[No technology today, so if you're only here for the witty banter about programming languages, skip this one.]
Leah and I spent the week before Halloween volunteering at Nightmare At Beaver Lake, a haunted-house-style attraction that runs along the trails in Beaver Lake Park, just on the other side of Lake Sammamish from Microsoft's main campus. I had never done any kind of acting before whatsoever and it was an enormous amount of fun to learn what scares people.
I was fortunate enough to be given my dream role every night: not just a zombie, but the very first big scare on the trail. As victims came down the trail and rounded a slight corner they saw a fog-shrouded graveyard full of glow-in-the-dark tombstones, and in the distance, a vampire-infested haunted house. They would stop to read the witty saying on the tombstone and then I, in full zombie makeup, lurched out from behind it with a big old RAAARGH!
That worked pretty well, but my co-zombies and I did a lot of fine-tuning as we figured out what scared people and what didn't. We had over 6000 opportunities over the week, so eventually we got it down to a science. As a public service to future aspiring zombies, here's some stuff that we learned works:
- Listen to the people coming down the trail. Their conversations will often tell you which people you should go after for maximum scare potential. If someone says "I'm totally scared of things jumping out at me", jump out at them with a huge RAAARGH! If they say "I'm totally scared of things creeping up on me", creep up on them and then right in their ear give a little groan. If they say that they're scared of things following them, follow them. And so on.
- I probably heard fifty times a night "you go first, I'm too scared, no, I don't want to be last either" as a group was rounding the corner. If you've got a large party coming down the trail always go for the middle; that's where the most easily scared people are. Also, that way the people in front get scared from behind, the people in the middle get scared from the side, and the people in back get scared from the front. If you go for either end then the people at the other end don't get scared at all. Moreover, the women in the center often link arms. This means that when one of them leaps backwards and screams, they all fall backwards, which is hilarious. (Try not to laugh, it ruins the illusion.)
- If you can scare people into running one way, have a second zombie in the woods on the other side to scare them again. Do this as long as it works. We had one little girl, maybe eleven years old who I scared, she screamed and took off down the trail directly towards the other zombie, who jumped out, scared her, she ran back towards me, I jumped out again, she ran the other way, and finally one of the brides of Dracula jumped out from behind yet a third tombstone – it was like playing pinball. And believe me, to freaked out people two zombies and a bride might as well be a horde. You feel totally surrounded.
- Creeping up on people is a harder and more dangerous – sometimes people will instinctively swing at you when they are startled, though this didn't happen to me. But it can be very effective. If someone stopped to read the tombstones I would try to very quietly get right beside them so that when they turned to look up and continue the trail, I'd be about six inches from their face.
- Making a brief hissing or groaning or gurgling noise to get people creeped out before the RAAARGH! can be highly effective but you've got to get the timing just right. Too long and you'll telegraph your location, too short and it gets lost in the RAAARGH!
- You can't startle everyone, they're just coming too fast. We had 2100+ people through in four hours one night. Remember that there are 40 other volunteers down the trail who will try to startle them, and some will succeed. If you miss a chance to startle a group, you can still creep them out while you lurch back to your hiding place.
- Sniff at people. It is incredibly creepy to have someone smell you, particularly if they then act hungry.
- If you can scream like the nazgul from the TLotR movie, that really works but you get hoarse after four hours of it. (I cannot but one of my co-zombies had a wicked scream.)
- Always stay in character. One time I jumped out and scared a woman so badly that she dropped the cell phone she was (inexplicably) holding and took off at a run. Fortunately she ran right into the vampire house, so while the brides and Dracula were freaking her out even more I grabbed the phone, opened it up so that it would light up, and ran around to the exit of the vampire house. But you can't just say "hey lady, you dropped your cell phone, here you go", you've got to lurch towards her, groaning, and hand her the cell phone like a zombie would. Similarly, if you see your friends then stay in character, you can chat with them later. Breaking character ruins it for everyone else.
- Speaking of which, if you are an audience member in a haunted house, do not talk on your freakin' cell phone! You're ruining it for everyone else. You wouldn't do that in a movie or a play, so don't do it in a haunted house either.
- Teaming up two scary zombies works well, but teaming up a scary monster with a speaking part can also be very effective. In Leah's area she was the little old hillbilly lady on the porch who would engage the victims with humour, and then as soon as they were distracted, her "son", the six-foot-eight guy with the pig's head and the chainsaw would jump out of the shack. This is particularly effective against teenagers who are sassing back to the old lady: they are maximally off their guard.
- Finally, a couple things about difficult customers. First, if a customer really, truly is not having a good time, just let them go. Sometimes we got small children, teenagers and even adults who were so scared that they stopped having a good time and had to leave. One girl, maybe thirteen years old, just stood still and started yelling "I-WANT-MY-MOM-I-WANT-MY-MOM" over and over again, would not move, and had to be removed by security.
- Second, if an idiot teenage boy sees you hide and announces where you are, or you have a "tour guide" who has been on the trail before telling everyone where the scares are then they've already ruined it for themselves and their entire groups. There is nothing you can do to make it scary at that point, so just ignore them, keep hiding, wait for the group to go by, and get the next group.
Anyone else have any suggestions for aspiring zombies?