NEWBURYPORT — Beth Randall’s cheerfully ghoulish performance has become an unlikely institution in this seaside town.
Every October since 1987, the Theater in the Open troupe has hosted “Maudslay Is Haunted,” also called the Haunted Trail. The two-day fund-raiser turns Maudslay State Park in Newburyport into one big spook house, drawing hundreds of visitors, a week or two before Halloween.
The 20 or so macabre skits scattered through the woods change from year to year. But since the turn of the new century, fans who “survive’’ to reach the end of the trail have found themselves learning dance moves from a peppy-but-scary cheerleader played by Randall.
“People come to the Haunted Trail every year, and they get to me, and they’re like, ‘Yay! It’s the cheerleader,’ ” said Randall, production manager for Theater in the Open. “It’s really fun, and I get recognized in the supermarket.”
Again this weekend, she will be all done up in red and black, with pigtails and pom-poms. But her face will be made up as either a member of the undead or a spider queen. As each group of young and old arrives at the end of the trail, she teaches them a few simple moves. Then she turns on a boombox to play “Monster Mash,” the famous novelty song by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, and makes them all dance along.
“By giving the audience a space on the way out, before they get their cider and doughnuts, a place to come together and have a happy, celebratory moment at the end of something that’s hopefully a little bit scary over the course of the trail, is really wonderful,” said Edward Speck, Theater in the Open’s artistic director. “That’s part of why it’s such an important tradition. People enjoy it at the end; they enjoy that release before they go back to their regular lives.”
The dance moves are pretty simple, said Randall, but apparently they are habit-forming.
“I tried to change it one year, and people were like, ‘Where’s the shimmy? Bring back the shimmy!’ So I’ve been doing the same thing since,” she said.
The first move, “Monster Monster Zombie Zombie,” shifts from side to side as it goes on. Randall: “What happens is, a monster sneaks up on you, and you go ‘AAAAH! AAAAH!’ And then, unfortunately, the monster gets you and turns you into a zombie, and you go ‘errrrr errr.’ And then, just for the sake of symmetry, it happens again on the other side.”
The second is a pivot turn, which she makes more or less elaborate depending upon the ages of the participants. The third move is a bit of a hand jive she called “The Spooky Macarena,” “which sometimes is funny and sometimes isn’t,” depending on how far we are from that 1990s dance craze, she said. Currently: funny.
Finally, there’s a little shimmy at the end, sort of her signature.
She coaches the crowd through the whole routine as many as 30 times on each of the two days of the event. “By Sunday,” she said, “my voice is usually a little hoarse.”
A 38-year-old Newburyport native, Randall has been participating at Theater in the Open since junior high school. This fall she adapted and directed the company’s “Canterbury Tales.”
“Six or seven years ago, I decided I wanted to do this full-time,” she said. “There’s this thing, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money? That’s the job you’re supposed to have.’ It took me a while to realize that I’d already been doing it; I’d just been putting it into my spare time.”
The Haunted Trail “raises money for our free season of theater while providing an inexpensive family activity outdoors when we all want to get into the haunting spirit,” Speck said.
It also gives aspiring performers their first break with the troupe, which performs at Maudslay through the warm months. Speck’s first performance with the troupe, when he was 13, was in a skit on the trail. “My friend and I were given the resources and direction to make our skit successful, but were also trusted to create and perform our own original piece,” Speck said. “That was huge for my confidence as a young person and a developing artist, and the reason I returned year after year. “
Speck is 31 now, but his Haunted Trail debut came just a few years before the cheerleader made hers. Actually, there were several cheerleaders and a complicated dance performance to a different song that first time, in 1999, Randall said. The next year it was just Randall and her friend Mary Godfrey, and the two of them tried “Monster Mash,” which turned out to be just right.
It has been Randall and the occasional guest star ever since, except for one year when she handed the role off to two teenagers so she could join two friends in a Haunted Trail skit based on the witches from “Macbeth.”
“When people saw me earlier in the trail doing ‘Double, double toil and trouble,’” she said, “they were like, ‘Why are you here? Why aren’t you at the end?’ ”