"What we're going to do first is act like zombies," shouts Jeremy Tucker, a manager at the Darkness, to his new recruits. Before him stand six prospective additions to the Soulard haunted house's "scare team."
Tucker is a gaunt, severely pale 33-year-old with eyes darkened by mascara and liner. He's not in costume — this is his everyday look. He stands on the pavement outside the Darkness on a Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by the six newbies. Five are teenagers still dressed in their school uniforms, and one is a middle-aged man. They are joined by six veteran haunters. Tucker yells through the megaphone like a drill sergeant:
"In our job you cannot touch anybody! If you touch someone today while you're walking around as a zombie, I want you to raise your hand and give me five pushups!"
He steps out of the circle and, after waiting a beat, blasts the megaphone's horn. A zombie horde erupts.
This is Ghoul School at the Darkness, and Tucker is a master teacher. He got his start in the biz as a teenager, managing haunted houses in Texas before the Darkness poached him last year.
"Are you out of breath?" he shouts at the zombies.
It's only been a minute, but some of the new guys are already bent over and heaving.
"Remember," Tucker barks, "you gotta do this for six hours wearing a costume the whole time."
Working as a monster takes considerable physical stamina. Shuffling and jerking the body around quickly wears out the abs and thighs, while lungs ache from constant growling and moaning. Kevin Salyer, an eight-year veteran of the Darkness, suggests a terrifying-sounding workout of heavy cardio, gymnastics or parkour.
"OK, good!" Tucker shouts at his trainees. "Now, one of your legs is broken. I don't care which one."
Tucker says a lot these kids are just like he was as a teenager: still in their shells, shy, maybe a little lost in their heads. After Ghoul School and a full month of fearmongering, Tucker guarantees they'll be more confident and loud.
"They break out," he says.
So, do you have what it takes be a monster? We asked Tucker and some of his best actors to dish out tips on becoming the best zombie you can be.
Don't Touch, Don't Get Touched
This is the golden rule of working as a haunted-house actor: Don't touch the customers. Beyond potential lawsuits, it's downright dangerous for people to crash into each other in the Darkness' confusing, smoke-filled hallways and rooms. It's a narrow line to toe: You have to get in close to scare the visitors, but being that close can be risky. Last year a startled visitor punched an actor so hard in the chest that she collapsed into a seizure. (She's fine, don't worry.) That kind of violence is rare, but getting aggressive or handsy with an actor will get a visitor swiftly ejected.
Get in Faces
Without confidence, even the most elaborately gored-up zombie is little more than window dressing. "You can't be afraid," says Lynda Brauley, who at eighteen is already a pro at the horror game. Pick a target, she suggests, and then get in close. Rush at that happy-looking couple, and violate their personal space until they squeal. For groups, single out the weakest one. If one is grabbing onto her friend's shirt, go get her; if she's whimpering like a spooked poodle, get her twice. Also, watch for overconfident frat bros. Brauley guarantees: "The cocky ones are the ones that are usually most afraid."
Be Relentless and Unpredictable
No one is afraid of slow, shuffling zombies who take their sweet-ass time getting around. Escalate, escalate and escalate some more: Be as loud as you can, gnash your teeth, jerk your shoulders, drop your voice into a low moan before shrieking like a dying animal. As Tucker explains, the key is to be erratic and unpredictable. If a girl is staring intently at the floor in an attempt to make the experience easier, get down on the floor so she can see you. Watching the poor wretch jump will give you the rush you need for the next scare. Let the fear you create feed you.
"If You Can't Scare 'Em, Entertain 'Em"
Some people just refuse to be scared, and those people require some extra effort. Twenty-two-year-old Alyssa DeArgo is an eight-year haunted house veteran, and she says that girls can be especially resistant. "A lot of them will talk to you or try to scare you back, but if you keep going at them" — DeArgo claps her palms together — "it freaks them out even more! They think you're going to stop when they get smart-assy, but you have to show them it doesn't work." That said, every ghoul eventually encounters someone who just won't budge. At that point, DeArgo says, you gotta fall back to Plan B. "Entertain them," she advises. Her strategy? While dressed as a zombie child, she tags along directly behind grunting, "Dinner. Dinner. Dinner. Dinner."
Enjoy the Terror
Six-hour shifts at the Darkness are physically exhausting, like running a marathon in a sauna. Cast members find ways to motivate themselves, such as by keeping tabs on the walkout rate; that is, how many patrons have hit the eject button mid-haunt, too frightened to make it to the end. Last year, the Darkness scored 175 walk-outs. It's a source of pride. Kevin Salyer, who at 28 is among the most tenured actors at the Darkness, says scaring visitors is a welcome and therapeutic respite from his day job at Walmart. "You know how they have those laughing sessions to relieve stress? We do scaring sessions. It's what we love to do. It's our way of centering ourselves."