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Method for the madness: Actors love Halloween haunts

Method for the madness: Actors love Halloween haunts

With holiday almost here, people who love acting are in costume and in character at scary places
Method for the madness: Actors love Halloween haunts
P. J. Duell airbrushes final touches on Erica Gussow for the Haunted Hayrides at Double M Rodeo in Ballston Spa.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Ben Dunlavey wore a black hooded robe — and a white skeleton's face — on a chilly autumn night.

Wind moved the trees at the Double M Rodeo in Ballston Spa, and dead leaves swirled around the simulated dead man.

The spooky scene was just right for Dunlavey, as he talked about mood, method and motivation as an actor at the rodeo's annual "Haunted Hayrides" attraction.

"I'm sort of a swing actor," said Dunlavey, 29, who lives in Clifton Park. "It keeps it fresh and interesting because I never know what I'm going to be doing."

Scare joints like the Double M attract men and women who will grab sheets and scepters for evening-long screams and shrieks. Others — with backgrounds for more refined stage performances — use the gigs to sharpen their skills.

Dunlavey's versatility has given him roles as a coffin maker, clown, werewolf and redneck. On a recent Friday night, the skeleton was booked for one of the hay ride wagons; as host, Dunlavey guided 60 or 70 teenagers — and some parents and smaller thrill seekers — through various haunted scenes.

Dunlavey takes the work seriously. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2011 with degrees in puppetry arts and theater production. He has worked as an entertainer for Royal Caribbean cruise lines and has helped with the "Haunted Hayrides" narratives.

"I'm leading them to the dark side," said Dunlavey, who works in property management. "You're creating suspense, you're telling a story. There's a story written for each haunt. You're setting up the scenes."

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Leo Martin, who with his wife Jennifer owns Double M, said people with acting aspirations are key components for his 26-scene, 27-year-old attraction.

"It's vital," he said. "It really does make a big difference if you have people who have a little acting background.

"They bring a little more experience," Martin added. "They tend to pick up a role or part easier, no matter what it is."

Seventy-five to 85 ghosts, skeletons, zombies, witches, ghouls and other creatures work Martin's haunts during autumn weekends. The show is on for this Sunday night; next weekend will be the finale.

"We start recruiting in July," Martin said. "We have auditions. We're looking for high energy, we're looking for the way they improvise. We give them some random characters to play and we'll put a group together and see how they portray them. If they show some imagination, they probably have the job."

Paul Ackley, 27, a soft-spoken actor who was running around the 40-acre grounds as an insane clown, has dressed up at The Great Escape amusement park in Queensbury.

"I consider myself an evil clown," he said, of his purple-haired, red-nosed and orange, black and green-garbed Halloween alter ego. "It's something I do once a year in October."

Ackley, who lives in Queensbury, said he and other performers try for the scares, but will accept laughs. He's always looking for the latter reactions in his full-time job as an activities director at the Stanton, a nursing and rehabilitation center in Glens Falls.

"There's definitely a different caliber of people who come here," Ackley said.

Diane Bartholomew likes a different caliber of person at Night Terrors Haunted Farm, the ghost-filled haunt off Route 7 in Schoharie. She has 80 assorted ghosts, witches and pumpkin heads running around her place, and the last scares will come this weekend.

"I would say the majority love to get into costume and scare people," said Bartholomew, who owns the attraction with her daughter Kristen Doyle.

Some of the specters are into acting. Bartholomew wants her poltergeists to have aptitude for attitude.

"You want to find people who are good at ad-libbing, people who can think quick on their feet," she said. "You're dealing with the public and the public will say things. You look for quick-witted people."

Bartholomew believes acting as an apparition builds confidence in her younger employees, teenagers who are trying to fit in.

"It gives them a place to feel safe," she said. "It's like their home away from home when they're with us. They fit in, they feel good about themselves ... we call ourselves a haunted family."

Part of the passion comes from the preparation. At Haunted Hayrides, P.J. Duell, 38, of Queensbury makes up actors in fast fashion. He's an experienced hand, and has done make-up for the crew at The Great Escape.

Duell's work on Dunlavey's face and hands gave the bone man a boost and a boo. The actor looked the part.

"He needs to take charge of his scene," Duell said, "and let the wagon, the guests, know he's in charge."

Giant clown smiles, dark eye shadow and ghost-white faces will give actors more courage on their hayride stages.

"Sometimes, you have to pull people out of their shells," Duell said. "Once the make-up goes on, it all comes out."

Heather Marks, , 33, of Stony Creek (Warren County) has been wearing a "ghillie suit" this year at Double M. The clothes are for camouflage, designed to let people blend into natural surroundings such as foliage, snow or sand.

"I just enjoy doing this," Marks said. "Every year, I feel I do it a little bit better."

Playing a swamp monster, or some other abomination that makes a power play against a hapless teenager, helps Marks leave behind a shy persona.

"I feel when you're in character, you can be anything," she said. "When I'm in character, I can be a different person."

Ghouls and goblins hate to act normal, but sometimes they must. Last year, Marks was on scare patrol in a room full of cages lit by strobe lights when the experience overwhelmed one adventurer. Of course, her friends had dashed off.

"I had to break character," Marks said. "I had to tell her, 'I'm coming over to you. I'm not a real clown. Grab onto my shoulder and I will get you out.'

"I told her she could keep her eyes closed while I walked her out," Marks added. "She didn't want to see me."

The girl kept her eyes closed and left the area safe, sane and sound.

Samey Abdul also has a place in the Double M night gallery. A few nights ago, she was wearing a "Morphsuit," a skin-tight, Spandex outfit that covers everything.

"I've been here five years," said Abdul, 22, who lives in Malta. "It helps me get more comfortable in front of people. I'm kind of shy."

Abdul wants more roles, in parts where people can see her face. She's already been on screen as an extra in the Schenectady-based 2012 major film "The Place Beyond the Pines," so there's a chance for critical acclaim.

For now, wails of terror represent rave reviews.

"When they scream and back up across the room, I know I'm doing my job," Abdul said.

Paul Hasbrouck never looked for actors when he was running ghosts at the Indian Farm "Field of Screams" haunted maze in Princetown. "We did it as a charity event and we were very successful at it from 2000 to 2013," Hasbrouck said.

Hasbrouck wanted enthusiasm from his team.

"Most of the people were neighbors and friends," he said of his cast. "They were in their mid-20s to mid-30s, so they had a little life experience.

"They seemed to be the ones who came up with the best ideas," Hasbrouck added. "And they were a little crazy, too."

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

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