Home » A Night in the Life of a Scareactor at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights

    A Night in the Life of a Scareactor at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights

    Creating Halloween Horror Nights

    As summer gives way to fall, many people’s thoughts turn to sweaters, pumpkin spiced lattes, and changing colors in the leaves. Yet in Central Florida, where it will be hot and muggy until at least November and the leaves never do change, the air is buzzing with anticipation – not of anything weather related, but of thrills and chills and things that go bump in the night.

    Though it is six weeks before Halloween, Universal Orlando kicks off its Halloween Horror Nights event in mid-September. Each year’s event is a new terror, filled with blood, gore, and the screams of victims. Clearly, this is not just another Halloween event.

    Creating Halloween Horror Nights

    Creating Halloween Horror Nights

    However, have you ever given any thought to the people behind the event? It takes a top-notch team of tremendously talented designers, costume specialists, set builders, painters, lighting and sound technicians and makeup artists to turn Halloween Horror Nights into a reality. But for most guests, it is the scareactors who truly bring the frights to life. With impeccable timing and a twisted love of the macabre, hundreds of men and women fill the haunted houses and street scare zones, all ready to make you scream. How did they get where they are, and what is their life like for 30 glorious nights every fall?


    Be Bold

    It all begins in mid-summer, typically during the month of July. While most people are enjoying backyard barbecues or trying not to melt in Central Florida’s legendary heat, would-be scareactors gather at Universal Orlando’s Human Resources building. Tall, short, heavyset, thin, disabled, it really does not matter who you are or what you look like—although, of course, your physical type helps to determine where you will be placed. What truly matters is whether you can do the job.

    At one time, scareactors were expected to already know the art of the scare. During the 1990s, a common audition task was to try to scare the audition panel. Today, however, Universal has scareactor training down to a science. Previous experience is not necessary (though returnees from previous years do get preference). All that matters is whether you have the energy and the boldness to pull it off.

    After filling out forms and submitting your headshot and resume (not required, but highly recommended), you will wait in a big group. Auditioners are called into another room in somewhat smaller groups. There you will face a panel of three or four Entertainment department performance coaches and directors.

    Exactly what happens next varies by year and even by night. During my audition, I was instructed to cross the audition room floor—acting like a monkey the entire time! I don’t know how realistic my monkey performance was, but that isn’t the point. The point is to prove that you are not afraid to take risks. Make it big, make it bold, and play to the back of the room.

    Bill and Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure

    If you want a specialized role, such as stilt walking or a coveted spot in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, you will attend a separate audition with more complicated and specific tasks. But for the scareactors that fill the haunted houses and street scare zones, that’s it. You have just a few seconds to prove you deserve to be there.

    Universal holds multiple auditions, but does not hold back roles. Scareactors are hired on the spot. So those who attend the earliest auditions have the best chances to be cast. If you get the job, you will fill out some paperwork and schedule your orientation class. What you won’t know, however, is exactly what your role will be.

    Orientation and scareactor training

    My performance coach did a set with us! He's on the right.

    Everyone who is hired at Universal Orlando is required to go through company orientation. This is normally an all-day class similar to Disney’s Traditions, in which new team members learn a great deal about the history of the company and how they fit into the overall picture. Things such as appearance guidelines and how to interact with guests are covered extensively.

    For scareactors, though, things are a bit different. The appearance guidelines are out the window—tattoos, scruffy facial hair, and unnatural hair colors are not only just fine, but can actually add to your character. And guest interactions focus on making them scream in terror, not explaining where the nearest bathroom is.

    So scareactor orientation is only a few hours, and tends to stick to such basics as how to sign up for direct deposit and how to contact human resources if you have any problems. When my dad was a scareactor in 1996, his trainer actually took the orientation manual and threw it aside, saying, “This is Halloween Horror Nights. The rules don’t apply.” That doesn’t seem to be done anymore, but the sentiment is the same. Being a scareactor is unlike any other theme park job.

    Sometime in mid to late August, you will receive a phone call from your stage manager. This is when you find out your work location and role—the name of your haunted house or scare zone, and which general character you will portray (which might be something like Zombie #5 or Plague Victim #3). You will also find out when and where training takes place.

    Training is a one-night experience that throws a lot at you fast and furiously. You will meet your SM (stage manager), ASM (assistant stage manager), and performance coach/director, as well as the rest of your cast. You’ll be assigned to Cast A or Cast B (more on that later), and sit down for a roundtable discussion of the storyline behind your location and the characters who inhabit it. You will also get details on call times (what time you have to show up each night), opening times (what time your area opens to the public each night), makeup and costume information, and directions to your break area.

    Scareactors have to learn a lot very quickly.

    When the informational part of the evening is over, you will tour your location as a group, with your SM, ASM, and performance coach throwing out all kinds of detailed information. Those working in haunted houses will also be preliminarily “set,” or placed in a specific location within the house. Don’t get too comfortable, though, as things get mixed up all the time as the event evolves and everyone grows into their characters.

    After the location tour, it is time for training to begin. This is basically a large group improv class, in which you will learn to use your body and surroundings in new and terrifying ways. My class spread out around the backstage area behind our haunted house, crawling and lurching as zombies while our performance coach pushed us to take more and more risks.

    Boo and Skidoo

    You will also learn techniques for keeping yourself and guests safe, such as “Scare and Be Aware,” or “Boo and Skiddoo.” The idea is to keep something (a wall, a prop, a piece of scenery) between yourself and the guests whenever possible. When this is not practical, know your exit routes. Never let yourself get stuck between guests without a way out, and never trap guests in a situation with no escape. Make the scare and then back off quickly, as most injuries occur during ongoing pursuits of a single victim—er, guest. Your team will also go over other important safety tips like what to do if a guest gets hurt or passes out, what to do if you get hurt, and how to report guests who cause trouble.

    Finally, you will visit the costume and makeup area—a huge, cavernous warehouse space where all the scareactors get ready each night. You will try on costume pieces and have any last minute alterations done, learn how to find your costumes on the massive racks each night, and learn the makeup procedure. Though you won’t actually be made up that night, you will discover whether you get airbrushing, prosthetics, traditional makeup, or a mask, and where to line up each night for your transformation.

    Team Member preview

    Team Member Preview is the night to work out all the kinks.

    Team member preview night is hugely anticipated by both scareactors and those who work around the Universal Orlando resort. For Universal employees, this is their opportunity to finally see the event whose sets and props have been popping up around them for over a month. Some have even logged overtime hours helping to construct those sets, while others will spend their Halloween season working their regular job during the day and then assisting guests at the haunted houses by night. Each team member is allowed to bring one guest.

    For scareactors, team member preview is effectively dress rehearsal. It is your first opportunity to get into full costume and makeup, step into your location, and completely inhabit your character. There is always a crackle in the air as the scareactors nervously anticipate their first visitors. Fortunately, the vast majority of team members and their guests are laid back and easygoing. They know it is a rehearsal night, and they don’t expect everything to be perfect. Still, when all of the elements come together just right, there is nothing more satisfying than watching jaded team members run, scream, cry, and even try to escape through the walls!

    A typical night

    There is no such thing as a typical night at HHN.

    There really is no such thing as a typical night at Halloween Horror Nights. The event is improvisational live theater at its finest, changing dramatically from night to night and even from set to set. What you may not realize is that, as a guest, you are an absolutely integral part of the show. The scareactors feed off your energy, and take their cues from your reactions. Still, it is possible to lay out a “sample night” to explain how an evening might progress. This is based strictly on my experience and those of my family and friends working in soundstage houses. Streets and other houses might have an entirely different experience. 

    5:00 p.m. Call Time

    Me warming up backstage.

    The soundstages open early to accommodate guests waiting in Stay and Scream holding areas, so the call time is usually around 5 p.m. Unlike typical daytime team members, we did not have to punch a time clock. Instead, I would stop by the outside break area for my house to say hello to my SM and ASM, who would log my arrival time in a book. A lot of times, some of us arrived early—around 4 p.m. or so—to grab something to eat at the employee grill (cafeteria)…I guess it was breakfast, since it was often our first food of the day.

    Your costume and makeup change your whole outlook.

    After checking in, it was time to head over to wardrobe. Grabbing my costume and heading for the dressing room was always an exciting experience. No matter how tired I was, and there were times that I was absolutely exhausted, slipping into costume and makeup always got me pumped up for the night ahead. 

    5:45 p.m. Assembling in the break trailer

    Every location has a break room somewhere nearby. For the soundstages, the break rooms are actually trailers. We had a smoking area just outside, and a fantastic snack bar steps away. 

    The break room becomes the center of operations for the cast and stage managers for that house or scare zone. I was blessed with an awesome ASM who considered us her babies, and was kind of a house mom. Every night, we had free, unlimited access to Gatorade and all the candy we could consume. Our SM was terrific too, completely on top of every single thing that happened all night, and the perfect go-to person to solve any problems that might arise. We shared our performance coach with a couple of other houses, so he was always frantically in and out, making suggestions or moving people around within the house.

    In the minutes before opening each night, we always had a sort of cast meeting. The ASM or SM would let us know the crowd projections, weather forecast, any call-ins, and other important information for the night. We might discuss any challenges that arose on the previous night or have a sort of pep rally to pump us up for a particularly long and difficult night.

    6:00 p.m. It’s go time!

    Everyone starts out the night with great energy!

    After the meeting, it was time for my cast to head into the house. All scareactors, regardless of location, are divided into Cast A and Cast B. Cast A starts the night, performing for 45 minutes before being tagged out by Cast B. Cast A takes a 45 minute break, and then tags out Cast B for a break. This cycle continues throughout the night—and yes, the breaks are paid.

    This might seem like a very generous break schedule, which it technically is, but it’s absolutely necessary for the scareactors. We tend to throw ourselves around, bouncing off set pieces and walls in an effort to produce the best scares. There is simply no way that an actor could keep up the insane level of energy required if a set lasted much longer than 45 minutes. We would always come in for breaks sore and dripping sweat.

    8:15 p.m. Dinner time

    The elaborate costumes and makeup are worth a closer look.

    Scareactors are free to eat during whichever break time they like. Since every break is 45 minutes long, there is no designated dinner period. It’s actually amazing how many calories you can consume without gaining an ounce, due to the physicality of the job, and most of us snacked our way through the night. Still, I generally found that eating a good meal about halfway through the evening helped me keep my energy levels high.

    It was always great fun to go to the employee grill during the night. Team members and police officers sometimes hang out in the grill during their off time just to get a closer look at the incredibly detailed costumes and makeup. My dad had a funny experience one night though. He had just had his makeup touched up, and was dripping stage blood everywhere as he ordered and paid for his meal. He took a seat at a long table next to a young female Orlando Police Department officer. She said, “I can’t look at you and eat.” To which he replied, “You’re OPD. Haven’t you ever been to an accident scene?” Her response was, “Yeah. But I don’t take a picnic!”

    9:00 p.m. Tag team fun

    Tag team scares are always fun!One of the greatest parts of working as a scareactor is the bonds you form with your coworkers. While hundreds of people work the event, your house or scare zone typically employs 60 or less, and of those, only half are on your cast. The small numbers, close working conditions, and shared battle scars (more on that later!) create a sort of family.

    If you are lucky enough to be in a haunted house or scare zone scene with another actor or two, you have a golden opportunity to create multilayered scares known as tag team scares. The cool thing about the performance coaches and directors at Halloween Horror Nights is that they don’t give precise direction. They help you understand your character, teach you the nuts and bolts of how to scare, and provide some suggestions on ways to incorporate your environment to create a better scare. Where you go from there is up to you. Scareactors are encouraged to grow and develop their characters throughout the run, and to learn through trial and error what works and what doesn’t.

    A tag team scare requires at least two actors to work together. One serves as a distraction for guests coming through, whether by standing very still and making people wonder whether he is actually a mannequin, or by being loud and boisterous and obvious. The other person hides out of sight. As soon as a group of guests is completely distracted by the obvious actor, the hidden one pops out of nowhere to deliver a massive scare. You can even do this with multiple actors in a sort of chain, each acting as a distraction for the next one down the line.

    10:30 p.m. Earning a Boo Buck

    Great scares earn Boo Bucks!

    It’s a long proven fact that small, frequent rewards are an excellent way to motivate employees. Adding a layer of friendly competition can enhance motivation even further, especially if your team consists of people with naturally competitive personalities. As you can imagine, actors, who spend their entire lives trying to prove their worth at auditions, fit perfectly into this scenario.

    Universal Orlando has a tremendous history of rewarding employees who get positive comments at Guest Services, or whose management and leadership team see them doing something great. At Halloween Horror Nights, recognition comes in the form of a Boo Buck—a slip of paper that lets the scareactor know he or she is doing a great job. Weekly drawings for small prizes make Boo Bucks even more valuable to the scareactor.

    Scareactors work hard, but are rewarded in innumerable ways.

    Throughout each night, our SM, ASM, and performance coach made occasional house walk-throughs. Sometimes they were looking at troublesome lights or props, sometimes they were making sure everyone was OK, sometimes they were seeing how the entire experience flowed from a guest perspective. And sometimes they were escorting higher level Universal management, who wanted to know what their money paid for, through the house to show it off.

    On one particular evening, my performance coach came through with two very high level managers behind him. They were talking and not paying a lot of attention, and my coach momentarily forgot where he, himself, had positioned me. I came out and did my thing, and he toppled over backwards in surprise…taking down the managers with him! I was pretty proud to get a Boo Buck for that.

    11:30 p.m. Seeing the event as a guest

    You'll even get a chance to see other parts of the event.

    One of the coolest things about having a Cast A and Cast B is that once your last set of the evening is over, you are free to go. You are paid a few minutes of “walk time” to account for getting out of costume and makeup, but you are not required to stay until the last cast finishes. On early close nights, Cast B has the last set. On late close nights, Cast A has the last set. If you hurry through the process of getting out of your costume and makeup on the nights that the other cast has the last set, you actually have a little time to run around and see the event.

    My cast really enjoyed going to the other houses as a group. At the end of the night, lines were short, and we were often directed into the RIP entrance (normally used for the nightly “RIP” tours) with no waiting at all. On a good night, we could hit three houses before closing. We would always play it up big, overdramatically jumping and squealing at every scare. I have to admit, though, sometimes it was genuine. Whenever a cast knows that another cast is going through, they go out of their way to make the experience a little more extreme.

    12:00 a.m. Meetups and fun

    The Orlando Ale House does big business with scareactors.

    I don’t know how people work Halloween Horror Nights while simultaneously holding down a day job or going to school. My dad did it, as did some of my friends, and I honestly don’t know when they found time to sleep. For myself, and many of my fellow scareactors, we were entirely too hyper by the end of the night to sleep.

    The typical routine went something like this: gather en masse at the employee grill, both to eat and to mingle with friends from other houses and scare zones. From there, plans would be made to adjourn to the Orlando Ale House, a party in someone’s home, or even the clubs in Downtown Orlando. 

    4:00 a.m. Bedtime

    I lived a fair distance from Universal Orlando, so I ended up joining a group of castmates who stayed at a fellow cast member’s condo just down the street. There was plenty of room for all of us to spread out and relax, but staying together in a group meant that the party tended to continue until late. We would typically pass out around 4 a.m. and sleep until noon or so. Those late nights with women who became some of my closest friends are among my best memories from my time as a scareactor.

    Reading the room (AKA Coping with different guest personalities)

    You have just seconds to read each guest.

    Part of the challenge and fun of being a scareactor is learning to interact with different guests. While everyone is, of course, an individual, you don’t have the luxury of getting to know them as such. You have to size someone up in an instant and decide how best to go for the scare—or when to stay away from someone who might be trouble. Fortunately, guests basically fall into a few simple categories. You won’t always get the reactions you want, but if you follow these guidelines you’re likely to find a pretty good margin of success.

    Teen girls usually have big reactions.

    Teen girls: These are typically considered the easy scares, and are the ones new scareactors generally start with. They’re also great for a laugh from their friends, and for riling up the crowd. Not all teen girls are easily frightened, but those that are tend to have huge reactions. Shrieking, dancing, and bolting are common reactions from this group.

    Middle-aged couples: Middle-aged couples typically don’t react as strongly as teen girls, but are usually fun to interact with. They’re the ones that can be fun to pursue, as the carefully measured “jaded look” sometimes falls away when they feel like there is no escape.

    Everyone deserves a great scare.

    Older visitors: Sometimes young families seem to have stumbled into the wrong event, and walk through the park looking as if they don’t quite understand what’s going on. By and large, though, if older people are in the park during Halloween Horror Nights, it’s because they intend to be there. They tend to REALLY get into it, smiling and laughing their way through each house and scare zone. You won’t necessarily get a huge fear reaction, but you will probably get a genuine smile of thanks.

    Disabled guests: Some scareactors seem to be uncomfortable around disabled guests, and try to avoid them whenever possible. More confident scareactors, though, find highly creative ways to scare them. For example, my dad used an ECV for a few years due to back problems. One time, he was parked on the sidewalk watching the action when a member of the chainsaw gang did an elaborate pantomime of hacking his scooter to pieces. It was great! Disabled guests are there because they want to be, and they love feeling included like anyone else.

    These girls took down a lot of tough guys!

    Tough guys: A lot of scareactors avoid tough guys for fear of trouble. As a small, young female, though, I took them as a personal challenge. And what I discovered is how quickly the bravado falls away when you engage with them directly. I’ve had big loudmouth guys use their girlfriends as shields, shriek like little girls, and take off in an almost cartoonish run, knees practically hitting their chins in their hurry to flee. And remember the old saying…the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It wasn’t during Halloween Horror Nights, it was when I worked for Terror on Church Street, but I did find out that was true when I dropped an entire football team!

    Drunks: By and large, drunks ARE the ones that scareactors avoid, and for good reason. Alcohol is liquid courage, and it fuels bad behaviors that people would never normally do. They tend to be the ones who refuse to turn off their glowing devil horns, shove their flashing cups in scareactors’ faces, blind scareactors with camera flashes, poke into boo holes, handle or steal the props, break set pieces, and shout, “I SEE YOU!” to every scareactor they meet. We know it’s Halloween Horror Nights, and we don’t mind you drinking. Just be aware of your limits and stay cool. That’s all we ask. If not, don’t be surprised if you make it through an entire house without ever seeing a single scareactor.

    Scareactors get to know the regulars.

    Pass holders: Universal sells a variety of season passes for Halloween Horror Nights, from the early-season Rush of Fear to the Frequent Fear Plus, which includes every event night except Saturdays. Naturally, if you go to the event that much, we will start to recognize you. Scareactors read your signals and are great at developing meaningful interactions with frequent visitors. And on the last night, they always find a way to say goodbye without ever breaking character.

    Kids: Many scareactors shy away from scaring kids, but my personal take on it has always been, if their parents brought them to the event, then their parents can deal with the fallout. I never differentiated between kids and adults when deciding who to scare, and some kids turned out to be unbelievably tough! It’s funny to try to scare a 6 year old and have her roll her eyes at you while her mother does the dance of terror.

    Hurricanes, physical attacks, and other unusual scenarios

    Hurricane Wilma Image in the Public Domain

    Remember when I said above that there is no such thing as a “typical” night at Halloween Horror Nights? I also mentioned that shared battle scars help to build the scareactor family. While these events are certainly not the norm, they do happen from time to time.

    Hurricanes: A lot of visitors don’t realize it, but the Atlantic hurricane season actually lasts through the end of November. Granted, August and early September are the prime time for hurricane development, and it is rare for hurricanes to affect Halloween Horror Nights. But it is not impossible.

    In 2005, Hurricane Wilma made landfall in Florida in the early morning hours of October 24. If you are familiar with hurricanes, though, you know that their effects are felt well ahead of the eye officially reaching land. Sunday night, October 23, was a major washout. CityWalk actually closed at 10 p.m. But HHN went on, with just a few thousand soaked guests making their way through nearly empty haunted houses. Street scareactors were sent home, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure was canceled, and house actors spent most of our time staring at empty passageways counting the hours until we could leave.

    Physical attacks: Unfortunately, while most guests are great, some people react to fear in a physical way. Being hit, kicked, slapped, or even punched is so common that veteran scareactors joke that you haven’t been properly broken in until it happens to you. Security takes these situations VERY seriously. Depending on the offense, penalties to the guest range from being escorted out for the night to being banned from Universal Orlando property for a year to arrest by the friendly police officer or sheriff’s deputy waiting at the exit. Worse attacks do happen, but they are thankfully few and far between. If anything should happen, though, rest assured that security, law enforcement, and paramedics will be there in moments.

    Yes, those are live rats with her.

    On the surface, it seems somewhat unbelievable that major incidents are incredibly rare at Halloween Horror Nights. Packed crowds, free-flowing alcohol, and constant fear create an atmosphere that often feels uncontrolled, chaotic, and even dangerous. In reality, though, the event is closely monitored throughout the night. From thorough security checks at the front gates to officers posted at the house exits and security in the catwalks, Universal does a tremendous job of keeping everyone safe. Uniformed cops establish a presence while plainclothes officers mingle with the crowds. Halloween Horror Nights is certainly not immune to possible dangers, but the risks are minimized much more than most guests realize.

    Being a scareactor is not for everyone. It requires a complex blend of acting skills, physical stamina, an understanding of human psychology, a strong stomach, and the ability to stay cool under pressure. For those who can handle it, though, it ends up being the thrill of a lifetime. Most scareactors end the year exhausted, bruised, and battered—and counting down the days until they can do it all over again.