Standing in line for Columbus’ newest haunted house 13th Floor, I saw three girls in front of me being taunted by a zombie with milky eyes and misshapen sharp teeth. He turned away from the girls and approached me, leaning in.
“You recognize me?” he asks, and I politely smiled and made a noncommittal gesture because no, I didn’t remember him. He elaborated. “We talked earlier.”
It took a couple minutes after he left to remember his name is Daeshawn Bates — one of the actors at 13th Floor. I interviewed him less than two hours prior to entering the haunted house. He had since transformed into a ghoulish zombie. His posture and voice had changed. He was unrecognizable.
Bates is one of many actors at 13th Floor that take their job providing scares very seriously.
“It does take a certain type of person to be a haunter,” Davron Pierce, one of the actors at 13th Floor said. “If you’re not putting blood, sweat and tears into it, you’re doing it wrong.”
13th Floor operates under Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group, and has other popular 13th Floor haunted house iterations in cities such as Denver, Jacksonville, Phoenix and San Antonio. The Columbus location opened in September and closes Saturday night.
Ashley Shilling, the general manager of 13th Floor, said many of the people who haunt the attractions are paid actors. Some are theater students at local universities, while others are professional actors in between gigs.
Many of the actors have been working at haunted houses for years, and some worked at the ScareAtorium before it was replaced by 13th Floor. Pierce and Shilling, for example, have worked at haunted houses for seven years.
Two hours before the attraction opens to the public, the employee-only area of 13th Floor looks much like the backstage area of a theater.
Employees arrive in street clothes and find out where they’ve been stationed via the large whiteboard in the corner. From there they head to wardrobe, where they get their costumes. Once that’s done they head into the makeup room, where a team of makeup artists airbrush them into zombies, demons and ghouls.
After they’ve finished being transformed, the actors sit and talk with each other to practice their scariest voices and mannerisms, devising the best way to scare customers.
After watching the actors talk and joke with each other, it’s easy to tell some of them have known each other for years.
While haunted houses might not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about where an actor might find work, it’s not too different from what an audience might see on a stage.
“You can’t scare every person, but you can entertain every person,” said Bates, stunt manager for 13th Floor.
From the perspective of the 13th Floor actors, the customers pay good money for a scary experience, so it’s their role as entertainers to provide that.
“At the end of the day, you’re putting on a show for people,” said Jessica Olle, actor and assistant to the general manager. “There’s a set and costumes and an audience.”
Experience in acting and performing is one of the biggest advantages a new employee can bring to the table. Scaring customers can be exhausting and rough on the vocal cords, and customers sometimes make it difficult to stay in character.
“Everyone is out of their comfort zone,” Olle said. “The customers and the actors.”
13th Floor keeps a medic on staff to help make sure that the actors and customers alike are safe and healthy.
Even with the negative aspects of a haunting house, the actors said they love their work. Some have been horror fans all their lives, and some are just fans of the haunted house experience.
“When I’m having a bad day and I scare someone, it’s therapeutic,” Wicks said. “It’s a rush, like ‘Yeah, I scared that person!’”
For Wicks, working at a haunted house is a marriage between her love for theater and horror — so much so that she’s been working in haunted houses for the past five years.
Creating quality sets for the haunted house is just as important as finding quality actors. Planning the layout and details of 13th Floor’s attractions began back in January, Shilling said.
The haunted orphanage attraction makes use of 3-D glasses to create disorienting visuals. Sections of the attraction have walls painted in psychedelic colors that seem to reach out of the walls when viewed through the 3-D glasses.
There are other impressive visuals and props included to enhance the experience for customers, including actual cars. The zombie attraction also has a “laser swamp,” which is a room filled with mist and lasers shining through the top so it looks like patrons are wading through chest-deep waters.
The theatrics are not limited to the visuals, however. The experience also relies heavily on sound and smell to bring customers a specific mental image. There are many small details that have been carefully planned to improve the haunted house as a whole.
“Some people were here the opening weekend two or three weeks ago. They come back now and they’re like, ‘Everything is so different. You’ve changed everything,’” Shilling said. “But it’s just one or two things that changed their entire experience.”
At the end of the day, or night, the entire haunted house experience is a theatrical performance put on again and again for each customer who walks through the door.