Sunday was like any other Easter — I woke up early, I went to church and I had a pleasant brunch with my suitemates. If you saw me munching on my post-Mass bagel, you’d never guess that two days earlier, I had been crab walking across the floor of a warehouse in Stratford, drenched in blood.
Of course, it wasn’t real blood. I was playing a costumed character at Fright Haven, Connecticut’s largest indoor haunted house attraction. Haunted house attraction? In April? Forsooth. Whereas most haunts open their doors in October, Fright Haven treats every holiday like Halloween, hosting themed events year-round. In December, they have “Frightmare Before Christmas.” February brings “Valentine’s Day Massacre”; shortly after follows “St. Patrick’s Slay.” April’s big attraction is “Rottentail’s Revenge”— a “wretched rabbit hole” full of “mayhem and mania,” according to Fright Haven’s ads. Last weekend, like Alice in Wonderland, I dove right in.
If I were to tell my younger self that she would someday work at a haunted house, she wouldn’t believe me. Baby Britt quaked at all things grisly and gory. Party City masks made me cry; Scooby-Doo gave me recurring nightmares (it was still my favorite show, so I watched it anyway — a tiny masochist). I once made my mother drive me home from a birthday party at Shadowland, Maryland’s hippest laser tag joint, because the paintings on the walls were too scary. When my friends visited the Field of Screams each Halloween, as was the local ritual, I always stayed home until my junior year in high school. Even then, I almost backed out, but persisted (after all, I’d already paid for my ticket) and had the thrill of a lifetime. I marveled at the costumes and makeup; I laughed while dodging masked men with chainsaws. Ever since, I’ve had a blast at haunted attractions. I’ve dreamed of acting at one, if only for a night.
When I came to Yale and saw a Fright Haven billboard on the highway, I knew I wanted to work there. Yet, I let that fantasy fall to the wayside until a few weeks ago, when a Rottentail’s Revenge promo arrived in my inbox. Seeing that I was free on April 19th, I shot Fright Haven an inquiry and received a reply from someone named “Cryptmaster Chucky.” I was in.
When the appointed hour arrived, I hopped on the Metro-North with my friend Jacob. I met Jacob through Yale Children’s Theater, a campus organization that performs and hosts classes for local youth. We were more accustomed to leading kids in rousing renditions of the Cotton-Eye Joe than terrorizing them by emerging from shadowy corners, but as we approached Fright Haven, we were ready to welcome the change of pace.
Fright Haven is located at the edge of parking lot in Stratford. Its surroundings are pedestrian: an LA Fitness; a 99 Restaurant; the Metro-North station. The building looks almost like a car dealership — except that the only car stationed out front is a hearse.
In the past, the building has been both a gymnasium and a cinema. It had been closed for a while when Charles F. Rosenay — a.k.a. the Cryptmaster — purchased the property in 2015. The haunt had originally opened in West Haven in 2007, but the team had to leave the building because they were told the roof had become structurally unsound. Rosenay didn’t want to reopen the attraction until he found the perfect space for it — its current location, just off Interstate-95.
Fright Haven might be relatively new, but Rosenay has been operating in the entertainment industry for years. He’s the inventor of the “Magical Mystery Tour,” which brings travelers to Beatles-related locations around Liverpool, as well as the “Dracula Tour,” an immersive trip to Transylvania. Rosenay eventually want to try his hand at one of the most classic themed attractions: the haunted house. Now, Fright Haven is a local sensation. It’s even added two new events this year, including the subject of this article.
“We don’t call it our Easter event, because we don’t want to bring religion into it; we don’t mean any sacrilege. It’s Rottentail’s Revenge,” Rosenay said.
When I asked Rosenay why he thinks haunted houses are so popular, he emphasized the adrenaline rush. “It’s like going on a roller coaster — except a little bit longer.” He then paused to elaborate. “It’s also an opportunity for people to go as a couple, or with a group, and grab onto each other and try something new. It’s a way for people to come together.”
When Jacob and I strode into Fright Haven’s shadowed halls, Cara Canelli, Fright Haven’s assistant manager and casting director, and Brooks Matthews, who is weekend director and in charge of personnel, were on hand to take us backstage. On the way, I passed a sign with a foreboding message: “If you can read this, you are horribly lost, and living on borrowed time. Beyond this point lies only madness and despair … For this is the place where Insanity Dwells… (Also, the emergency exit.) But mostly… Madness!!!”
After turning the corner, we found ourselves in a crowded locker room. If you’ve ever seen a movie where a high school football team is getting suited up for “the big game,” imagine that — but replace all the jocks with clowns, zombies and skeletons in biker clothing. Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” blared over a speaker; actors rehearsed their evil laughs; bunny ears were strewn across a bench.
Brooks, who is a senior at Stratford High School, said hi to a guy in a beaked apothecary mask and introduced him as her boyfriend, Zach LaPuglia. Zach, who graduated from Stratford last year, demonstrated his special metal gloves, which drew sparks when scraped against pavement. Then we chatted about his line of work. In addition to helping to construct each event, he has played the same character since the new Fright Haven’s inception — Dok, a royal British apothecary from the 1800s. “I do a lot of interaction with customers,” he said. “I’ll talk to them, figure out their names, and follow them… Tell them my name, prescribe a treatment.” When I asked for acting advice, he had plenty: “Get a feel for what’s right for you. We have contortionists, we have screamers … Just become a different person. Be the worst person you can think of, or be the opposite of how you are.”
Then, our friend Casey ran in, having just arrived in Stratford after getting out of his lab. Cara and Brooks were ready to cast us. “Where should we put you?” they murmured. After contemplating, they decided on “Redneck Rampage.”
It was settled: We’d be taking American Gothic to the extreme. Casey grabbed a disheveled scarecrow outfit. Jacob picked out pants that appeared to be made out of potato sacks. I selected a bloodstained pink nightgown.
Soon, Cara called us into a circle. Just in time, the rock music switched to the Fright Haven soundtrack: Eerie twinkling sounds, dramatic drums, haunting organs. “We’ve got a few new people here tonight, so we’re going to go over the rules,” she announced. At the words new people, a clown in an inmate suit began making creepy faces at me in my peripheral vision. “First of all, what do we never say?”
“‘Get out!’” the crowd shouted in unison.
“‘I’m gonna kill you!’”
Why? Clichés. Also, the second is a false promise, and during a haunt, you never say anything you can’t follow through on. That could lead to a break in character — and another golden rule of every haunt is Don’t break character. The exception is when a guest yells “Stand down,” signaling that they’re too scared to continue.
The music boomed as Cara laid down the law: If you have a group with a lot of people, scare the middle, so everyone gets a little bit of the action. Don’t swear. Don’t touch people. If anything went wrong, we could find her, Brooks, Zach, or another employee.
That was all. We piled our hands atop each other; then Cara said, “What are we saying, John?”
The inmate clown — John — answered, “Rotten eggs!” We shouted it out, and broke on the count of three.
I was still bare faced, so I ran to a makeup artist’s chair. “You’re so pretty!” she exclaimed.
I thanked her; she dipped her hands in a vat of fake blood. “Now we’re going to make you ugly.”
I barely recognized my reflection; I looked like Carrie in the infamous prom scene. I didn’t have time to marvel, though; I had to get scaring. Brooks and Cara directed us to our rooms: the first a small shed with chainsaws and body parts, accentuated by strobe lights; a larger, courtyard-like area with fake foliage and a corpse in the corner; and a yard that preceded a creepy manor (other actors’ territory).
“Can we touch the props?” I asked.
“Yup!” Cara said. “Those fences are a little flimsy, but everything else should be good … Oops! This dead chicken fell.” She picked up a rubber chicken and put it between the open jaws of a skull. Then we were on our own.
Zach came by to tell us he’d be our “Monster Mom,” making sure we got water and cough drops throughout the night. Then he said we had five minutes and exited.
“We should come up with names,” I said. I became Prairie Mary; Jacob was Gentleman Jake. Casey was simply Slash. Then we got into different corners of the courtyard room — Jacob and I later admitted that we were mildly afraid to enter the others — and waited.
Our first scare, if it can be called that, was anticlimactic. We didn’t know what to say, so we just stared. Our target couple appeared uneasy, but did not scream. In the next round, I said I was hurt and cried for help; I later asked if guests could help me find my Easter eggs, as the small spheroids were hidden all over the haunt. One guy said, “I ain’t helping you find nothing!” and hurried away, but I didn’t get the kinds of visceral reactions I had seen from horror movie victims.
Zach’s words came back to me: “We have contortionists, we have screamers…” I didn’t know how to scream for a scare, and I couldn’t do any weird stunts, but maybe I could use my body more creatively. I crept over to the corner corpse and played dead next to it; then, when a couple passed by me, I opened my eyes and convulsed.
“Look!” the girl said, stopping short.
“Baby, hold my hand!” her boyfriend said. Then they continued, giving me a wide berth. Success.
Lying on the floor, experimenting with different positions, I had a flashback to the Little Gym class I took as a tiny tot. We did relay races; sometimes, these consisted of crab walking across the floor. Good ol’ crab walking — an ostensibly useless skill that was about to get its moment in the sun.
The next time a group came by, I didn’t just convulse; I hoisted myself up with all four limbs and scuttled after them, making my footfalls uneven. The reactions were wild. Achievement unlocked.
An indeterminate amount of time passed. A few times, I was surprised by who I saw when I opened my eyes. Cara dropped by more than once; a more established monster who was allowed to pass throughout the house told me, “Good job”; an employee in a bunny suit hopped in with Easter candy. Once, I even found myself looking at a young couple holding two smiling babies.
“Give her a high five!” the mother told her daughter. The daughter extended her pudgy hand to me; our palms met. At that moment, I felt more like a Disney World princess than an undead avenger.
A bloody-faced woman ran in. “There’s a big guy named David coming up. When he comes in, yell his name,” she said. “Oh, and tell the other actors.”
Jacob hurried out to complete the task. When David entered, Casey called out to him. After he rushed out, shocked, we all had a good laugh together. The haunted house didn’t seem so big anymore; I could finally claim, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” with certainty.
“The room next door is cool,” Jacob said. “You should go check it out.”
I crept into the yard room. Sure enough, it was full of potential. Props abounded.
A shovel lay in the gravel. As I picked it up, I was reminded of an actor at the Field of Screams back home who would bang a stick against a trash can lid to startle patrons. When the next group entered, I struck the ground with the shovel. This time, I got a scream from a grown man.
Around that time, we hit our stride. We even began to coordinate our acts. Jacob and I approached a couple and said “Welcome to our farm” in unison, holding hands; “I don’t want to go to your farm!” the man cried as we followed him with blank stares. Even better, we sat in the courtyard room and played a slow, brainless game of patty cake. Two elementary school girls mimicked our clapping; when we said, “Wanna play with us?” they ran away.
Before we knew it, Zach was back to usher us out. The haunt was over.
We were met with a pleasant hubbub back in the locker room. The source of the excitement: Pizza for all. “Did you guys have fun?” John asked, no longer in character. We responded with enthusiastic yeses.
Though the tricks were over, we had one treat left: A tour of the attraction, courtesy of Brooks and Zach. Now that Brooks’ job was done for the night, we had time to learn more about her. She had started out as an actor, then switched roles, “because I like helping people more than I like scaring people.” Unlike some other members of the “Fright Family,” she wasn’t a fan of all things creepy growing up. “I can’t watch a scary movie,” she said. Rather, she’s interested in the business from the behind-the-scenes perspective. As a high school senior finishing up her fourth year of stage crew, she’s passionate about backstage work.
Another interesting fact about Brooks: She’s a devout Christian. “I’m a big Jesus person,” she said. “When I first started working here, all my friends from church were like, ‘You’re serious?’…But I like to bring in the Christlike manner and be like, ‘Hey guys, I can be a cheerful little bean and still work at a haunted house.’”
As we passed creepy dolls, fake animals, and corpses that could pass as real under dim light, I asked, “Where do you guys order this stuff?” Brooks explained that they often acquired material through trades with other haunts. There was also a trade show in Missouri.
“This is my production of Mamma Mia,” Brooks said as we passed some rocks. The phrase was an inside joke at Fright Haven — after Brooks’s school had done a production of Mamma Mia, many of the props had found a resting place at the haunt.
We passed a sign that said “Beware of Bunnies.” Zach explained that for other holidays, it read “Beware of Leprechauns” and “Beware of Krampus.” Zach also pointed out the technical aspects of the house to us — for example, he explained one way to distress a wall. “We paint the color here; then we paint liquid latex over it. Cross-pat it, then peel it across the wall. It’s really fun. Then you do black wash paint across the top.”
It was clear that haunting was no simple business. It took hours of painstaking work, but judging by the smiles on Brooks’ and Zach’s faces, it was work they enjoyed.
The adrenaline I had felt walking out of the Field of Screams for the first time couldn’t compare to the triumph I felt leaving Fright Haven. I hadn’t just inhabited another world — I had helped create it.
It took me an hour to wash the blood off my face, and I was sad to see it go. As the red trickled down the drain, I thought that maybe the work I had done at the haunt wasn’t so different my work with Yale Children’s Theater after all. I always told the kids in my improv class that improv wasn’t about trying to get a reaction: The fun came from not knowing what was going to happen, and not wanting to know. I could say the same of my crazy haunt experience. Maybe it’s good for us to push ourselves to our limits in zany ways; maybe it’s healthy to crabwalk every now and then.
Fright Haven had been far more intense than an episode of Scooby-Doo — but no matter. When I crashed into bed, I didn’t have a single nightmare.
Brittany Menjivar | email@example.com .