THE BUSINESS OF FEAR

Inside HAuNTcon: What it’s really like to scare people to death for a living

FUSION

“When they’re doing makeup on decedents, they put highlighter on the temples. They look sunken—they’ve been in a morphine coma, they haven’t been eating much—so they want to make them look livelier. But we want to make them look dead.”

As he spoke, Nick Wolfe was transforming a pretty, decidedly unterrifying young woman into an undead hag.

If you could bring yourself to look away from her sinister makeover, focusing instead on the fluorescent lighting, the beige walls, the numbingly neutral carpet, it could have been a scene from any kind of niche industry conference: orthodontics, mortgage banking, seals and gaskets. This business just happens to be fear.

According to America Haunts, a national trade organization, there are more than 1,200 professional haunted attractions, popularly termed “haunts,” in the United States. That figure includes haunted houses, haunted farms, haunted hayrides, haunted mansions, haunted caverns, haunted prisons, haunted paintball, and haunted ships—and doesn’t touch on charity haunts, events organized by groups like the Jaycees and the March of Dimes, or amateur home haunts that don’t charge admission. HAuNTcon, the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow & Convention—held this year from January 28 through February 1 in Birmingham, Alabama—exists to serve them all.

Nearly 600 haunters had congregated at the Sheraton Birmingham for more than two full days’ worth of classes (like “Cemetery Props: Concept vs. Reality,” “13 Reasons to Start a Haunted Farm,” and “Fire Resistance and Your Haunt: Keeping Real Horror at Bay”) and, for an additional materials fee, hands-on workshops (like “Gory, Easy and Durable Silicone Wounds”). The convention also offered attendees, who can rarely step away from their own attractions on October weekends, the opportunity to tour three local haunts out of season.

While people come to HAuNTcon for the same reasons you’d come to any conference—to learn, to share knowledge, and to network with their peers—it’s safe to say that most small business owners don’t have an obsessive interest in making their employees look as dead as possible, in the hopes of making their costumers come as close to soiling themselves as possible.

In Nick Wolfe’s seminar, “Freaky Facepainting for Haunted Attractions,” the award-winning makeup artist and instructor behind Evil Twin FX explained that the key is contouring, really, if not exactly the kind you’d typically come across in an YouTube tutorial. Soft, round shapes make your face look prettier. Sharp, unforgiving angles and pronounced parallel lines have the opposite effect. Then there’s the art of choosing your palette.

“One of my favorite colors for dead people, I call brown-ple,” Wolfe said. “It’s not really brown, it’s not really purple.”

He applied robust streaks of red from the corners of the woman’s mouth, which converged in a single stream down her neck. “I’m using a 45-degree angle to make it look like she bit into someone’s jugular and it all splurted. Blood isn’t just going to run down in a clean line,” he advised, in the same matter-of-fact tone that someone in a different profession might use to share practical advice about snow tires or student loan consolidation. “It’ll get caught in wrinkles.” And don’t get too precious with the way you’re spreading gore around the mouths of the undead. They’re messy eaters.

He narrated his process in specific anatomical terms, naming the zygomatic bones of the cheek and the sternocleidomastoid muscle of the neck as he brought them into sharp relief. “You gotta be careful when you’re giving compliments while facepainting. You’re like, ‘Oh, you’ve got such a huge, awesome forehead,’” he said.

The model zombie giggled, delighted, when she looked in the mirror. Wolfe, in turn, was visibly pleased by her reaction. “Our job as makeup artists isn’t to make them look good in the house,” he said. It’s to make the actors feel good.”

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Leonard Pickel founded HAuNTcon in 2004, which makes this year its 13th anniversary—an auspiciously creepy number. “HAuNTcon is like a family reunion. Of the Manson family,” he joked. (I get the impression that this is a line that the 40-year veteran of the industry has used before, but that doesn’t make me like it any less.)

In 1975, Pickel was a freshman at Texas A&M when a night of coed trick-or-treating set him on another path. After they saw that their female classmates had decked out their dorm in the Halloween spirit, he and his roommate rushed home and haphazardly redecorated. Leonard—who’d dressed as Dracula—laid out on a table, with a bowl of candy (yes, that being the candy they’d just collected) positioned so that you’d have to reach over the vampire to grab a handful.

“Somehow, we thought that was going to get us dates,” Pickel explained.

He had started to doubt whether anyone would show when a few heads peered cautiously around the door frame. The next thing he knew, they’d fled down the hall. “Wow, if they’re that easy to scare, we have to set up a haunted house,” Pickel recalled thinking.

Since then, he’s designed more than 100 haunts and consulted for many more, not to mention that he pioneered the so-called “Pickel Theory of Haunted Houses,” the basis for a series of booklets on commercial haunting, and co-founded Haunted Attraction Magazine. Over the decades he’s spent haunting, he’s witnessed a lot of change.

Leonard Pickel.

Leonard Pickel.

“Zombies are huge right now because of The Walking Dead,” he said. “Vampires stopped being scary when they began to sparkle.”

The last few years have also seen a drastic increase in extreme “full-contact” haunts, where performers can not only touch patrons, but grab them and tie them up, or even simulate waterboarding, depending on the haunt. “They’re touching you, but they don’t know why. That’ll scare a 14-year-old girl, but anything will,” Pickel told me. “If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need to do that to scare people.”

After 9/11, the industry “went into a tailspin.” Haunt attendance was down as much as 60% in 2001, and it took years to grow back. “People took ‘terror’ out of the names of their haunts when the towers fell,” Pickel told me. But benign factors can have a powerful effect on an attraction’s annual performance, too. For instance, if your city’s baseball team goes to the World Series, you can expect your haunt to suffer.

“There’s a lot of easier ways to make a living than in the haunted attractions industry,” he said. “I’ve shaken hands of people who’ve walked away. McDonald’s would have been a better choice.”

HAuNTcon isn’t the only trade show of its kind, nor is it the largest. But what it offers is a uniquely tight-knit community. Pickel sees it as an “incubator,” primarily geared toward helping haunters who are early in their careers, and moves the convention to a new location every year to expand its reach—and many of its loyal attendees follow. Recently, HAuNTcon has traveled to Houston, Baton Rouge, and Pittsburgh, and in 2017, it’s headed to Nashville.

“You would think they’re creepy, but haunted house people are the best people on Earth. We get all our frustrations out scaring the crap out of other people,” Pickel said.

To Leonard, the warmth that permeates HAuNTcon is consistent with the very nature of haunting, which—while antisocial on the surface—is fundamentally about forming a connection. “When you scare somebody, they get an adrenaline rush. But you get an adrenaline rush, too. It’s symbiotic.”

That description took me by surprise. It’s one thing to make someone laugh, or even smile, but I couldn’t really imagine what terrifying a person would feel like.

“Well, do you want to find out?” he asked me.

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The HAuNTcon trade-show floor was like Christmas morning, if your family celebrated Christmas on October 31: colored contact lenses, menacing life-size puppets, masks, makeup, prosthetics, pneumatics, severed limbs, knives, foam-cutting kits, corsets with a steampunk flair, skulls in every color imaginable, and T-shirts with morbid slogans. I bought my sister a necklace that reads “Zombie” in the unmistakable pink Barbie font.

Even among all this spectacular weirdness, the Birmingham Oddities booth was impossible to miss. Owner Adam Williams’ wares included human bone jewelry, a tiny mummified piglet, and a drawing by serial killer Ottis Toole. “It’s been great being at shows, where I’m two feet away from the person’s reaction. It’s not every day you walk up and see a human brain,” he said. Besides furnishing décor for attractions, Birmingham Oddities will work with haunts to develop merchandise packages.

A mother and preteen daughter, in costume for a dance performance and apparently unaffiliated with HAuNTcon, walked up to the booth. “So you make things that look real?” the mom asked. Adam grinned like a kid. “Oh, you wish.”

Three actors who’d appeared as “walkers” on The Walking Dead were available for autographs. Kyle Vest, an alum of the Game Show Network’s body painting competition reality show Skin Wars—wearing a shirt that read “#TeamKyle: He’s Weird in a Good Way”—and Roy Wooley, seen on Syfy’s Face Off, performed makeup demos at their booths.

The de facto HAuNTcon uniform is a T-shirt (usually black) emblazoned with the name of a haunt, in an appropriately creepy typeface: Greenville Haunted Firehouse, Texas Maze of Terror, Hellbilly Hollow, FearCity Nights, Field of Screams, Granville Haunt Farm, East Coast Haunt Club, Creepy Hollow, Legends of Fear, Nashville Nightmare. Some specifically identified the wearer as a haunt employee: Boo Crew, Skeleton Crew, Staff Infection. A neon-green lanyard emblazoned with the Froggy’s Fog logo hung around every attendee’s neck, including my own.

Froggy’s is a purveyor of fluids and fluid machines—think fog, haze, bubbles, snow, and even wearable sprays—that come in a wide variety of scents to set the mood. But “wide” is probably an understatement. To name a few, there’s Barnyard, Boiler Room, Charred Corpse, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Dirt, Electric Chair, Garlic, Hell, Mildew, Christmas Pine, Poop Fart, and Waffle Cone.

“There’s nothing worse than a zombie that smells like Tide or Halls,” Froggy’s sales rep Tater Lynd told me at his booth.

Scent is, after all, the sense most closely tied to memory. “If [patrons] smell cotton candy, they know there’s clowns coming,” Lynd said. “And I have one that will make you dry heave.” The fragrance he had in mind was called Rotting Decay. He didn’t oversell it.

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For haunters who may not be prepared to shell out for a fog machine—be it a $39.99 or a $9,499.99 model—frugal can still be frightening. “You can build anything out of trash, you guys,” said Jennifer Vanlandingham in her class, “A Beginner’s Guide to Prop-Building Basics on a Budget.” A petite, tan woman with an enormous smile, Vanlandingham operates a free outdoor home haunt in Hawaii.

There is almost nothing you can’t create out of balloons and papier-mâché, she told us. Substitute the balloon for a beach ball and you’ve got the makings of a cauldron, a pumpkin, or the body of a massive spider.

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Jennifer Vanlandingham.

But that’s only the beginning. “Being in the dentistry field, I have access to teeth,” she explained. “You can go to nursing homes and collect dentures. I hate to say it, but—I know, I’m sorry.”

I asked her what the rest of the haunt scene in Hawaii is like. “I’m it,” she laughed. She first tried her hand at haunting in 2006, with “literally just some cardboard and particle board.” This was her second year at HAuNTcon. “Oh my god, there’s other people who do this!” she recalled thinking when she discovered the convention. “People who don’t think I’m weird for liking dead animals.”

To begin his workshop, “Character Development and Evolution 101,” Al Driver reached across the long table at the head of the room—between a bloodied chainsaw and a baseball bat streaked with gore—to select a weathered hockey mask. He held it up for his audience to inspect. “What do you think of when you see this?”

One voice called out, “Jason.” Another answered, “My mama!”

But Driver, co-owner of the prop company Slaughterhouse Studios, forged ahead. “That’s not Jason Voorhees, that’s a hockey mask.” He indicated another familiar movie prop lying next to it. “That’s not Freddie Krueger, that’s a razor glove. But you think that because someone did their job. If you’re Billy’s Yard of Terror, you should have a signified character that separates you from Ted’s Yard of Terror down the street.”

But guests are only willing to suspend their disbelief up to a point. “Thick Southern accents and Victorian vampires don’t mix. A massive guy playing a jockey doesn’t make sense, and neither does a psycho clown hanging around in a graveyard,” he said.

Some psycho clowns prefer to hang around in front of hotels. Later that afternoon, I met Robert Gofourth—who I’d earlier watched Nick Wolfe transform into a grinning circus lunatic—smoking outside the Sheraton’s lobby. He told me he’d spent four seasons scare acting, at both charity haunts and at Warehouse 31, the conference’s Saturday haunt tour. Then Gofourth asked me if I’d like to see him put his cigarette out on his tongue. He pressed the glowing tip down firmly, without flinching.

“What’s the trick?” I asked him. “No trick. It just hurts like hell.”

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Robert Gofourth.

Who looks into the horrified face of a stranger and sees an appealing hobby, let alone a viable career path? What does the stereotypical haunter look like? After meeting dozens of them, I can tell you with confidence that I have absolutely no idea. (That said, based on my experience, haunting skews white and male.) Chris Screws, a teacher at Pinson Valley High, devised his Alabama haunt, Insanitarium, as a means of raising money for the school’s art department, and now teaches an elective that instructs students in skills like mask design, prop-making, and special effects. Some of the teens’ work is featured in Insanitarium, and they get to visit for free.

“These are the kids that don’t have a place to go. They’re not on the football team. They’re too shy for drama,” Screws said. “But they’re great at many things. And they need to feel important. They are important. This is what I needed when I was in school.

Joey Adams of Texas’ Amarillo Scaregrounds (a five-attraction “scream park,” including zombie apocalypse-themed laser tag) has attended HAuNTcon for 11 years, on and off. As for Jay Jimerson, the family business is sporting goods. But he bought a warehouse last year, not far from his home in Butler, Alabama, and he came to HAuNTcon to learn as much as he could about haunt management.

As Scott Swenson put it, “Flying your freak flag here is completely acceptable.” He has a background in theater, which might explain why almost everything he says sounds like a well-rehearsed monologue, even when you’re just chatting about the weather. He also has major-league haunting experience: Swenson spent more than two decades at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, where he directed the theme park’s Howl-O-Scream experience for eight years. His business card case is inscribed “Haunt Daddy.”

Swenson’s new project, Tampa’s Vault of Souls, is an interactive “evening of elegant fear” inspired by immersive theatrical productions like Sleep No More. This 18-and-over event is unsettling performance art that doubles as a speakeasy-inspired cocktail party in a former bank building, dating back to 1923. When he mentions its $100 cost of entrance in a room of haunters, that figure draws an audible murmur. (According to America Haunts, you’ll pay less than $13 at about 60% of haunts.)

In recruiting performers, Swenson looks for “two different skillsets: the ability to build character, and the stamina to be a startler.” A startler is exactly what it sounds like: An actor responsible for popping out of the darkness when patrons least expect it, then resetting quickly in time to scare the next group that passes by.

In “Get Up and Scare! The Importance of Finding, Casting, and Training Haunted Actors,” Swenson staged a mock audition with four volunteers from the audience. He gave them simple instructions: Dig a grave, but dig it in character. As they mimed hauling dirt across the room, Swenson shouted out further direction. First, they were vampires, then werewolves in transition, and then would-be victims fleeing a serial killer. Whenever he clapped his hands, they were to drop dead. It looked exhausting. In a scene that wouldn’t have felt out of place in an improv class, I watched a bald man in glasses and cargo pants flail his arms wildly, visibly short of breath, as his giggling friends recorded the moment on their phones. It was difficult to remember that, should any of us have come across him alone—in dim lighting, with the right eerie soundtrack—the effect would have been very different.

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The music that scored Friday night’s HAuNTcon costume ball was what you’d expect from a crowd-pleasing wedding—I heard Salt-N-Pepa, Pitbull, Wild Cherry, Gorillaz, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Missy Elliott—and so was the décor, at least until you took a closer look. The white tables were covered in bloody handprints, as were the otherwise cheerful white balloons that adorned them.

Leonard Pickel had dressed for the occasion in a stained and tattered suit and tie, dirt streaked across his face, looking like he’d clawed his way out from a grave. “These people don’t get to experience Halloween, so we want to give them Halloween in January, to remind them why they got in this business,” he told me.

Why they got into this business was abundantly clear. The costumes were truly stunning, heavy on gore and special effects. In attendance were an undead JFK, a luminous jellyfish, Frida Kahlo with her bleeding heart exposed, Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Corpse Bride, and a costume I can best describe as the unholy offspring of Santa Claus and Hannibal Lecter. But the single most popular guest was a small, elderly pug in a baby stroller lit by artificial candles. An escort with an extensively decayed face wheeled her lovingly around the dance floor. I’d learn later that her name is Gau, and that she has her own Facebook page.

The party was a little slow to start, but not for a lack of enthusiasm or attendance. The ball began at 8, but at 9:30, only a few young women had braved just the edges of the dance floor. The haunters were busy: lining up to pose for “prom” photos before a step-and-repeat green screen, catching up with old friends, and stopping strangers to ask how that glowing headpiece was assembled or where that sword was forged. Without anyone in particular to scare, they were predators without prey, content to revel in each other’s fearsome glory. Within another hour, lines of incongruous ghouls—a purple demon with spiked epaulettes beside an old-timely escaped prisoner, beside a pregnant nun carrying a monstrous baby, beside a Jack Nicholson-era Joker—were doing the “Cha Cha Slide.”

hauntcon-prom-photosHAuNTcon/Facebook, FUSION

I asked a hotel security guard, watching from the side of the room, if this was the strangest event he’d ever worked. He laughed. “Honestly, no. We have something called the Premier Hair Show, and they come in with all kinds of wigs on.”

That weekend, HAuNTcon shared the Sheraton with what seemed like thousands of teen and tween girls—some in town for volleyball, others for a dance competition. Outside the ballroom, their shrieks greeted every new costume that arrived in the lobby. “Ladies, y’all need to keep it down,” a hotel employee gently admonished, but they paid him no mind. I asked three giddy girls in pajamas waiting to take a selfie with a grotesque Raggedy Ann and Andy if anyone had frightened them that night. “No!” one shouted. “Well, she got scared,” said another, turning to a third girl. “She saw someone going up the escalator covered in blood and she lost it.”

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Leonard’s mother, LaNora Pickel, isn’t fazed. “The first year we did this, they held the ball opposite a wedding,” she told me. “All the costumes were scaring the little children. That poor bride. Nobody looked at her.”

On my way back to my hotel room that night, my convention badge dropped off my lanyard as I left the ball. I didn’t notice. A woman in a gorgeous gothic bodice, on her way back from the ladies’ room, picked it up.

“Dear!” she said, and pressed my badge into my palm. I thanked her, and she said, “I’ll take a hug for it.” She wrapped me up in her arms, then disappeared back into the darkness of the dance floor.

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On Saturday night, I boarded the HAuNTcon bus to Warehouse 31, 20 miles south of the Sheraton. When we disembarked, Hammer, a friendly man with a formidable beard, led me into the depths of the haunt. Leonard had called in a favor. I was being put to work.

Real name John Hancock (really), Hammer is officially the venue’s Actor Coordinator, but “Chief Monster Wrangler, Director of Monster Relations, those work as well.” He’s worked in haunts for 27 years, since he was 13 years old. A high school classmate he had crush on told him she wanted to check out the local haunted house, so he got a job there. The crush faded, but it was replaced by something else: the “primal feeling” of a really good scare.

They’ll have to wheel me in there and I’ll keep doing it,” Hammer told me.

Warehouse 31 is comprised of two attractions: the more traditional Rigamortis (which is what I was there for), and a “Freak Show” 3D experience. Admission to both is $25. The haunt operates about 22 nights of the year, from the last weekend of September through October, welcoming 16,000 to 17,000 customers. They briefly reopen for Valentine’s Day, plastering the walls with broken hearts and switching up the music to a soundtrack of “Love Hurts,” “Used to Love Her,” and so on. Warehouse 31 first launched in St. Augustine, Florida in 2009, then relocated to Pelham, Alabama, in 2013. “They broke the haunt down, shipped everything up in nine tractor trailers, then put it back together,” Hammer told me.

Backstage, the atmosphere was one of electricity and anticipation. Most of the cast appeared to be in their late teens and early twenties—I spent a few minutes listening to two young men in the crew complain about the drama a mutual friend of theirs, another haunter, had started on Facebook—and their camaraderie was obvious. It was equally obvious that I was an outsider. An evil clown growled at me on sight, and hey, I get it.

Actor and artist Jodi Smith, her fingers speckled with black paint, greeted me warmly and sat me down in a makeup chair. She airbrushed a thick, gruesome scar across my face, over a base of UV paint, then directed me into a large supply closet so I could see how it glowed in the dark. While I was inside, someone banged sharply on the door and roared. (Again, I get it.)

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Jodi Smith and the author.

Ready for haunting—at least, as ready as I would ever be—I posed for a picture with Jodi (who’d by then donned the crowning glory of her own costume, a skeletal ram mask complete with two long, gnarled horns) and her husband Cam, who gave the camera the finger. An actor named Doug, dressed as what I am about 80% sure was a doomed miner, started chanting, “One of us!”

Hammer took me straight through the haunt, chatting all the while, apparently unbothered by the creepy hall of portraits or the guillotine snap of a drop door behind us.

“Do you ever get scared?” I asked him. “Rarely,” he said, “But they try to scare the boss.”

He deposited me in a dark corner, in a section of the haunt called the “laser shaft.” Unsuspecting guests would pass by, turning to the right, but not before I did my best to terrify them from their left. I’d almost certainly want to scream, Hammer told me, but beyond that, my scares were a blank canvas. He said I could do just about whatever I wanted—mess with the visitors, chase them, even play with their hair. How would I know when they were approaching? “After you hear the chainsaw, it’ll be about three minutes,” Hammer advised, leaving me with a water bottle and heading on to confirm the rest of the actors (that is, the actual actors) were in their places.

It’s time for me to make a confession: I was scared. Very scared. I felt like there was more adrenaline than blood in my veins. There were so many noises echoing through all 30,000 square feet of Warehouse 31 (rolling thunder, the metallic rattle of chains, maniacal laughter) that I quickly realized I was never going to make out the chainsaw. The small corridor in which Hammer had left me was pitch black. I backed myself as deep into the corner as I could fit, each arm braced against a wall for comfort. Doug, stationed in the next scene, stopped by and assured me that the guests never look left. I wasn’t sure if I believed him.

Let’s say I told you to scream. Sounds easy, right? But when you’re alone, in the darkness, with nothing to do except workshop your scream, you think about all the different ways there are to do it. How loud is loud enough? If you wrote your scream out phonetically, what would it look like? An ahh? An arr? An eee? Or would it start with a consonant? Bah? Wah? Rah?

And while it was clear that I was a classic startler, should I nevertheless put some thought into my character? How did I get this scar on my face? What makes it glow? Am I caught between worlds, desperate to resolve the unfinished business from my previous life? Am I just lonely?

It took what felt like hours for the first guests to come my way—and when they did, I was soon reminded that these weren’t typical guests. They were professionals. The haunters strolled through the haunt with clinical disinterest, talking amongst themselves about the lighting and motorized props. I tried my best, but my best proved to be somewhere between mediocre and embarrassing. “Yeah, okay,” one of my targets said, like I was waving them down, clipboard in hand, for a moment of their time to talk about the environment. “Hello,” said someone else. I have never known a rejection as withering as trying to scare someone and having them not even look at you.

“It was a tough crowd, definitely,” Warehouse 31 owner Jason Sills consoled me later.

“Oh, yeah,” Doug said, “It’s like trying to scare another haunt actor.”

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Warehouse 31.

When my throat began to ache, I supplemented my screams by banging my hands against the walls. When my palms began to burn, I tried smashing the plywood with my now-empty water bottle instead. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I tried to time a loud shriek to the exact moment each guest’s shadow crossed the threshold.

My batting average was maybe .100, if I’m being generous. I was humblingly bad—and far more scared than most of the people I was supposed to be scaring, in part because I was worried the other actors were just waiting for their moment to ambush me (who could blame them?). But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the people I did scare—particularly a blond, thirtysomething man who cried out “Goddammit! Goddammit!” when I screamed at him. I was so exhilarated that I stalked him down the short hallway, emboldened by a confidence I didn’t know I had, and he took off running.

I felt overcome with a sense of gratitude for this man: What passed between us was genuine. There’s no room for artifice in haunting, no equivalent to a polite chuckle at a bad joke or a nod of the head at an acquaintance whose name you’ve already forgotten. You’ve either scared someone or you haven’t. I definitely had, and he definitely was.

After all the HAuNTcon guests had made it through the haunt, Hammer and I talked in his office, where I found myself squinting at an industrial-size box of baby wipes as my eyes struggled to adjust to the light.

Hammer is intimately familiar with scare acting: the good, the bad, the unexpectedly violent. “If you do your job well, you’re gonna trigger fight or flight. I’ve been headbutted, I’ve been bitten, I’ve been dropkicked.” Once, he frightened a University of Alabama offensive lineman so intensely that the young man hit him harder than Hammer had ever been hit. “I saw him later, and he was covered in sweat. ‘Man, I don’t know who it was, but I was so scared that I hit someone in the head. I hope he’s okay.’ Yeah, that was me.”

But behind the scenes, the haunt is a lot more harmonious than all that drop-kicking and head-butting—to say nothing of those chainsaws and blood-curdling screams—would lead you to believe. “We have high school kids come in who don’t talk to each other in school, but here, they’re buddies. Relationships blossom. We’ve helped a few people find their way in life,” Hammer said.

He pointed out a framed photograph of a young man on his bookshelf and asked me if I could mention him in my story. This is Will Neff, a beloved Warehouse 31 actor, who was murdered in 2015 at the age of only 19. After his passing, a vigil was held in his honor at the haunt.

“As the years go on, I’ve noticed that people at haunts feel like misfits, and they find they fit in here. I do everything in my power to keep it a family atmosphere,” Hammer said.

I felt an odd sensation on the back of my head, and I turned to see a young man in skeleton makeup inches from my face, blowing on my ear. This was, without a doubt, the single scariest thing that happened to me all weekend, and possibly all year. I still think about it.

Halloween is about community,” Leonard Pickel told me when we first met. “What other night can you knock on all your neighbors’ doors without anyone calling the police?” Forming an honest bond with another human being is a high that’s almost impossible to resist chasing, however fleeting that bond may be, and even if that other human being happens to be wielding an axe.