Sunday, October 18, 2015

Behind The Horror: The True Terror of Theme Park Halloweens by Rootie Smith


The True Terror of
Theme Park Halloweens


Rootie Simms

First American publication rights
copyright ©2015

           Can you stay in a room filled with hundreds of giant hissing cockroaches? Would you enjoy lying in a glass coffin while dozens of live rats crawled on you? Do you have screws surgically implanted in your head to support metal spikes? If you have any of these or similar qualifications, there’s a job for you at one of the country’s largest Halloween events.

As a writer who likes to pick up odd jobs (literally) I’ve worked for some of the biggest Halloween celebrations in Florida. Okay, maybe I don’t work with cockroaches and rats or wear spikes in my head, but I once held a much more terrifying job—entertainment coordinator.

Several years ago I worked for the largest Halloween event in the country. I can’t name the theme park because I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and while it seemed odd at the time, after spending 28 nights immersed in complete madness, I quickly came to understand the need for protection. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the guests who needed protection from the park, it was the park who needed protection from the guests.

As an entertainment coordinator I was in charge of an area filled with bikers-of-the-damned which included chainsaw-wielding bikers, dancing biker chicks in cages and an assortment of bloody ghouls whose job was to terrorize people as they walked through the area. All of the actors were in makeup and costumes to make them look like a dead gang of bikers who’d just escaped from hell. A very professional and scary looking bunch!

My job description stated that I was to keep the actors on schedule, monitor their performances, keep morale high, and attend to emergency situations. I assumed this meant simple things like costume malfunctions or actors breaking character. I would soon learn that it wasn’t the actors I had to worry about, it was the guests.

My first clue came on opening night as I walked backstage to get to my area. Along the way I discovered a new section under construction. It was odd—rows of metal chairs being set up, several large desks, a photo booth with lights and cameras, and several big vans with police logos on the side. It was strange because the setup was in an area off-limits to the public.

I stopped a veteran manager and pointed to the setup. “What’s that?”

He looked up from his clipboard. “It’s a booking station.”

“What’s the theme? Arresting zombies or demons?”

“Nope. Guests. The police arrest anywhere from 50 to 100 a night during Halloween nights and it’s more convenient to book them here at the park than at the police station. After they’re booked, they’re loaded into paddy wagons and hauled to jail.”


“You’ll see.”

“What’re they arrested for?”

“Mostly drunk and disorderly.”

“I know a lot of our guests get drunk, but what constitutes disorderly?”

“You’ll see.”

It didn’t take long to find out. On opening night an announcement came through my walkie-talkie requesting a bio-containment unit at house three. Bio-containment? What the heck was that?
I hurried to house three, which was one of the seven haunted houses. Along the way I heard guests complaining that the house had been closed, but no one told them why. I couldn’t imagine what kind of emergency I’d find.

Dashing around the back to the employee entrance, I expected to find people in radiation suits with protective helmets—I mean what else would you wear for a biological emergency? But instead I found a squad of janitors with pails of water, mops and cans of antiseptic cleanser. The only protective gear I saw were latex gloves.

Seeing the veteran manager I’d talked to earlier, I asked, “What’s the biological hazard?”

Looking up from his clipboard he nonchalantly said, “It’s pee.”

Pee? Why does that need a squad of janitors?”

“One of the guests went into the house, unzipped his pants and walked through the entire haunted house urinating on everything.”

“I can’t believe it!”

“I know. The guy must have had a bladder the size of a watermelon.”

And that was just the beginning.

My entire night was filled with a parade of lunacy. At one point a guest stopped me and asked if I was a manager.

“Yes, ma’am, I am.”

“I want to lodge a complaint against one of your zombies.” She pointed to one of my street actors.

“Did he touch you?” That was strictly forbidden and one of the things I was supposed to look out for.

“No, he didn’t.”

“Did he get too close?” Actors can jump out and scare guests, but aren’t allowed to get in their personal space.

“No, nothing like that.”

“Then what did he do?”

“He said, ebola when I walked by! And I just think that’s in bad taste.”

I was stunned.

The woman wasn’t offended by the simulated eviscerations or the chainsaw dismemberments. She wasn’t bothered by the reenactments of human torture, or the bloody body parts hanging from every tree, but the word ebola was in bad taste?

“Yes ma’am. I’ll speak to the actor about that.”

Walking away from her, the actor in question came up to me and asked, “What’s her problem?”

“She objected to your using the word ebola to scare her.”

“Well, what did she expect me to say—yeast infection?”

For the rest of that evening and the ensuing 28 nights, I came to understand the qualifications for disorderly conduct better than any cop, lawyer or judge. Guest conduct that earned a private viewing of the backstage booking station included things like: passing out drunk in the street, throwing a punch at a zombie, smoking illegal substances while watching eviscerations, believing yourself a vampire and trying to bite the actors, and—in the case of one inebriated woman—grabbing one of my bikers and trying to force him into the bushes to make love to her. And of course there was the guy with the watermelon-sized bladder—he had the honor of being the first arrestee of the season.

Now, mind you, 99% of the guests who came to the Halloween nights came to have a good time and didn’t cause trouble, but with a nightly attendance that ran into the thousands, that one percent of miscreants provided plenty of business for the police. To keep both guests and performers safe, we had a minimum of 30 uniformed officers walking through the crowds every night. (As a side note—the street ghouls who jumped out and scared people were strictly forbidden from employing their art on the pistol-packing police.) We also had our own security force as well as hidden security cameras throughout the park so trouble was quickly and quietly contained without other guests even aware of the disturbances.

At the end of the season I was both relieved and saddened. And I have to confess that it was the worst job I ever loved. But one thing I came to realize while working with dead bikers, guys with spikes in their head, women with live rats crawling on them and cockroach-loving actresses, as scary as those people are, they’re far less terrifying than the general public.

About the Author:

Rootie Simms is the author of the historical fiction novels; My Childhood Christmas, and The Last Great Halloween. Nostalgic comedies from 1959 and 1960.

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