Ghoul School provides educational, screaming good time
AGAWAM – Unbeknownst to guests enjoying the thrills of Six Flags New England (SFNE) under the blazing September sunshine, an ensemble of creatures was rehearsing to perfect its Fright Fest scare tactics.
The 2014 Fright Fest officially opens Sept. 20 and will run through Nov. 2. A cast of nearly 350 is needed to make the event a success. There are 24 attractions featured this year including staples such as the Wicked Woods, Total Darkness, which have new features and including The Aftermath – Zombie’s Revenge, as well as a new musical stage production.
This is the second of three articles where I go behind-the-scenes to unveil the fun behind the scares of Fright Fest. In the first, I was transformed in a “make under” by Alex Squiers, makeup captain, during the SFNE Scare Fair hiring event. This time around, I attended Ghoul School on Sept. 7 to learn how to put the “scare” into Fright Fest.
I joined 100 other Scream Team employees for the day where we reviewed the use of props, practiced getting into character and toured the attractions we will work in.
Eric Boucher, production coordinator, broke down the four types of cast members: Principals are the main characters such as Mayor Slayer, the host of Fright Fest; supporting cast would be the Slayer’s horde that accompanies him as he travels through the park; roamers are actors that traverse the park haunting guests as from one attraction to the next; and IGORs (Interchangeable Ghoul on Reserve) who scare at multiple locations during a shift to cover breaks or to fill in for absences.
Milta Vargas, of Springfield and Jon York of Enfield, Conn., whom we met in the first article are both returning Fright Fest actors who will serve as IGORs. Both attended Ghoul School the day I visited as well as Eddie Gonzalez, also of Springfield, who will play “Doom.”
Vargas warned me that I would get addicted to the thrill of surprising guests and become a “scare junkie,” just one of the many reasons she returns each year.
According to Boucher, the costume does not make the character. Anyone can dress up, but the Scream Team prides itself on making its alter egos come alive through the use of backstory, movement, mannerisms and voice. Jumping out and yelling “Boo” isn’t going to cut it.
Admittedly, while we were practicing characters, the actors gave me goose bumps as they portrayed evil clowns without the use of makeup or props – that’s how much training goes into the event.
Now, by no means do I have a theater background, with the exception of having taken one introductory course. To call me a novice would be kind. It was eye opening for me to take part in the character exercises because I was suddenly aware of how uptight I had become. It’s one thing to be silly around friends or family, but goofing around in front of strangers? I was unbelievably self-conscious, despite the fact that we all looked funny. I told myself, “Knock it off and have some fun.” That made it easier.
We practiced being zombies, vampires, undead ranger cowboys, scarecrows that come alive once they’re clipped from their posts and evil clowns (of which I’m not a fan and would’ve shut my eyes, but I was taking pictures). Boucher also led the team in vocalization exercises to practice the proper way to breath and voice our characters.
During the Scare Fair, I met Norma Moreno of Agawam, a former ride operator who returned to audition for Fright Fest. At that time, she said, “I really think I’d be a great witch. I’ve been practicing my cackly laugh. I’m super excited about this opportunity. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I like to go wild on Halloween.”
Sure enough, Moreno was cast to work the Trick O’ Treat Trail and was at Ghoul School with me.
“This is the most fun training ever. It is everything I expected and more,” she said. Prior to “scaring,” Moreno likes to “get a couple of screams out.” Once in character, she “plays off the energy of the other actors.”
Boucher stressed some of the key safety issues of performing. For one, the actors are not to “target children,” nor should they trap any guest. “If you make their only way out to go through you, they will go through you and you will get punched,” he said, adding that “scarers” are not to touch guests with the exception of a handshake or high five in the main entranceway to the park. In addition, each actor is equipped with a safety whistle to signal illness or injury of any guest or employee.
Boucher also discussed the roles of victim/victor scare teams. “Just being annoying isn’t scary,” Boucher said of victims. “You have to create empathy.”
He emphasized that each character has only 10 seconds to make an impression. “Stay in character [at all times]. Commit and scare. Subtlety doesn’t work; be big. Don’t be lame,” Boucher advised.
This year’s Fright Fest marks Supervisor Greg Seymour’s 15th season. “I love the people I work with. There’s so much creativity. I would never go anywhere else. These are my clowns, these are my demons, [my children],” he said.
Pete Shannon, manager of the Entertainment Department, said he couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. “It’s a mix of office work, creative work, [and] being in the outdoor environment,” he said.
Shannon has worked for SFNE since 1991. He initially applied to take part in the first Fright Fest, but was told “this isn’t for you” by the hiring manager at the time. That spring he was hired.
Boucher noted that there are still some openings for Fright Fest, but said that SFNE only hires the “best of the best” to ensure the quality of its product.
“You only do something like this if you love it. Today was the right balance of overwhelmed and exciting. All the wheels are in motion,” he said.
The Annual Fright Fest Blood Drive to benefit the American Red Cross will take place on Sept. 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the SFNE Human Resources building, located across the street from the park. Donors will receive a free ticket to the park, good for the 2014 season.
For more information about Fright Fest, visit the “Events” page of www.sixflags.com/newengland