On the spectrum of emotions, fear can be defined under numerous veils. It can range from phobias, to generalized anxieties, to literal jump-out-of-your-seat terror in the context of the horror genre. For some, fear is just an emotion; for others, fear is a way of life. Let’s look at the word “fear” as it is defined most commonly: FEAR [fi(ə)r] noun: fear; plural noun: fears. An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
The concept of danger, or being threatened by a presence or the unsettling nature of your surroundings, that is how the world defines fear. It’s also the prickling on the back of your neck, the goosebumps, and the “I swear I saw something over there in the dark” feelings which you simply cannot ignore. Fear is many things to many people. So, what goes on in the minds of those who not only embrace fear, but are paid to inflict it upon others: The Scare-Actors. After interviewing several professional Scare-Actors, we see a common thread interwoven through their hearts and minds. Scaring is an art, one which requires timing, perspective, presence, and—at most times—pain. A good scare is earned, and is not as simple as popping out of a dark corner and yelling “boo,”—in fact, “boo” is a dirty word among true Scare-Actors, and comically insulting when outsiders perceive that to be their bag of tricks. A true Scare-Actor never resorts to “boo;” a true Scare-Actor is a beautiful blend of an artist, comedian, and maniac.
An effective scare needs two main ingredients: timing and misdirection. Although, one could argue that a third, and equally important, factor is agreement, implying that the guests agree to play along with the circumstances. Even if a scare has a perfect combination of timing and misdirection, if the audience is not playing along, suspending their disbelief and willing to let go in the moment, sadly no scare will be effective. But thankfully, these instances are the minority. To illustrate the point Scare-Actor Jason Z. discusses his “statue scare,” and the timing involved to execute such a scare:
“It was very satisfying to have people slowly come to realize that I was alive, and just before they make the connection fully, that is when they are most “ripe” the a scare. Finding that right moment, and hitting it, was very good. Like music played in perfect rhythm. Also, scaring people as a clown is like scaring with cheat codes. It’s almost too easy!”
Commonly, Scare-Actors don masks, facially restrictive costume pieces, or prosthetics that render them nearly inaudible. Or in other instances, their characters aren’t even human, thus normal speech would not be suited to their characters scare-tactics. But there are a lucky few whose roles are actually centered on verbal interaction with guests. Alex S. explains his personal scare-style in his more conversational Scare-Acting roles:
“I like the subversive aspect of scaring people. My bits usually involve lots of talking. So, like a comedian, I introduce elements of real life such as politics, religion, gender, issues, messed up moments in history, and so on into whatever is being said. Real life is terrifying, if you’re paying attention to yourself and others. So that’s what I do and it always rattles people. My character thrives on violence and revels in the demented slaughterhouse of the headlines. I am not a nice man. I pray on the weak and ridicule anyone who dares posture themselves to be strong. I also have a lot of fun.”
Notice how Alex begins by referring to his character and his character’s traits, but then refers to himself? It’s fascinating how emotionally committed to their characters Scare-Actors can become. They often create their characters out of their own personalities. Perhaps out of behaviors or actions they want to express within themselves, but in the context of the real world those behaviors are considered unacceptable. An example could be the character of “Doreen,” created by Scare-Actor and former director of the NYC Rocky Horror Picture Show cast, Mad Man Mike. Mike occasionally scares as “Doreen,”—a 30 year-old girl, with the mentality of a 7 year-old, cuddling a morbid, nipple-taped and nearly shredded teddy bear in a mold-encrusted flower print dress; regardless of the fact that Mike is in fact extremely tall and…oh yeah, a man. Mike explains, in his quote below, a little more on the comparison of art, comedy, and scare-acting:
“There are many aspects of art to being a Scare-Actor. Unlike what most people think, it’s not about instilling fear or damaging the mental capacity of the poor unfortunate souls who are unlucky enough to come across me in a dark foreboding setting. Quite the contrary, scaring is the art of comedy and timing. The bizarre acts that we perform would become rather humorous under a different setting. For me it’s a constant experiment in live-theatre, with a new audience every few minutes and the more I push the envelope of how ridiculous I present myself, the more they react in total terror.”
Although, the most common answer to “why do you enjoy scaring people?” was a much more philosophical response: along the lines of emotional catharsis, a sudden rush of feelings, thoughts, and impulses that the human race has repressed. In our humble beginnings fear was a survival instinct. Fear helped us understand the “fight or flight” response to danger; fear is what kept us alive. But in the modern realm safety is abundant, methodical. We are becoming desensitized to things that used to make us run for the hills. Thus, every now and then, humans need that jolt of energy. We need to get our hearts racing. Lou “Skull Man” R. speaks more in-depth on the concept of fear catharsis:
“What makes it worthwhile for me isn’t the god-like feeling of tyranny that overwhelms me, but the effect it has on the target. When I scare people I notice how alive it feels for them, my effect on them evokes laughter, worry, insecurity, rage, anger, anxiety, and of course fear. All these emotions [are] colliding within them, all at the same time. This assures to them “I am alive. I am complex.” What a rush!”
To go further into the concept of fear catharsis, scaring people can provide a reality check for some. There is always some truth hidden behind the masks of the monsters in the movies. There are little bits and pieces of reality, enshrouded under the veil of Hollywood scripts and special effects. In a sense, a good scare can be enough to spook someone into the realization of just how great their lives are. Out there, somewhere, a maniacal doctor, a serial rapist, or even a “Soul-Eating Demon” may be hiding in plain sight, waiting some poor creature to discover them. Danny B., a writer and scare-actor, comments on why scaring people is so effective and necessary to our society:
“Usually a scare is like a joke – it’s a lie. There shouldn’t be a Soul-Eating Demon in my friend’s basement, but for those few seconds when I yelled SINNER at them, they believed it to be true. People need to be pushed out of their comfort zones on a daily basis, and made to realize how crazy life can be – before they’re brought back down to reality. Cause otherwise, they won’t try to reach for that crazy anymore. They’ll just wallow in the reality of it all. Scaring people is the most instantaneous form of entertainment. It’s quicker than telling a joke, than reading a great book, or watching a good movie – and because of that, it may just be the most effective form of entertainment.”
From the depths of their hearts, to the rattling of your bones, Scare-Actors exist to shake up society’s view of safety and realty. Balancing on the tight rope between terror and affection, Scare-Actors “scare because they care,” and, if you’re lucky enough, they won’t “swallow your soul.” They will give you just a big enough dose of fear to truly feel alive.