Vampires with red eyes storm past, fangs dripping with blood.
A hot-rod hearse with an occupied compartment rolls by.
An old yellow convertible filled with zombies edges forward.
A group of gray-faced ladies and gents dressed in their finest wander by, a veiled and white-gloved figure of a long-gone queen in their midst.
A wooden doll toddles forward and greets a fur-covered monster.
Above it all, the “Overlord” ascends in a cloud of fog 30 feet into the air, velvety red robes stretching beneath him. The skeleton-faced creature calls out to his minions and taunts the crowd at Worlds of Fun, “Stay, if you dare ...”
Of course they will stay.
Thousands of people have been lining up for more than an hour behind a thick white line drawn on the pavement. The line separates the parade of the dead and dreary, and those they have come to scare and revile.
Those who have paid for the privilege of taking in the scene have arrived for a thrill that only a thrill park can offer. It’s all delivered in a kind of high-pageantry, spooky and yet somehow still family-friendly way.
These creatures are all part of the opening scene of the Worlds of Fun Haunt. The park brings in 400 extra actors to man 14 different attractions during this unique scare experience. The weekend event started in the middle of September and runs until the park’s closing day Oct. 30.
In the dozen years since its inception, the Haunt has become a tradition for fans, but also for the actors who are very proud of the macabre community they create to offer a different kind of “amusement” at the amusement park.
“Screamsters! We have a little less than two hours! The line is almost to the parking lot!” screams a green-faced Wicked Witch of the West. Cassie Reeder of Gladstone has been working the Haunt for 10 seasons. She is already transformed into the funky visage of Dorothy’s nemesis and has turned her hand toward getting other creatures of the night discolored, contorted and refigured at her makeup table.
The scene appears to be straight out of a Hollywood back lot, and it happens right near the front gate of the park. As visitors stream in for the roller coasters and dizzying thrill rides, groups of ghouls gather at picnic tables behind a nondescript “employees only” fence. Lines of costumed humans await their transformation into zombies, vampires, swamp creatures, creepy clowns and virtually any other kind of scary creature imaginable. Some arrived as early at 2 p.m. for a makeup call, four to five hours before the Haunt begins.
Reeder helps manage a team of 36 makeup artists who are furiously transforming hundreds of actors into creatures for the Haunt. Each will do a dozen or more faces in the evening, with “movie quality” makeup.
“They use airbrush for speed,” Reeder says. “That’s what gives them the movie quality. That makes us better than other entertainment that’s similar in the area.”
Each of the 14 venues has a distinct theme: a terrifying London night, the Carn-evil with scary clowns, a crazed butcher house called the Blood-Shed, a house filled exclusively with vampires. While the artists have a lot of freedom, each house has a specific set of rules and color palette, as well as gore limitations to follow. Don’t be fooled, though: There is something scary in every scene and enough variety to hit every person’s fear-factor at least a couple times.
“I would anticipate shocking and frightening things in every attraction,” Reeder says.
Shawnee resident Michael Wulf is working on his first season of the Haunt as a makeup artist. While he studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, his work has evolved through the years to include the kind of silicone, clay and latex work most popular in horror films.
“I kind of follow whatever is driving me from one discipline to the next,” Wulf said.
He connected to the opportunity through a person he had worked with on prosthetics for a film. After two weekends of training and three days of dry runs with the actors, he is now making up 10 to 12 actors every night of the Haunt.
The actors in his chair are different every weekend. They simply come through the line and tell him where they belong. Wulf, like many of the workers at the event, explains Worlds of Fun is offering a unique opportunity for Kansas City workers to get experience in their craft.
“I’m a big horror fan,” Wulf said. “I wanted to pursue it a little further. So this is the best school you could go to here.”
While Wulf creates different characters every night, some of the artists and actors have developed a long-term partnership. Over several seasons, Noel Kielman of Kansas City has been improving the look of the cannibal character Brian Wells of Liberty plays.
“It has been five years of slowly evolving the look of this character,” Kielman said. “We started out with just his eye covered and then added some scratches. This year, I have built a reusable prosthetic mask, and we’re coloring it so next time he will already have the gore on it and it will go more quickly.”
Wells, whose non-cannibal self is a volunteer and worker at the Salvation Army in the Northland, says he came, like many others, because a friend roped him into auditioning.
“A friend of mine is the Ratman here. I came to the Haunt one day and saw him in the parade. I got the urge to try it. So I did, and made some really good friends and have been doing it ever since,” Wells said.
Participants in the Worlds of Fun Haunt insist they love the community of the event and say their fellow screamsters are like family.
Rich and Skylar McCall are actually family. The father-daughter pair drive from Wathena, Kan., outside St. Joseph every weekend during the season to participate in the scare fest. Rich McCall, who works in IT during the day, heard about the opportunity on the radio about three years ago. The 46-year old got a role the first year as a zombie coach. He says he knows he’s older than most of the other screamsters, but he loves it.
“It’s great. You can get into the house and you can show people what you know, and they can use it. It is really a big family organization,” McCall said.
After a couple of years coming home and telling his daughter about the experience, she got old enough to audition and come along.
“My dad and I have always been close. We’ve been like best friends and when he started this, he would come back home and tell me stories, and I wanted to try it,” Skylar McCall said.
Skylar McCall, who is a senior in high school and would like to go to Kansas State University to study theater, plays an extremely scary vampire with glowing red eyes and blood dripping down her chin. Her father spends his evenings as a scary clown taunting parkgoers with an ice cream wagon.
While many of the screamsters come for the short Haunt season, others are reinvented characters who worked all summer.
Roeland Park resident Noah Bryan, a recent graduate of Shawnee Mission North, spent the early part of the summer entertaining park goers as a tuba player in the Brass Brigade. Now he plays a constable in London explaining the story of Jack the Ripper to all the guests before they head into the London Terror house. Bryan, who wants to join the Navy, decided to try out for the Haunt, and he stayed on for fun.
“I’ve only actually been to one other haunted house,” Bryan said. “I don’t really scare people here. I tell a story. It has been incredible. I love the people I work with; the guests who come out this time of the year are a little more rowdy and vocal.”
Grant Lesher from Louisburg is a 20-year-old musical theater major at the University of Central Missouri. He says his summer experience in an ’80s rock throwback show playing himself has been distinctly different from the green-faced horned minion to the Overlord he plays during the Haunt. He says the Worlds of Fun live entertainment jobs are great opportunities for actors to get real-world theater experience.
“The hours are long. The weeks are long,” Lesher said. “That reflects what it is like in the real world. It builds up endurance. There’s a genuine desire for the talent here to go on and succeed.”
Brent Barr is the corporate director of Live Entertainment for Cedar Fair, the company that owns Worlds of Fun. Barr is based in Kansas City but manages Haunts in 10 of the 13 parks Cedar Fair owns across the country.
Barr says the company took on the idea of building a haunt theme in the fall when it purchased Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif. That park has been doing Halloween entertainment for about 40 years. The Halloween theme fits into the “thrill” that draws people to the parks all year round.
“It’s one of those things where you like it and you don’t like it at the same time. The adrenaline rush you get from a ride is the same adrenaline rush you get at Haunt,” Barr said.
Parks share themes, and ideas at one park may be replicated or reworked in a different theme park.
At Worlds of Fun, getting to the scale of today’s Haunt, with 14 interior and exterior attractions built just for the seven-week event, has been a process. Barr says the aim is to create a completely different feel during the fall in the park that guests do not get the rest of the year.
They change the lighting from white to colored lights, bring in fog machines and send street characters out to walk the midways and entice the crowd to participate.
Barr said it’s clear that guests enjoy it, and it’s a perk for season pass holders, as it gives them a chance to experience a different park in the fall.
“We’ll have some great attendance days,” Barr said. “People can come out and enjoy the daytime and stay through the evenings.”
Eight of the Haunt areas are enclosed haunted houses. Some areas are “Fright zones,” which are open-air areas of the park decorated with a theme.
There is also a special (for an upcharge) Haunt opportunity called the skeleton key rooms. These experiences are more like a puzzle to solve. Parkgoers enter, interact with characters and are asked to solve a problem before they leave the space. This year, the rooms are based on the seven deadly sins. Six of the rooms are in known locations. Parkgoers get clues in each room and can attempt to locate the secret location of the seventh room.
“With the addition of the popularity of escape rooms, we started doing this about four years ago and it has been really successful for us. Guests get more time inside a space with an actor and have an over-the-top experience,” Barr said.
Worlds of Fun has started to bring back live entertainment throughout the year. In 2017, the park, which usually closes for the season at the end of October until spring, will reopen the day after Thanksgiving for a holiday-themed event.
The park is starting to call more regularly on the wandering actors called “atmosphere characters” throughout the open season. It is a way to improve the overall entertainment value of the park.
This year, Carrie Reeder and Katie McKernan of Kearney both played characters from the Wild West during the summer season. They are not tethered to any one area of the park, but wander through the midway interacting with people.
“We aren’t very nice to people, but we are not very scary,” McKernan said.
Reeder says it is most important for the park because unlike the theme parks that draw a lot of out-of-town visitors, Worlds of Fun has mostly local visitors.
The park is constantly trying to come up with ways to keep the season ticket holders interested. There are a lot of people who come out every weekend for the events.
“Worlds of Fun is definitely as much of a staple to the community as something like Kauffman Stadium,” Reeder said.
“It belongs to Kansas City. It’s not just about coming and riding the rides. It’s about being entertained the entire time you are here.”
Worlds of Fun is open Friday through Sunday. The Haunt takes place Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 29.
The parade kicks off the Haunt. Haunt hours are 6 p.m. to midnight Fridays and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays.
Location: 4545 Worlds of Fun Ave, Kansas City, MO 64161
Cost: Friday nights after 6 p.m. $35.99. Saturday and Sunday adult admission $46.99 online, $57.99 at the gate