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Floridian Grand Guignol: A Lookback on Terror on Church Street

Coming out of certain mouths, the word tourist can seem dirty. Downright nasty, if the speaker has enough of a chip on their hunched in, tense shoulders. But everyone is a tourist at some point in their lives. Travelling abroad or being a hormone-ridden, misfit-teen sitting in the backseat of your folks Nissan on a road trip throughout Southern Florida in the 1990s, we are all tourists. I certainly was when my family, as part of our first big road vacation, went to Miami first and then stayed three extra days in Orlando with the big cartoon mouse and his enormous theme park being the main attraction.

I was a dyed-in-the-wool monster kid from a smallish, working-class town in Arkansas. Seeing the imagery on the inside, which included sinister-men in dark robes, howling vampires shrouded in European gothic finery, and speaking of vampires, a large image of the most striking looking crimson-draped vampiress beckoning the viewer towards a nice shiny guillotine. The inner description included the lines, “For the first time on American soil, this European terror attraction that has thrilled millions is striking fear in the heart of Orlando.” My eyes undoubtedly got huge and showered all manners of imaginary cartoon hearts. This was clearly not the visqueen-tent, sponsored by Jaycees local haunt that I used to gawk at as a little girl and daydream about, but never got to go. It’s not too hard to imagine why my mother wouldn’t want to bring her six-year old daughter to a 12 and over haunted “house.”

It’s even less difficult to understand as an adult why my parents were reticent about their now fifteen year old daughter’s pleadings about being dropped off at this supernaturally exciting-looking haunt. I couldn’t fathom why my offer of “You guys can just drop me off!” didn’t turn the “..we’ll see..” into a “…of course, sis!..” Leaving your teenage daughter, who has grown up somewhat sheltered in a flat-affect Southern town, alone in downtown Orlando when it was arguably at its height of being an entertainment district complete with booze, is obviously not a good idea and alas, I never got to attend Terror on Church Street.

But the images of it made me hold on to my pamphlet all of these years. I was very sad to find out about its closing in 1999 and even more so at the news that the historic Woolworth building that had hosted the haunt was demolished and is now the gentrified home of some aughts-yuppie-condos. (Gentrification truly is more terrifying and bone-chilling than any fanged creature or demonic entity.) After being laid up sick recently, my mind went back to this place, still wondering what it could have been like. A quick search on YouTube instantaneously gave me such gifts, including both promos and a fantastic episode of the webseries, Expedition Theme Park. (The latter is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of international theme parks and attractions.) It was here that I knew I had to do something. Creating the perfect haunt is an art that can be taken for granted, but it really shouldn’t. You need visual artists and carpenters to create the makeup, props, and spaces to create the cinema-set-meets-personal-nightmare aura and atmosphere. There’s a matter of using the right music and sound effects to amp up the aural creep factor. Then, there are the actors themselves. The players who get to take theatre and merge it with a borderline Artaud-like approach to audience interaction. So why again, are haunts not more respected?

While you can never truly go back and time reversal is not an option, but writing and reaching out to a handful of some key players and artists that worked at Terror on Church Street most definitely is.

The players in question? Actress Kim Donovan and founder/creative director/actor/make-up artist Alan Ostrander. When you look at any number of photos and tributes to the haunt online, you are going to see these two come up a lot. Now, come with me as we discover more about not only Terror on Church Street, but also the unique experience of being a haunt actor.

As a child, were haunted houses part of your landscape growing up? If so, what were they like?

Kim Donovan: Ironically, I was quite terrified of haunted houses, though still went into them with my mother and sister.

Alan Ostrander: My first haunt experience was with a local JayCees haunt when I was about 8-years-old. I begged my parents to take me…until we got there. I made it into the first room, and then spent my time with the security guard on hand while my parents experienced the haunt. (Needless to say, they were not thrilled!)  It wasn’t until my late teens that I started working with some small local haunts put together by theater groups I was working with at the time.

Where did you grow up originally?

Kim: I grew up mostly in Daytona Beach Florida, but went to high school in Pittsburgh, PA.

Alan: Orlando native.

What was the trek to working in Orlando like?

Kim: It was a big change at the time. I needed a huge change after an on-again-off-again relationship with my first love in Daytona Beach the first half of my twenties and decided to go for my long put-off-goal of being an actor/dancer, so I started taking acting classes at KVG Studios in Orlando and moved to Orlando in January of 1995 to pursue my career goals and hopefully find someone better.

When were you first aware of Terror on Church Street?

Kim: I went through it with my roommate at the time about a year before I got a job there.

Alan: The night it first opened, I was celebrating my birthday downtown at a street festival, and fell in love with the attraction just looking at the facade. A month later, I quit my job and auditioned at TOCS, working there for the 8-year run until we closed.

Did you have any previous haunt experience before working at TOCS

Kim: Nope. I lost my haunt virginity to Terror.

Alan: A few small haunts produced by some local theater troupes, but not much haunt experience. Most of us did not come from a “haunting background”, but more theater and other types of performing.

Starting there, what kind of theatrical and/or film experience did you have?

Kim: I was taking on camera acting classes at KVG studios, previously had taken theatre class at Pittsburgh Playhouse and was a dancer/singer in high school musicals, on the high school dance team, and the dance team captain/founder at Daytona State College.

Alan: I had been performing all my life…starting with magic/clowning. When I was 10-years-old, I started performing professionally, and worked a lot of special events at Disney, etc with my magic routines.

Which characters did you get to play? How much individual input did you have with your characters?

Kim: At the original Terror on Church Street I played Exorcist girl, but was usually a vampire working the ticket window.

Alan: Over the course of the run of TOCS, I played every character inside the attraction, and did a lot of actor training. My main character was “Roach”, who helped entertain the queue line entering the attraction. He was a disturbing, little old monk that chewed cockroaches, always offering them to the guests entering. With the help of our director, David Clevinger, and costumer, Rozzy Alexander, I designed the characters and makeups for the cast, known as The Eternal Dwellers Theater Company.

Do you remember what your first night of work was like? What was going through your head?

Kim: LOL. My first memory is of seeing the next great love of my life for the first time. Also, I remember the head makeup artist Alan Ostrander dressed me as Carrie. Between the slip dress and the hair gel that never seemed to dry for some reason, I was shivering all night, so that was the only time I was Carrie.

Alan: I fell in love with the concept, and had a great time watching the actors perform and scare guests. The cast was a great group of performers that welcomed me right into their group. The biggest challenge was learning the layout and not getting lost in the maze of backstage/onset hallways and sets.

Improvising has to be one of the most fun and simultaneously hardest facets with haunt theater work. What was the experience like for you? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with it?

Kim: Before Terror, I never really knew much about improvising-not like what people were doing at Terror. So quick-witted. The way they improvised with each other-the comebacks, the comedic timing…the dark comedy…..We had some of the best trained actors with lots of improvisation experience. Walter Price will always stand out as someone I was always in awe of. As someone coming from a trained dancer background I liked structure. I liked scripts. Give me a script and I’ll memorize it word for word. The idea of improvisation terrified me forever. By watching how other cast mates performed a little rubbed off on me, and I got more comfortable with it. It wasn’t until years later, when I enrolled in improv classes at iOWest that I learned, almost bootcamp style, how to be “good” at improv or at least for me, a lot more comfortable. I still view those I admired at Terror as improv geniuses. What some of those people had/still have cannot be taught.

Alan: One of the things that kept guests coming back to TOCS was that we constantly changing/improving the sets, storylines, and scares. I was very lucky to have a lot of creative freedom to try out different characters, makeups, etc. on a nightly basis. 

The tourist traffic on Church Street during the 1990s seems like it was, for the most part, pretty hot and heavy. What was it like working at a popular tourist attraction? How late would the show go on particularly busy nights?

Kim: It was a good thing we were mostly a young cast with a coffee maker in the break room. Terror was run like a well-oiled machine and even when busy, we never ran into any major issues that I recall. We had outside characters entertaining the guests in line, which helped. We had actors whose job it was to space out the groups so you didn’t end up with one huge conga line. We had an OPD (Orlando Police Department) officer on the weekends. From what I recall we generally managed to close by midnight, no matter how busy we were, which was nice if you wanted to make last call somewhere nearby after work.

Alan: Downtown Orlando was very busy those years, and we kept a steady crowd. The marketing department also worked heavily with the Tour Groups, mostly Japanese and Brazilian, so we had a steady stream of customers. The show normally closed at midnight, but in the busy season around Halloween, there were times we couldn’t close the queue line until almost 2AM.

What was your favorite character to inhabit?

Kim: I liked to be a vampire. It allowed me to feel sexy and scary at the same time.

Alan: My favorite character was Roach that I created for entertaining the guests outside, special events, etc.

Speaking of, how long could costume and make-up preparation take?

Kim: After you get the hang of it, it took about the same time as putting on regular clothes and makeup. We generally did our own makeup. If there was a special event or outside character that required prosthetics/special FX makeup, that would take much longer and would usually be done by Alan Ostrander.

Alan: On an average night, we would most all the cast in costume/makeup in 1-2 hours. Special events, and specialty characters could take as long as 2-3 hours to get ready.

What were the best things about working at Terror on Church Street? Also, the yin to that yang, what were some of your least favorite things about working there too?

Kim: The best things? I met several life-long friends (and a couple of lovers) there. Working there gave you a sense of pride of being a part of this legendary attraction. The least favorite? Aside from the, uh, relationship angst, I guess the knowing it was going to end someday It really was a great place for a bunch of creative individuals to work and play who didn’t want to work for “the mouse.” I have so many vivid memories of that place unlike other jobs I’ve worked at since.

Alan: It was the best “tension relief” job ever! Getting to scare and scream at guests every night…you could release a lot of frustration through your character. Working inside the attraction could make for some very long nights, especially when it was slow. Sitting in the dark for hours, always waiting or the next group to come. The hardest part of the job was dealing with those bad/intoxicated guests that wanted to “get drunk and go beat up the monsters.”

How did your time at Terror on Church Street come to an end?

Kim: The night manager called me one afternoon to ask if I could cover Exo, and I said “Sure!” But then he said I needed to clear it with the management across the street in the administrative offices. I called my hiring manager, but her secretary said she wasn’t in, so I asked if I could speak to the show director since his office was right next to hers. He said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I mistakenly thought he would clear it with her and everything would be okay. Five minutes later the hiring manager called me and asked me to come into the administrative office before work to see her. In short, she said she didn’t like me “going over her head” to ask the show director if I could work a shift my night manager had asked me to so she fired me. So, it was a weird, unexpected abrupt ending to my employment there. Fortunately I got to work in other haunted attractions after, yet Terror will always be my first haunt love.

Alan: When the attraction itself did. I was there from a month after it opened until the day we closed.

What kind of impact did working there have on your life as a whole?

Kim: Wow, I don’t even know where to begin. It solidified my desire to work in the entertainment industry. It gave me a darker sense of humor. It opened my social circles to include people of various backgrounds and lifestyles. Indirectly, it led me to joining the live performance pirate troupe Pirates for Hire in Los Angeles. I met a couple of pirates on a bartending gig when they were promoting a pirate themed gift shop in Shoreline Village in Long Beach, CA a couple months after I moved to LA and asked if they worked for Pirates Dinner Adventure. The director, Ted, said no, but he knows the Revas, who were the business partners involved in Terror on Church Street, whom later opened Pirates Dinner Adventure in Orlando, then in San Diego. I’ve been with Pirates for Hire since then.

Alan: TOCS had a huge impact on my life and career. While there, I formed my Makeup/FX/Haunt Production company, AEO Studios, which I still operate based out of Orlando.

What creative endeavors are you up to nowadays?

Kim: Over the past year I’ve started submitting my feature screenplay, ScareActor, to various screenplay contests/film festivals in an effort to get it read by industry personnel and to help promote it. So far it’s been nominated for best screenplay in a couple film festivals and an official selection in another. Naturally, ScareActor is inspired a lot by my time working at Terror on Church Street, as well as Skull Kingdom (another former Orlando year-round haunted attraction). LA is tough. It’s tough in ways you don’t even expect. But I still like the challenge, so I’m sticking around and trying to find ways to be creative on my own or with others in whatever capacity I can. I’d love to produce my own projects with friends. I produced one short so far. That three-and-a-half hour shoot cost me $700 so it wasn’t a simple endeavor, but I definitely want to do more.

Alan: Since Terror, I have been working in the Haunt Industry around the world. We design/consult/produce Haunted Attractions and Theatrical Productions through AEO for clients worldwide. I also was one of the founders of the ‘Halloween Bash’ at Ocean Park Theme Park in Hong Kong, the first haunted event of it’s kind in Asia. I worked as Director/Director designer with the park for 13 years…earning me the nickname of “Hong Kong’s Father of Halloween”.

How is your life now compared to back then?

Kim: I miss the days of going grocery shopping without a calculator, even though I was only making $7 an hour at the time. LA rent is no joke. Though I hear Orlando’s is catching up to LA so there’s no really going back regardless. I’d say creatively I’m doing my best to utilize all the lessons I’ve learned in various performing and regular jobs to be both a better performer and a better person. I want to see my friends succeed. I want to succeed of course, but it’s inspiring when I see others succeed and I don’t feel the jealousy I did when I was younger. I hope I can inspire others to keep reaching for their goals and if I have the ability, I always try to connect people to jobs they are right for. The entertainment industry is above all, a community, and that community is what helps everyone become the best they can be.

Alan: Crazy and busy! Every day is a new adventure, as I work for a variety of different clients and companies, doing everything from Makeup, Special FX, Attraction/Show Design, Prop fabrication, etc. In my world, it is just ‘another day, another dead body!’

I cannot thank Kim Donovan and Alan Ostrander enough for taking their time to answer my multitude of questions here and for being so positive and generous. Please check out Kim’s website (https://www.kimdonovan.biz) and find her on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with her creative endeavors. You can also check out Alan’s own fantastic website and special effects work over at www.aeostudios.com.

Also, while the Orlando location is long and gone, you can still visit the original inspiration for Terror on Church Street, Pasaje del Terror, at Blackpool in the United Kingdom. From Argentina to Florida and now, Blackpool, this type of haunt is still going amazing strong. Fads come and go, but terror is forever.

About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

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