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Ghoulish pleasure

Making a living among the undead is not easy. But it sure is fun.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published October 13, 2005


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[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Jay Cridlin leaps from the shadows as a “silkie” — a Victorian sailor who had perished at sea — during his night haunting Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream.

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Busch Gardens hires about 1,300 extra workers for its “Creature Crew” during Howl-O-Scream. Creature wanna-bes must audition, then attend orientation and rehearsals.

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The “widows” prepare for a night of fright at Busch Gardens. Costumes and makeup — and training in the fine art of terrorizing patrons — are provided by the theme park.

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Is it better to be the killer, or the victim? At Howl-O-Scream, both have fun.

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Diane Jenkins, 21, and Kevin Peyton, 26, from Leesburg, confront the creepy during Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream.

As a matter of habit, I try not to howl like a werewolf at groups of teenage girls. Rarely do I lurch toward the elderly like an ape with an attitude. And when possible, I tend to avoid lurking in the shadows to frighten little children.

One week ago, though, I had to break the rules.

For one night, Oct. 6, I worked as a fully costumed ghoul at Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens' annual monthlong Halloween extravaganza. Decked in flannel and face paint, I roamed the park streets screaming "Rawr!" and "Hiss!"

After a night on the prowl at Howl-O-Scream, I can tell you this: Scaring people is hard work.

* * *

Every year, Busch Gardens hires about 1,300 extra workers for its "Creature Crew" during the months of September and October. For two-thirds of them, the journey starts out just like mine, with an acting audition several weeks before Halloween.

Experience is not a prerequisite. Me, I'd never been much of an actor, but I hoped that would not be a problem. "You'd make a good Frankenstein," my wife offered.

On Aug. 12 in a cluttered audition studio, Howl-O-Scream co-chairman Scott Swenson gave us a series of exercises designed to test our acting ability. For example, we were instructed to "dig a hole" in the rubberized floor, then "carry" the "dirt" across the room - all while acting criminally insane. Then we were ordered to change emotions every three seconds. Then we had to act like werewolves. And so on.

The highlight of the audition was an exercise in which we tried to induce fright from behind a wall. Swenson would walk by, and we'd lunge through a window and scream boogity-boogity.

My window was at ground level, so when he reached me, I spun on my heinie, jutted my foot through the curtain and yelled, "My feet! My feet!" Sorta funny. Kinda creepy. It was a quality scare.

Unfortunately, I dropped the ball on a subsequent run of the gantlet. I wanted to scream something truly terrifying, so when Swenson passed by, I stuck out my hands and blurted: "My father loves me!"

This was, for many reasons, a ridiculous thing to shout. The effect I was going for was that of a creepy child in a horror film like The Ring or The Grudge, one of those pallid youths with stringy black hair who groans phrases like "Come play with me . . ." or "Mother has taken my playthings . . ." or something.

But as you might expect, those phrases tend to lose some of their impact when shouted by a grown man lying face down on a gymnastics mat, waving his arms through a tiny felt curtain. "My father loves me"? Good lord. I sounded like Opie Taylor during an especially heated marble match.

Anyway, Swenson was sprinting by, so I doubt he or anyone else heard me. Perhaps tellingly, he never offered a critique of my performance.

But he did give me a part as a "silkie," a Victorian sailor who has perished at sea. My "widow" would carry a candle and moan, whereupon I'd leap out and scream something seaworthy, like "Yar, me mateys!"

I told my wife about my meaty new role.

"Seriously," she said. "If they'd just paint your face green . . ."

* * *

Three weeks later, I returned to the park on a drizzly Thursday for a lengthy orientation session at the Moroccan Palace Theater, home of Katonga.

The session was described as a "personality polishing class," designed to make us better goblins and better people.

Swenson, a trained actor, taught us this: Whether you're a prince or a pauper, the key to connecting to others is how you behave in your first seven seconds with them. If you grumble and scowl, people won't like you. If you smile, they will.

As entertainers, he said, we must quickly smile and make eye contact. Even if we're playing wolfmen, or escaped convicts, people should always like us. Always. And when we're smiling, we need to show teeth. Lots of teeth. Teeth mean you're genuine.

"Smiling! Essential!" Swenson bellowed. What if you don't have any teeth? one man asked. Exceptions can be made, Swenson replied.

The key is to appear as personable, approachable and real as possible. Movies and television have changed how people get scared, he said. I have to be as credible as a guest on a TV show or a character in a horror movie. I must "be interesting" and "affect others emotionally" and "remember to breathe."

More important than all that, though, is this: I must never, under any circumstances, touch the guests. "Don't touch" is Howl-O-Scream's Golden Rule of Haunting. We were shown a video called "Scare With Care" in which this one vampire got himself karate-chopped on the head by poking a beefy, beer-swilling gentleman in the torso. Ouch.

Even if someone touches us, we are not to fight back. Up to 26 police officers are in place each night to deal with drunks, ne'er-do-wells and wiseacre kids. Last year, police ejected 420 people in 17 nights.

"When we handle a fight, we handle it physically," said Tampa Police Det. Mike Mazza, the head of Howl-O-Scream security. "If you happen to be winning a fight, and you're on top, you're gonna get hit. You're gonna get Tasered."

Children will mock me. Drunkards will beat me. I can't carry a gun. I might get Tasered.

And smiling, they tell me, is essential.

* * *

I was a tad apprehensive on the night of the show. Dress rehearsal had not gone well; rain cut short our practice time, and two buckles fell off my trousers.

And the less said of my catastrophic attempt to apply my own stage makeup, the better. White powder flaked from my face like paint chips from an antique armoire. My cheeks and eye sockets were wet with great gray splotches; I looked like the victim of a tragic grout factory explosion.

"Less is more," said my clearly worried stage manager, David Haverty, hovering over my shoulder.

Thankfully, when I arrived, I was sent back to the audition room, where a row of trained professionals applied makeup to all the daily substitute actors. I actually looked good. You know, for a corpse.

My costume was a blue and green flannel shirt decked with mosslike flocking; black pants and suspenders; and a cap similar to the style worn by Depression-era paperboys. I thought I looked more like a lumberjack than a sailor; then again, I never fished with a Victorian dead guy, so what do I know?

At 7:30 it was time for the show. Busch Gardens was expecting about 4,000 visitors on this, the rainy first Thursday of Howl-O-Scream.

We walked over to Timbuktu, our designated "scare zone." All around us were blue lights, mist machines, spooky widow mannequins and the sound of a foghorn. "Find a shadow and make it yours," said fellow silkie Jean-Paul Gagnon.

About 15 minutes in, a father and son walked through, our first chance for a scare. I sprinted out, spoke some weird guttural utterance, and then . . . touched the guest. More than touched him, really; it was like a full-on chest bump between rec league bowling buddies. He did not scream, he just walked away, and I got a little visit from my stage manager.

Midway through my first shift, Jean-Paul, a burly, bearded Howl-O-Scream veteran, walked over to me.

"You've got kind of a Herman Munster thing goin' on," he said.

"Thanks!" I said. "Wait - is that good or bad?"

It's not great, he explained. I'm supposed to be a sailor, not a zombie. I should appear drunken, swarthy and waterlogged, not stiff as a corpse. I needed to drop the hulk and amp up the skulk.

"You've seen Pirates of the Caribbean, right?" he said. "Put a little Johnny Depp in your step."

So I did. I went in low, and came up high, my fingers curled like claws. "That's not nice!" one woman screamed. One guy jumped back and yelled, "Wayne Brady!" I'm not kidding.

Once, I swooped up on a nonchalant young woman who shrieked and jumped back. Two proud silkies came over to congratulate me.

It was quite a workout: Four lengthy sessions of crouching and lunging - in flannel - until about midnight. By the end, I was positively knackered.

That night I lay awake in bed, wired, still carrying the sensation of rocking back and forth in the shadows, like how after a day in the Gulf of Mexico, you can still feel yourself drifting in the waves. And the screams - I could definitely hear the screams.

It is not inconceivable that I am, at this very moment, appearing in some little girl's nightmare. And you know what? This perverse notion is strangely comforting.

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 727 893-8336 or cridlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 12, 2005, 10:19:03]


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