Ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a psychotic clown? Funny, neither had I until the opportunity to dress and act like one came up. Every Halloween season, haunt fans and thrill seekers attend events like Knott's Scary Farm, Universal's Horror Nights and the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride by the thousands — just so they can experience close encounters with people pretending to be ghosts, monsters and, of course, psychos. Few, however, ever get a glimpse behind the creepy curtain to see the moving parts and the people coming together to make a haunted attraction work. As a haunt fan and a journalist, I get to attend my fair share of these things on assignment, but this year I was invited to actually join the circus. Last weekend I discovered what it's like to startle and frighten people at L.A.’s Haunted Hayride.
As instructed, I reported to my handlers at around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13. I was introduced to the key individuals who would be responsible for turning me into one of their creepy agents. First I met the event’s creative director, Justin Meyer, who would be costuming me. Justin and his wife, Melissa (chief operating officer), whom I also bumped into while awaiting transformation, have been with Ten Thirty One Productions since the company first began producing Haunted Hayride back in 2009. 13th Floor Entertainment Group bought Ten Thirty One Productions in January but this has not resulted in a change of the core members of the team, which includes the Meyers and Ten Thirty One president Melissa Carbone, with whom I was scheduled to speak after my scare stint. Meyer gave me a run-down of the procedures that awaited me — makeup, costuming, staging, direction — and then I had some down time before I reported to the makeup trailer.
Hanging out among the scare actors was like hanging out with film extras and like being at a company picnic at the same time. Some people were off by themselves — in or out of makeup and/or costume — and others were in groups, either chatting or rehearsing coordinated movements. There was also that one guy who was trying really hard to get the perfect selfie, but I stopped clocking him after 15 minutes. The folks were sprawled across the grass, near the off-kilter makeup, wardrobe and props trailers. Some of the more elaborate foam latex or polyurethane masks and suits hung on coat hangers or were staged on blankets or tables, everything backdropped by Griffith Park's greenery.
When my time came, I sat in Corina Cline’s makeup chair — listening to Jane’s Addiction and Danzig as she tried to figure out what kind of a clown to make me into. At first she was thinking something like John Wayne Gacy, but in the end I wound up looking more like The Cure's Robert Smith as a clown. Laughs were had, pictures were taken, and then I returned to Meyer, who drove me over to my station in an electric golf cart. Along the way, I asked him about his history with Ten Thirty One and the likelihood of another Great Horror Campout (the company’s most extreme haunted attraction) or their other haunt called the Ghost Ship. As it turns out, it looks like the Campout may be returning in 2019.
When we reached the tent/stage through which the hayride passes, I met the freaks with whom I would be clowning around. They were all very polite and in good spirits. Meyer instructed me that as each group of guests was tractored into our tent, I and the other clowns would feign lifelessness — as if we were mannequins — while calliope music played. Then the lights would go out, the music would change to death metal, and a strobe light would illuminate the scene. This was the clowns’ cue to come to ghoulish life, approach the guests and menace them in a manner commensurate with our demonic delight. The tractor then would start up again and we would terrorize our guests until the haybed had been towed out of our domain.
With the first group wheeled in, my timing was a little off. Meyer had observed my performance from a concealed spot and gave me notes. After the second group — the groups came through every five minutes or so — I had found my ghoul-groove. Though it’s been a while, I am no stranger to performance art, and I quickly settled into my job, which I found immensely satisfying and liberating. It is indeed freeing to let loose one’s inhibitions and assume an attitude that would normally be considered grotesque, disturbing or otherwise unsuitable for polite society. An unexpected result, however, was the exhaustion that I noticed as soon as each trailer left and I snapped out of character. It’s tiring to let your inner demons out to play.
My arrangement was to experience four groups of guests, and after I did so, Meyer took me back to base camp to remove my makeup and costume before interviewing Carbone. Stephanie Hodgdon, a local singer who also heads Hayride's wardrobe department, was good enough to take a couple of cellphone shots of me in character before I cleaned up. While I was removing my makeup, a youthful performer entered the trailer and revealed that he was not feeling well — he hadn’t eaten anything all day. The youth was reminded that all performers had been instructed to make sure they were well-nourished prior to reporting for work. He then poured out a sob story about being in debt before Hodgdon fed him. I spoke briefly with a couple more Haunted Hayride employees before I met Carbone — both asked if I wanted a permanent job as a scare actor. It was fiendish fun, but I told them it was not the type of work I was looking for at present.
By the time I met with Carbone, the demonic gleam had all but left my eyes, and I was back to playing my traditional reporter role. My first question was about 13th Floor’s recent acquisition of her company. She was pleased. “The 13th Floor Entertainment Group is targeting a lot of the premier Halloween attractions across the country and collecting them to create the biggest portfolio of really amazing, immersive and Halloween[-themed] entertainment," she replied. “We're a popular Halloween attraction, so we were on their list, and it was the right time for us because we had also been looking to do something similar. Creating an infrastructure where we can move across the country, grow more quickly, bring the Hayride into other parts of the country is super attractive to us. ... So it was just kind of like a match made in heaven and life-changing and amazing!”
Under the structure of the deal, Carbone and her core team members maintain artistic control of their enterprises. The changes include an increase in the size of her team and the fact that she no longer has to deal so much with financing, legal and similar logistics. As far as the artistry is concerned, Carbone pointed out that this 10th anniversary of the Haunted Hayride was something of a greatest hits. “I knew I wanted to collect all of the biggest hits for our 10-year anniversary and make them one kind of giant Hayride that's essentially all finales, and that's exactly what we did,” she said. “The Hayride trail within itself is a collection of all of the fan favorites of the past decade compiled into one amazing Hayride. We were very strategic and thematic with it. For instance, our marionette scene: there's three sections of marionettes and each section is from a different year, so while it's one scene, now it's three years of scenes that make one scene.”
Regarding the other attractions at the park, Carbone pointed out that they had been spruced up as well. “We've revamped [the House of Shadows] a lot. It's more thematic now; there's fire-and-ice type vibes in there; we're using some more color with the lighting ... and I think that Dark Maze is the best it's ever been,” she continues. “[The Trick or Treat maze is] philosophically the same, but characters change, and façades change. There's also a giant nod to the past decade, and there you'll see a lot of the creatures that you may have loved.”
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Apart from providing frightening entertainment, an important part of Carbone’s mission includes being mindful of the earth and of Los Angeles, in particular. In the past 10 years, Ten Thirty One has donated more than $1 million to Los Angeles Parks Foundation, and she detailed the steps her team takes to be mindful of Griffith Park. “We built this [event] in 2009 with the intention of getting us [as close] to zero waste goal as possible; we compost the browns [and] have a recycling program,” Carbone said. “Our concessions are all plant-based. We reuse and repurpose everything on the trail. We don't just buy new things and build from new lumber. Everything is repurposed; wardrobe is thrifted, repurposed and recycled. So we go to extensive lengths to keep our footprint small.”
After speaking with Carbone, I had a chance to wander around and take in the scene. Now knowing a bit more about the various creatures and humans that make Los Angeles Haunted Hayride operate, I had a new appreciation for the event. Haunts are about playing with fear but also about having fun. The Hayride is a precious attribute to the city that brings people to a landmark locale, and it feels more like a community gathering than a traveling circus. The folks I had the opportunity to torment while dressed as a clown would never know of the people behind the scenes — hungry millennials spooking for their supper, local creatives transforming them or the eco-conscious players making the wicked wheels turn — and that's OK. They had a great time, so they are very likely to take this ride again next Halloween. And the thrills will continue.