I arrive at Six Flags Great Adventure, in Jackson, N.J., one extremely hot October day, already a scary human version of myself: I’m slightly hungover, the smell of a sausage, egg, and cheese bodega bagel on my breath, and the internal darkness of someone who just witnessed, through tears, Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed the day before. I don’t really want to fuck with anyone, and I don’t really want anyone to fuck with me.
And yet I’ve arrived here, specifically on my own accord, to fuck with people. Or, at least, scare them to death. I’ve come to Six Flags to be what’s commonly referred to as a “scare actor” in the annual Halloween tradition known as Fright Fest, in which the amusement park is turned into a haven for ghouls. After 6 p.m. the park is infiltrated with zombies, unhinged clowns, demons, garden variety monsters, and spooky townspeople dripping in blood an chainsaws in hand, and anyone in the park after then is made aware that they are fair game to be terrorized by the actors.
And tonight, I’ll be one of the terrorizers.
When I arrive at the entrance to the park’s unglamorous, corporate bowels, the sound of park-goers shrieking on rollercoasters in the distance, I’m greeted by Kristin Fitzgerald and Kaitlyn Pitts, who run communications and publicity for the park respectively. I’ve been instructed to arrive in dark layers, wearing a long-sleeved black shirt, black pants, and Vans (they were comfortable, okay?) but I come empty-handed as opposed to some of the scare-actors who I see arrive holding fake chainsaws and creepy dolls.
But before I can start scaring anyone I need to shed my sunlight-deprived blogger image. First up: my zombie makeover! 🎶 I don’t caaare what my teachers say, I’m gonna be an evil zooombie. 🎶
I’m led to a building on the park grounds where everyone gets their makeup and costuming done. It looks a little like a drab school gymnasium filled with tables covered in makeup, spray-paint, prosthetics, and tattered costumes. A handful of made-up monsters, one of whom clutches a demented looking plastic babydoll, are loitering outside the building eating Doritos, while others stand in-line inside waiting for their makeup. They look like a group of teenagers at recess rather than a team of professional horror villains.
Kristin and Kaitlyn tell me that the park has 200 scare-actors and almost all are chosen through an audition process, though many work jobs in other areas of park by day. There are 11 makeup artists who work on the actors and I’m surprised to learn that most of it is airbrushed, given my experience with grimy, oil-based Halloween make-up kits. My makeup artist Lindsey Harrison explains that she and the other artists try to create looks that are less gory and more ghostly, citing the “heavy on the blues and whites” palette of The Walking Dead zombies.
There aren’t really any mirrors in the room, so I close my eyes and mouth and surrender to Lindsey’s air-brushing, which feels like a calming burst of cool air all over my face and hands. She paints over me in layers and I watch as my hand turns from a warm beige to a bony white with dirt in the creases of my fingers. When it’s over and I see myself in my iPhone camera reflection, I’m giddy over how disgusting I look. I have this sort of built-in anger in how my brows have been drawn on.
Don’t I look so well-rested after my slumber six feet underground?
My costume doesn’t have a name (I was curious if it was, I don’t know, “Bitch Who Drowned In the River #03” or something) but it consists of a tattered blue gown, a striped blue blouse, and a shredded gray felt blazer. Overall it’s giving me surprising Comme des Garçons vibes. When I put it on I realize that my Vans give me away as a human girl immediately.
Maybe I died skateboarding?
I learn that there are some ground rules for my performative zombiedom, which is upsetting given I was really counting on being able to actually eat people during my time here. While everyone in the park is technically fair game to scare, Kaitlyn says they tell actors to generally not scare children under 12 years old. You’re not allowed to touch guests and you’re also not allowed to chase or run after them. You’re also supposed to stay in character the whole time, which means you can’t just chill by the ferris wheel eating a corndog (another devastating blow to my Six Flags plans), and you should try to disguise any laughter or broken character with a sinister sheen. Basically, if you’re going to smile, make it creepy.
I’m also given what’s called a “shaker can.” Basically, this is a dented black can filled with marbles. I’m advised to keep it out of sight and then right when someone least expects it, shake the damn thing to get a rattle out of them. Apparently it’s pretty effective in scaring people but, reader, I have my doubts. It just seems so silly, like how could this actually scare people?
After I get into my costume, I hang outside with some other scare-actors while we wait for the park’s parade to begin. All the ghouls and clowns and demons are “unleashed” onto the park right at 6 p.m. with a parade that snakes through the park, complete with a couple hearses and spooky caravans. After the parade everyone then scatters to their respective scaring stations to make grown men cry.
Most of the actors I talk to are teenagers or college-aged and range from kids who were just looking for an interesting way to make money (the job pays around $10 an hour) to Halloween enthusiasts and aspiring actors. A 21-year-old scary clown named Cole tells me it’s his second year working Fright Fest and that he actually bought his own costume off Amazon after he didn’t like what was given to him. “I can’t see myself as anything but a clown,” he says. “I have a clown laugh and clowns are crazy. Zombies are too low energy for me.”
Another creepy clown, Gianna, 18, warns me that sometimes people can be rude, calling you ugly or claiming they’re not scared of you. She showed up nervously to an audition for this job with hopes of honing her acting chops, where she says she was made to act out a “lethal injection.” She says that it’s extremely easy to tell who’s actually going to be afraid of you. “If you see someone not looking at you, you can tell they’re gonna be scared of you.”
I’ll admit that going into this assignment, I don’t really expect to be a successful zombie. I’m not scary, nor am I a natural performer; even speaking up in meetings is enough to give me hives. My makeup is definitely creepy, and I certainly look the part, but I worry that the zombie version of myself will be shy. I can see myself becoming easily prone to bullying from 12-year-olds out in the field. When I hear other actors describe the audition process, in which they’re asked to act out a death scene and hone the physicality of their respective monsters, I already feel like I don’t have it in me to be professionally terrifying.
And yet when I step into the parade around the crowded park, shuffling amongst the other ghouls, I am shocked to find that people are already... afraid of me? Little old me! Well, little old me with the face of a withered old hag who has just risen from her grave in pursuit of human flesh but, still me! As I watch the faces of children crumple into tears and adult park-goers shiver if I stare at them for too long in the crowd, I feel like Sally Field fawning at the Academy Awards with my Oscar, except my Oscar is my black can filled with marbles that really does make soft humans tremble. You fear me, you really fear me!
After the parade, which is maybe a brisk 10-minute walk, I’m led to an area of the park which is specifically dedicated to zombies, as the park is technically split into sections themed with different monsters (clowns go here, demons go there, and so on.) As I move into the crowd of park-goers, I choose to take a stiff approach to my zombiedom, since it seems the most historically accurate and I’m going for more of a George Romero feel than, say, a Danny Boyle approach to the role. It’s awkward at first, trying to scare people, but I’m surprised at how easy it is. I drag my feet slightly and decide to keep my face totally stony, quickly finding that staring straight ahead and walking slightly by someone, so they don’t think I’m going to mess with them, and then abruptly shaking my marble can at them at the last minute proves for a satisfying jump scare.
People of all ages, to my surprise, seem afraid of me, though I do have some misses. Grown women catch my line of sight and run away. Fathers swerve slightly as their children hide behind their legs. I decide to train my gaze on groups of bored-looking teenagers, of which there are many, who I know are pretending to be 1) too good to be here and 2) incapable of being spooked. Turns out they are easily scareable as well! I creep up quietly behind a few of them and wait for them to turn around for a good scream. I scare one teenage girl while she’s taunting another zombie to scare her and she seems angry that I got her. “Well, I didn’t see you coming!” she yells, running off. Now that the sun has gone down, the darkness has turned all of us in makeup and tattered second-hand clothes into bonafide creeps.
But I do realize quite quickly that even though I seem to be succeeding in scaring people, seeing how easy it is given my disguise and the atmosphere of the park, I am failing in one crucial area: I can’t stop smiling. I have the worst poker face. Every time I make someone scream I want to laugh because it’s ridiculous. I’m high off my ability to scare people! At one point I bite my tongue because I can’t stop smirking. Is it creepier to do that or keep a totally straight face? I can’t tell.
At the end of my scaring I’ve been at the park for almost four hours and feel exhausted. Most of the actors will be working until midnight, though they work in shifts, and I realize now just how physically demanding the gig is.
As I take off my makeup in the mirrors of the gymnasium-turned-makeup studio, I feel like I’m going to miss my disgusting, cracked, face of death. But I know one thing is sure: I am absolutely going to kill it when the impending zombie apocalypse comes.
Seriously, it’s over for you bitches.