How The Other Half Lives

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It’s me, looking… to be honest, I can’t decide if I look slightly better or slightly worse than I do in my everyday life.

Last Halloween I had the unique privilege and honor to be involved in the benefit haunt for Kayla Armstrong. The story is here on the website, and the description on the event page for the haunt sums everything up far better than I ever could. In brief, Kayla was a fifteen year old girl, who’d had a brain tumor diagnosed in 2007. Late in 2013, she had a relapse, and was found to have another brain tumor. This one was inoperable – apparently a common turn of events for survivors of one tumor – and would prove to be terminal. Von, a friend of the family was already working on building his annual Four Mile Scare Home Haunt, and decided to turn it into a fundraiser, funneling 100% of the proceeds right to Kayla’s family to help cover the exorbitant costs of her medical care.

I never got to meet Kayla. We put on a couple of events throughout the 2013 season with her involved, including a pretty epic night put on by the folks at City of the Dead, but I wasn’t able to make it. Halloween night was going to be my chance to meet this amazing individual, someone who had the strength to carry on in the face of adversity far greater than anything I had ever faced even though she was eleven years younger than I was.

I knew what I didn’t like to see… Could I turn that around and translate it into good acting skills?

I was excited, too, because I was going to get a chance to act in a haunted house. I didn’t have any training or expertise other than what I’d gained with three seasons of critiquing under my belt. I knew what I didn’t like to see from the audience’s perspective. Could I turn that around and translate it into good acting skills?

More than that, I had never had a chance to go behind the scenes of a haunt to this degree. Sometimes haunters will show us a special effect or something that they’re particularly proud of once we get out of the haunt, but that’s it. It wasn’t anything like actually being there, actually dressing up and being in the event.

Jim Halpert Costumes

Actually, these seem a little complex for me. Do you have anything easier?

For that matter, I am the kind of guy who doesn’t even do a Halloween costume, usually. I never feel like putting in the time and dedication to do a really good one. The last couple I attempted turned out very, very wrong, and it’s been hard to come up with good ideas that I can reliably execute on a shoestring budget. Really the only thing that comes to mind is… well, shoestring salesman. Even that would probably require a fedora or something. Hmmmmmm.

I enjoy Halloween costumes of course. And I’m a haunted house enthusiast so I definitely appreciate a good makeup job. It just wasn’t the sort of thing that ever really interested me. I could do a prebuilt costume off a rack but those things always feel tacky and cheap, and plus I’m not a small guy, across any dimension – length, width, depth, time, ego – so finding something ready-made that I can just slip on in a pinch is usually out as well. I know some people who can do amazing things with costumes but I’m typically not one of them, sadly.

Normally I can be bothered to put in about as much effort as Jim Halpert from The Office. If that (I’ve just included a couple samples of the level of costume wizardry that Jim exhibited for your reference). But something, call it intuition if you like, told me that the kind of scares we were hoping to elicit weren’t going to come from either Dave or Three-Hole-Punched Alex. Well, not unless you could see through the holes and they oozed with blood which, actually, would make a pretty good costume. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a way I can achieve that. OOH and a little bit of broken rib could be sticking out, too, all jagged-like! Yeah!

…there’s something seriously wrong with me, isn’t there? Aaaaaanyway…

I showed up at the haunt, and was given a brief walkthrough of the grounds outside. I was due in the makeup chair, so there wasn’t time to go over the whole haunt. I’d sent some old work clothes that were on their last legs to Von to be torn up, shredded, and grungeified, so those were there waiting for me. I quick changed into those and then sat down to have some makeup applied.

Jason and Peyton from the review team were already there, and both had makeup experience from their time on the other side of the haunter/audience relationship, so Peyton started to apply some airbrushed makeup to me, to make me pale and sickly-looking, but Von stopped her after a few minutes. He had an idea for something special, if I was up for it.

IMG_2614Had I ever put on a silicon mask before, he asked me, and I told him I hadn’t. He produced a bald-headed, scar-faced mask that looked fairly intimidating just being held in his hands, before anyone was even wearing it. It also looked smaller than my head by half. The trick, apparently, is to tilt your head down, insert your hands into the mask, and use your fingers to make sure you’re lining up the holes in the mask with the holes in your face, otherwise you end up with your nose coming out the mouth hole, which might be scary, but would also be damned uncomfortable for the entire night. Then you just roll your hands out, and blam! Instant scary person! You also have to make sure not to tear the mask, which wasn’t something I even knew could happen but sure enough, it’s a real thing.

If you’ve never had fifteen pounds of silicon slapped on your face, let me tell you, it’s a different sensation entirely to what you’re prepared for. This isn’t your dad’s Halloween mask (well, unless your dad is a silicon-based horror worker like our own Jason Peterson is). Your entire head is covered except your mouth and your eyes. There were nostril holes I could breathe out of, but it was like suffering from terminal allergies all night long. Also, every time I tried to say anything, the lips on the mask were much more resistant to moving than my own lips were, forcing me to adopt a stilted and halting tone in order to be understood. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation right after getting your mouth numbed out at the dentist? It wasn’t as bad as that, but it’s a similar sensation.

Von told all of us actors that if we needed to take a break we were more than welcome to do so, but that turned out not to be a big issue. I was just wearing a thin dress shirt and pants, but even though it was cold enough to see your breath outside, I didn’t feel the cold at all, because the mask kept all the heat from my head ensconced inside. If we hadn’t been outside, I’d probably have been totally miserable, but as it was, I felt perfect. Somewhere around hour four, though, I needed a quick break for the bathroom, and I caught a glimpse of myself for the first time since I had put on the mask. It looked good enough that I had to break one of the cardinal rules of my very existence – no selfies – and snapped a pic of how I looked. The bathroom at the house had red lighting and bandages hanging down, which only served to make the effect look even better.IMG_2631I couldn’t help but think that if I looked like this at work, people would have no choice but to listen to me more carefully. I mean, if the guy above was your IT guy, I bet you sure would try turning your computer off and on again before you called him, right? I bet if he told you to file a helpdesk ticket to get your problem looked at, you’d do it, wouldn’t you? I might be on to something here.

IMG_2621So, ultimately, the question I have to ask myself is, do I think I did a good job of acting? I’d probably rate myself a 6 on the Spooky Colorado rubric, based on the way I’ve judged other actors doing a similar job to me. I was basically on traffic control. Guests would come up to the haunt through the gateway of skulls in the photo, and it was my job to route them appropriately. There was a not-so-scary path for the kids to take. Also, people would come up, go through the yard which was done up as a cemetery, then through the garage, and then come back out and be routed through a different path to the exit at the back. I was supposed to direct people to the right path based on whether they’d been through there before or not.

I thought that already sounded a little difficult – I’m the sort of person who can’t remember people’s names ten seconds after meeting them, but this seemed relatively simple – all I had to do was to find something memorable about each person and then, when I saw them again, route them the second way towards the exit.

What I didn’t count on was the fact that more people might show up than I was ready for at any given time, but that’s exactly what happened. At one point I was hit with a whole gaggle of people… maybe 15 at once… some of whom were back for the second pass and others who weren’t. There was also a jumping spider that I was supposed to hit with a pressure pad to attack people with, but often they’d slip past me before I could do anything with it.

I wonder how many other actors get so used to this treatment, that it becomes a rarity when someone actually engages and interacts with them.

I’ll also remember to give actors a bit of sympathy for their interactions with audience members, particularly when it comes to people in masks. I wasn’t prepared for the number of people who would wander through my area and not listen to a word I said. They were just off wandering their own way, completely oblivious to the fact that I was there, and that was a big eye opener for me. We go through a haunt with our eyes peeled, drinking in every detail, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of people who treated me like I was nothing more than a prop. I also hadn’t considered that some people would be running through my scene, not caring what I had to say, because they were scared out of their wits and just running blind, which was awesome to see, but also meant I missed a lot of them. I wonder how many other actors get so used to this treatment, that it becomes a rarity when someone actually engages and interacts with them.

There were also people that wanted information from me, but the mask made it difficult to hear them as well – they didn’t sound quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s “wah wah wah” teachers, but pretty close in some instances. One teen girl kept asking me if there were strobe lights in the haunt, but I honestly couldn’t make out what she was trying to ask me, and by the time I did get it, after the fourth or fifth repetition, I had to answer honestly that I didn’t know, because I hadn’t seen the inside of the garage. She never did believe me, thinking I was trying to scare her more by concealing the truth.

After about an hour I had finally settled in on a limp walk, a sort of growling, gutteral sound that I discovered I could make regardless of whether the lips moved on the mask or not, and some pretty epic pointing to push people through either one side or the other, trying to channel the Ghost of Christmas Future from A Christmas Carol with all the silent pointing and stuff.

I learned a lot about what it’s like to deal with the public and run a haunt from the other side, and even now I know that this one night experience is nothing compared to what it must actually be like to take a haunt all the way from sketches on a piece of paper, to a final, built product, to something that has people excited to return year after year. The amount of work I put in was absolutely minimal compared to the work that other, more talented people put in all year round to make such spectacular productions. But it did give me a unique perspective, and one that I’ll try to factor in when I feel the need to call an actor out for something in my reviews this year.

Every year we write our reviews, and every year there’s at least minimal backlash. “How could you give Fred’s Haunt a 9.8?” someone will write in and ask. “I went and it was terrible!”

The truth is the differences aren’t even relegated to different nights. Within the span of 5 minutes, an experience can change completely. Since there are usually 8 critics, we go into haunts in two group of 4, and it’s not out of the ordinary for the first group to meet in the parking lot and start raving about how awesome everything was, only to turn around and have the second group come out and say, “It was OK, but not great.” Seeing that happen every year, I had a theoretical understanding of the fact that a haunt is closer to a play than to a movie – it’s a live performance, and it’s different every single time it’s experienced.

Being on the other side drove that point home in a way that being a critic never could. Things were changing around me all the time, and in the span of just a few seconds my scene could go from intimately and creepy with just a couple of people, to an out of control mosh pit, and then back again. I’m liable to give much more leeway to the actors this year and in future years, thinking back on my experiences.

The thing I learned most of all wasn’t about haunted houses, or silicone masks, or Halloween… It was about what it meant for us as human beings to band together behind people who were having a rough time of it.

 And yet, the thing I learned most of all wasn’t about haunted houses, or silicone masks, or Halloween, ghosts, goblins, or ghouls. It was about what it meant for us as human beings to band together behind people who were having a rough time of it. Every haunt season, we come together to celebrate the inhuman, the insane, the deranged and the disturbed and the disgusting. But when it came down to the wire, the whole community acted like a single family. Several haunts across the metro area gave away free tickets to their attractions for us to use as prizes in our raffle to raise money. Von converted his entire home haunt into a benefit, and the Spooky Colorado audience banded together to raise money to help Kayla’s family deal with their expenses, giving very generously to the cause.

Of all the people on Earth, the zombies, and the vampires, and the demons pulled through in order to do something that was, ironically, one of the most human displays I’ve ever seen, and I was honored just to have a small part in the bigger picture. See, it’s easy to forget it every year, as the friendly competition between haunters picks up and people start looking at their review scores on the website, but the haunt community in Denver and the rest of Colorado is, essentially, one big family, and that fact never shone through clearer than it did when everyone banded together to accomplish this amazing thing for one family in need. Between us all, and all of our efforts, we raised over $7000 in just one month.

We all hoped that this would be a temporary setback for her.

It wasn’t.

Kayla was supposed to meet us at the haunt, and to get a chance to act in it. But she wasn’t doing well that day, and ultimately she couldn’t come. We all hoped that this would be a temporary setback for her. It wasn’t. Kayla Armstrong spent her last few hours on Earth thinking about us, there in the cold with us in spirit if not in body. She held on just long enough to find out how the evening had gone. Kris Kropelnicki, our team lead, went to see her that night just after she got out of her makeup and back into regular clothes, and in her own words:

She could not attend and she passed at approximately 1:40am on November 1st, two minutes after I left her house on Halloween night, when I came by to tell her how great her haunt was. Her dad said she waited for me to come and then went, knowing her haunt KICKED ASS! Kayla and her family taught us a lot last year and I am grateful for the experience.

As am I. Thank you, Kayla, Mike, and Von, for giving us all the opportunity to be a part of the magic… and I don’t just mean Halloween night.

 

Kayla Armstrong – A Tribute

As we begin another year of reviewing haunted houses, we look forward to an exciting season filled with screams, scares, fun and friends.  Each new season is filled with anticipation and excitement and we are eager to see old friends and make new ones.

We are also looking back to previous years, reminiscing about seasons past and we realize how truly blessed we are to have the fortune of reviewing all of the amazing haunts here on the Front Range. Reviewing haunts is so much more to us than just throwing out a score and a handful of words. It is way beyond that, in ways one wouldn’t imagine for a haunted house critics team.

Each season is unique and memorable in its own way; however, the 2013 season will stay in the forefront of our minds and hearts every day for the rest of our lives.

We were honored and greatly humbled by our work on a fundraiser for Kayla Armstrong. As most of you will remember, Kayla was battling a second PNET brain tumor and at the age of 15, Kayla taught everyone around her what it truly meant to live life to its fullest. In spite of her illness, Kayla wore a smile that shined brighter than the sun, lighting up the lives of everyone she came in contact with. Her tenacity and courage were a driving force to those of us who had the privilege of knowing her, even if only for a short time. Her spirit is with us today, in everything we do.

I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know her family and they too radiated Kaylas determination, courage, strength and love. Never before had I seen such an incredible display of love and I doubt I ever will again. Kayla and her family taught everyone around them what it means to truly love one another and to love every second of life, no matter what cards you are dealt.

Kayla was called home on November 1, 2013 just after I had paid a visit to her to tell her how things went at “Four Mile Scare” haunt in Boulder. Although Kayla could not attend her haunt as planned on Halloween, she was there in spirit and everything we did, we did for her and her love of Halloween.

Although she didn’t realize it, Kayla brought countless people together from our communities and created a bond that will never be broken. I’d like to thank everyone who participated in and donated to the fundraisers for Kayla. Your donations and time are deeply appreciated to this day.

Kayla, Mike, Ann and Austin, I’d like to thank you for sharing your lives and love with all of us and for teaching us what it truly means to love and care for another in this life. Thank you for teaching us what strength and courage look like and how to laugh and enjoy life in the face of adversity. Your lessons, love and legacy will never leave us. Kaylas radiance, beauty and courage will live in our hearts forever.

Kayla, we dedicate this season to you.