Scare Tactics: How Six Flags Finds and Trains Scary People for Fright Fest

Think about someone who scares you. Imagine their face, the way they walk and the sounds they make to announce their presence while hiding around corners or in pitch black darkness. Robert Keith, the director of Six Flags Over Texas' annual Fright Fest celebration, knows exactly what you're imagining and why.

"We don't ever go 'boo' or have pirate actors who go 'arrr,'" says Keith, the owner of Live Action Productions of North Richland Hills, who designs and casts the haunted houses and scare zones for the theme park's annual Halloween celebration. "We like to jump out and get in their face." 

Every year near the end of summer, Six Flags begins to transform its family-friendly amusement park into a factory of fear-based fun. The park's mazes and scare zones are stocked with trained performers who look like living manifestations of our greatest phobias. The characters may be different but Keith and company train them all to do one thing: Scare you down to your very core. 

Last Saturday, Six Flags Over Texas held open auditions for actors to play characters during Fright Fest, which starts Thursday, Sept. 24, and goes all the way to Halloween. Each night, "The Conductor" performs a special human sacrifice at 7 p.m. that sets the souls of the dead loose on the park's guests. Keith calls the nightly ceremony "The Awakening." 

"That's when you start watching for the drinks and popcorn and funnel cakes to start flying," Keith says. "It's just great." 

Keith and his crew have to find 250 performers to jump out and scare people during the Halloween event. Keith says on scheduled nights around 177 "scare-actors" will roam the park as well as populate five haunted house attractions, including the new "Blackout" house that sends visitors through a pitch-black environment filled with demons and seven scare zones. The "Black Widow's Walk" should definitely be avoided by arachnophobes.

"Under our new policy, everybody is fair game, so we go after everybody," Keith says, referring to the guests that scare-actors can target during Fright Fest. "Our target is from the knee to the shoulder and not to scare toddlers. We'll get the adults but our real target is the teens. We go after them with everything we've got."  

The actors also don't just play face-mangled monsters. Some may be asked to play characters that are designed to fill out the storyline of a given attraction. During the audition, actors chose slips of paper bearing the first lines of creepy stories and Keith gave them a few minutes to come up with their character's mannerisms and speech patterns. Some played snarling monsters or deranged humans with cannibalistic tendencies while others were tasked with playing victims. Actor Jason Pitts of Arlington was strapped down to a chair during the audition and pretended to recall the time he woke up in a strange medical facility.

Keith says both types of characters are needed to set up a scare. 

"A lot of times they'll work in pairs so one distracts the visitors and the other gets the scare," Keith says. "We always think of them as velociraptors. They see the prey, they get it and they get out." 

Pitts, a senior at Lamar High School in Arlington, says he performed in last year's Fright Fest as a deranged circus clown and loves the immersive experience he's tasked with creating for the guests. 

"Being in a play, there is room for improv, but here, I have to be that person and follow those lines and attitudes and I like to go a little crazy," Pitts says. "If they get past the point of it being fake for them and they are so immersed that they start crying, I feel bad, but if they're like, 'Oh my!' I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I did my job.'"  

Costuming and makeup also help create the illusion that guests are walking through a voodoo-cursed swamp or a circus run by escaped mental patients. Kimberly Brizenbine, the owner of Kimberly Brizenbine Artistry in Dallas, has been hired by Six Flags as their lead makeup artist for the last six Fright Fests. Brizenbine says she and a team of seven makeup artists will have to apply face paint and prosthetics for all of the characters running amok in the park. She estimates that she and her team will have anywhere from 45 seconds to two minutes to prep each actor working in the park and they'll only get one shot to practice their run-through before the start of Fright Fest. 

"When I'm looking for artists to bring in, I'm looking for people with timing who can do fast, efficient work," Brizenbine says. "It's fly-by-your-feet almost."

Keith tells the makeup artists auditioning alongside the actors that they aren't looking to create a "gorefest" with their makeup effects. 

Brizenbine says they like to hit on a wide variety of phobias to increase their chances of scaring people. 

"Not everybody's afraid of zombies, goblins or spiders, so you have to give them a range when you bring people into the park," she says. "There are a ton of people who are afraid of clowns, so you have to have that range and target each person's fears. So some might see a zombie and think that's cool but then they turn a corner and see a clown and they pee their pants." 

The special effects also go beyond makeup and costuming. This year's Halloween festival will feature a special crew of monsters that Keith calls "sliders," who roam the park and create sparks on the ground using special elbow and knee pads. Keith says they won't be limited to one section of the park. 

"We're just going to let them loose on our unsuspecting guests," Keith says. "You never know where they're going to pop out." 

Keith and company also look for variety artists and performers like jugglers, fire eaters and stilt walkers to turn into characters. Ebony Spells, an entertainer from Euless who acts, dances and performs acrobatics, brought her stilts to her audition. 

"I know from doing stilt work around kids that when you're in a full costume, the kids love it," Spells says. "They are amazed at how tall you are. So I can only imagine what it's like to also be dressed up as a zombie." 

Some of the people who auditioned, such as construction worker Ivan Pineda of Grand Prairie, don't work as performers. They're not looking for an acting job to add to their resume. They just think it sounds fun to get paid to scare people.

"I get to be something that normally I'm not," Pineda says. "I can't turn into a werewolf but to be one for a night, that would be pretty cool." 

Keith says just as the actors enjoy turning guests into meat bags that emit guttural screams, he also enjoys watching his performers make their own nightly transformation. 

"I think what's really fun is when you have a shy person that is scared of haunted houses and you teach them and within a week or two weeks, they are now this aggressive attacker in the house and you go, 'You didn't like haunted houses and were shy. What changed?' and they go, 'I don't know,'" Keith says. "It's fun to scare people. It's a blast." 

Are you interested in becoming a scare actor for this year's Fright Fest at Six Flags Over Texas that runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 31? Fright Fest's director Robert Keith says they are still looking for actors who can scare up a good time. Submit an application online at
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.