ABINGTON — “You have to know who to target,” Rob Marin says. He’s standing in front of a mirror in a wood-paneled, double-wide trailer behind Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, affixing blobs of latex onto his face. The fluorescent lighting glints off the sepia of his contact lenses as he carefully presses what looks like regurgitated deli meat onto the ridge of his brow.
It’s a Sunday in late September near the start of the season. In the seven weeks that Barrett’s is open, more than 20,000 people will pass through — a fraction of the New Englanders who will visit more than 30 haunted houses all over the region. According to the Haunted House Association, New England has the highest density of haunted houses in the country. While some like Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery in Salem are open year-round, most, like Barrett’s, are seasonal.
The season starts early for Barrett’s proprietor Mary Barrett Costello and her staff. They change the floor plan of the mansion — a carefully dilapidated two-story Victorian behind the Abington Ale House — every year, following an annual March trek to the Hauntshow industry event in St. Louis for inspiration. This year’s haunt contains 13 rooms partitioned by heavy fabric. Highlights include a haunted carnival, replete with acid bath dunk tank, a zombie room, and a corridor lined with eight Leatherfaces from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Marin isn’t working inside the house tonight. Instead, he’ll frighten people waiting in line. In two hours, he’ll emerge as a zombie, but for now, he and a handful of makeup-savvy staff are applying it early so they can help fix up the rest of the ghouls — “characters,” in Barrett’s lingo — in time for the crowds.
This is Marin’s ninth year as a Barrett’s character. Like a handful of other employees, he also works as a professional makeup artist and set designer on horror films. Accordingly, he has amassed a trove of special-effects makeup that he stores in a large metal container resembling an oversize tackle box. It’s open in front of him, revealing rows of tiny plastic tubs with labels reading “Fleet Street Blood” and “Tattoo Classic.”
Over time, Marin has come to classify scares into three general categories. “There’s a science behind it,” he explains. The scare you want, he says, involves a scream. Less desirable scares result in nervous laughter. But one should avoid the third kind at all costs.
“There’s some people whose normal reaction is to hit you,” Marin says.
Seasoned pros like him can read people’s faces and avoid the hitters. For the first year on the job, characters learn the ropes by being confined in the house, sticking to the same room, the same role, for whole shifts at a time. This year, newbies might spend the night chasing customers through a dark room with a flashlight or gnawing on a bloody corpse as terrified customers race through their tableaux trying to escape.
Outside is different. Entertaining multitudes demands stamina and a certain improvisational flair. Outside characters, known as rovers, have learned to sneak up behind customers. While they don’t grab them — Barrett’s prohibits touching — they eavesdrop on chattering groups and call their names.
Klown 1, one of Barrett’s most prominent rovers, relies on a small metal bell, shaped like a clown. When he rings it, it sounds like an off-key xylophone. He has discovered that ringing it with increasing urgency as he emerges from the fog makes people jump.
Known for his blood-spattered, double-breasted, polka-dot clown suit, half fluorescent yellow, half the color of a traffic cone, Klown 1 has developed something of a following, evidenced by his Facebook page. Dave, the man who plays him, won’t allow his last name to appear for reasons of privacy, even though for years now a local teacher named Mr. L allegedly has successfully perpetuated the rumor that he himself is the Klown.
Ninety minutes before showtime, Dave stands in a black T-shirt and motley pants, eating a wrap from the sub shop down the street. In between bites, he fusses with the tuft of cotton that sticks out from the hollow of his cheek. He daubs the center with makeup the color of fresh blood, adding whorls of scab-
colored makeup to the perimeter. Eventually, he will pierce it with an oversize safety pin.
“I’ve been doing this look for the last seven or eight years,” Dave says. “It changes a little bit every year.” He added red contacts to his costume six years ago, a mouthful of rotting plastic teeth two years later. His latest enhancement, dirty blotches on his clown suit, came earlier this year when he played a zombie in a charity fun run.
Dave loves his job, but he hates instant video. “Cellphone cameras have become the bane of this industry,” he says. The bigger a character’s following, the more likely he is to be besieged by people who want to capture him.
“We all have our little cliques of people who come to see us every night,” says Amy, the woman sitting next to him. She’s dressed in a black pirate’s vest laced over a long-sleeved purple T-shirt and rolled-up harem pants. She is also married to Dave. They have worked as characters together for more than a decade.
“We have a life outside of this,” Amy insists, laughing. All the characters do. She works as a chemist for a medical device company, Dave as a graphic designer for an engineering firm. Barrett’s gives them a creative outlet, a chance to dress up and scare the wits out of children. Dave and Amy also have two of those, the older of whom has seen them in full regalia. “We have a cute picture where she’s dressed up like a witch and she’s touching his [clown] nose,” says Amy, whose character is called Anarchae.
An hour before showtime, the volunteers stream in. Two dozen people from the Scituate Animal Shelter will get made up and turned loose in the house in exchange for a cash donation. Outside the makeup trailer, things are more peaceful. Two black-clad men wearing baseball hats and yellow safety vests check the sound system.
“Cue the fog machine,” squeaks a
walkie-talkie. Fog begins to roll across the small lagoon near the parking lot, across a makeshift graveyard on a little hill, through the corn stalk maze leading up to the house.
The first customers arrive. Amy, who has put on 3-foot stilts, leaps down the steps and lopes across the grass to scare people near the ticket booth. She hovers over a group of junior high girls, raking her long metal rings along the air near their heads and hissing.
“You’re tall!” a girl says to her, defiantly.
Inside the house, Ralph Allen, Barrett Costello’s right-hand man, moves from room to room, briefing the volunteers on fire safety, emergency exits, and how best to scare people. Four volunteer zombies crowd around Allen in a blacklit room with two cells, one of which holds a mangled corpse; the other, Brad Orner.
“Should we make noises?” Orner asks.
“You can do whatever you want,” Allen says.
Just before 7, the first customers to enter the house that night — two preteens with hooded sweatshirts and long brown hair — emerge dazed from the cornfields. They approach the porch, where Klown 1 is blocking the doorway, enumerating the house rules.
“Here we go!” he says. The girls link arms and walk inside.
Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at