Haunting can come with hazards for haunted house actors

haunted house.jpg
Haunt Park at the Kalamazoo Speedway has spooked customers every weekend in October for the last 18 years. (WWMT/Genevieve Grippo)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WWMT) – Haunted houses are often home to chainsaws, clowns and creatures that go bump in the night, but it’s customers that can be most frightening for the workers behind the masks.

Whether it be a response to fear or another influence, haunted house workers say it’s not unheard of for customers to touch or injure actors on the job.

Cortney Collia, an actress at Haunt Park inside of the Kalamazoo Speedway, said it’s rare for customers to have a physical reaction to fear. More often, she said, people try to escape by either running away or freezing up. She said in the instances where people do get violent, they don’t do so intentionally.

“Some people will come in, and their response will be to take out whatever has scared them,” she said.

Collia said she’s never been hit during her nine years as an actress. Chelsea Stommen, who also acts and whose brother and father own the park, had a similar story— until recently.

After spending her whole life in the haunted house business, Chelsea said she’d never been hit until a few weeks ago. Chelsea plays an escaped prisoner in Haunt Park’s Psycho Ward. While most actors are warned to stay back from customers for safety reasons, Chelsea said she takes the risk to perform close-up scares.

“It’s worth it,” she said. “Scaring people is a thrill.”

Chelsea said during one scare, a man punched her in the gut out of instinct. She said he immediately apologized. Being that he hadn’t acted deliberately, she said she opted to stay in character and let him continue through the haunted house.

While Collia’s never been hit, she said she has dealt with people who come into the haunted house while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Collia’s position also requires her to be in charge of other actors’ safety, so when someone needs to be escorted out, she said she’s sometimes the one to do it.

“We have had people come into the haunt that have been under the influence of things that appear that they're fine when they get here, but when they start getting fear-filled, whatever's in their system can start to cause harm,” she said.

Collia said the crew is always on the lookout for customers who might be impaired, watching for warning signs like stumbling, yelling and becoming overly rowdy before entering the haunted houses.

Collia admitted customers have run into her while trying to escape something else. She said the Haunt Park has a no touching and no running rule to protect customers and staff, but sometimes, people’s emotions get the better of them.

“It’s interesting to watch people shove their best friend into harm’s way so that they can get away,” she said. “Or to watch them shove whoever they’re in a relationship with into harm’s way so they can get out—it’s an interesting behavior to see in humans. But, it’s survival.”

Jake Stommen, co-owner of the park, said there’s also been situations where people expose themselves or talk inappropriately to workers.

“Some of the hazards that we have are primarily to guests that kind of forget, yes, they're here to have fun and yes, we're here to entertain them, but this is also a job for our staff members,” he said.

Jake said each year, both new and returning staff members undergo a multi-day training session. He said trainings include fire safety, scare tactics and how to deal with customers who are overly scared or inappropriate.

“We start off by teaching our staff members how to interact with those individuals. [We teach them to] completely back off, do not be confrontational at all,” he said. “And then they immediately radio their team leads, our security staff, and our security staff takes a look, sees what we need to do, and escorts them out if we deem that appropriate.”

Collia said being an effective haunted house actor takes more than just saying “boo.” The training actors go through also teaches them how to perform different kinds of scares, the safest places to perform them, and how to keep groups moving through the attractions.

“If someone's going to deck you, which is very rare that it happens, you're not going to want to scare them directly from the front.”

Jake said the park has trained medical staff on site to help and customers or workers who might get injured. He said most commonly, injuries are a result of someone running into another person in the darkness of the haunted house.

With customers paying good money for a good scare, Collia said its up to workers to be aware of how patrons are reacting to the attractions. She said both customers and actors know if a guest has their hands up, scaring them is off-limits.

“We'll scare other people in their group, but we're not going to scare them, because they've gotten to a point where we know if they get any more, they're going to be in a bad place,” she said. “We want people to be entertained, not so frightened that their body doesn't function.”