Fake blood, sweat and tears: behind the scenes at a Bay Area haunted house
San Leandro's Fear Overload, unmasked.
Updated 10:26 pm, Thursday, October 26, 2017
To outsiders, there's nothing special about the last Wednesday in October. But for the crew of Fear Overload, it is the first night of "Hell Week" – the Christmas rush, but for professional scarers.
Curtain time for the East Bay haunted house is 7 o'clock sharp. As actors trickle in from their day jobs, the sprawling backstage area becomes a flurry of latex and fake blood. Led by Paul White, the haunt's team of makeup artists – some of whom will later be in costume themselves – carefully airbrushes healthy skin into scorched flesh, or glues elaborate prosthetics to half-dressed ghouls and demons. Actors get their eyes "blacked out" with makeup and don their costumes and masks. Last-minute repairs are made, wigs adjusted, snacks consumed.
Word makes it to manager Eliseo Carranza that several actors will be late, but the show must go on. He gathers the cast in the staging area for the nightly briefing. As he speaks, comments that might be concerning in any other circumstance – "There's blood on my phone!" or "My nose is itchy, but these teeth are in the way!" – go unremarked upon. There is a brief, in-character discussion of how too many patrons are surviving the experience. Backstage, more actors are dressing.
Carranza, 33, exhorts his team to stay hydrated ahead of their three-hour show. Then the lights go dark, and the monsters get into place.
Fear Overload occupies an 8,000-square-foot permanent complex inside San Leandro's Bay Fair Mall, tucked away in what was once the second floor of a Macy's. The haunted house consists of two mazes connected by a roped-in open space, but some fixtures, like the department store-esque changing rooms backstage, hint at the building's past life.
According to haunt chief of staff Nick Alfieri, the attraction employs about 25 to 30 part-time actors from late September to early November. The job pays minimum wage for roughly 3- to 5-hour-long night shifts that sometimes stretch into the a.m. hours. (Full disclosure: I know some of this because I worked for Fear Overload in seasons past.)
The work can be physically grueling, as well. On busier nights, according to Carranza, there are sometimes only a few seconds between groups of guests. In order to surprise each patron, actors have to "reset" their scares in the blink of an eye. That in itself can be trying, as makeup artist and actor Katelin Hess explained. By day, the San Leandro local is an in-home caretaker and Lyft driver, but as a "climber," she spends her nights crawling up walls and along furniture.
"They don't expect someone to get up that high," she said before her shift, strapping on a set of knee pads. "I try to go for the unexpected."
Hess said she has suffered cuts and bruises, and has been hit intentionally by customers, something many of the actors say they have experienced. The haunted house's rules explicitly forbid touching – on the part of the actors or their would-be victims – but startled guests and the maze's claustrophobic layout makes it difficult for actors to avoid being punched, kicked or accidentally stepped on.
"I wish people knew about the risks that can go into working in a haunted house, the pain you go through, how tiring it can be, the wear and tear on your body," actor and San Leandro native Todd Border said via Facebook. "There is a lot that goes into each night and everyone is giving their all."
After Austin Titus, an actor in an adjacent room, was allegedly hit by a customer Wednesday night, actress Lana Romo put it more succinctly: "You paid to get scared."
San Leandro is a growing city nestled between Oakland and Hayward with a diverse population; according to the US Census' 2011-2015 five-year estimates, its population is only about 41 percent white. And the cast of Fear Overload is, in some respects, representative of its guests. The haunt employs actors of various ages, genders and orientations, hailing from any number of different cultural and economic backgrounds. Some veteran actors have full-blown outside careers, while some members of the cast are students as young as 18. Some grew up in San Leandro or have lived in the area for years, but others, like ticket-taker Tara Swan, commute from from as far afield as Los Altos.
"My favorite part of the haunt season is getting to shed my skin and get to be myself," Swan said via Facebook. "I get to create a character completely out of the box and be accepted. I also work with a family of crazy people I can truly be myself with and don't have to feel judgment."
The glue holding them together – or the liquid latex, rather – is a shared love of scaring, Carranza said.
"We're family," he said. "We joke with each other, we mess around with each other. Of course, we respect each other – if something serious happens or someone needs to talk to somebody, we pull each other aside and talk it out.
"Everybody knows that everything you say in the haunt isn't serious," he added. "Everything's a joke."