Behind the Scenes at Howl-O-Scream
September 21, 2013 •
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High School Journalism Day began normal enough, despite being Friday the 13th. The atmosphere for our behind-the-scenes tour of Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens’ annual Halloween scare event, was relaxed. A herd of journalism students armed with video cameras, Nikons and steno pads filled the room with excited chatter as I looked around.
This won’t be that scary, I thought. I mean, it’s only a behind-the-scenes tour, right?
At that moment, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. A swish of fabric as the decorative curtain on the side of the room moved. A man emerged, a staff member from the park, I assumed. He looked straight at me for a good five seconds, enough for me to grab another editor and say, “did you see that–…” as he disappeared into the shadows.
Okay, so maybe they’re just trying to prank us. No big deal, right? I thought as I shook off my nerves and turned my concentration to Scott Swenson, the Creative Director of Howl-O-Scream.
“Let me apologize in advance,” Swenson said as he informed us of our upcoming venture into one of the haunted houses.
Alex Crow, the Operational Show Manager, confirmed my worst nightmare: “When the lights are off, all of the effects are turned on, as I learned this morning.”
The collective anxious whispers which followed his statement seemed to continue all the way to the point when we stood looking up at the looming trees and dilapidated façade of the haunted house.
“Already, you will have seen three performers,” said Swenson. “There are scarers in the cue line.”
Our official escort through Pontchartrain Parrish, Swenson, is one of the masterminds behind the intricate stories of each of “The 13.” This year’s theme, “The 13,” features not only your worst fear, but all 13 of your worst fears. 13 characters, each one more gruesome than the next, greet guests and make for a terrifying experience filled with blood, gore, and a whole lot of screaming.
And if that isn’t enough for superstitious Halloween junkies? The park will now be open until 1 A.M. every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for the event – because it’s the 13th hour, of course.
“It really does take a village to put all this together,” Swenson said after explaining the construction of the Voodoo Queen’s house which we were about to enter.
Howl-O-Scream, opening on September 27th, brags about 900 performers whose goal is to frighten, horrify, and give guests a thrilling experience.
But this year, the event is kicking it up a notch.
“The Experiment is the most interactive haunted house I have ever heard of; it’s all about intimidation. You are a subject in an experiment,” said Swenson. “You have no freedom of choice, no freedom of will, and you have to participate, or your experiment will be terminated.”
Not scared enough yet? Time to solve that problem.
At the front of the park, 13 doors greet adrenaline junkies, and as Swenson put it, “you aren’t quite sure what’s behind them…”
As we ventured through the Voodoo Queen’s lair, at least 60 high school journalists from central Florida got to know exactly what would be waiting behind door #6.
From psychological fear to blood and guts, the actors at Howl-O-Scream are trained to give guests a horrifying experience, and to keep them motivated, Swenson and his team have a little friendly competition.
“We have ways of instantly rewarding our team members. If they can scare me, they will get a gift card or something,” Swenson laughed. “They’ll hang on to them as a brag tag; ‘look I got this because I scared Scott!’”
As our firsthand look drew to a close, and students approached the staff members nervously asking for interviews and photos, both Swenson and Crow had mischievous looks in their eyes as they attempted to scare each other mid-sentence using the “Gauntlet Scare Wall.”
“I’m a wuss,” Crow laughed into our microphone, as a screaming girl popped out of the wall behind him. With perfect timing, Swenson made a grab at him from behind another camera, making him flinch as they both went hysterical.
“This is the best place for me,” Swenson said. “My job is to make people either happy or scared; can’t get any better than that!”
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Follow the event on Twitter @howloscream.