The Art of Fear: Know Your Surroundings

One of the more annoying things I see in haunted attractions that I either guest act at or visit as a customer is when you enter a set, and the actor just stands there staring or slowly stalking. It makes me want to scream at them “DO SOMETHING!”

You need to know your surroundings inside and out and learn to use them. Now the only time the standing/slow stalking staring works is if YOU are the distraction. That means when you are working the room with someone else, and they are the one that is going to be the one to deliver the scare. Then you serve as the distraction. The one that the customer will focus on or try to interact with allowing the other actor the element of surprise when they spring into action. If you are doing that then please stare and stalk away. If not…well… then move damnit!

It is essential to know the area you are working in. If you are a roaming actor covering a zone or jumping through the whole haunt, then walk through and find key points you can utilize. What I do first is get a quick layout of where I am. I find the dark corners, key focus areas and props, and talk to the other performers. I get a game plan as to what I’m going to do. Personally, since I’ve done this a long time and have had my fair share of scares in that time I do like to serve as the distraction. That way the customers see me when they enter, and I start doing my act to grab their attention then book the other actor strikes. I then take off to another area and set it all up again leaving the good scares for the other actors. I still get my scares from time to time, but this way I keep the other actors pumped when they get theirs thus making the entire haunt rocking. However, that’s me and most likely you are that other actor.

Learning your set or area has a whole set of different reasons for doing so. First and foremost, it’s so you can learn the layout and plan your act. You want several different options planned out to keep it fresh for yourself and the customers in case they are repeat visitors. Find a starting point where you will first strike. However, don’t stop there! plan a route. Do not just pop out of the shadows or the pop-out area, say something other than boo, then go back in or just stand there. Guess what once you hit you are on stage. Granted the customers on average only spend a few seconds in your set, but those few seconds can feel like an eternity if you guys are just staring at each other.

The goal is to make them jump, scream, and run out of the room. Hopefully that happens, but realistically it will not most of the time. That’s why you need an act and a plan using your surroundings. We use to say that if you can’t scare them you can still be successful if you at least entertain. Jumping around after you strike using quick movements saying some sort of dialog will do just that. That’s why in the last post I said to conserve your voice and really your energy. This is a very physically demanding job.

Another very good reason to know your surroundings well is because of safety on several different levels. You want to know the layout of everything including props. Imagine this: You jump out of your pop out area and the customer screams, jumps, and starts to try to get away. The customer takes off running out of the room and your natural haunt instinct is to chase after them. Trust me there is nothing worse than toppling over a prop or hitting a wall when doing so. It happens, but if you know your area’s layout you can avoid the embarrassment and pain. Also, you will get idiot customers and sometimes drunks who want to strike out and punch. You have the rude idiots that will try to go after the female performers. These are dangers that most haunts try to filter out at the door or at least give them a “hidden” escort, but not all of them are noticed right away so you will experience those customers. Knowing your area’s layout and who you’re working with provides some level of safety. The other actor will have your back and you will have theirs. Learning the surrounds gives you an escape plan if needed or at least know where you can back away safely.

I know for some this concept is a no brainer, but for others they never realized how important movement within your set is and how to work your room the best is to know your room inside and out. Remember to those reading all of these I’m starting out for beginners and slowly moving up to advance techniques and ideas.

All of this is fundamental for everyone. Most haunts I’ve worked have a system of different acting positions. The set actors (which may consist of the actor having one room or maybe a set of rooms), the roaming actor (which usually serves as a zone leader watching over a collection of sets and actors), and line actors (which usually serves as outside entertainment especially when the wait to enter the haunt is long). No matter what level of actor you are or how many years you have been haunting knowing your surroundings is the key even in line or outside acting. Granted that is a little different and we will discuss that specifically in another essay.

I guarantee that if you learn your surroundings and map out several paths of movement for your character and act you will without a doubt have more fun.