Fright Club

Posted: October 18, 2012

THE LAST time I found myself in a dressing room makeup chair was at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall in January 2010. That day, I was being transformed into a woman (cosmetically, that is) for a story headlined "Queen For A Day."

But on a recent early-fall Friday afternoon, the location was Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, N.J., and the assignment was infinitely more fun: Spend an hour or so as a "psycho clown" at Fright Fest, the popular theme park's annual, October-long Halloween event.

I was greeted at the park's employee entrance by Kristin Siebeneicher, Great Adventure's public relations manager, who ushered me and Daily News photographer Steve Falk into the warehouse-like building that serves as the staging area for the dozens of mostly young people who, this month, are spending their weekend evenings as psycho clowns, zombies and other nightmare-inducing characters.

As we walked, Siebeneicher offered few words of advice, the truly important ones being those that warned against any kind of physical interaction ("Don't touch the customers and don't let them touch you."). She also told me to listen for the phrase "Zombie be good!" That, she explained, was the code for "leave that person alone."

After we entered the dressing area, Siebeneicher introduced me to Andrew Iavaroni, an 18-year-old freshman at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. The hotel management major, she said, was a veteran Fright Fest ghoul, and would, according to the plan, be my partner during my time as a psycho clown. I assumed he worked Fright Fest as a prelude to a show business career, but he quickly disabused me of that notion. "I always liked scaring people," was his unexpected explanation.

Then it was time to meet Fright Fest's lead makeup artist, Tony Mandile. The 38-year-old Garden Stater not only supervises Great Adventure's crew of cosmetic technicians, but also makes by hand the scores of prosthetic body parts worn by the cast.

Mandile, who did the makeup for the cult film comedy "Broken Lizard's Club Dread," began my transformation by gluing a fake nose to my prominent proboscis.

Next came a phony chin, followed by whiteface paint, which Mandile spread via a spray gun.

Once Mandile was satisfied with the base, he reached for a small paint box containing six water colors - black, white, yellow, green, blue and red. With these, he did the detail work that included "contouring" my face so it would appear to be a little dirty.

Some 30 minutes later, my face was complete, and it was time for my wig, a rubber skull cap with two wings of scarlet hair protruding wildly from either side.

To be perfectly honest, I was a little disappointed. It wasn't that Mandile hadn't done a masterful job. To the contrary, I looked remarkably clownlike. It was just that I was expecting something gorier (like the fellow who wore a prosthetic mask that made it look as if his entire face and skull had been burned to a crisp). I didn't look like an eager participant in the zombie apocalypse. Instead, I looked like Bozo the morning after the final night of the clown convention in Las Vegas - Krusty come to life.

But this was the hand (face?) I was dealt. And the clock was ticking toward the 6 p.m. "parade" wherein the small army of ghosts, ghouls and chainsaw-wielding maniacs (not to mention psycho clowns) would move en masse from the dressing room to the public areas. And I still had to put on my costume, a rather traditional clown ensemble whose vivid, crazy-quilt hues would have made Joseph and his dreamcoat jealous.

Dressed and armed with a bicycle horn, I joined my fellow actors and set out for the park. As we began our march, I developed the first bit of shtick I would employ: I took a step forward with my left foot, and then dragged my right foot forward in the way I recalled various celluloid hunchbacks doing.

I also quickly realized that by squeezing the bulb a certain way, it would make a long honking sound followed by two much shorter, sickly sounding noises. That in turn led to my second affectation, a mischievous, horn-blowing persona borrowed heavily from Harpo Marx.

As the group made its way the half-mile or so to our destination, I couldn't resist occasionally limping over to the customers who lined our route. It was at this point when my time as a psycho clown reached its nadir.

Having mildly frightened several children along the way, I passed a girl of about 8 or 9 who was standing with (presumably) her mother in front of an arcade game. As I started to approach her, limping, honking and grimacing, the poor child exploded into a hysterical sobbing fit. I quickly changed direction, the guilt weighing on me.

Just before we were herded behind a gate, where we waited while a short show was being performed by some of the costumed performers, I came up with my next bit of theatricality: An insane, Joker-ish laugh that would be my form of verbal communication.

About 10 minutes later, we were released among the paying customers, and I followed Iavaroni, whose truly scary visage was achieved by special contact lenses that gave his eyes a deadened, inhuman appearance, to the area designated as Circus Psycho, where we would be stationed.

I was a bit tentative for the first minute or two, as I watched Iavaroni and other clowns go into scare-the-people mode. But I soon found a tentlike structure where I could hide among pillars and flaps of material - as Iavaroni had suggested - and wait for my unsuspecting prey to walk past. When that happened, I would either jump out in front of them, laughing insanely or - even better - wait until they were a few steps past me. Then, I would sneak up behind the unsuspecting pedestrian and thrust my horn out from my body so it would be inches from my victim's face. After the second or third time I executed one of these maneuvers, I figured I had the hang of it and decided I didn't need a mentor. I spent the next hour on my own, and, not surprisingly, had an absolute blast.

Essentially, what I was allowed to do that evening at Great Adventure would not be tolerated anywhere else (outside, of course, other Halloween attractions). Think about it: If I sneaked up behind someone standing outside Daily News headquarters at 8th and Market streets and pulled those stunts, at the least, I would get punched. At the most, I might get arrested. But at this place, on this night, I had a free pass to be as obnoxious and annoying as I could be (without physically engaging a person).

Most of my attempts to scare the bejesus out of people were apparently successful - especially as day turned to night, and it became easier to conceal myself in the shadows. And let it be noted that my targets were not just kids, but teens and adults as well - though, as you might have guessed, children were the easiest marks. That several teenagers insisted I pose for pictures with them validated the job I did, I think.

But nobody bats 1,000. At one point, I approached a girl of 7 or 8 with all of the malevolence I could muster. The youngster stood her ground, put her hands on her hips, looked me in the eye and said: "I'm not afraid of you! I'm not afraid of anything!"

What could I do but pivot and slink away, my ostensibly maniacal laugh reduced to a pathetic whimper?

While I had more fun than I've had on an assignment in many years, there was a price to pay. For instance, being a Fright Fest actor requires a certain degree of physical fitness. Besides the several miles I logged on my feet, I used muscles I hadn't called upon for a very long time: It wasn't until three or four days later that my thighs, abused by all the crouching I did, stopped hurting.

But that was a small, if uncomfortable, price to pay for the opportunity to be a psycho clown.


Great Adventure, 1 Six Flags Boulevard, Jackson, N.J., 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, $62.99 (54 inches or taller), $39.99 (less than 54 inches or disabled), free (kids 2 and under), 732-928-2000, www.sixflags.com/greatadventure.


Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or darrowc@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow and read his blog philly.com/casinotes.

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