My prey is just around the corner. I can hear it before I see it. The child's high-pitched whimpers reach my ears as I crouch behind a fence. The gaping wound in the side of my head is sticky. I am exhausted. But my hunger is not yet sated.
I wait for her protectors to pass—a mother, perhaps aunts and cousins. And then I hear the little one, her hand clasped tight around her father's fingers. It is time to strike.
"ZOMBIE GONNA EAT YOUR BRAINS!" I scream in a shrill, squeaky voice, and I am inwardly delighted as the little girl's face contorts in terror. "NUM, NUM, NUM!" I say, making munching sounds, pretending to scoop handfuls of innocent little child-brain out of the top of her skull. And then the tears come, rolling over the child's chipmunk cheeks. She runs away. I am satisfied, but not for long. For I am a zombie, and zombies need brains. Num, num, num.
Screams amusement park
I was made into a zombie by a man named Allen Hopps. I had followed him into a dark attic in a house out in the woods. I trusted him and his kindly demeanor. His handsome beard and friendly smile disarmed me. And then he gave me the gaping head wound. Not by whacking me upside the head with a blunt object but by slathering St. Ives mud mask on my hair behind my ears.
Hopps is a special effects master and head honcho of the Trail of Terror, an attraction at the Screams amusement park in Waxahachie. In the spring, the Screams "scare grounds" are home to Scarborough Faire, a Renaissance festival. But in the fall, the corsets and man-tights are abandoned in favor of fake blood and monster masks at four different haunted houses. Still, the Trail of Terror is not your average haunted house. It costs an extra $7 over the $19.99 park admission price. If you just want to be startled and screamed at, the traditional haunts at Screams will do. But if you want an experience, Hopps' Trail of Terror is the place to go.
This year's theme is "Den of the Yeti," and Hopps has been working on the faux-snow-covered haunt since before last year's Trail closed. Most people go into haunted houses expecting doom, dark and gloom, but Hopps' Yeti-themed trail is downright pretty in places. Sure, there's the bloody polar bear carcass and tragic dog-sledding accident scene, strewn with guts pouring plentifully out of furry victims, but Hopps also set up snow machines that drizzle wintergreen-scented flakes upon attendees. His secret: bubbles mixed with minty fresh-scented rubbing alcohol. It's nice to sniff something pleasant just before you get the pants scared off you.
"I just do it on the fly," Hopps says, getting humble about his manifold terror innovations. Hopps' fascination with scaring people started when he was a kid working his first haunted house. He was told to sit up in the ceiling of a haunt, and he had a little fake spider on a fishing wire he'd drop down on people's heads. Twenty years later, he's fashioned a full-size snake with a snapping jaw that pops down from the ceiling. It elicits screams out of even the toughest Trail-goers.
Hopps dabs my face with Latex, establishing a canvas on which he will craft my monster face. I am to be an ice zombie for Screams' opening night, and I am giddy with anticipation. Here, finally, I will be able to make children cry without feeling guilty or getting myself impaled on a Bugaboo stroller by an angry mother. I hate when that happens.
After a half-hour in the makeup chair, I feel as if my face has been stuffed into a condom (I hate when that happens too.). My skin stretches and strains against the sunken eye socket and swollen brow that Hopps created out of his latex goo. He airbrushes me and my head wound, spraying red for blood and black and blue for contour. I slip on a torn, fake-bloodied janitor's onesie and go over the guidelines for scaring in my head. For Hopps, jumping out at someone with a well-timed "OOOGLIE-BOOGLIE!" is an art form. He'd given us an instructional talk at the dress rehearsal a week before. That's where I learned about the CNN rule.
"You cannot tell someone you're going to rape them and stuff them in the bushes," Hopps had explained to our group of Yetis, trolls, ghouls and zombies. Rape and murder, that's something people hear on CNN. But, he went on, "You can tell someone, 'I'm going to cut off your big toe and eat it.'" Point is, you want to scare people in an immediate, startling way. Not, as Hopps put it, by being "on their couch when they get home, eating Cheetos." That's just creepy.
The Trail of Terror is staffed by 12 or 13 actors, and the average age of a Trail ghoul is 35. Most other haunts at Screams are staffed by teenagers, but Hopps' bunch is a tight-knit group of friends who convene twice a year for Scarborough Faire and then Screams. Their headquarters is Hopps' Monster Museum, which serves as a Faire attraction and then as the entrance to the Trail, which snakes behind it for Halloween. Everyone has a stake in the Trail, working not for an hourly wage but for a cut of the $7 admission charge. It's a scare collective. That's why, before the park opens each night, the group circles around for their signature chant.
A yeti, an ogre, three trolls, myself and an ice golem (a kind of demon—Hopps is an encyclopedia of scary creatures), along with Hopps' wife, Shannon, and the other Trail guides gather in a circle before the park opens.
"Whose house is this?" Hopps yells.
"MY HOUSE!" we scream, pumping our clawed, gloved fists in the air. It is time to get our scare on. The Trail has trap doors that actors slip through to access other parts of the haunt, because the Trail is quite long, and with so few actors, we have to sprint from one side to another to get two or three good scares in per group of people.
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At first, I am a deep-voiced zombie, advising trail-goers that I am going to suck their brains out. I learn quickly that putting the word "suck" into play when there are teenage boys wandering through is a poor idea.
"I'll give you something you can suck on!" one snaps back, flipping his shaggy hair over his shoulder. First, I am offended. And then Kelly, the ice golem, jumps out from behind a corner and the kid lets out a shrill scream.
Later, a group of bandanna-clad guys wearing shiny chains move down a passage in a close huddle. I groan to myself—tough guys are no fun and hard to scare. But I climb into my secret hiding place—I won't say where, in case enterprising readers decide to check out the Trail—and wait for the hardasses to wander my way. Just as the middle bit of the group passes me, I jump out with an enthusiastic, "BRAAAAIIIIIIINS!" expecting groans and giggles. Instead, they sprint away, running as fast as guys with their pants slung low around their thighs can go.
This process goes on for hours, and when the park closes at 1:30 a.m., I'm exhausted and hungry. After we peel away our masks and costumes, the former trolls and ghouls pop open bottles of cold Shiner bock. Turns out, it goes great with brains. Num, num, num.