Jen of the dead: What does it take to become a zombie at Morey’s Piers’ Ghost Ship?

    When the Ghost Ship first opened at Morey’s Piers in 2010, makeup for actors who played the undead was pretty simple. “Ninety five percent was air brush with a little bit of other stuff, like fake blood,” says Terry O’Brien, manager of the Ghost Ship and coordinator of Morey’s Piers Halloween events.

    But after experiencing “Nights of Horror,” a Halloween set up at Europa Park in Rust, Germany, O’Brien knew that they could do better.

    Which they did. And I subjected myself to the zombifying process to prove it.

    First, some background: The concept for the attraction is based on the Philadelphia Experiment, which is an alleged 1943 military experiment at the Philadelphia Navy Yard that turned the U.S.S. Eldridge invisible. The U.S. Navy denied it ever happened, but of course conspiracy theories followed, including one that, when the ship re-appeared, sailors were partly embedded into the actual ship.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    In the Ghost Ship attraction, the Eldridge didn’t re-appear in the Philadelphia Navy Yard but in the waters of Wildwood, NJ. The crew inside has all been rendered…something else. Either ghosts or zombies. Whatever seems more scary to you.

    It’s like a haunted house, except instead of sitting in a cart, you walk through the attraction, and instead of an actual house, you’re walking through a 15,000 sq.-ft. ship. 

    Along the way, you’re scared by the usual sudden sounds, creepy hallways, and animatronics, but also live actors. In the height of summer, they’ll have 17 people on crew.

    Two makeup artists are part of that group: Erin Gansert, 19, and Mikey Alimo, 26. Both were taught how to do this kind of ghoul makeup by the folks who do the same at the Eastern State Penitentiary’s “Terror Behind the Walls” Halloween attraction in Philadelphia.

    I sat for Gansert while Alimo zombified an actor who would be serving as Captain for the ship that day.

    First, Gansert applied latex combined with pulled apart cotton balls to my cheek and forehead. This formed the outline of what would become the gashes and was eventually painted to look like lacerated skin. Then, after drying the latex with a hair dryer, Gansert applied white makeup all over my face and neck with by airbrush.

    Then came the ghoulish part: filling in the wound with thickened and gooey-looking red makeup to make the wound appear fresh. Then she used a palate of liquid makeup to color around the wound, redden around my eyes, and put veins on my other cheek and lips. (Usually, they’ll spray the makeup with a sealer, which keeps it from running off the actor’s faces in the height of the summer. I skipped this step since I wasn’t going to be keeping the makeup on long.)

    The entire process takes about 15 minutes per person. 

    Then I was sent to wardrobe, where I was assigned the role of “Grunt.” That meant a paint splattered short sleeve button up shirt and brown pants. Instead of mucking up my hair, I stuffed it under a ripped cap. 

    For my arms, I was given Ace bandanges that had been sewn together with elastic added at the top so they’d stay on my upper arms. This saves money on makeup since the arms don’t need to be painted, and the bandages can be washed. Finally, I pulled on gloves with the fingers cut off, a pair of black boots, and I was ready for my debut.

    I wasn’t allowed to actually scare people, for insurance reasons. We were debating taking the risk, though, when the fire alarm went off and we had to exit the attraction. It was a false alarm, but while we waited for the fire department, I sat outside by the pier’s swing rides, forgetting what I looked like until a couple with a little kid gave me a funny look.

    After we were allowed back inside, and while Gansert and Alimo finished the makeup of the other actors, I de-zombied myself, first by ripping the latex off my face (ow), and then covering my face with Barbisol shaving cream — a chemical in the shaving cream loosens up the makeup. Then, after rinsing it off with warm water, I cleaned the rest of the makeup off with a baby wipe, followed by a round of soap and water, and then moisturizer. My costume was immediately put in the laundry bin, and my hat sprayed with an alcohol solution. 

    I was just about back to myself by the time we got to lunch, but it took a few more washes to get the red off from the skin around my eyes (thankfully I had sunglasses in my purse so I wouldn’t startle anyone else). I’m told you get used to it after a few sessions, but even the next day, my face stung during my run.

    It’s not easy being part of that crew, and I wasn’t even trying to do this in the summer where everything but the makeup room is un-airconditioned. 

    The Ghost Ship became the catalyst for Morey’s Piers to expand their Halloween offerings with “Morey’s FEARS – Terror on the Boardwalk,” which turned Mariner’s Pier into a night time haunted attraction. Last year, the Ghost Ship stayed open, along with half a dozen rides. Morey’s also did a corn maze on the beach called Corn Stalkers. O’Brien clued me in to what is being planned for 2012, but plans aren’t finalized. The only thing that is certain are the dates: October 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27.

    Even after going through the makeup process, I still wouldn’t want to be on that pier in October. I’m not exactly a horror fan, and I even had trouble looking at my own face in the mirror while ghouled up — the makeup is that good. 

    But if that’s your thing, enjoy the Ghost Ship. If you dare. 

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal