Behind the Mask

Three haunted house actors talk scares, spirits and how they got their start

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click to enlarge Loren Muzzy
Loren Muzzy

A masked man comes barreling at you from inches away, steam pouring out of a freshly fired-up chainsaw. Like a barn-born-baby in the winter, shrieking, you fall, scrambling backward as the huge figure looms over you. You look for light in his eyes and find none as he slowly begins to lower the saw, the guttural groan piercing deeper into your ear.

This is a scene you might find in a horror movie — or better yet, in real life — because haunting season has arrived, and with it the doors have opened on all kinds of spooks and spirits to get your adrenaline pumping this October.

Curious about what it’s like to be on the other side of the mask? We talked to three haunted house workers (whose job is to scare you) about how they got into the biz, their horror inspiration and why Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year.

Loren Muzzy and Steven Davis are seasoned haunters at the USS Nightmare in Newport, Ky. For the uninitiated, the Nightmare is a haunted historic riverboat with multiple levels, haunted hallways and a seemingly endless variety of horror-rooms that accent the vintage vessel.

Muzzy and Davis, with four and 17 years on the Nightmare respectively, responded exactly the same when asked what it’s like to work on the dark side: exhilarating. They told stories of watching grown men air-ride bicycles Scooby Doo-style out of fear and an entire string of people collapse like a sad heap of dominoes back through the door they came in. Muzzy puts the benefit of such work nicely.

“There’s a covenant with our customers,” he says. “They trust us to scare them in a safe manner, in a safe place. For people who live and deal with actual fear every day, it’s release, it’s relief, it’s strength.”

Muzzy, in costume as a vampire, speaks with fangs protruding from a blood-covered mouth. He shares a birthday with Bela Lugosi (Oct. 20), actor and the “King of Horror” who played Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula. For lack of other ideas, people would buy him Halloween wares for his childhood birthdays, spawning a desire to be a monster when he grew up. He found out that, apparently, it is possible.

The rest of the year, Muzzy remains on stage working on other projects. He sings pirate shanties in a musical group called Band of Pirates; MCs, narrates and sings at belly dance events for Zahara’s Tangled Web; and, most interestingly, sometimes helps with childcare and is known as the “big goth nanny.” However, only of the Nightmare does he say, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but if you do, you will be.”

Depending on whether or not you believe in ghosts, Davis, who plays the vampire overlord and other assorted characters on the Nightmare, claims the stories about the actual deaths and ensuing spirits on the “death dredge” are true.

Steven Davis

A dredge stirs up sediment at the bottom of a river, and the USS Nightmare’s 1930s river-mixer is believed to have disturbed an ancient burial ground, cursing the vessel. The ship crashed into a bridge decades ago causing several accidental deaths, including the captain’s.

While some are skeptics, Davis says he has no doubt the ship is haunted. “They’re feeding off the fear we put in people,” Davis says.

He’s even seen an apparition of the ship’s dead captain, ironically on a night when Davis himself was playing the role.

“He came in, tall guy, long beard. I could see right through him, but I could see that he was the captain,” he says. “He had the hat, everything. He just gave me a little nod and walked away.”

He recalls another time during pre-show construction when he was setting up a room with his brother when no one else was on board. They heard what sounded like a herd of people running up on deck, but when they went to look they found the ship deserted.

Davis entered into haunting for a similar reason as Muzzy: He loves doing scary makeup and immersing himself in a character. Out of season, Davis finds odd jobs and does construction, although he says he’d go insane without haunting, as nothing else is quite the same.

Together the two talk of their pre-show ritual called “The Rage.” The crew holds hands in a circle and says things like “the family that slays together, stays together” before all screaming, “rage!”

Luckily for the guests that choose to go onboard, the Nightmare’s actors can’t actually touch you, with the exception of two “extreme” nights, during which they can — and will. The crew can get in your face on a darker and scarier ship with extreme special effects for the eXtreme Unrated Captain’s Tour (11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Oct. 24 and 25).

“The clowns are quite unspeakable that night,” Muzzy warns.

At Halloween Haunt, Kings Island’s multi-maze haunt-extravaganza where spooks roam free, Mike Rochester is known as the Undertaker.

Rochester started haunting at St. Rita’s haunted house at age 12 by lying about his age. His interest in haunted houses began when he discovered his knack for design — he has a collection of homemade but spot-on costumes such as Doc Ock and Mysterio — and scaring people by creating front-yard freak-zones during Halloween as a kid. He became interested in scaring with more humor and less gore, citing Evil Dead and the old Kings Island ride “Phantom Theater” as major influences.

Mike Rochester

After Rita’s, he took his haunting to Tennessee before returning to work at Kings Island, now boasting two decades of experience. Rochester loves acting in general and aside from haunting does conventions, parties, community theater and a live horror show spin-off of Mystery Science Theater 3000 called Frightmare Alley, currently at Scream Acres in Covington, Ky.

He says he loves to haunt simply for people’s reactions, especially when his witty persona is allowed to shine through; he often uses personally arranged spook-joke material in his act.

Part of the scaring, however, just happens. When getting into character, he says the makeup makes the transformation complete and at that point the character just takes off and he becomes the copilot.

With so much experience haunting, these guys say not much scares them. All three said only real-world problems get them now, like marriage and bills. But once they’re in character, you’d think these guys could rule the land of bill collectors — or the dead.


USS Nightmare

is open 7-11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday through Nov. 1. Tickets are $15-$18, with a $23 skip-the-line option. 101 Riverboat Row, Newport, Ky.,

Halloween Haunt

at King’s Island is open 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday through Nov. 1. Tickets start at $29.99. 6300 Kings Island Drive, Mason, .

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