Shock Scare 101: The Education of a Haunted Mansion Alumna

The former Haunted Mansion on the boardwalk in Long Branch, New Jersey.

Finally saw Super 8 last week.  While it had some nice elements – great special effects, late ’70s nostalgia, wonderful performances from the young cast – I was disappointed with the screenplay.  There were red herrings that didn’t pay off, cliché depictions of Machiavellian military types, and a father and son reconciliation that was rushed and emotionally flat.   If J.J. Abrams really wants the moniker of “the next Spielberg”, he’ll have to hire better writers or get someone to doctor his own scripts.  Otherwise, he risks getting pegged as “the next Shyamalan”.

My favorite moments in the movie were the shock scares.  You know there’s a monster out there beyond the trees.  Don’t know what it looks like, but it’s capable of crunching the front end of a police cruiser.  In total trepidation, a gas station attendant emerges from his post and calls out “Sheriff?”  A moment of stillness.  And then boom! Some crazy shit happens.

Tension.  Shock.  Scream.  Release.

Shock scares are the best.  Think about Ben Gardner’s head falling out of the boat in Jaws.  Jones the Cat hissing from behind a crate in Alien.  The bedroom door from hell opening and slamming shut in Poltergeist.  You’re either not expecting it, or you know something’s going to happen, but you don’t know what.  A face in the mirror.  A hand from the grave.  A shot from a gun.

I learned first-hand the simple joy of the shock scare when I worked at the Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey.   Being a high school thespian in the late ’70s, I wanted to work at the Haunted Mansion the moment I saw the TV commercial.

Finally, during the summer between high school graduation and my freshman year of college, I got my chance to don a black shroud and wear white grease paint.

Located on the Long Branch Amusement Pier, the Haunted Mansion was an event to savor slowly, or barrel through like a runaway freight train.  Similar to Halloween attractions that now run seasonally, the Mansion was a walking tour through three stories of pitch black hallways while gothic organ music blasted overhead.

As a member of the cast, I would arrive at the beginning of my shift, get my character assignment and go right into make-up.  During my two-month stint I got to play a variety of ghouls such as Lizzie Borden, “Morgue Doctor”, “Rat Professor” and “The Headless Woman”.

I expected the job to be a non-stop thrill ride.  Instead, there were many late nights and rainy afternoons that found me doing nothing but standing for hours in the dark, bored out of my mind, waiting for someone or something to come by.

Another part of the job I didn’t like was the “Code 5″.

For security purposes, an intercom system ran throughout the building.  Whenever a customer became hysterical or was so frightened or claustrophobic they just wanted the hell out, a cast member would go to the intercom, press the button and say something like, “Code 5, Jack the Ripper.”  A security guard would arrive promptly and escort the distraught patron to the nearest exit.

Code 5’s were actually something many cast members strove for.  I guess they figured if a customer was completely traumatized, it meant they were doing a good job. Incentives were even provided.  Whoever got the most Code 5’s in a week was entitled to take extra time on their break.

To me, Code 5’s were something to avoid.  Often they involved young children who were already terrorized by their bullying parents.  Mostly they were people who were not having any fun at all.  They may as well have been at the dentist.

But the shock scare was different.  There were many ways to achieve it, and although skill was involved, it required very little effort.

During the day, customers would step from the bright sunshine into near total darkness, and for several minutes were virtually blind.  I could stand six inches from a person’s face and they couldn’t see me at all.  All I had to do to elicit a hearty scream was whisper, “Boo.”  The scream was always followed by laughter and a nervous release of energy.  Kind of like a horror orgasm.

There was one section in the Mansion called “The Swamp.”  A wooden, seemingly rickety bridge passed over a floor painted to simulate water.  There were fake palm trees, stuffed birds and a soundtrack they must have gotten from a Tarzan movie.  I used to crouch low next to the bridge and as patrons crossed over, I pulled lightly on their pant legs.  I got more gasps than screams, but invariably someone, usually a girl, would yell, “Oh my god, there’s something down there!”

It was just me.  And on some level my victim knew they were probably being scared by an 18-year-old, pimply-faced college kid.  But on another level, they believed it could have been…

or

Another favorite shock scare op was in the Lizzie Borden scene.  The room was decorated to look like the Bordens’ parlor in the infamous murder scene photos.  There was even a fake corpse laid out on the settee.

The cast member playing Lizzie wore a dress and wig (probably looking more like Tony Perkins in Psycho than the alleged 19th century murderess), and wielded a Styrofoam ax.  Everyone had their own shtick they came up with for playing the various roles in the Mansion.  What I did with Lizzie was stand in the middle of the room as patrons timidly entered the space.  I stood perfectly still, moving only the hand holding the ax, trying to convince them I was animatronic.

I must have done a good job, because usually someone would come up to me, poke me in the arm and say, “Is she real?”  At which point, I suddenly turned toward the prodding patron with my ax raised in the air.  And this is what always happened next.

Hhe or she would scream, fall back in horror, and if there were people standing behind him or her, they would fall like dominoes.

Within seconds I was standing there with a half a dozen people lying on the floor at my feet.

Good times.

There was no way to control the flow of traffic through the Mansion.  If a new group came into the room while everyone was still scrambling to get up, there was no way I could reset to go for another shock scare.  That’s where the high school drama training kicked in.  I had made up some lines for Lizzie that I would use when I couldn’t go for the shock scare.  They went something like:

All the kings horses and all the kings men can’t put Daddy together again.

or

And when the bough breaks I’ll creep to her bed, and I’ll find my Mommy and cut off her head. 

Okay, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but I like to think I creeped out a few people.

In a strange role reversal, a customer once freaked me out.  I was in the Cathedral, dressed like a monk and carrying a book I pretended was a bible.  The Cathedral was dressed to look like the sacrificial altar of a satanic cult.  As audience members walked through, instead of going for shock I spewed forth the most blasphemous gibberish I could think of.  (My high school acting teacher did tell me I was going to be the next Meryl Streep.  Nowadays I’m more inclined to cast myself as the next Estelle Getty.)

A woman entered the Cathedral.  The moment she saw me, she grabbed the crucifix around her neck.  I said something like, “Get down on your knees and tell Satan you love to sin!”  She began shaking her head, then motored like she couldn’t wait to get out of there.  Just as she was going out the door, I shouted, “Armageddon is upon us!”

Just then, the woman stopped and turned around.  She looked me right in eye, and with a very calm and knowing smile, she said:

“No. 1984.”

I was physically repelled by her surety.  The end of the world was coming, and she was happy about it!  Scariest moment I ever had in the Mansion.  Frankly, I was shocked.

Well, 1984 came and passed without incident.  But I did spend most of the ’80s worried about nuclear apocalypse.  I’m just glad she didn’t say, “No, 2012.”  Knowing me, I would have spent the last 30 years waiting for her prophecy to be fulfilled.

Maybe I deserved my decade-long case of low grade anxiety — for taking my creative impulses too far and going beyond the bounds of good taste.  Looking back and remembering the joy and psychological harmlessness of the simple shock scare, I should have just leapt from behind a pew and shouted, “booga-booga-booga!”  I’m sure we both would have had a much better time.