How to make little girls scream like… well, like little girls

[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?

Comments (7)

  1. Bolo says:

    Nice, pity that we don’t have anything like this in Israel ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Keith Farmer says:

    What makes you think people stop using cell phones in the theater?

    Hell, it’s not long ago that shining laser pointers at the screen, during the show, was the fad.

    Can’t even get people to turn their cell phones to vibrate during a presentation when you ask them directly.


    Sounds like you had fun, though ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. When I was in high school my best friend and I put on a haunted house every year in his garage. We would have his father help as well as his brother and occasionally whomever else we could wrangle up. What we would do is go to home depot and buy a couple hundred feet of visqueen to put on the walls, floor and roof as well as strategically create different rooms and hallways through the garage so that people entered on the side of the garage and exited the other side. Because of this if there were no lights on then the place was pitch black. And I mean pitch black.

    What we would usually have is one room with a mad scientist working on a body (which was either an actual person or a dummy that we made out of clothing filled newspaper and masks) with a strobe light and as people were walking into the room he would start walking towards them and then running at them. Usually that scared about 50% of people. We would also usually have another room with a large gorilla that was screaming at people and that room might be just a red light. Other things we would do might have a room that was just lit enough for people to walk through and a person wearing all black jump out and scare them. By far the best idea we ever had was one year we made the entrance to the haunted house out of 5 or 6 cardboard boxes lying on their sides and taped together so that people had to crawl through them on their hands and knees in order to get to the first hallway. What we did was fill up a bunch of latex gloves with water and hang them from the top of the inside of the boxes so that as people were crawling through them it was like a bunch of hands running all over them. It did the job to sufficiently weird anyone out enough so that they were caught off guard by whatever was next in the house.

  4. Chris Martin says:

    I thought I was gonna have to call the police with a post title like that ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Rick O says:

    Not so much for the aspiring zombie, but two things come to mind that they (used to) do here at Halloween Horror Nights, the annual Universal Studios thing they do at their theme parks.

    1. Put a gang (4+) of guys in tore-up baseball catcher plastic shin/knee guards. Give them big machetes, hockey masks, and dreadlocks for effect. Set them in an asphalt jungle, much like you would have at a theme park. Have them hide between buildings until a medium-sized group (4-8) walks by. Spring-loaded, they run full-speed straight at the group, veering and jumping at the last second to land and slide on their shin guards. Add in some machete snicker-snack and wild howling as they go sliding past the group simultaneously. When done right, they can shift their weight to rotate to keep facing the group as they pass. It takes some coordination (and presumably some great knee pads), but it’s a great effect.

    2. Go for a classic "Princess Bride Holocaust Look", but add in a pair of stilts between 3 and 5 feet. The cloaked figure sneaks up behind a group and silently wraps his cloak around a straggler and steers her off in another direction. With enough soundproofing in the bottom, even if the victim screams it sounds muffled enough so that many of the group will just assume it’s coming from somewhere further off. Wait and see how long it takes for the group to notice.

  6. Jeff Parker says:

    One of the things I came up with over the years is coming at people from below if possable. They never expect that. For example one time we had this area where people had to crawl on thier hands and knees to get through not too bad they could see some dim red light at the end of the tunnel well right in the middle below like a inch this plexi glass was a monster waiting in a dark hole. It is also important to have the material for the rest of the tunnel be a semi gloss like the plexi glass for people crawling through it so no one knows there is a clear piece in the middle. Yes this is a good one for the people in the middle as well as the try to back up in a hurry or rush forwards and they can’t plus it is also darker in there because person in front is blocking. The monster below the plexiglass hits a really bright light switch that illuminates his hole in the ground. A scream machine with a speaker above is a good idea as the scream will not be heard through the glass. This has been my little pet project every year and I have tried to improve it through the years. This really freak people out especially since they are on their hands and knees generally looking down right at the monster but have no idea he is there.

    Other things added to this

    Thread, hanging down, they can’t see it but feels like they are going through spider webs, more frequent just before they are over plexiglass that way their mind is on the webs when the light goes off.

    Make sure one of the side walls are hinged, I have scared people so bad they can’t go forward nor back because people behind them.

    Make sure you use think plexiglass, weight of some people for one and yes they will hit the glass out of reaction as well.

    Even better, now days Radio shack has these mini speakers and circuit boards you can record mp3’s to I got the idea when Mike Swanson had his mini pac man on his desk

    Anwyay, so you can record like light whispering and things, put the switch as a presure switch below this tunnel so they get some freaky sound effects as they travel through the tunnel.

    This works pretty well most people are going to go through thinking the tunnel with webs and scary sounds is just part of it, no one expects someone to be below them.

  7. Awesome blog post Eric, it sounds like you had loads of fun!

    It makes me want to volunteer as a Zombie too!  I bet it was really difficult not to laugh though, as you mentioned in one of the points.  Did you start to get competetive with any of the other Zombies about who could scare the most people or get the loudest screams? ๐Ÿ™‚  I imagine you as getting quite competetive ๐Ÿ˜‰

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