By John Chambless
Just before the witching hour in the Valley of Terror, the ghouls and zombies are gathering for styrofoam cups full of chili near a trailer at the edge of the woods.
Sitting in the dirt or leaning on the steps to the unglamorous makeup trailer, the demons-in-the-making are chatting casually and taking no notice that some in their midst have nasty head wounds. Or cadaver-gray skin. Or ripped and bloodied clothing.
It's 6:30 p.m. at the sprawling Valley of Terror, and four makeup artists are working as fast as they can to turn ordinary young people into 35 screaming nightmare characters who will be chasing visitors through the woods as darkness falls.
As visitors drive in from Unionville-Wawaset Road, the huge property looks anything but sinister. Aside from a few outbuildings and a rather odd goat climbing track, the field could be the site of a kiddie hayride. But just over the hill, things get a whole lot scarier.
In an area not even visible from the parking lot, there's a town with buildings and other hiding places where live actors mix with animatronic zombies. Passengers are loaded onto eight huge army trucks that are outfitted with mounted paintball guns. When the trucks drive through the town, passengers open fire on everything that moves, including some well-padded actors who take hundreds of shots every night.
The sheer genius of this attraction is resulting in some big crowds for the Zombie Safari, but there's a whole other side to the frights at the Valley of Terror. I've come to find out what it's like to scare visitors along the trail through The Forsaken Forest.
The business of scaring people is a year-round job for Matt Herzog, who first found out he had a talent for this kind of thing when he was a student in Mrs. Webb's class at Unionville High School. "We did a haunted house in my senior year at Unionville," Herzog said. "It was pretty fun, and then I went to a couple of other haunted houses in the area and thought, 'I can do this.'"
With his partner, Sam Wickersham, Herzog starts work in early spring, dreaming up horrible new places and getting them built. There are about 125 people who make Valley of Terror run from Oct. 4 to Nov. 3. The Zombie Safari started last year.
"We heard about some places out west doing something similar," Herzog said. "We decided to do it with these army trucks. We have drill instructors yelling at you, making you feel like you're at boot camp. It's a very interactive ride. You're part of the ride."
All the frights don't come cheap, and Herzog said the annual budget "is a lot. It's in the six figures."
Given the short season -- only six weekends -- everything has to line up perfectly, including the weather. On a good night, there can be 3,000 or more guests at the attraction, Herzog said. There are almost 50 actors hired each night, as well as 18 zombies who get paintball blasted.
The best part "is when everything runs smoothly, all the props work and we get a good crowd," he said. "It's the best when people leave screaming, with a big smile."
And tonight, it's my job to share in the scaring. It's opening weekend, and the summer-like temperatures aren't being kind to the makeup artists who are dealing with sweaty faces as well as the ticking clock as the gates are scheduled to open.
One of the makeup artists, Jessica Saint, gets all the real actors out the door before turning her attention to me. As a professional makeup artist, she has worked on Broadway and for TV and film projects. She toured with a road company of "The Lion King," and usually spends her time trying to make people look better, not horrible. This month, she's using lots of fake blood and zombie-gray makeup. At her feet is a five-gallon bucket of stage blood that's liberally applied to some of the actors.
Saint, who lives in Philadelphia, is new to the Valley of Terror team. "I love horror movies, but I won't go to places like this," she said with a smile while dabbing white makeup onto my face. A few minutes later, I've pulled on a clown outfit, a red wig and floppy clown shoes and I accompany a nice young woman named Cara up the hill, working our way backward along a truly disturbing trail. In one house, we're pursued through a maze of pitch-black, hairpin turns as a demented voice croaks out "You Are My Sunshine" with venomous intent. It works, and I'm officially freaked out. Plus, I'm wearing clown shoes that make the maze doubly hard to navigate.
In another shack, an actor screams very convincingly and threatens a cowering girl in pink pajamas. And there's a school bus full of white smoke where plague-infested zombies are waiting to attack you. And there's another whole attraction, the Hayride to Hell. We don't even see everything on the trail before I'm brought up to a barn-like building near the parking lot. It's where the whole trail begins, and there's a waiting area out front.
Chris, my genial new host, tells me how to begin. You have to put your hands in front of you and push into a huge, room-size pillow that envelops you and makes you pray for the exit. You do eventually get through, and I'm grateful to be placed in a room with bags suspended from the ceiling, suggesting that body parts are possibly dangling everywhere. Chris coaches me to jump out and swing the bags as people enter.
As a veteran of community theater, I'm not shy. It helps that, without my glasses, everything is pretty much a blur. Aided by my fellow actors, I settle on a routine: After people push through the pillow room, I'm leaning against the black wall. I raise my head with a sudden, animal-like hiss and lunge at them in my hideous killer clown makeup. I throw in some maniacal laughing here and there for emphasis.
And it seems to work. The first group screams and scatters into the next rooms, where other actors are doing their best to make everybody scream some more.
Then it's a case of wait, scare and repeat for the next three hours as groups come through our room.
Between visitors, there's time to chill out -- as much as that's possible in a black room lit only with a strobe light. The strange thing about working as a ghoul is that you don't recognize anybody you might have met earlier in the makeup trailer. Chris does his best, but since the actors are placed in different rooms as needed, he's constantly asking who people are. He comes through a few times during the night, bringing us bottles of water that are very much appreciated, and making sure everyone's OK.
During the down times, the demented girl ghouls I'm sharing the room with start discussing the psychology of scaring. They agree that middle-school boys are the worst. It's hard to scare kids when they're putting up a carefully studied air of being too cool for the room. Why spend money to be scared and then stroll through the attraction pretending not to be scared? Beats us, we all agree.
Groups of girls are the best, and at one point, we get a great pack of shrieking teens who cling to each other with their heads down, validating that, yes indeed, we're doing a good job.
As the evening goes on, we get tipped off to the names of some people coming through, so we can yell out to them by name, pounding on the plywood walls and swearing that we're going to eat them.
It's all good fun, and the guy in the next room -- who is wearing a truly disturbing zombie mannequin puppet that he operates with one hand -- is doing a remarkable job, screaming "Don't let him get me!!!" and throwing himself on the ground as the puppet gnaws at his head. Most of our groups are jumping back in fright as he launches himself at them.
The discussions during lulls get more profane and random as the night goes on. Obamacare comes up. We discuss doing our taxes. We share past partying stories. There's some colorful language thrown around, but it's all OK since nobody is going to recognize anybody else once the makeup comes off.
There's a brotherhood forged by odd circumstances at places like this. You might not know the person who's wielding a chain saw next to you when the night starts, but by the end of the evening, you're swapping jokes. For one thing, it's physically demanding doing a job like this. Just try screaming for four hours and see what it does to your voice. Some of the actors must have the stamina of athletes. Not to mention the guys who risk getting purple welts from paintball firing squads all night long.
There's an attitude from the management at Valley of Terror that you'd better be on top of your game and keep the customers screaming. Everybody seems to take pride in their work, and some have built characters that they perform every night. There are backstories to the different rooms that a visitor will never know, but that actors take pride in reciting. The details in some of the rooms are horror-movie realistic, and considerable thought goes into where to place the strobe lights, fog, props and surprises. It's kind of a shame that most people go through Valley of Terror with their eyes clenched shut, clutching the person in front of them. You almost want to say, "Hey, wait! Come back and see how this wall is painted with bloody handprints!" But by then they're gone and you have somebody else to scare.
As 10:30 comes and goes, things slow down enough that a manager comes through our room to say that we're closing for the night. There's a sweep of the whole trail by Chris, who yells, "Final walk-through! You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!" to let every hidden monster know it's quitting time. He can walk through the whole trail without stumbling into any walls because he spends months here, learning every twist and turn. As for me, I'm stumbling along in my floppy shoes, trying to figure out where I'm headed.
Giving back my clown suit at the makeup trailer, I officially retire as a ghoul. It was a brief career, but satisfying. I drive home in my makeup, wondering if any of my customers will be haunted by nightmares of a certain clown.
I sure hope so.
For more information, visit www.valleyofterror.com.