1 Black Cape
1 Pair of Fangs
1 Scary Attitude
1 Pseudonym (Franklin Stein)
With costume in place, I head toward a Marin shopping mall that has a huge white tent in the parking lot; this is the site of Nightmare University. Raising my cape in the air, Dracula-style, I approach a group of men hammering various scary items into place.
"I'm here for the haunted-house interview!" I say. (Since my fangs are too big for my mouth, sticking, sadly, half in, half out, they hear, "Rmmm rmm rmm rmm.")
"What?" replies a large man with his belly hanging out the bottom of his shirt.
"The haunted-house interview!" ("Rmm rmm rmm!")
"You must be here for the haunted-house interview," the large man concludes, adding, without a hint of a smile, "OK, you can take those fangs out now!"
Handing me an application, the large man, who apparently is the leader of house-haunting, says, "Give a scream when you're done."
"Should I make it a 'scary' scream?" I exclaim with a sly wink.
Because haunted-house workers are to be hired on the spot, with no time for checking applications for accuracy, I put down anything I damn well please. Under "Past Job Experience," I write:
-- The Teepee of Terror
-- The Haunted Canoe
-- Nightmare Traffic School
Looking over my application, the one-who-is-leader asks, "What was Halloween like when you were little?"
I take a poetic approach, answering like a 17-year-old girl in a black turtleneck and beret.
"Much laughing. Costumes. Bags of candy. Running," I recite, pausing between thoughts and twirling my hair, "falling asleep with a smile."
The leader extends his large hand. "I'd like you to work for us."
I twirl my cape, reinsert my fangs, and proclaim, "I won't let you down!" ("Rmm rmm rmm!")
I'm late for opening night at Nightmare University. My haunting co-workers are already milling about in costumes. "I'm here to scare the bejeebees out of people!" I proclaim to the second in command, who's wearing a white lab coat and a Janet Jackson headset. "What character should I be?"
"THE CLOWN!" he and the surrounding people announce in unison.
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. I'll be playing on some people's worst nightmares. Perhaps, for the younger in attendance, I'll cause major trauma that will stem into adulthood! Right on! Hand me that clown outfit.
"Can I have a knife?" I demand, adjusting the large, bright, polka-dot clown suit with enormous belly and the frightening clown mask with razor teeth and ill-fitting eye slits. It smells like a cross between latex and human sweat.
"Sure," exclaims the second in command. One is presented to me.
We are given important tidbits of advice: Don't go outside to the Porta Potti while in costume. No one likes to see a headless Frankenstein going to take a dump. (It breaks the "fourth wall.") Also -- and this is stressed -- never make fun of those with disabilities. Most important, don't grope people in the dark.
"Actors, take your positions!" booms the leader over a loudspeaker as the halls are filled with the background soundtrack of screams, loud heartbeats, and creepy laughing that gets on my nerves within minutes. "We're about to open the doors."
In my scary clown room, I'm situated in a large jack-in-the-box with a huge, ugly clown head on top and arms dangling from the sides; it's lit with an eerie, swirling light. When patrons enter, I push a button, which flips open a smaller box, revealing a scary clown lit by orange light. Then I fling open my larger box with a loud thud and jump out, screaming and wielding a large knife.
Yes -- scary clown!
I take my position in the clown box, which is behind a protective rail. A surefire way of making people scream would involve bursting out with no trousers ("I'M A BAD, BAD CLOWN!"), but an executive decision is made to retain pants.
I see a strobe light go on in the Scream Theater, so I know the first group is approaching. I storm out of my clown box.
I'm face to face with a bunch of bemused, middle-aged adults. They stare at me, waiting for me to do more, perhaps even scare them. I'm given a look that says, "Yeah, yeah, you're a big scary clown; so what else can you do?" After the initial shock of their nonresponse, I have to fill time until they leave. So I go mental, using my knife to maniacally stab the long, dangling arms of the fake clown and various other parts of the set, my arms flying and knocking things over while my legs are doing something that resembles Riverdancing. No go. The adults saunter lethargically to the next room.
Scary Rating (1-10 scale): 3.
The best people to scare are teenage girls, because, to them, everything is soooooooo dramatic! A group approaches the scary clown room, clutched together.
"Oh my God! Oh my God!"
"I hate clowns!"
"I'm not going in there! I'm not going in there!"
On this attempt, I decide to give the teenage girls my haunted-house mission statement, informing them exactly who I am and what I do. They creep along the rail. I burst from my box.
"I'M A BIG SCARY CLOWN!" I shout. "LOOK AT ME DOING SCARY THINGS!"
As expected, the teenage girls scream. Adding to the recipe of fright, I throw in some break dancing maneuvers, spinning on the floor and concluding by dancing "the robot," complete with scary robotic noises:
I add a very haunting, "GO NINERS!" The clutching girls run, screaming.
There's nothing like screaming teenage girls.
Scary Rating (1-10 scale): 8. Clearly, clown break dancing is an effective weapon in the war against nonscaredness.
The worst patrons are high school guys; they have a bit of an attitude, not wanting to seem like big scared wussies. So, I decide to make a fright adjustment and scare them on a different level.
Some guys with baseball caps enter my domain.
"This place is trippy!" one says.
They stand around waiting for something to happen. I hold off, letting anticipation build. Finally, I gently open my box a mere crack. Slightly sticking out my head, I speak in the affected accent of a Southern dandy.
"Booo!" I softly lisp, first clearing my throat, letting out a singsong voice. "Booo! I'm scary." Then I wave, gently pull my head back into the box, and carefully close the door. A dad-and-son combo is hot on their tail.
"You go first!"
"I'm not going first, you go first."
I dramatically switch gears. This time when my box opens, I make it look like they caught me off guard. My clown mask is pulled up, and I'm talking on my cell phone. The dad and son stand there, waiting for something to happen. I keep talking, scratching myself with my fake knife. They're not sure if this is scary or not. When I finally look over, I act like I'm startled. Quickly, I close the door of my clown box for some privacy.
Scary Rating (1-10 scale): 5. As it turned out, I was just as scared of them as they were of me!
Witnessing my last haunting attempt, the second in command critiques my scaring ability. "When you jump out of the box, come all the way up to the rail," he coaches and demonstrates.
"Is my energy good?" I ask from a Method-acting point of view. "Do you think I'm using a strong enough motivation?"
He gives me the OK in those departments, so it's time to expand my portrayal of "the scary clown," to give him a little more theatrical depth. Adding to my character's movements, I abruptly come out of my box really low, like a duck waddling in fast motion. My knife is extended way over my head. I explain exactly why they should be afraid.
"I'M THE MOST FRIGHTENING THING YOU'VE EVER SEEN! I'M STEVEN THE SCARY CLOWN. I LIKE DOING MATH PROBLEMS!"
I'm face to face with a mom who's brought in a way-too-young child. The small, petrified kid clutches to the mom with a look of pure, unhappy terror.
"Mommy, help me!" shrills the poor small child.
"I LEFT THE IRON AT HOME! REMEMBER I'M STEVEN THE SCARY CLOWN!" I shriek.
For added effect, I rapidly pull my clown mask on and off.
Do they applaud my thespian merits? No. Mom and her small child make a beeline for the emergency exit. The child is scared shitless. The mention of math problems apparently frightens both.
Scary Rating (1-10 scale): 11. I've broken the "imaginary fourth wall" in a display of Beckettian absurdist theater and mentally scarred a child for life. Excellent!
The main haunted-house rush is over. The evening suddenly becomes monotonous. My haunted co-workers keep checking their watches. Bored haunted-house workers mill about in the darkness trying to kill time. The Scream Girl is starting to get on my nerves; the heartbeats and creepy laughter somehow seem louder.
Then someone yells, "Couple people coming!" Everyone frantically goes back to his respective scary room.
A group of old people enters. I jump out and shout:
"I LIKE THE TV SHOW FRIENDS! CHANDLER IS MY FAVORITE! WOOOO!"
The old folks are intensely unimpressed but take a wrong turn and try to go through the door to the backstage area. I tell them to go the other way:
"DON'T GO THROUGH THAT DOOR, IT'S FOR EMPLOYEES ONLY! WOOOO!"
The oldsters are followed by a high school couple gripping each other like tropical panda monkeys. I scream:
"NO ONE LIKES ME! I SECRETLY WEAR LADIES' CLOTHES. WOOOO!"
During midscare, the teenage girls I scared earlier walk backward through the haunted house. This time they heckle me.
"Can I hold your knife?"
I retort with, "I'M LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE, CRYING ON THE INSIDE!"
When my room clears, I leave my post, wandering around the haunted house like a senile uncle, passing customers in the hallway. I try to sneak up and scare my haunted-house co-workers; they just seem annoyed. I make my way to the graveyard room and hang out. There are the old people who were just in my clown room.
"Hi, you saw me earlier," I say. They don't respond.
Bored, I take off my scary clown outfit, open my clown box, and leave the lid hanging aside, as if I just vaporized. I slip out the back. Clown time is over.