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The Art of the Scare: this week on The Green Room

Meet Travis Duncan, manager of the Swamp of Suffering. That's the main attraction at Screams In the Dark, a big haunted house set up on the county fairgrounds near Traverse City.

Duncan plays a zombie that’s dressed as a member of a SWAT team. He and his small army of volunteers see themselves as something resembling a theatre troupe.

“This whole idea is to set up an illusion that you’re actually in a swamp," says Duncan. "You’re in a mausoleum, you’re in a graveyard. So we try to keep people in character so they can give that illusion and keep that illusion up.”

Duncan is also kind of a de facto stage manager.

Credit Aaron Selbig
Travis Duncan gives instructions to volunteers before Screams In the Dark opens for business.

He’s in charge of costumes. He greets new volunteers. He makes sure the little red light bulbs in the bloody werewolf’s head haven’t burned out.

Beyond the "jump scare"

Duncan says there’s a whole set of techniques around scaring people. The most basic element is the "jump scare" - that's when you jump out and shout "boo!" at some unsuspecting person.

A good jump scare depends on the element of surprise. But everyone who comes to Screams In the Dark is bracing for a jump scare.

So Travis Duncan and his crew of zombies and clowns and axe murderers have to go beyond that. For example, the Twisted Closet of Narnia.

The closet is pitch black. When you enter, you’re flanked on the right and the left by long racks full of clothes. As you push past the hanging clothes, the only thing you can see – at the very back of the closet – is a red light. Underneath the red light bulb is a pale mannequin nailed to the wall, wearing a blood-soaked wedding dress.

Credit Aaron Selbig
This bloody bride is not the only scare in the Twisted Closet of Narnia.

“And when people walk in, that bulb will go off – it’s on another motion sensor – and they’re going to see her,” says Duncan. 

Pretty scary, right?

Except that it’s all a distraction. You see the clothes. You see the red light come on. You see the bloody bride. But what you don’t see is the homicidal clown on stilts towering over your head.

Another trick is to be absolutely relentless. Getting a big scare out of someone is great but Duncan says there has to be another scare around the next corner.

“You want to keep that energy flowing," he says. "You’re not going to get too many disappointed customers that way. [If] you go 15 or 20 seconds without scaring someone right off the jump, the illusion is ruined and it will probably be ruined the entire time.”

So right after the Twisted Closet of Narnia, there’s a demon head springing out of the wall. Then flying sparks from a malfunctioning electrical box. And finally, Aunt Eunice – a mechanical ghost that springs at you with lightning speed.

The power of the scare

All of these people at Screams In the Dark are dedicated to what owner Joe Ritchie calls “the power of the scare.”

“If you’ve never had a grown man hide behind their kids, you don’t understand the power of a scare," says Ritchie. "You just don’t anticipate being able to make a grown man cower. That’s what it comes down to.”

Credit Aaron Selbig
Volunteers at Screams In the Dark often try to outdo each other on getting reactions out of customers.

And for Ritchie and Travis Duncan and all the rest of the 30 or so volunteers, it’s a contest. They want to outdo each other on getting an intense reaction out of people. Sometimes people lose control of their bodily functions; sometimes they lose consciousness. One time, a lady pulled a can of mace on Pickles the Clown.

"We had a lady go into labor one time," says Ritchie. "She did tell us afterwards that she was overdue and she figured something like this would help her along.”

If you have an overpowering urge to scare, you can join the crew at Screams In the Dark. They’re happy to take new volunteers. All you have to do is show up early and grab a costume.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.