If you happened to pay a visit to one of several seasonal Halloween-related haunting experiences this month, you can be reasonably sure that the majority of the performers taking part are having as much fun as you are.
Creativity in the forms of acting, visual art and live performance, coupled with the cathartic experiences related to role playing — central to Halloween — combine to encourage people to take on roles in haunting events.
“It’s like the one time of the year where you can go out, dress up and be your full self,” said Ethan Soule, 17, of Meriden.
“I’m a huge horror fan in general, and it’s good professional experience to have, too,” said Soule, who studied theater arts throughout high school and intends to pursue a career either as an actor or a stage professional.
Soule is one of dozens of part-time performers at Haunting at the Ridge, a mountain-top haunted trail that descends into the Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield.
Ernie Romegialli, owner of Graveyard Productions, which produces it, has been doing seasonal experiences for over 30 years. A retired high school history teacher, he began his first haunt in his yard in Middletown as a way to bring a different kind of Halloween treat to his six-year-old daughter, who was then newly diagnosed with diabetes and couldn’t have candy.
“Three years later, we had 6,000 people,” he said, motivating the start of his Haunted Graveyard at Lake Compounce in Bristol. That attraction drew 5,000 people a night and was, for decades, he said, the largest haunt in New England, employing 250 people.
Now in their second year at Powder Ridge, Romegialli and his longtime general manager, Will Green, have found it a struggle to get reliable and motivated performers, even though they’re an exception in that they offer weekly pay and don’t rely on volunteers.
“Ten years ago finding actors was very easy,” Green said. “You didn’t even have to advertise. You had people knocking on the door.”
“Now it’s like pulling teeth,” Romegialli added. “We can’t figure it out.”
The cast of players who are involved, however — a mix of ages and backgrounds, Romegialli said, from 16 to 81 — reflect an authentic enthusiasm for a job that combines creative cosplay with improv acting.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of performing in a general sense … but I wanted to try this out to bring myself out of my shell,” said Katie McGrew of Portland, a Ridge performer.
“It’s generally just really fun,” she said. “Once the face is on, you’re really able to sort of feel that you’re not yourself. You are a character and that helps you to kind of be bold and daring with the people in the environment you’re in.”
Others concur, including Spencer Zvonkovic of Meriden, a young actor doing his second year at the Ridge.
“It’s confidence building because I do things in front of people that I wouldn’t ordinarily do,” he said. “I feel more comfortable doing weird things … It’s so nice just to lose yourself.”
He said it has similarities to working in a theater. “On stage you want someone to enjoy your performance. With this you’re trying to have someone enjoy getting scared. They paid for this.”
“And it’s not always about scaring,” Zvonkovic said. “It’s about making them have fun.”
Charles Rosenay of New Haven, a standup comic and event producer who created and ran Fright Haven for many years in Connecticut, currently runs the Haunted Trolley in East Haven. A horror aficionado since childhood, he’s a great believer in a fun and safe Halloween attraction build on the skills and enthusiasm of his performers, but said it isn’t always easy to find them.
“It’s not easy to get good actors, obviously. There were times when I had constructed Fright Haven where I could have found, without exaggerations, 100 scare spots,” he said, contingent on the number of actor who showed up.
“Some nights we had to get by with 30 … The next week they had finals. The next week after that they got a role in a mini series … It’s tough to keep actors and it’s tough keep great actors,” said Rosenay, who has engaged a professional troupe called The Dinner Detective to handle the performance for the Haunted Trolley.
“The best are the ones who have it in their blood,” he said. “They know what they’re doing … It’s not necessarily the makeup. It’s not necessarily the prop or the decoration around you. It’s the delivery.”
Mark Esposito of Hamden, a professional actor, has worked with Rosenay several times, including at Fright Haven years ago and this season on the Trolley.
“I’ve been mental patients. I’ve been clowns. I’ve been jesters. I’ve been zombies, various different ghouls,” he said. “I’ve also just been stuck in the dark in a dark room blending in with the walls and just showing up next to your ear … in a jumpsuit covered with glow-in-the-dark cockroaches.”
Like others, Esposito praised the cathartic chance to exercise emotions through acting, particularly in the fright setting.
“If you spend the night screaming at people, it gives you the opportunity to leave yourself behind for a little while,” he said, noting how it was especially enjoyable when he was a teenager.
“We would just scream at people for two or three hours,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to do that when you’re an angsty 16- or 17-year old? … I feel like you can get some passive aggression out in the best sense of the word.”
Esposito and others also noted the connections they make. “I think it’s kind of a good way to bond with people,” he said. “Similarly to participating in any acting company, there’s definitely a bond that comes together.”
Encouraged to give it a try for the first time this season, Michael Chase of Wallingford is having a similar experience working at the Ridge.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been making a lot of friends and everyone’s nice here.”
His coworker, Victoria Kruvka of Middletown, a great fan of Halloween, was thrilled to discover the joy in performing.
“At first I was really nervous, but once you scare someone for the first time, you’re never going back,” she said.