Carrying his father’s ashes in a fist-sized urn, George Williams walks with a noticeable gimp around the corner off a desolate block of South Swanson Street into a dimly-lit parking lot deep in South Philly, hoping to find his first victims of the night.
He finds them waiting in line along a brick facade, chattering loudly under the audible rush of the I-95 overpass a block away. He lets out a menacing growl that grabs the attention of more than a few and tells them the secret of what he keeps with him at work every weekend night.
While his gimp and the bloody zipper separating the flesh on his face are fake, the urn and ashes are real. Williams, 33 of South Jersey, brings them not just to creep out customers at the Fright Factory, but as a way to finally bring his father – who died recently after years of hospitalization and sickness – to the performances he has been putting on since 2011.
“It’s a little weird, but it’s what I do,” said Williams, who also carries his father’s wake card to show guests if they don’t believe him.
For a growing number of so-called “haunters” – their ranks come from professional and amateur actors, as well as those who just like to go “boo” – the emergence of a thrill seekers has led to a burgeoning business in the Philadelphia area were they are encouraged to be “weird.”
A SANCTUARY FOR THE SPOOKY
Despite standing at 6-foot-6 inches and 340 pounds, Jim Peiffer describes himself “like a ninja,” when working inside the Fright Factory.
The 37-year-old Conshohocken native adopts a wide range of voices for his character “Sluggo the Clown,” including a deep raspy voice that seems fitting for his giant build. But as he sits getting his make-up done in the cast room backstage, he readily breaks out in the unnerving pitch of a little girl that seems more likely to come from the petite make-up artist standing behind him.
Like many of the actors who work at haunted attractions, Peiffer said he found out about the gig through social media, in his case Craigslist, and signed up this year to fulfill his long-time love of finding ways to terrify his friends and trick-or-treaters.
“Nobody would come to my house because I would scare them too much and I would end up with all this candy left over,” Peiffer said. “I came down and I auditioned. I figured my size would help me out.”
Peiffer is not alone among haunters in priding himself in his ability to make people uncomfortable. He brags that when customers enter his room at the Fright Factory, they usually cower back or sprint forward, but they hardly stay for long.
“You’re never going to find people like this anywhere,” Brandy Speas, 28, said. “None of us care where you come from or what you do. That’s why I do it. You finally feel like you fit in somewhere when you get picked on your whole life.”
Speas, a “haunter” in her 16th season, said that as a kid she was “terrified” of Halloween. A New Jersey native, Speas said she first became involved with haunts through the encouragement of her mother. Now she spends the whole year working on costumes, make-up and characters that she shows off at haunts and conventions around the country.
“I like to fall asleep to scary movies and I wake up in the middle of the night with the craziest ideas,” Speas said.
This season, Speas can be found dressed in black and white make-up as Breezy (short for Betty Carnievil), a demented clown with a tendency to crab walk and pose with customers in line at the Valley of Fear in Feasterville, Pennsylvania.
At the Factory, South Philly-native Alicia Domurat, 26, can also be found donning a bright red clown nose for a character she calls “switchblade clown.”
Domurat, who describes herself as an artist, applies her own make-up for her character, and said that haunting is more than just scaring people: it is another creative outflow in addition to her daytime hobbies that include drawing, painting and computer illustration.
“Halloween is like a way of life for me,” Domurat said as she applied thick layers of black make-up around her eyes discolored with yellow contacts. “Ever since then I said ‘I have to be a part of this. It’s something I’m passionate about.’”
In addition to providing an environment for their morbid creativity, haunts are also a place where actors forge relationships that return year after year.
Like the many couples that go through the Bates Motel Haunted House in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, during the Halloween season, Jillian Curtis, 23, is able to share the experience with her significant other Patrick Goodman, 24.
Both have been working in the haunt for several years, and along with other friends they have made at the haunt, they are able to use their personal relationships to enhance their scare tactics, Curtis said.
“If you’re in a scene with somebody else you get to the point where you are able to work with each other and know what they’re doing and where they’re headed,” Curtis said.
DEVELOPING THE CHARACTERS
Many actors, performers and make-up artists who spoke to the Temple News said part of the thrill stems from the creativity in developing their own personal characters.
At the Fright Factory, each of the close to 40 actors is required to think of their own character name and backstory corresponding to which section of the haunt they are assigned to, whether it be a haunted nursery or mad-scientists laboratory.
Dave Ferrier, a 44-year-old professional actor who has made appearances on local stages and on national TV shows such as “Veep” and “House of Cards,” has spent the past five seasons working haunts in the Philadelphia area. Through his character Eli, the bloody caretaker of Fright Factory, and as the real-world casting director of the haunt, Ferrier is in charge of helping the actors develop their personas and scare tactics.
“It’s such a different type of acting compared to theater or TV or film,” Ferrier said. “It’s so in the customer’s face, it’s also such a short time period. I have between 15 and 60 seconds to seek a customer or guest to create one of the most powerful emotions there is: which is fear.”
After becoming involved with acting and community theater in the years following his high school graduation, Matthew Thompson, 30, from Lansdale, said he “got bit by the bug,” after auditioning for the Bates Motel in 2007.
“You’re always performing [within the haunt]” Thompson said. “It keeps me creative. It’s a bug, an itch you got to scratch it every once and a while.”
NEW WAVE OF ‘CREEPY’
When Randy Bates began offering Halloween hayrides on his family farm in 1991 – the same year Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors to its now famous Terror Behind the Walls attraction – the self-described farmer knew of only one other haunted house attraction in the Philadelphia area.
Now in its 23rd season, the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride still operate among the cornfields and flocks of sheep and game birds raised on Arasapha Farms in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, but the competition has grown to no less then 13 other haunted houses and attractions in the area.
Bates said while the competition has grown in recent years, so has the marketing, which leads to a growing number of thrill-seeking customers every season. With the growing haunted house fan base, Bates said, comes growing expectations from customers who are influenced by high-tech special effects from Hollywood horror films.
“Back in the day, you’d jump out from behind a tree and scare somebody,” Bates said. “You’d use rubber masks and black cloaks and things like that. Now with CGI effects, the amazing custom effects on movies, it’s raised the bar on everybody.”
Among the numerous influences actors draw upon in developing their characters, famous names from the silver screen feature heavily among them, whether it be childhood favorites like Willy Wonka, or violent murderers including Leatherface.
More recently, the popularity of horror has crossed over to television in “American Horror Story,” most recent season of which served as inspiration for Peiffer, who plays Sluggo the Clown at Fright Factory, to develop his character to be more familiar to customers.
“I’ve been trying to go for that look with a big grin and creepy teeth,” Peiffer said.
Once the Halloween season has passed, most haunts will close their doors until next year, but several of the more involved actors will travel throughout the country during the next year visiting conventions dedicated to fright.
Others, like Thompson, the amateur actor at the Bates Motel, will go back to their daily lives, returning again next year to some familiar ghouls, ghosts and goblins, along with some fresh meat.
“When you come back every year it is like a big family, you just pick up where you left off,” Thompson said.
John Moritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @JCMoritzTU