It will be dusk or already dark as you enter through the gates at Screams Halloween Theme Park in Waxahachie, flames shooting skyward from the parapet of the haunted castle, fog rolling down the hill. You’ll walk past a cemetery, where mysterious dark figures lumber in the shadows. Immersed in Halloween for the evening—not just the 15 minutes or so that a standard haunted house might offer—you’re in for a frightful night. Lurking within are dozens of costumed actors, trained in the art of surprising their targets. After all, gory prosthetic wounds and menacing chainsaw props can only go so far: Getting scared is all about being startled.
Rexana McClease, the entertainment and costume director at Screams, knows this better than just about anyone. Rexana joined Screams as a performer back when the attraction debuted in 1996, and is now in charge of the more than 100 actors who haunt Screams for its five-week run each fall. While the zombies, vampires, and other characters roaming the park grounds interact with visitors, those inside the park’s five haunted attractions stick to the belief that fleeting glimpses elicit the most terror. “If you see something for a long time, you get less scared of it,” Rexana says, “and we will scare you.”
The actors are a diverse bunch, from teenagers to adults, but they’re united by a common passion: They’re Halloween fanatics. Some have been working the seasonal job for more than a decade, driving to Screams after work as computer specialists or mechanics. Actors typically spend between 15 minutes and two hours getting into character with makeup, prosthetics, and costumes.
For safety reasons, park rules dictate that only the actors can wear costumes (so leave yours at home)—and they’re not allowed to touch guests. Still, the talent is sometimes a little too convincing. “We don’t want anyone to actually faint, though that does happen,” says Screams General Manager Coy Sevier, who’s been on staff almost as long as Rexana. “One year, we had a wonderful actress playing a character named Dolly Molly; she had a big wind-up key on the back, and she could run like nobody’s business. She scared the daylights out of people.”
Screams calls itself the largest Halloween theme park in the country, and it’s certainly a popular one: Some 60,000 visitors come through each fall. Held on a 15-acre site within the grounds of Waxahachie’s springtime Scarborough Renaissance Festival, Screams emerges over the course of roughly four months. While a 16th-Century English castle can look very spooky when it’s lit properly—and Screams does take advantage of that—the theme park is largely rebuilt from the ground up each year. Crews work with some 12,000 feet of cable, more than 2,500 lights, hundreds of speakers, and dozens of MP3 players. Gradually, the five major annual attractions emerge: a haunted castle, a pirate ship, an Alfred Hitchcock-style hotel of horror, and a haunted maze. In addition to those, Screams further expands on the standard haunted house model with fair-style food and games, live music, a full-service restaurant, a tavern with refreshments and “Scary-Oke,” Tarot card readings, vendors, and carnival rides.
Coy says that, surprisingly, it’s his Unkel Koy’s Klown Maze that seems to freak people out the most. “Folks will come in and go to every attraction but the clown maze. They will walk up to it and say, ‘No, there are clowns in there,’” he says with a laugh. “It could just as soon have a moat around it with gators.”
As successful as the actors are at eliciting screams, with the scene so convincingly set, it doesn’t always take much. “Sometimes, someone walks around the corner and into another patron, and they scare each other,” says Rexana. Others, like Rexana herself, are a little tougher to scare. “The crew gets excited if they can get me to jump,” she says. “But the people who don’t scare get enjoyment from watching those who do get scared—to them, it’s hilarious.”
And that’s the fun in a good startle: Once they get past the initial scream, most people find themselves laughing together.
“When you’re scared, you get a little adrenaline rush, then you calm down, and laugh,” Rexana says. “We love Halloween and we want to share it with the world.”