The bedroom is dark and foggy. Candles sit on top of the dresser, casting the slightest glimmer of light over the room. There’s just enough light so people don’t trip, but not enough to see what’s lurking in the shadows. The walls sound like they’re splitting open, and the house feels like it could collapse at any moment. As guests funnel through the room, a demon watches them from the bed. Just as a group rounds the corner, the demon pops out and screams at the top of her lungs. That demon’s name is Emily Perez and she works as a scare actor at Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream.

From left, writer Carrie Pinkard and scare actor Emily Perez. Photo courtesy of Carrie Pinkard/Connect.

From left, writer Carrie Pinkard and scare actor Emily Perez. Photo courtesy of Carrie Pinkard/Connect.

Perez is one of approximately 700 scare actors who haunt Busch Gardens Tampa Bay every year from mid-September to Halloween. Each year, hundreds of thousands of guests wind their way through the scare zones and haunted houses of Howl-O-Scream.    

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to get paid to scare people? To spend all day working a day job and all night shrieking at the top of your lungs? This is the life of scare actors. It’s not glamorous acting. It’s sweaty, vigorous, and at times even dangerous. However, many scare actors return to Busch Gardens year after year because they love the art of the scare. Who are these masked monsters and what is it that they love about scaring?

The most rewarding part of being a scare actor is landing amazing scares. In the corporate world, you do a good job by giving an excellent presentation. In the haunted attraction world, you do a good job by making people scream bloody murder. Jimmy Musgrove worked as a demented clown in the Circus of Superstition haunted house when he had his best scare.

“I see three girls in front of me,” he recalled. “As they watch me in sheer horror, I let them pass until they were to the right of me. I then sprung out of my rocking chair, the three young ladies screamed and fell backward, falling out of the emergency exit in the room. Thankfully it was a small fall and nobody was hurt, but they were laughing so hard, and it just made my whole night.”

Jeremiah Aguilar wasn’t confined to a house but instead roamed around the spooky park in a horde called The Misfits. There’s nowhere to hide at Howl-O-Scream and no safe places to sit and text.

“There was a girl sitting on a curb checking her phone and her family kept pointing at me and then pointing down to the girl for me to scare her,” Aguilar said. “So I snuck up behind her and was standing looking down on her. I revved my chainsaw and she jumped two feet in the air and took off running right into another one of my buddies with a chainsaw and then just hit the ground. Her family was laughing hysterically as was the girl.”

Patrick Rose, who worked as an “insane construction worker,” had his own story about catching guests off guard. “My best and favorite scare was when I hid behind this fake plant that really did not hide me at all,” Rose said. “Some people who had a bit to drink came in, and how they did not notice my bright orange vest and yellow hat through the plant is beyond me. I walked up behind them as they walked away and simply said ‘Hi.’ I have never seen people run as fast as they did in my entire life.”

Scare actors, much like the monsters in Monsters Inc, are fueled by your screams. They get re-energized when they successfully scare people. Your screams are like music to their ears. Kaelan Skinner’s entire Howl-O-Scream season was made when two Bucs players came through her haunted house. “They walked into the room, and I jumped out and yelled for help,” Skinner said. “These professional NFL players screamed extremely loud and freaked out. It was a nice confidence boost for me to know that even if I felt out of place and not scary, I still could make grown men scream.”

Despite the joys of being terrifying, scare actors want people to understand their jobs are really hard work. If you work in a haunted house, you don’t get to move through the house and scare people as you please. Instead, you’re standing in the same spot for hours. You hide, pop out and scare, then reset hundreds of times each night.

“The worst part of being a scare actor is the rude guests,” Skinner said. “People pay good money to come into haunted houses, and then taunt us, threaten to hurt us, or destroy the house.” Skinner acted as a Victim in the Unearthed haunted house. “My feet and legs hurt, and I have no options to adjust myself in any way that could alleviate that. I scream and cry as a scare, but after the first week I no longer can scream because my voice is totally gone.”

Kevin Cleveland claims the worst parts of being a scare actor are the late hours, lack of proper sleep, and risks to your own health. “You can easily get hurt or damage your voice if you’re not careful, but safety is the top priority at Busch Gardens, and I’m sure anywhere else too,” he said.

Emily Perez agreed saying, “Our job is really intense, please don’t look at us as objects. We are people like you too. I lost my voice for a good month. The job can get very physical.”

One strange side effect scare actors can face is the fatal attraction guests feel towards them. Despite the fact that scare actors are designed to look repulsive and terrifying, some guests get drawn in.

“The weirdest behavior was probably from this 20-something girl who thought I was ‘so hot’ she tried to kidnap me,” Cleveland said laughing. “I was a zombie, and literally COVERED in blood. I’m also a 6-foot-3, 250-pound male, so she didn’t get very far with me. I’m hard to kidnap.” 

Scare Actor Kevin Cleveland in full costume. Photo courtesy of Carrie Pinkard/Connect.

Scare Actor Kevin Cleveland in full costume. Photo courtesy of Carrie Pinkard/Connect.

“I had one lady put her hand on my chest and asked for me to kiss her,” Musgrove said. “I should have said something to management because I was really uncomfortable, but I got so preoccupied that I let it go.”. Jeremiah Aguilar had a similar experience. “I have been groped as well as had girls try to kiss me while taking selfies,” he said.

If these scare actors could give any advice to the public, it would be to leave your kids at home. “I saw a woman holding her infant baby up to a stilt walker’s face while the baby was crying,” Aguilar said, “I don’t know why someone would do that.”

”We actually don’t want to traumatize your kids, but sometimes we can’t help it,” Cleveland said. “A babysitter is way cheaper than years of therapy, so please plan your night out with that in mind.”  

One of the things that keep scare actors returning to their jobs every year is the comradery they find in each other. When they’re working on set, scare actors are responsible for looking after each other. The combination of alcohol and dark rooms can cause guests to go in to fight or flight mode. Scare actors are also there to make sure their fellow actors are safe if a guest chooses fight over flight. On their breaks, the actors bond even more over potluck dinners, cough drops, and games.

At the end of a night of scaring, when the moon is high and the sky is pitch black, monsters from around the park load on a bus to be driven to their cars. Vampires high-five zombies. Possessed pirates tell their seat partners about the best scare of the night. The scare actors are exhausted. Some are ready to go home and sleep forever, while others can’t wait to do it all again the next night.

Enjoyed Life as a scare actor: the good, the bad and the scary?

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