The mother twittered with nervous excitement as she breathlessly recounted with her teenage charges a spine-chilling encounter a few seconds earlier. A pack of ghouls had just spooked them repeatedly at Valleyfair's Halloween Haunt, Valleyscare. Walking quickly along a fog-covered path, she was preoccupied with reliving the experience after the costumed frighteners had fallen away.
She never knew I had sneaked up behind her.
I stealthily tailed her, crouching to stay out of her peripheral vision. As her retelling became more animated, I leaned in over her shoulder and uttered one simple thing into her ear: "Tsst!"
She jumped and screamed as she turned to look at me. She jumped and screamed again as her eyes discerned my bloody, rotting face. The teens died laughing.
I slunk back into the shadows, having recorded another tiny victory in my quest to scare the figurative pants off of people paying for the thrill.
It's hard work.
In years past, I had visited Valleyscare with my family and had agreed with my wife and daughters that it would be fun to have a job scaring people. Wouldn't it be cool to do that for one night? To my surprise, the folks at Valleyfair agreed. They invited me to hang out with their haunters on a recent Friday night.
I was assigned to Blood Creek Cemetery, an outdoor "scare zone" that stretches along the northeast side of the park for a few hundred feet. The dark walkway is dotted with faux tombstones and shrouded in a white mist generated by about two dozen fog machines. It's one of my favorite attractions at Valleyscare, because the relatively open space makes it a frightening free-for-all compared with the narrow confines of the Shakopee park's six indoor and outdoor mazes.
But first I had to dress for the part. I donned a ripped, blood-stained jumpsuit, one of the few costumes hanging on the Blood Creek rack close to starting time. I then jumped ahead of a long line of workers waiting to be made up, walking past a young woman drizzling fake blood from a squirt bottle all over her face. Yummy.
I sat down to get the "basic zombie" makeover from Erik Rux of Rosemount. The 32-year-old self-taught makeup artist is an electrician by day, zombie maker by night.
Over a pale foundation applied earlier, he brushed areas with liquid latex and then picked at the dried layer to create holes. Some red accents and other 3-D effects created the illusion of rotting flesh. Airbrushed highlights, dark-painted eyes and copious chunks of bloody goo completed the zombie look.
I was good to ghoul.
As night crept in, I crept over to the Blood Creek area.
"This is basically an acting job," said Ian Parrague, 21, of Eden Prairie. "You don't break character."
You also don't run, the Skeleton Man warned me, because you'll quickly tire out. Other Blood Creek haunters nodded in agreement in a Valleyfair break room before the show.
Once outside, I ended up running -- a lot. It was one of my best bits. I would lurch along slowly at the edge of the only lighted area, jerking randomly to and fro like the best extra in a George Romero movie. Park visitors would point and exclaim from the opposite side, a safe distance away, "There's one!" Then I would snap my head at the sound and silently sprint toward them, breaking away at the last second off into the fog. The look of terror on their faces the whole way was priceless.
But Skeleton Man was right: It was tiring. Lucky for me, a zombie heaving and groaning in a dark corner is right in character.
Not everyone was scared. In fact, several teens and even one dad -- surely his membership in the Fatherhood Club has been suspended -- tried to scare me. I caught them all in the act, much to their chagrin. Still, the nerve.
Some scare tactics simply didn't work. I tried screaming at a few visitors, but it never proved effective. Jaded teens just stare back, and then there's that awkward silence afterward.
"I like your glasses," one preteen girl said.
Thanks. A zombie likes to hear that.
Other Valleyscare workers did quite well by jumping out from behind a tombstone and screaming. I dismissed that as being too cliché.
The Corpse Bride had it much easier. She strolls around in her torn wedding gown, pushing a baby carriage. Inside is a half-body human that springs up when she unleashes it on unsuspecting visitors.
"It's such an advantage, because no one expects it," said Emily Cooper, 17, a theater major at Perpich Center for Arts Education. "It changed everything when I got it."
Of course, her acting experience also helps.
I was just winging it, fueled by viewings of "Night of the Living Dead," "Poltergeist" and anything else that had ever scared me growing up.
The silent treatment was the most effective. Just sneak up behind people, stay low and wait for them to discover that something is lurking just over their shoulder. A little zombie makeup goes a long way on a dark path.
At the end of my night, I was exhausted. My voice was hoarse not only from all the running and occasional screaming, but also from the tons of fake fog I had inhaled.
"Yeah, they say nonsmokers really have a problem breathing in the fog," Parrague said.
Now that's scary.
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542