Some actors make us cry. Some make us laugh. Sometimes actors can even make us think.
But the actors who haunt the Edge of Hell and the Beast have only one goal: to reduce us to quivering blobs of fear.
The two long-established haunted houses — two of four operated in converted West Bottoms warehouses by Full Moon Productions — each year attract tens of thousands of people (or more) willing to pay for the pleasure of experiencing maximum sensory overload.
Roaring animatronic werewolves appear from nowhere, actors in ghastly makeup leap from dark corners, visitors grope their way through pitch-black corridors (“I’ve got a wall,” is a frequent refrain).
This is a rarified form of theater and a strange corner of show business executed by enthusiastic artisans, most of whom have learned on the job.
Guys like Larry Edgar, who manages the Edge of Hell.
“The actors not only have to be obedient to us,” said Edgar, a broad-shouldered man who trains boxers in the off-season and for fun wrestles alligators on Florida vacations. “They have to have passion. I tell ’em to
their position. They can’t be fakin’ it. If you can get them thinking on their own, they’ll come up with something good on their own.”
Edgar, who claims no formal theater training, oversees about 35 actors every night whose job it is to, well, scare the hell out of paying customers.
Edgar has worked for Full Moon Productions for 20 years, give or take a few.
“If I added it up I’d probably embarrass myself,” he said.
In addition to the Edge of Hell and the Beast, the company operates Macabre Cinema and the Chambers of Edgar Allan Poe, all in the West Bottoms. It all started in 1975 when the Edge of Hell was in an old building at Seventh and Wyandotte. It was there that Edgar got involved in what might be called blue-collar theater.
Edgar, who has collected reptiles since childhood, had a big snake, and he asked the owners if they could use it in the haunted house. They took a look at the snake in question and signed him up.
Now between the Beast and the Edge of Hell, Edgar is responsible for the care and feeding of two boa constrictors, three pythons, two anacondas and one alligator named Clamp.
“I didn’t have any intention of working at a haunted house,” Edgar said. “I just had a big snake.”
The active verb for what the actors do is “spook.” And to hear Edgar explain it, the people playing zombies and werewolves and vampires have to be every bit as committed as someone playing Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois.
“We can give ’em the spot, but they have to own it,” he said.
Amber Bequeaith, Full Moon’s press representative, is part of the family that has put on shows and haunted houses since the mid-1970s. Her uncle, Monty Summers, is the company’s president. When she was a little kid she appeared as a performer in the original Edge of Hell.
Some of the 250 actors required to staff all four haunted houses for two months have theater backgrounds. But that’s not really a requirement. What matters is how scary they are.
“Some do and some don’t,” said Bequeaith, who was a theater minor at what was then Central Missouri State. “Some of them don’t have our kind of stage presence. A lot of actors don’t like to be touched. They want to have a barrier between them and the public. Our actors have to have endurance.”
Indeed, the Edge of Hell and the Beast open at 7 or 8 p.m., depending on the day of the week, and go until the crowds dissipate — usually midnight or later.
“And it takes conditioning,” Edgar said. “If you’re a werewolf, you have to hunker down and jump up holding a 30-pound chain. You’ve got to be in shape.”
So how many times a night might the werewolf jump up with his chain to scare people silly?
“Depends on the night,” Edgar said. “Could be a thousand or more.”
Bequeaith said each house follows a theme. The Edge of Hell, for example, is “about man’s journey and every day we make choices and you end up in either heaven or hell.”
The Beast taps into man’s bestial nature, inviting visitors through Jack the Ripper’s London, the Werewolf Forest and a maze in a medieval castle that defies visitors to find a way out.
Inevitably some visitors regret subjecting themselves to the experience.
“Some people pee their pants, and, of course, most people who pee their pants are too embarrassed to say so, but some do,” Bequeaith said. “Some people forget their asthma inhalers. Some people have an anxiety situation.”
Edgar said, “At least 20 a night just want out. We tell ’em, ‘You know there’s no refund.’ They say, ‘I don’t
a refund, I just want out.’ That’s when we know we’ve done our jobs.”
On a recent Thursday evening, as darkness crept across the Bottoms and actors got into costume and makeup, John Vandergriff explained what he looks for in a haunted house actor. Vandergriff should know. He used to be one. Now he’s on the audition panel.
He said a theater background helps for characters requiring a British accent.
But really, he said, he just looks for a performer who can “bring it” — who can scream and do wolf howls all night, who have a major impact on the customers.
“It’s the hardest, funnest job you can have,” said Vandergriff, who’s a machinist by day. He said he has been involved in the haunted houses for 30 years. He used to be the street werewolf in front of the Beast. That was his favorite job.
“I was on stilts, and I could literally chase people going 18 miles an hour,” he said. “I know because I raced a tractor. I scared a girl out of her tennis shoes once. I had one person crawl under their vehicle in the rain to get away from me.”
Many of the actors do it one year and never come back, he said. Others become fixtures. And Vandergriff said he knows why: Scaring people is a wonderful feeling.
“Once you get it in your blood, it’s like an addiction,” he said.
Downstairs in the makeup room, makeup artist Colleen May was running an assembly line. One actor after another sat for May to apply makeup with an airbrush. It was, she said, an unusual gig.
“This is very unique in my profession,” she said with a chuckle.
She was working on Paul Critten as Swamp Thing. She applied green paint and highlights and shadows to embellish the mask he was already wearing.
“I think you need some scales,” she said and began marking precise gill-like lines on his neck with her airbrush.
“Every night we probably put 100 to 150 people in makeup,” she said.
Critten said he has performed at the Beast and the Edge of Hell for 16 years. At one point he was a werewolf.
“And I invented the snake man,” he said. “I’ve done practically every room here.”
As May finished up, Leonard James Hartwig waited his turn. Hartwig, a big man in his mid-50s, wore black and had the relaxed demeanor of somebody who knows the drill. He should. He has been a performer at haunted houses in the Bottoms for 10 years.
He had a quick answer when asked what he enjoyed most about being a ghoul for anywhere from five to seven hours a night.
“Scaring the shoestring out of people,” Hartwig said as he toyed with a plastic knife. “I really get a kick out of scaring people.”
His character has no name.
“I’m just a doorman,” he said. “I’m the last guy you see before you get to the slide.”
He opened a bag to show off his other major prop: the head of a woman with a face on each side.
“We get along just fine,” he said in a low voice as he cradled the head in the crook of his elbow. “We just talk and talk.”
The four haunted houses — the Beast, the Edge of Hell, Macabre Cinema and Chambers of Poe open at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $20 or $33 for a combination of two. For more see www .fullmoonprod .com.