Afraid Again

Photos by James BunoanI don't scare well. Or maybe I do. Maybe too well. Gory movies, creeping spiders, the 405 on Friday. It's all terror to me. And today, as I look out at the disfigured Cindy Lauper, the manic clown and the dog-collared Goth kids waiting for costumes, I'm afraid again. Afraid I won't measure up.

Today, I join the cast of characters at Knott's Berry (Scary) Farm's Halloween Haunt. Every year, the park hires 1,000 monsters for the monthlong event, 600 of whom are returning monsters such as Nanci Wilkinson, a seven-year vet who, for the past three years, has traveled from Alabama to get her ghoul on. At Knott's, she's known as "Miss Pretty," a particularly vain creature who's half Night of the Living Dead and half debutante—think Martha Stewart crossed with, well, Martha Stewart. Nanci recommends monsters—especially female ones—work in pairs. She says that sometimes park-goers react physically to a scare. Others are just jerks. She says a park patron once grabbed her breast and ran with it, dragging her along for nearly half a block. Help is always available, she says, but, in some cases, it's 10 minutes away.

None of this convinces me it's worth working from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. five days a week for minimum wage, wearing the same costume every night, the same foam-latex piece for three straight nights. I don't understand the value I'm adding to the economy when I jump out of the darkness. I'm still insecure about my ability to scare. Will I be effectively frightening? Will I be able to conjure up the primal, psycho-sexual feelings in others that guide our actions and direct our dreams?

I go into the warehouse where they keep the costumes and pick out a teal prairie dress. After half an hour in makeup, I look like a junior Miss Pretty, half my face covered with a foam-latex mask that looks like a moldy skull, the other half airbrushed with foundation and streaked with eye shadow and lipstick. The clown approaches.

"Hi," he says. "My name's Star."

A big pink circle marks his left cheek and a forked teal streak frames his right. He wears a yellow-and-white plaid cowboy shirt with yellow fringe. He smiles sweetly, and Ibegin to relax. If this nice clown can find it within himself to jump out of the darkness and scare people out of their wits, surely Ican, too.

"Some of the biggest guys are afraid of clowns," he says. "I think clowns are happy, but I guess people think if they're too happy, they must be demented or something's wrong with them."

I've been told there are two kinds of monsters at the Haunt: maze and street. Maze monsters come out of walls in the park's many mazes, confined to a small spcae in which they can create a real scare. Street monsters sneak out of dark corners, follow you for half a block, and then run out and slide on their knees, shaking cans and generally inspiring havoc in the psyches of park-goers. Street monsters develop a character around their makeup and costume. The ones that stay over the years develop their character. Star is a street monster. Any advice for a first-timer?

"Have fun," he says. "If you're not having fun, it's time to quit." He starts to leave. "I'll look for you in Fog Alley."

The moon's glow behind the Ghost Town's wooden shacks creates an eerie landscape of shadows. All around is darkness and screams. People cling to one another, wearing forced, anxious smiles and walking with their eyes focused straight ahead. I run up to an unsuspecting family and rattle the noisemaker. A mother and daughter jump back, looking sincerely frightened. I can't stop the smile curling my lips.

The best scares are in Fog Alley, where the fog obscures everyone's vision. It dissipates, and then I emerge. A group of preteen girls scream in a way that runs the sound spectrum from rock concert to dog whistle. Their guy friends startle but try to maintain a faade of relative calm. The machine lets out another burst of fog, and I'm caught in the thick of it. I scream at someone making his way through, and he whacks me in the jaw. I slink over to a shadowy corner next to a wagon wheel, hoping he won't see my face.

In the coolness of the shadows, I wipe away the sweat beading on my forehead. I've been out in the park for only half an hour, and already I've been punched and now feel my mask beginning to come apart. I gather myself and jump at some passers-by and straight into another monster who glares at me through her lioness makeup. I smile and shrug. "Sorry." She looks annoyed and walks past me.

After a few minutes, having apparently spoken with someone in the Knott's PR department, the lioness reappears and taps my shoulder.

"Hey, I'm sorry if I was rude back there," she says. "I didn't realize you weren't one of us."


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