By day, she is Sonya Joyner, a secretary at Brookline High School. But come nightfall, she transforms: Joyner is “Dark N Twisty,” a crafty goblin in an oversized dress, and every weekend through October, she terrorizes paying customers at Barrett’s Haunted Mansion in Abington.
“She loves to cook after butchering her own quote-unquote ‘meat’ and she recites killer nursery rhymes,” Joyner explained of her impish alter ego, a character she developed on the job at Barrett’s. Slipping into character for a moment, she snarled in a sing-song voice: “Don’t you look cute! Don’t you look fab! You’d look much better on a cold, hard slab!”
Joyner is what’s known as a scare actor — the howling, cackling, writhing backbone of the haunted house industry. And like restaurants, retailers, and hotels, the nation’s seasonal fright merchants are bedeviled by a shortage of workers. “Haunts,” as they are called in industry parlance, are struggling to hire and retain actors while also trying to rebound from last year’s pandemic-driven losses. Many haunts were forced to close last Halloween, while others opened to a limited number of visitors with scare actors performing behind plexiglass barriers.
And customers are noticing. Online reviews for some popular New England attractions are riddled with complaints about “hardly any characters” or “not enough people to scare you.” For haunt owners and operators this Halloween season, there is nothing more terrifying than too few ghouls
“They are 125 percent important. I can’t speak for other haunts because I don’t know, but in this haunt, it is a passion and it is a love of what they do and they take great pride in it,” said Mary Barrett Costello, owner of Barrett’s Haunted Mansion, which has had difficulty hiring actors this year. “Without them, it would be nothing — nothing.”
John Denley, president of Massachusetts-based Boneyard Productions International, a haunted house consulting and construction firm, said the staffing shortage is plaguing his clients nationwide. Not only is hiring a challenge, but so is retaining actors for the full season, a perennial issue for the haunt business.
For most scare actors, the gig is part time and seasonal, and pays little more than minimum wage. The job is also physically demanding. Actors throw out their backs, lose their voices, or come down with the “haunt plague,” a nasty cold that can keep them out of costume at the height of the season. And this was before the pandemic. Now the actors face new hazards: unmasked patrons and the threat of COVID-19.
“You’ve got to really plan ahead and go for overstaffing because it’s going to dwindle and dwindle until the final weekend, when we all know what’s going to happen: Everybody wants to go to a Halloween party on your busiest night,” said Denley, who is also known as “Professor Nightmare” in industry circles. “That is horrifying. That is our worst nightmare.”
To hire more actors, many of the major haunts have raised wages, Denley said, and others are offering incentives, such as bonuses or free tickets for employees who never miss a shift, or recruit friends or family members to work with them, or are voted “MVG” — “most valuable ghoul” — at the end of the season.
Other haunts increasingly rely on animatronic puppets and special effects props, said Larry Kirchner, publisher of Hauntworld magazine and president of Blacklight Attractions in St. Louis. At each of his haunted houses, Kirchner has added more than a dozen air canons so visitors are bombarded with sudden explosions of noise.
“This helps make up for the lack of actors, on top of all the animated effects that we have,” Kirchner said. “So now we’re able to operate with fewer actors and give the customers as good or even a better show than before.”
But haunted house purists argue there is no replacement for live bodies and the creepy cast of characters they embody. The unsettling music, flickering lights, lingering fog, cobwebbed sets, “bloodstained” floors — these are “anxiety inducing,” said Coltan Scrivner, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and expert on “morbid curiosity.” But they don’t provoke the sheer terror of an axe-wielding clown springing unexpectedly from a pitch-black corner.
“If you went into a haunted house knowing that there were no people inside, it wouldn’t be the same experience,” said Scrivner, who is currently researching the physiological responses of haunted house visitors and actors. “It’d be like going into the dark and knowing there’s nothing in the dark. The fun part of it is not being sure.”
America Haunts, an industry association, estimates there are more than 1,200 admission-charging, professional haunted houses across the United States, in addition to more than 300 Halloween-themed attractions at amusement parks and 3,000 charity haunts raising money for nonprofits. The typical haunt, according to the association, attracts about 8,000 paid guests each season, charging an average of $15 per ticket.
The haunted house industry is better insulated than other fields suffering from worker deficits, according to Mike Quill, who owns Fear Town in Seekonk and Factory of Terror in Fall River. Quill said he’s been fortunate to not have problems hiring and keeping his actors.
“It’s more than a job to them,” Quill said of the actors at his locations. “People are here because they love it.”
Richard Sheridan, 51, is one of them. A former firefighter, Sheridan, who also leads tours at the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, plays a mean and cheeky pig man named Porky Bacon at Fear Town. The character, inspired by “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” roams the grounds with his brother, Bubba, and together they poke fun at patrons like a pair of schoolyard bullies.
For Sheridan, scaring strangers is a family affair. His teenage daughter also works at Fear Town, specializing in jump scares, as does his wife, who plays a posh Russian zombie, reminiscent of Natasha Fatale from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Sheridan, who guesses he has spent “thousands” on his Porky Bacon getup, said he would still haunt for Fear Town even if he wasn’t paid.
But the actors, he agrees, are the disemboweled heart of the production. Pricey props and animatronics simply aren’t as spooky.
“Actors just have that personal touch that an animatronic or prop will never have,” Sheridan said. “The best thing about [props and animatronics] is they can distract someone, and while they’re distracted, your actor can get a good scare.”