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LA's Halloween Haunts: These Are The Folks Being Paid To Scare You Half To Death

File: Jessica Garza, Lex Scott Davis and Gabriel Chavarria attend The First Purge Maze during Halloween Horror Nights 2018 at Universal Studios Hollywood on Sept. 14, 2018. (Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for Universal Studios Hollywood)
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Scaring you is a serious business. Every year, a slew of Halloween-themed events -- known to fans as "haunts" filled with "mazes" -- take over SoCal theme parks, boats, and actual parks. The local haunt scene is one of the largest in the country.


Dakota Maxfield ended up in "scare acting" as many do: through dreams of regular acting. But he fell deep into the haunt scene, sticking with it year after year.

He was a teen the first time he went to to Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights.

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"I was just so impressed with all the actors, the makeup, the masks, all of it," Maxfield said. "It was just so much like the movies -- I was just damn proud of it just to be there, and experience it as a guest."

He tucked it away in his head as something that could be a cool career move someday, according to Maxfield. After deciding he wanted to be an actor, he was looking for gigs, but couldn't find many open calls and didn't have connections yet. That's when he spotted Universal Studios holding auditions for Horror Nights, eventually landing a role making you jump out of your skin.


Samantha Brounstein works behind the scenes on haunts. She got started working at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and during the Halloween season, all the stage techs end up working on the mazes. She'd never been to a haunted house before, and as an easy startler, she was scared -- but she fell in love and still works on bringing those worlds to life as a project coordinator with Diablo Sound.

The lights and sound help fuel the emotion you feel watching a scary movie, Brounstein told us via email, and her job is to re-create that environment.

"The acting and tech go hand-in-hand," Brounstein said. "It will always be a symbiotic relationship. If a monster steps out of a corner into broad daylight, it doesn't tend to have the same effect as it does when you walk into a dark hallway with a deep rumbling sound."

Brounstein said that, despite the late hours, a lot of people working haunts still have day jobs. The work is demanding, but the hours also let them still do those regular jobs while pursuing a passion.

Her company works on bringing those experiences into reality from May into November each year.


File: Sadie Sink, and Gaten Matarazzo attend Stranger Things Maze during Halloween Horror Nights 2018 at Universal Studios Hollywood on Sept. 14, 2018. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Universal Studi)
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Maxfield's been on the Horror Nights team since 2015, and experienced the breadth of the event by doing it all. His first role was as a pool actor, on hand to fill in wherever he was needed.

"I got to be in prosthetics, I got to do masks, I got to do everything except blackout performing and stilt-walking," Maxfield said.

Blackout performing is dressing in all black and working with props -- it's the kind of performer who makes things like the demon dogs from the Stranger Things maze work. Meanwhile, stilt-walking includes performers who quickly move around on stilts, ready to use those long limbs to freak you out.

They also have chainsaw performers -- they're the ones running around the park revving chainsaws to make you think they might just cut you in half with a chainsaw. (Don't worry, it's safe. We think.)


Portrait of actor Robert Englund as 'Freddy Krueger' of the 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' series of movies, circa 1989. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After getting some experience, Maxfield was cast in 2016 as one of the most iconic characters of all time: A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger for Universal's Freddy vs. Jason Halloween maze.

"I did not believe so many people were still afraid of that stuff," Maxfield said. "And when I saw them [running] out of the maze, screaming, terrified for their lives, it was a great satisfaction and thrill knowing I did a great job as a monster actor."

Brounstein shared that feeling.

"It is so much fun watching people scream or get scared because you know you've done your job," Brounstein said.

The next year, Maxfield played The Shining's Jack Torrance, played in the film by Jack Nicholson. In his part of the maze, Maxfield was a frozen version of the character.

"I appeared at the end in the hedge part of the maze, where he's going nuts and he's chasing his family," Maxfield said.

For both roles, he wore a silicone mask. Maxfield said they're hot and sweaty inside, but the lifelike masks really freak people out. They helped him get more reactions as he jumped out at people.

"I'd smile, or I'd make a weird face, and sometimes the mask would literally move with the wrinkles of my face," Maxfield said.


(L-R) Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine, Jessica Rothe and Christopher B. Landon attend Halloween Horror Nights Opening Night Red Carpet at Universal Studios Hollywood on Sept. 15, 2017. (Rich Polk/Getty Images for Universal Studios Hollywood)

With the seasonal nature of the work, you meet people from all walks of life, Maxfield said. The Halloween Horror Nights casts function as a family -- one that wants to help you terrify strangers.

"We're always coaching each other on how to perfect our scare techniques, if something's not working," Maxfield said.

His biggest lesson as a performer: give visitors their space.

"[Guests] have really intense, unpredictable reactions -- it's a fight or flight spot sometimes, and you never know what might happen," Maxfield said. "They're swinging at somebody who's just trying to scare them."

Brounstein said that some guests come to haunts specifically to hurt scare actors, knowing that they're going to throw punches when they get scared, or even intentionally trying to trip actors on stilts -- so stay aware.

At the same time, he said, aggression and energy are the two most important tools in a scare actor's toolbox. He also recommended studying the films your character is based on. You can even pick things up from other horror movies, taking something scary and figuring out how to apply it to your character.

One more tip: being a scare actor under makeup, and masks, and wielding props will leave you exhausted. But if you pace yourself and stay hydrated, Maxfield said, you'll be OK at making people feel like they're not going to be OK.

"I have never seen a scare actor come to break without being drenched in sweat, but they are usually smiling," Brounstein said.

But be careful if you're friends with someone on the other side -- Brounstein said that they sometimes will describe what their friends are wearing so that everyone will try to scare that specific person.

"Sometimes, they will take scores of how many people they can get to scream or laugh, but it is always in good fun and never malicious. That's not what the haunt community is about," Brounstein said.


Daniel Villalobos screams at a statue during his audition to become a monster aboard the Queen Mary on Sept. 13, 2002 in Long Beach. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Brounstein agreed with Maxfield that there's a family-like connection between those working on haunts.

"Each haunt is really their own family and we all connect; it feels like everyone knows each other, and it's such a small community," Brounstein said.

That family also supports each other. One of the haunts she worked for had the slogan, "We do not participate in haunt hate." They even go to each other's haunts, according to Brounstein.

"Some haunts even do swap nights where some of their scare actors or monsters will go to another event and scare with each other," Brounstein said. "We also know the hardships of haunts and that can really bring us all together."

Her second year working the Queen Mary's Dark Harbor, she said it was like a family reunion.

"I have never been around such love in a group of people that were ready to jump into a job together, head-first," Brounstein said.


Maxfield described the Halloween mazes as "little horror film experiences," with scenes and set design accurate to the fantasy world of the movies.

But while it's fun to get lost in the world, there's something about the setup that makes visitors feel like they're more real than they actually are, according to Maxfield.

"They tend to think it's a little bit more realistic than it actually is, and I've noticed their reactions -- sometimes they don't quite understand that it's kind of like going to a play," Maxfield said.

The events being like little horror films is another reason you probably shouldn't bring small children.

"The actors are paid to scare everyone -- they do not always realize who is behind a door, and it truly breaks their heart when they make a baby cry," Brounstein said. "When a monster comes back to their break room with a story like that, it weighs on them."


(L-R) Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine and Jessica Rothe attend Halloween Horror Nights Opening Night Red Carpet at Universal Studios Hollywood on Sept. 15, 2017. (Rich Polk/Getty Images for Universal Studios Hollywood)

Maxfield recommends giving it a shot if you want to be an actor. He credits being able to put "Universal" and a classic character on your resume with getting his name more noticed by those holding auditions.

"They're kind of interested in you. They want to know what they saw in you for that role, and how you did that role," Maxfield said.

He keeps coming back to scare acting because it feels like being part of something big, and he hopes something about it can inspire people to have fun and follow their passions.

"It leaves you the impression that your work is going to be remembered, and you are part of a history, in a way," Maxfield said. "It does go down in history as these mazes really stood out to people, it scared the crap out of them as bad as the movie did, everybody loved it."

Brounstein said that haunts are the most fun that someone working in themed entertainment can have, because it combines the fun of a theme park with the excitement of a short event, all rolled into one.

"Everyone is exhausted because the hours are nuts -- usually swing shifts to accommodate the event hours -- but everyone is so happy to be there," Brounstein said.

And it's never too late to get started in the haunt world.

"A lot of people think haunting is a job for young people only, but I work with a ton of older people," Brounstein said. "For years, I had a woman in my maze that we called our Haunt Grandma. She would walk around with her cane and scare the daylights out of people."

Maxfield can currently be seen in the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man maze at Halloween Horror Nights. Brounstein was in the middle of a big install in West Hollywood, and will likely be found working on haunts for a long time to come.

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