Scream, laugh, rinse, repeat: What it’s like to be a haunted house actor

What goes into crafting the perfect scream? A KUT producer signed up to be an actor at a haunt in Buda to find out.

By Chelsey Zhu, KUTOctober 31, 2023 9:45 am, ,

From KUT:

Ghastly breathing from the animatronic beside me rumbles in my ears as I lurk in the shadows, waiting for my cue. I hear footsteps, a roar, then a scream. My heart races as I get into position, leaning my torso over the wooden bar that separates me from the patrons.

My goal: to look like a corpse.

The footsteps get closer until shoes cross my line of vision. I get ready to jump up and unleash a shriek.

But what comes out is a sad little croak. Instead of scaring the patrons, I make them laugh.

“More energy!” one of them says as he casually brushes past me.

I frown as I recede into my spot. This scaring business is harder than I thought.

Millions of people flock to haunted houses every October to get a thrill. For a couple hours, you journey through a fantasy world, where monsters are hidden in every corner with a single purpose — to make you scream.

What all goes into crafting that scream? I signed up to be an actor at Bat City Scaregrounds, a 15-acre haunt in Buda, to find out.

Mixing art, science and horror

The first thing I learn about Bat City is that it’s more than just a haunted house: It’s also a film set, a music venue and a sprawling arts project. The haunt reflects the eclectic interests of its owner Corey Trahan, who’s a musician, audio engineer, comic book author, horror film director and physicist.

“Being a scientist, just kind of loving the mystery and unknown — that kind of has this overarching theme where I feel like I’m an explorer,” he says. “A lot of things are scary because we don’t understand them.”

Trahan has been in the haunted house business for nearly 20 years. In 2006, he was finishing up a postdoctoral program in quantum physics at Texas Tech University when he met his business partner, Wes Benton. They shared a love for all things scary and opened their first scream park, Nightmare on 19th Street, in Lubbock.

Trahan eventually returned to his hometown of Austin and wanted to bring his business closer to the city. He bought a swath of farmland in Buda, built Bat City and officially opened in 2021.

“I like to call it my 15 acres of fear,” he says.

Renee Dominguez / KUT

Bat City Scaregrounds is now open for its third season.

Into the scare

On the ride from Austin to Bat City, I watch as skyscrapers morph into empty fields. I arrive a couple hours before opening. The sun is still high in the sky.

Sarah “Scarah” Webb, the park’s host, greets me at the entrance. She’s wearing a flowing black gown and a red collar of (fake) blood.

“Your neck looks so good tonight, Scarah,” someone calls out as we pass by.

“Thank you,” she says. “Fresh wound.”

Scarah’s there to guide me through the haunt as I transform into a ghoul. We start by taking a tour of the main attractions, three haunted houses made out of a series of shipping containers. Each house caters to a different set of phobias. “Clownocalypse 3D” is an urban horrorscape featuring psychotic clowns, “Ancient Evil” spotlights monsters inspired by ancient mythology and “Castle Orlock” is a classic gothic haunt with a sci-fi twist.

All three have their fair share of jump scares in the form of flashing lights, loud bangs and animatronics that seem to come out of nowhere. We’re walking through in broad daylight, but I still feel on edge.

At one point, we skirt around a pile of very large bones.

“Those are real bones,” Scarah says casually. “I don’t know why they’re there, but that’s interesting.”

Renee Dominguez / KUT

Chelsey Zhu, digital producer at KUT, interviews Sarah "Scarah" Webb at Bat City Scaregrounds. Scarah serves as the park's host.

Even though Bat City is only open for a month every fall, Scarah tells me they’re out here year round designing costumes and building props. We briefly stop by a behind-the-scenes area hiding the crew’s projects. I spot a brain impaled with metal spikes and a mannequin head that looks like it’s been torched.

As we walk past a fence stapled with dismembered baby dolls, Scarah tells me everybody at Bat City has their own reason for loving Halloween. I ask for hers.

“Halloween for me was a holiday that you did not have to have a lot of money to be able to partake and enjoy,” she says. “You can make your own costume … and your creativity carried you instead of money. And I had the advantage there. We didn’t have money, but I had creativity.”

“That’s what started it,” she says, “and then I just always liked spooky shit.”

Getting into character

In the actor area, a crowd of people are transforming into monsters. The sun is setting now, and Bat City is looking less like farmland and more like hell.

Scarah asks me which haunted house I’d like to act in. I hesitate. At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, I’m not particularly confident in my scaring skills. I go with what I think is the safe choice — being a dusty ghoul in Ancient Evil.

While I’m waiting for my turn in makeup and wardrobe, I ask actors for their best tips. I end up hearing the same thing over and over: Treat the whole experience like a therapy session. People in the industry even have a name for it. Scare-apy.

“You get to do whatever you want. Your frustrations with your daily job, your frustrations with life, you’re allowed to take it out on [patrons],” actor manager Josh Wilson tells me.

Scare-apy applies to customers, too.

“It offers people a release to let out stress almost involuntarily,” Scarah says. “We’re all bound up. There’s real scary stuff in the world everywhere you look. So when we create an environment of fear that’s safe, it’s kind of nice.”

Renee Dominguez / KUT

Bat City has more than 100 costumes for its actors, according to wardrobe manager Conner Underwood.

An hour before opening, I go to wardrobe, a shipping container with two racks stuffed with costumes. Wardrobe manager Conner Underwood asks me which attraction I’m a part of, thumbs through the outfits — “Something light, flowy, easy to move,” he says — and takes out a grim-reaper-style black robe and gloves with claws attached to the fingertips.

The robe is comically oversized on me, so Underwood has to shorten the bottom with pins. In the end, I still look a bit like a baby ghoul who broke into her mom’s closet. Monsters can be short and scary, right?

Luckily, there’s still makeup left to go. A makeup artist airbrushes me with a muted combination of whites, blacks, oranges and greens so I can blend into the primal aesthetic of Ancient Evil. I start feeling more confident once I see myself in the mirror — I look like I’ve clawed my way out of a grave.

Renee Dominguez / KUT

Actors work with trainers throughout the season to perfect their scaring techniques.

‘Find a fetish’

The final step before showtime is actor training.

“Is there anything you’re frustrated about right now in life?” trainer Luke Summers asks me.

“I have insomnia,” I say. On the worst nights, I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and be unable to go back to sleep.

“Get pissed about it,” Summers says.

Summers and Zaq Rhoades (an actor trainer who goes by “Gay Satan”) are with me inside Ancient Evil. I’m stationed in a cave, right behind an animatronic of an alien that’s triggered by a step pad on the floor. A wooden bar divides my hiding spot from the path of the customers. It’s a great place for jump scares, Gay Satan tells me.

“Weird improv is the name of the game,” he says. “Find a fetish. Find something you really like – like you can have a foot fetish.”

He gets into character, and it’s like a switch has flipped. “I wanna stab you in the feet,” he growls in a deep, shaky voice.

“Or you could like hands,” he says in a normal voice before switching back. “I wanna stab your hand to the wall,” he snarls, “and just hold you there so that you can stay here and play with me.”

I’m impressed, but I can’t imagine myself pulling those statements off. Summers says screaming and heavy breathing can be effective, too, so I decide to stick with those.

Renee Dominguez / KUT

Each haunt at Bat City has a different theme, from mythological monsters to psychotic clowns.

I also learn that you should aim for the middle of any group that’s passing by so you can push them forward, deeper into the haunted house. And Gay Satan tells me that, as cliché as it is, it’s important to have fun. Even though you’re putting on an act, feeling genuinely into your character is a “whole lot better driving force” than trying to fit into an idea of scary, he says.

Halloween is all about pretending to be something you’re not, but your costume can be just as authentic as your “real” identity.

“It’s the one time of year where it doesn’t matter who you are — you can be what you want to be. If a little boy wants to dress up as a princess, go for it. And if a little girl wants to dress up in knight’s armor, have fun,” Gay Satan says. “You can be what you honest to God, in your heart feel.”

A good scare

I hear distant screams as customers start making their way through the attractions. In the few minutes I have before they reach me, I pull together a strategy. Sourcing from my own life, I brainstorm a character driven mad by insomnia. I lean over the bar like I’m sleeping and wait for visitors to “wake” me up, unleashing my wrath.

The first patrons take me by surprise, and I accidentally jump out at the front of the group, pushing them backward. They awkwardly shuffle around me as I wheeze at them.

But after a few more groups, I fall into a pattern. Every few minutes, I hear the roars of the actors in front of me. If the patrons are easy targets, they scream all the way until they step on the pad triggering the animatronic. After getting scared by the alien, their guard is down. Then I’m there when they least expect it.

Some customers aren’t that impressed with me, but overall I scare more people than I expect to. My favorite part is watching them hesitate right before they walk past me. They know I’m going to scare them, but they have no choice but to continue.

“It still got me, and I was waiting for it!” a man says to his friends after I make him scream.

The inside of the haunt is hot, and by the end, I’m covered in sweat. I’m tired, but in a good way, like I’ve gone on a run or cried for the first time in a while. Scaring feels therapeutic, not only because I get to vent my frustrations, but also because I have a connection to my “victims.” It feels good to give someone what they want — a release.

“I love to scare someone and watch the rest of their people laugh,” Trahan, Bat City’s owner, tells me at the end of the night. “It’s a safe, controlled fear. And it’s just a lot of fun and it’s very entertaining as an actor to see that, to sort of feed off that energy.”

It’s pitch black outside when I exchange my black robes for the T-shirt and jeans that I came in. The screams of patrons echo in my ears as I leave the park. When I get home, I immediately fall into bed.

That night, I sleep like the dead.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.