Spook Capades

At Great Adventure’s annual Fright Fest, it’s hard to
tell who has more fun, the jittery crowds or the ghoulish performers.

Becky Moon, 16, of Hamilton portrays “mental patient” Daisy White in Fright Fest’s Terror Trail, “Escape from the Asylum.”
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

A thin curtain is all that separates the people lining up to see a performance of “Zambora” at Six Flags Great Adventure’s Fright Fest from the cast about to put on the show. Huddled in the backstage area, the performers can hear eager and anxious voices through the curtain. Laura Neu, who plays Zambora of the Amazon, cocks her head as she hears a girl in line ask her mom, “Is it scary?”

Neu smiles slyly, as if to say, “Just wait and see.”

By day, Neu, 23, a recent Rider University grad, works part-time at the Hamilton Fitness Center. Yet come dusk, she is transformed into the beautiful but bloodthirsty Zambora. With the four-minute show running every 10 minutes, a typical evening features up to 46 performances. Backstage, Neu and her two castmates and a technician prepare for the long night ahead as they snack on candy and doughnut holes and talk about car insurance. One of the castmates clambers into a gorilla suit.

Then the lights go up and the sultry Zambora is revealed onstage caged and paraded like a show animal by the evil, snickering barker. Zambora rattles the bars menacingly. Then lightning flashes, thunder cracks and fog fills the air. Zambora is suddenly transformed into a deranged gorilla, breaking out of the cage and striking the barker dead. The crowd bursts into applause. Backstage again, Neu takes off her black wig to adjust her blond hair. “Want a Munchkin?” she asks, proferring the box of doughnut holes.

Fright Fest has extended the season for Six Flags, which used to wind down after Labor Day. In 1989, the company launched the month-long October Fright Fest at the Six Flags theme park in Arlington, Texas, and soon expanded it to 11 of its other parks, including Jackson’s Great Adventure in 1991.

With its tagline of “Thrills by day, fright by night,” Fright Fest, like Neu, pulls a daily Jekyll & Hyde.

By day, Great Adventure features kid-friendly Halloween-themed fun. Yet once the sun begins to set, the park takes a frightful turn. Families with small children are encouraged to depart before 5:30, when the park’s 2,200 acres are overrun by ghouls and ghosts in the nightly “Awakening Parade.”

Ghouls and ghosts, of course, don’t just come out of the woodwork. At 2 pm, Tony Mandile and his makeup team of six are hard at work turning 150 performers into an army of the undead, a task Mandile relishes.

“I grew up being fascinated with horror and sci-fi films,” say the Toms River native.

As he airbrushes makeup onto ghoul after ghoul, Mandile relates how he began teaching himself stage makeup at age 14 from library books, with indulgent friends and family serving as guinea pigs. After a career in theater, television and film, including jobs for Jersey native Kevin Smith of Clerks fame, Mandile, 37, founded his own makeup and prosthetic effects company, Anatomy FX. A film drought in the late ’90s brought Mandile to Fright Fest. In 1999, his first year, he fashioned makeup for only 30 performers. Today, that number has increased to 150, most getting their makeup done in the space of a mere three hours.

“Some take five minutes,” Mandile says as he applies whites and sickly pale greens (his favorites) to endow a ghoul with sunken eye sockets and jutting cheekbones. About 15 characters require more complex transformations with foam-rubber prosthetics that Mandile makes from scratch and bakes. The prosthetics are glued on with medical adhesive and blended in with makeup and fake blood.

“They move with the actor’s expressions, becoming an extension of their face,” Mandile says. “We use them when we want to go further in distorting the features than simple cosmetics will allow.”

Most of the prosthetic-enhanced characters remain unseen until after the Awakening Parade, spending the nights lurking in one of Fright Fest’s three “Terror Trails”—pathways haunted by mad creatures ready to terrorize unsuspecting park-goers. Elsewhere in the park, children can use “ghoul whistles,” which they blow when they want performers to leave them alone. But in the terror trails, the whistles are of no avail. Every year, Mandile creates more prosthetic-enhanced characters for the trails.

“Fright Fest has grown drastically,” he says. Working on Fright Fest now consumes half of Mandile’s year. He brainstorms new characters and creates new prosthetics, makeup designs and set pieces. “As soon as Fright Fest is over, October 31, I come up with new ideas for next year,” Mandile says. “We’re always trying to top ourselves and keep ourselves interested.”

Each July, he begins collaborating with Lindsey Burbank, costume manager for Fright Fest. Burbank, a Freehold resident, previously spent four years working at Disney World as Cinderella and as a stilt performer. Now 26, she manages the Express clothing store at Freehold Mall and maintains Fright Fest’s extensive costume collection, which she took over five years ago and is passing along this year.

“Before I came along, it was just grab and go,” she says.

For each character, Burbank sifts through racks of clothing—most from thrift stores—to bring the undead to life. She and Mandile attend auditions in August, screening applicants as young as 16 to find the perfect performer for each role.

“Makeup is only an extension of the actor,” says Mandile. “You’ve got to give these kids a lot of credit. They’re the ones who are going out there and walking.”

While some Fright Fest performers possess skills as actors, dancers, contortionists and so on, most are just average Joes and Jills who love to cut up on Halloween. In the staging area around 3 pm, the Stamberger brothers from Brick prepare for the night ahead. Jonathan, 23, talks about his love of horror movies. Ryan, 20, mentions that 18 family members came to see them last week.

Tyler, 17, talks about singing in the show choir at Monsignor Donovan School in Toms River. Yet later on, Jonathan, now smiling and chatty, becomes a lurching Sheriff with a bullet through his head. The only time anything close to a smile crosses his lips is after he scares a pack of teenage girls, whose high-pitched screams dissolve in the bitter October wind as they flee.

As the clock winds down to 5:30, a seemingly endless stream of performers pepper Burbank with questions: Do you have duct tape? Where am I supposed to go tonight? Am I in the Awakening Parade?

Burbank, who prides herself on knowing everyone—if not by name, then by costume—patiently answers each question as she hands out props, from shovels to chainsaws (minus their chains) to handmade noisemakers.

“I’m basically their mom,” she jokes. “It’s funny watching them grow up. I’ve seen some of these kids for so long.”

One of them is Pete Carter, a Toms River resident who began his now 10-year Fright Fest career as a run-of-the-mill ghoul. Over time, Carter, now 26, made his way to the front of the Awakening Parade, eventually becoming the leader and creating a character for himself called the Ghoulmaster. The character became so popular with visitors that two years ago, Carter (a professional Michael Jackson impersonator), was given a five-minute outdoor show called “Ghoulmaster’s Ghosts.”

After rave reviews from fans, the show was expanded last year into a video-enhanced 20-minute comedy-dance production starring Carter and and six dancers.

Carter’s Cinderfella story isn’t the only star-is-born tale. At 16, Ashlé Dawson auditioned to be a dancer in “Dead Man’s Party,” the 25-minute main stage performance showcasing jazz, hip-hop, Broadway and ballroom routines. Five years later, after finishing in the top four on Fox’s first season of So You Think You Can Dance, Dawson became the choreographer of “Dead Man’s Party,” a position she has held for the past seven years despite a hectic schedule as a professional dancer and director of Ashlé & Co., a pre-professional dance company she started on Long Beach Island, where she grew up. Dawson performs, teaches and travels extensively, from Los Angeles to Costa Rica. Yet year after year, she returns to her home state for Fright Fest.

“I do it because my heart’s here,” she says. “It’s a great way to hang out with great dancers and old friends. Why not get paid to have fun?”

Have fun they do. In their trailer before the show, dancers stretch and review new moves as a Nerf-gun battle breaks out. “This is our dance party before the dance party,” someone shouts amid shrieks of laughter. Dawson and her mother, Sarah, who helps coordinate the dancers’ costumes and wigs, shake their heads in amusement before joining in the tomfoolery.

Later, watching the show from a raised platform, Dawson scans the sea of visitors—some armed with cameras, some with a child riding on shoulders, all huddled for warmth as a chill wind whips through Central Jersey.

Moments earlier, the entire cast and crew of Fright Fest crowded together by the employee entrance for a final group picture. The last Awakening Parade of the season was about to begin, yet there was a celebratory mood in the air as sickly ghouls laughed and hugged. Then the doors to the park swung open and the laughter stopped. There were crowds to scare. Ghouls started dragging their legs, scraping their shovels and hissing at the living. The horror had begun.

Click here to read our Countdown to Terror companion piece.

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