Every October, the scare business cranks up again in metro Detroit, with dozens of haunted attractions all over the region. It says something about our area that so many people will fork over money year after year to get the crap scared out of them in a horror-oriented environment, to be confronted with their worst nightmares.
What sort of person does the hard work of giving people gooseflesh? We asked Ed Terebus over at Pontiac's Erebus, at four floors of scariness, it's one of the biggest scream generators in southeastern Michigan. Does he use actors? He does — of a sort. Asked if he'd use professionals, Terebus tells us they simply won't do. He says, "I need an actor to do it 300 times a night. ... These are just regular folks that love Halloween and getting a chuckle out of scaring people."
Among them is Shane Michael Fekete, 32, a former Bay City resident who moved to Pontiac to be nearer the sort of fantasy factory that's cropped up here. He works not just at Erebus, but at the Renaissance Festival and Theatre Bizarre. He says, "This is my busy time of year. In fact, this is the first year we're taking a crack at having Erebus open seven days a week, and it's really busy on weeknights."
It's Fekete's third year working for Terebus. The wait for the horror attraction can take so long, he'll sometimes get into costume and do fire-breathing or juggling outside where throngs stand in line, or simply giving them a good scare before they get in the door. In the past, he's played a crazed mortician, a dinosaur, and more. There's a fine art to raising people's hair, and he says it's a little more involved than crying, "Boo!"
Sometimes, you chase them through, and that involves an intimidation factor. Then there's a startle scare or "jump scare" where you jump out and shriek in a person's face and scare them that way. Or we'll play on people's fears, like claustrophobia: Lock you in a room and bury you alive.
Wait: Burying people alive? Isn't that bad for repeat business?
"It can be," Fekete says, "but when you know the tricks of the trade, there's a way to do it where they end up coming out the other side OK. Scared, hopefully, but they survive."
That hopefulness that customers will be scared out of their senses seems genuine, and at Erebus, where the motto is "Show No Mercy," the hunt for the perfect scare is serious business. "I've been doing haunted houses since I was in high school," Fekete says, "for going on 16 years now, and there's something satisfying, I will admit, about seeing a 6-foot-5, middle-aged man cowering and screaming in a corner. ... You do get an adrenaline rush out of seeing that person's reaction and knowing that you're doing your job well."
What's the most terrified person he's ever seen? "Personally, I've seen a person curled up in a ball in a corner just, like, shaking, not wanting to go on. We actually have people wet themselves at Erebus," he says adding that nine people have already peed their pants with fear this year, and it's early yet. "
Achieving that level of terror is hard work. The crew tries to find the person who's most scared and push them over the edge. Fekete's co-worker Calvin Allen IV says, "Usually we have a signal that we do for the monster who's inside, or we tend to send the one who's the most terrified into a new room first.
They also try to find different themes that will play on specific fears. For instance, they have a whole section dedicated to clowns, with a mirror maze, a clown funeral, animatronic clowns, and carnival music. "It's pretty crazy," Allen says, "especially if people don't like clowns, it's a section where we got a lot of people to wimp out. Clowns are a really big fear for some people, and some of our clowns get really bloody."
Fekete says, "We try to play on as many fears as as we can — claustrophobia, acrophobia, clowns, dinosaurs — we try to run the gamut. We are hoping for that moment when you round that corner and we found your fear."
Fekete says, "We also keep track of people that have 'wimped out,' where they can't go any further and they go, 'Let me out of here! I wanna quit! And so we show them one of the emergency exits and we let them leave."
On the flip side of that coin, you get these kids coming through where they're less scared than their parents are. They just think it's neat. So it's really interesting to see what scares one person doesn't scare another."
Of course, goosing that fight-or-flight instinct: Some customers are just as likely to throw punches as cower in a corner.
"One of our rules is to try to stay at least an arm's length from the patrons," Fekete says. That way, if they do take a swing, they are less likely to connect."
In fact, some unruly customers seem to be spoiling for a fight. That turns the tables on these scare-masters, whose first rule is "do no harm." "As an actor, it's a little bit scary sometimes," Fekete says. "We can't do anything back to them, because then we're going to get charged with assault, so we have to find security and hope they can catch up with the patron and take care of business."
That said, Fekete insists the pros far outweigh the cons. "It's a lot of fun," he says. "You get to meet so many cool people. A lot of my fellow actors are some of the greatest guys I know. It's definitely worth it."
And these folks are really trying to get that ultimate scare out of their clients. Allen tells us he gave an older couple a good "jump scare" and "the lady dropped to her feet, crying, like, 'Please, please, please!' and the husband's trying to get her up, and she's bawling her eyes out. Once we hear something like that, we all feed on it. We all gathered around her, terrifying her even more. When she was so scared she started shaking really bad, we had to back off because we thought she was going into a panic attack."
If it sounds mean, it's just another day on the job for Allen and his colleagues. "It doesn't matter if you're on the ground bawling your eyes out, we're still going to give you that scare."
Erebus is at 18 S. Perry St., Pontiac; 248-332-7884; hauntedpontiac.com.