Scared Silly: Locked Up in Brighton Asylum

At Brighton Asylum, the actors take great pains to shock their guests.

Reporter Maryrose Mullen receives "Touch Training" from Brighton Asylum CEO Richard Gonci.
Reporter Maryrose Mullen receives "Touch Training" from Brighton Asylum CEO Richard Gonci.
Photo by Roy Caratozzolo III

It’s a dark and stormy night. A wolf howls in the distance. Mysterious figures dressed in black lurk in the shadows of a decrepit warehouse. Soon I will join this twisted legion, surrender to the dark side and be transformed into something hideous, doomed to wander for all eternity in the netherworld.

Okay, to be honest, it is a bright and sunny fall day. The black-clad specters are actors. This evening, they’ll don blood-splattered costumes and skulk through the hallways of Brighton Asylum, one of New Jersey’s most frightening (meaning fun) haunted houses. (Also there is no wolf.)

Brighton Asylum in Passaic is a 13,000-square-foot interactive fright fest that goes beyond typical haunted house tropes. It involves performance, with professional make-up, high-level special effects and sets, and a cast of horror buffs who will do anything to scare you silly. Scenes and characters are frequently updated to keep repeat attendees on edge. Brighton is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month by introducing three new features: the Tunnel, a walk-through attraction exploring the abandoned tunnel system beneath the facility; and two escape activities, Dead Escape and Lab Lockdown.

According to its fictional backstory, Brighton Asylum was once a hospital for the mentally unstable. Subjected to cruel and horrific experiments, the patients revolted, killing the staff and taking control of the facility.

I checked into Brighton Asylum on October 30 of 2014—known as Mischief Night to most New Jerseyans and Goosey Night to residents of Passaic County, where Brighton Asylum is located. The cast is waiting for general manager Adrian Ciccone to unlock the facility. Brighton Asylum—the actors call it “the haunt”—is tucked off Brighton Avenue within an industrial complex. The surrounding buildings still function as warehouses; as we wait, workers heave shrink-wrapped pallets of goods into trucks.

We enter the backstage area through a hidden door near the public entrance. A rack of costumes bulges with creepy options: tattered prom attire, floor-length cloaks, baby-doll dresses smeared with dirt and fake gore. Tables around the perimeter of the room are stocked with white powder, molding putty and vials of make-believe blood. A zombie mask has dropped to the floor, its skin torn to expose rotting brain matter.

Backstage, spirits are high. Tonight is a Contact Night. Upon admission, attendees will be offered a glow necklace. If they accept the necklace (and sign a waiver), they will be granting permission to be touched by the actors, meaning the ghouls can push, grab or caress the consenting guests.

Contact Nights are special; Brighton offers but a handful per season (three will be held this October). Though the actors are permitted to touch guests, customers are forbidden to grab actors or set pieces. Despite precautions, Contact Night presents considerable risk for the actors. Regulars tell of being shoved into walls, socked in the face, or worse. Alex Izzi, a student from Little Falls, once had a rib broken after being kicked by a panicking patron. At the time of her injury, she was lying on her stomach, playing a member of the undead in the Zombie Graveyard.

“Every time I’ve worked the haunt, I’ve gotten punched in the face or had my boobs grabbed,” she says, laughing. “I get in a lot of people’s faces, and it usually causes me to get punched.”

But it’s worth it. “I went to a lot of haunted houses, and this is the only one that scared me,” says Izzi. “This is where everyone goes to get freaked out.”

Most of the paid actors first come to the attraction as customers or volunteers. Connor Lenahan has participated on and off for 11 years. He loves Brighton Asylum’s ability to play upon the fear of the unknown. Customers are given little hint as to what lurks within Brighton Asylum’s walls.

“Some of the best haunts are just one place,” he says. “You go through and you don’t know what you’re in for.”

Each room is meticulously decorated according to a theme. A butcher shop is adorned with human body parts hanging from the ceiling. A padded cell is wallpapered in bizarre, hand-written notes. Elsewhere visitors encounter shelves of big-eyed dolls with cracks in their porcelain; jars of fermented organs; paintings with eyes that follow you; and plenty of snakes. If you have a phobia, there’s a good chance Brighton has devoted a room to it.

It’s make-up time. The actors are being transformed into their spooky alter egos. For my costume, I choose something unusual for a haunted house, but well within my personal wheelhouse. It’s a yellow ball gown modeled after Belle’s outfit in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s unconventional—and I don’t get many opportunities to wear a ball gown.

Heidi Sigler, a make-up artist from Fort Lee, has worked professional gigs in print, television and film. Brighton’s methods are slightly more improvised. Hours earlier, there had been panic: no make-up sponges. An actor held up a near-empty jug of fake blood and a bottle of baby powder and offered to cobble together a solution.

“We fly by the seat of our pants,” Sigler says. “We really are like a nuthouse.”

Sigler envisions me as a decaying swamp princess. She applies boils to my cheeks and colors my skin in green and black for a lovely rotted look. The whole process takes about 40 minutes. When she finishes, I am almost unrecognizable.

Before the customers arrive, I need Scare Training and Touch Training. Ciccone, the general manager, runs through the scare basics. There are rules. First, no one is allowed to say “Boo!” Second, actors are discouraged from shouting, “Get out,” a staple of most haunted houses. Ciccone says the phrase becomes tiresome if it’s being screamed in each successive room. “We want them to be here,” Ciccone says, “so why would we tell them to get out?”

Instead, actors are told to be subtle. Use a growl or a relevant phrase or a laugh. Ciccone cites one actor who spends the haunt in a room decorated as a library. She loudly scolds guests for disturbing her reading.

Another reminder: Always scare forward. Meaning, don’t scare the first person of the group. They might stall or move backwards, delaying the next group and clogging the works. Instead, Ciccone advises targeting the middle of the group. That compels them to move  deeper into the haunt.

Each room contains an exit, partly concealed by a red felt curtain. The doors provide an escape for guests who get too spooked as well as access for actors assigned as “roamers”—my role for the evening. I’ll be popping in and out of rooms, following specific groups, or relieving actors who need a break.

A fellow roamer, who asked to go by his character’s name, Pappy the Clown, relishes his role. “I run around the haunt and am able to get multiple scares out of the same group,” he says.

Richard Gonci, Brighton’s CEO, provides the touch training. Some of the burly actors are able to pick up guests and carry them across the room, but Gonci says light touches are creepier. Sneaking up behind someone to scratch the top of their head or graze their earlobe is guaranteed to unsettle. Stealth is crucial. Letting patrons think they’re alone, then clutching them from behind, always elicits screams. When grabbing a person from behind, Gonci says, always drape one arm across the customer’s sternum and clutch their shoulder with the other hand. This way, the actor has control of the customer’s movement, and there is less risk of doing harm—like accidentally cutting off the customer’s airflow.

It’s important to be spry. Jump back, I am told, before the customer reacts.

The haunt gets underway. I have become the swamp princess. With a demented drawl, I ask around for “my prince.” I hide in the dark corners and latch onto unsuspecting groups, politely saying hello when one of them notices my presence. I wait in the hall until a group passes a doorway, then jump in screeching, “WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME?”

I’ve been told it’s often the toughest-looking men who are first to crumble in the haunt. It’s true. In the freezer room, I spot a buff-looking fellow gripping the shoulders of an amused woman. I approach him, but he reacts before I can grab his bicep. He leaps backwards, and in one swift motion rips off his glow necklace and hurls it at me.

“It’s off, okay?” he shrieks. “You can’t touch me now!”

Not bad for a cheerful writer who stands just 5-foot-3.

If You Go: This fall, the doors of Brighton Asylum will creak open the last weekend in September and slam shut November 12. Brighton also hosts events tied to less spooky holidays, including Santa’s Slay for two nights in December; Dark Valentine on Valentine’s Day weekend in February; and one-night-only themed events in March, April and May. Check brightonasylum.com for details and prices.

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