America, says the park brings on about 400-500 monster actors and 250 behind-the-scenes contractors for the Haunt. This includes local artists, carpenters, sound designers, makeup professionals and, of course, legions of young men and women just itching to jump out at visitors from dark corners and yell “boo.”

Witchy Warning
It’s approaching 7pm on Friday evening, Sept. 22—the Haunt’s opening night—and a hoard of teenagers gathers around the large reflecting pool at Great America. Though the amusement park is not yet open, ticket-takers have let the kids in early so they can catch the commencement ceremony.

As the hour turns, a witch appears on the upper level of the Carousel Columbia. With a couple monkeys in tow, Wizard of Oz style, she explains what the park’s got in store for visitors this year. Her shrill, prerecorded voice plays over the PA system as the actor in the costume pantomimes along.

The witch hypes new visual effects that have been added to The Demon roller coaster and the overhauled Scare Zones—which include Underworld Alley and Feary Tales, in addition to Jester Town. In a surreal moment, the witch makes a veiled reference to Donald Trump: “Confused by the current political climate?” She promises it’s nothing compared with the new, disorienting maze called Chaos House.

Then the demon makes his entrance. Lumbering down a catwalk extending into the pool, he stops and begins his speech. He conjures flames from the water before him—a pretty cool trick—and fire spouts up in hot columns around the edge of the pool. He issues a guttural, ghoulish laugh and the kids are set loose.

Brian Miller gets into character with the help of makeup artist Jenn Majdi. Photo by Greg Ramar.

Brian Miller gets into character with the help of makeup artist Jenn Majdi. Photo by Greg Ramar.

The Backwoods
It’s midafternoon, a little more than a week before the witch and her demon open the Haunt. Instead of the whoosh of roller coasters, the air above Great America is filled with the clattering of hammers, the buzzing of saws and the various squeals and ominous, eerie tones emanating from the park’s newest, and as-yet-unfinished haunted maze.

The entrance is located behind the Gold Striker roller coaster, and the maze’s façade resembles an Appalachian front porch. It’s the kind of setting that would make for a nice, relaxing evening of sipping bourbon in Adirondack chairs, surveying the sweep of the Great Smoky Mountains. Or, it could portend something far more sinister—a la Deliverance. Dubbed the Backwoods, the maze is billed as a “bayou hunting resort and spa” where “people have been disappearing and creatures are lurking in the shadows.”

Upon entering, guests are greeted by a jump-scare concierge and a litany of increasingly creepy clues that something is not right on the bayou. Progressing through a warren of interconnected, swampy cabins, it becomes clearer that werewolves are mixed up in this mess. In each room, different soundtracks help tell the story. And, of course, the cast of actors keep visitors on their toes. On opening night, guests are preoccupied with sniffing out the next boogeyman—as they should be, distracted from the fact that every single element in Backwoods had to be designed and built.

From the front porch, to the individualized soundtracks of each space, down to the strands of yarn and newspaper clippings that crisscross the wall of the conspiracy theory cabin, entertainment manager Lee estimates that nearly two months of full-time work went into creating Backwoods.

The haunted maze has been constructed inside what used to be an IMAX movie theater. Plastic basins have been installed beneath the boardwalks connecting the cabins, so water can be pumped in Pirates of the Caribbean-style. Catherine Lucas, operations supervisor of productions and props for the Halloween Haunt, ticks off the list of things most guests don’t consider, like the time it takes to fabricate all the props, build walls or paint rooms. “The small details of everything,” she says. “Where things go. How it’s secured down. How many people it actually takes to put it together.”

On opening night, the line for Backwoods is quite long and it’s not immediately clear if guests are listening intently to what the DJ is saying in between the contemporary country hits that play over the loudspeakers.

Those who tune their ears to the DJ will hear him dropping hints here and there that he was bitten by something earlier in the day and that he is starting to feel strangely drawn to the moon. All of this comes courtesy of Evan Fitch and his team—which includes Miller, the part-time jester, who provided the vocal performance for the pre-recorded faux radio spots.

Fitch, supervisor of entertainment and tech services for the Halloween Haunt, explains that Miller’s on-air character helps drive the story of Backwoods. “Once you get into the first cabin, you progress to the next part of the story where he transforms, he goes and he eats the intern and he runs free,” he says.

Creative Creeps
While the build team works to construct the physical spaces guests will move through, and the lighting and sound teams get the atmosphere right, visual artist and longtime Great America contractor Lacey Bryant works to make the mazes feel as though they have been lived in.

Bryant uses stencils to create wallpaper patterns, paints the floors to look like tile or old wooden planks and produces unsettling family portraits. Those plugged in to the local art scene know Bryant well. Late last year Empire Seven Studios in San Jose’s Japantown hosted her solo show “Homeward.” She’s also exhibited in spaces in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Working the Haunt is an ideal job for Bryant, who has helped out with special Halloween events and the park’s annual holiday fair for more than a decade. While many working artists tend bar or wait tables in order to make rent, Bryant counts herself fortunate for the Great America gig.

“This is what I do to pay the bills,” she says. But it’s more than that. In the time she’s spent working the Haunt, Bryant has honed her skills as an artist. “Everything I learn here, I can put into my work.”

That includes time management. Bryant has many of her duties down to a science. She can produce a large creepy painting in about 20 minutes, which is essential with the park’s demanding deadlines.

Perhaps no one on the Halloween Haunt team is as acutely aware of deadline pressures as Jenn Majdi, operations supervisor for makeup. Majdi, who works year-round at the park, says that the demand for makeup is most intense during the fall festival, when she and her team of 32 apply face paint, affix wigs and glue prosthetic latex masks to around 300 actors every night of the event. (Shows run Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through the end of October.)

The makeup team moves through the entire queue of monsters, freaks, deranged clowns and other ghastly creatures in about three and a half hours. They are able to achieve this level of efficiency each night through practice and a well-defined game plan.

“The artists know and they practice to get their looks down to 20 minutes each,” Majdi says. “And all the artists are given specific assigned characters. And they do those exact same characters at the exact same time every night, so that they can perfect that time frame.”

Jesse Anderson plays one of the monsters on this year’s zombie roster. Speaking with him, it becomes clear that dressing up as a reanimated corpse is more than just a quirky seasonal gig.

The way Anderson tells it, when he was around 8 years old he had a magical Halloween experience. “One year, I don’t know what happened, but everyone just decided to pull out all the stops and just do insane costumes with an amazing amount of detail,” he says. “Just being able to be in the middle of all that—tromping around like a group of monsters who looked like we just crawled out of the TV—was just … there’s nothing like it.”

Anderson imagines that most people on the Haunt cast of performers have a similar story. “Pretty much everyone who does a monster here has a special connection to Halloween, in general,” he says. “So coming in and being able to do that professionally is really a dream—it’s amazing.”

Lacey Bryant uses the experience—and money—she earns from Halloween Haunt to support her work as a full-time artist. Photo by Greg Ramar.

Lacey Bryant uses the experience—and money—she earns from Halloween Haunt to support her work as a full-time artist. Photo by Greg Ramar.

Psycho Swirl
Back in Jester Town on opening night, it’s easy enough to escape the packs of jeering jokers—if one is willing to step into one of Bryant’s new mazes, Chaos House.

Upon entering the room, a thick cloud of stage smoke and strobe lights add to the confusion of the myriad angled mirrors lining the walls. Black and white patterns on the floor add to the confusion and prevent those navigating the maze from easily picking out a clear path. In a few of the rooms within the maze, concentric circles and wavy lines on the ground work in concert with the strobes to make it seem as if the floor is shifting underfoot.

The optical illusion is indeed disorienting. So much so, that the wicked witch’s seemingly over-the-top Trump allusion comes rushing back to mind—along with something Bryant had said just a week prior: “I think Chaos House is just going to blow people out of the water.”

It seems that both she and her friend in the pointy cap were right.

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