Clowning Around

encounters Organ-Grinder Roddy, Barnageddon and free hugs

Image: Rachel Carined

Image: Rachel Cairnes

As soon as the taxi pulls to a stop, the scene is set. You exit the vehicle and realise how dark the night has become. It has all the makings of a horror movie; looming iron gates, a budding reporter looking for the next big scoop – wait, aren’t they the ones who usually get picked off first? However, even before you get to call out a “Who’s there?” you hear screams in the background. You haven’t been placed at the beginning of a horror movie – you’ve been dropped unceremoniously straight in the middle of the action, a green haired clown chasing after you, chainsaw in hand, before you’ve even reached the ticket office.
Hallowscream is York Maze’s annual live action scare event, running from 14 October until Halloween itself. Located close to the Heslington East campus on Elvington Lane, the large site includes a café, bar and frightening scare actors chasing after ticket holders and provides a brilliantly spooky backdrop for the themed haunted house attractions.
Organiser Tom Pearcy reminisces about the early history of the attraction, explaining how York Maze was originally located on the site of the new York Sports Village. During the night, local children would enter and damage the site, and Pearcy took it upon himself to run around in the dark to catch the ‘miscreants’ in the act. Before long, he realised that this was actually “bloody terrifying.”
With the regular release of new horror movies and video games looking to keep pushing the boundaries of the genre, how exactly does live horror induce fresh thrills among an audience who have been exposed to one hundred years’ worth of the genre? Pearcy believes films and games are “sanitised” – “it doesn’t feel real.” For Pearcy, the difference lies in how “when someone comes here and an actor jumps out at you it is real and though you know you’re not going to get hurt… it does feel like that sometimes.”
These words ring true when walking through the enclosed spaces of the haunted houses where something is waiting for you around every corner. The attractions are appropriately named to encompass the horrors inside and all play to visitors’ fears spectacularly.
‘1873 – Dare You Go Back?’ draws upon the darker side of Victorian York as guests are ‘sent back in time’ to meet unsavoury figures from the past. While the historical events incorporated with the attractions are not completely factual, Pearcy explains that he created a backstory to give the event “some roots, some belonging… so everything makes sense about what the haunted houses are, where they fit into the story, and the characters in them.”
‘Barnaggedon’ is a haunted house full of scare actors dressed as rabid barnyard animals, with grotesque masks and rattling cages setting a disturbing ambience. While the house is kept as dimly lit as possible, at one point the lights are completely switched off leaving nothing but the pitch-dark, no sense of direction and a room full of ‘monsters’ for company.

Image: Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com

Image: Jonathan [email protected]

For a haunted house, ‘The Flesh Pot’ is very visual. Limbs and carcasses are carefully illuminated in each section while scare actors jump forward from the shadows. Nowadays, simply walking through a haunted house isn’t good enough; here you are required to squeeze past large inflatable sacks through to the next room.
‘The Difference Engine’ has a striking aesthetic with its binary code theme, but it actually falls short in delivering something that differentiates from the other attractions. However, the idea of separating groups at different points in the haunted house into ‘ones and zeroes’ allows guests to experience the attraction without the comfort of their companions, shooting the scare factor up a notch.
Finally there’s ‘Reincornation’, a clown-based attraction with a hypnotic circus theme. Its use of optical illusions to play tricks on guests’ senses is spectacular; rooms are created with bright swirls, and visitors are surrounded by cackling clowns in this frightening sensory overload.
Scare actors are clearly pivotal in making Hallowscream a thrilling experience for its guests. I talked to Roddy, a University of York graduate and a Hallowscream scare actor playing the part of a roving organ grinder. It’s an active job, involving a lot of running as he chases guests around attractions. He explained that all actors are given “templates of ideas and techniques” to work with, and although it can take time to get into the spirit, “after a few nights we’re settled into a rhythm.”
Interestingly, literature and movies have had an influence in the way that Roddy acts. “Fagin in Oliver Twist influenced me, along with The Pirates of the Caribbean – but in a creepier way.” He doesn’t really believe that the advancement of video games and movies has affected how people are scared. “I can tell which people have been to the attraction multiple times; real horror addicts who have committed themselves to a genre are difficult to scare.”
Roddy’s hesitant response to my question about the boundaries of scare acting made me curious. How do you know when to stop and move away from someone? For him, once his ‘victims’ have reached a certain distance away from him post-scare, he doesn’t follow – most of the time. “If I’m not in an enclosed space, and I’ve got an audience watching me as someone is hiding behind their friends, I would go up and give them a last scare. Like a punch line of a joke.”

Image: Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com

Image: Jonathan [email protected]

Roddy thinks the appeal of horror at Hallowscream is a “social thing. The idea of going with a group and finding out which one is the big scaredy-cat.” I have to agree; while scare techniques and elements of the haunted houses were being repeated in each of the attractions, all of them were fun and all of them were scary.
The latest clown craze which has hit the UK is proof of people’s excitement for live horror. Clowns in particular have earned themselves a terrifying reputation, which is bizarre considering their original purpose to entertain. I asked Pearcy what he thought about the latest clown fad, and he revealed he’d had to alter his marketing campaign, abstaining from taking his clowns with him into town.
However, he emphasised that Hallowscream is “not getting rid of the clowns.” The attraction also has an antidote to their evening of horror: at the end of the evening ‘Corny the Clown’ (the one with the chainsaw at the beginning!) goes around the site with a sign advertising free hugs – though I’m not sure whether this helps or not.
The genre of horror may need to be adapted and changed in film productions and games, but perhaps the world hasn’t experienced enough of live action horror. All in all, there’s nothing like a person in a mask jumping out to scare you.

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