Putting the fright in Frightland [VIDEO]

     A hiring sign outside Frightland in Middletown, Delaware.(Gary Lindstrom, NewsWorks/WHYY)

    A hiring sign outside Frightland in Middletown, Delaware.(Gary Lindstrom, NewsWorks/WHYY)

    It’s a misty night in Middletown, Delaware.

    The clouds glow a ghostly shade of white thanks to bridge lights on the horizon. In the middle of a field, monstrous creatures circle around a mysterious woman cloaked in black. She calls them forth and asks, with a cackle, if they’re ready…to partake in some constructive criticism.

    Yep. Constructive criticism.

    It may not sound spooky, but this ritual produces some frightening results.

    The field in question here is the long-time home of Frightland, a haunted attraction open from late September to early November. Every year, the actors who work Frightland gather for the three weeks leading up to opening night to workshop their roles and perfect their scaring tactics. It’s the process by which these “monstrous creatures”–aka humans in monster make-up–become so monstrous. And it is surprisingly normal.

    The mysterious woman cloaked in black–actually, it was a black hooded sweatshirt–is Debbie Hall, Frightland’s long-time general manager. Hall is responsible for hiring, firing, and training the people who help make the attraction so spooky. They come to her from every corner of the workforce. They are hair dressers and plumbers and 9-to-5 professionals, all united by their intense passion for scaring 

    “From August ’til November there is no weekends,” says Hall. “There’s no girlfriends. There’s no boyfriends. There’s no football. You are going to live and bleed Frightland.”

    And if you think working a haunted attraction is as simple popping out from behind a curtain and screaming, you’re dead wrong.

    “There is definitely an art to it,” says Hall.

    Frightland employees aren’t allowed to scream. A scream scars the vocal chords, and, potentially, the ear drums of guests on the receiving end. Actors can, however, holler or bellow.

    A good monster also knows his or her customer. Where an actor must go easy on a family with young children, he or she can let loose on a group of tittering tweens. And of course take caution when scaring that six-foot-four muscle man, lest he react with a wayward flail of the arm or foot.

    “What scares one person may not scare another,” says Hall. “You have to be quick, able to think on your feet.”

    There are eight separate haunts inside Frightland, each with a coach who helps oversee and train the actors who work that attraction.

    Casey Stone, a plumber by trade,  is one of those coaches. There’s no one scare tactic that works for everybody, he says. Some actors use their voice to great effect. Other monsters produce thrills with a twerk of the body or even just a look.

    It’s Stone’s job to uncover that thing the actor does well, and then make sure the actor has the confidence to deliver it. Even monsters, he says, get stage fright.

    “I mean let’s face it, you’re gonna come out here and you’re gonna look like a fool,” says Stone. “But you gotta get over it.”

    Stone wants the actors to “find their character.” It’s the same sort of direction he might give if he were staging a production of Romeo and Juliet–if, you know, Romeo’s face was dotted with fake blood and prosthetic scabs.

    Indeed, the late night work-shopping session in the misty field sounds similar to what you might expect to find in a black-box theater. The feedback is based on test runs employees take through the various haunts. They talk about timing and teamwork. They discuss pacing and the importance of keeping customers engaged as they flow through the maze of horrors. They critique seemingly little things–the pitch of monster’s voice or the quiver of a ghoul’s arm. They encourage actors to work in tandem, so that while one distracts the other can scare.

    The result, they hope, is a choreographed whirlwind of fear where actors have the freedom and confidence to improvise.

    Does it work?

    You’ll have to visit this fall to find out.

    Frightland is open from 6-9 pm every weekend from September 25 to November 7. There are also select Thursday dates available. For more info, visit online.

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