Wharton: Actors like scaring people at Utah's Halloween haunts

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sometimes it seems as though modern Halloween caters as much to adults as it does to the tiny ghosts and goblins who haunt front porches in search of treats.

Take, for example, the largely unpaid actors who can spend between 30 minutes and three hours getting made up so they can scare hundreds of willing participants who pay big bucks to experience one of an increasing number of Wasatch Front Halloween haunts.

"This is like doing a stage show times 100," said Mindy Hardy, a community theater actress who is one of close to 100 volunteers at the Fear Factory haunt, which its owners claim is a haunted old cement plant at, appropriately enough, 666 W. 800 South in Salt Lake City. "You are on all night long. It's a lot of fun, and you have to be very committed. There is more ad lib and improv than in a play."

Chelsea Jones, a dance instructor and actress, said it has taken the makeup artists, hairstylists and costume designers as long as 2 ½ hours to prepare her for a night of haunting at the Fear Factory. First, prosthetics are applied followed by concealers. The new "face" is then airbrushed. From there, actors complete their ghoulish transformation by working with hairstylists and costume specialists.

Bob Dunfield, whose family owns and operates Fear Factory, might be called the godfather of Utah's haunted-house scene. He began in the '60s by building small spook alleys at his church and then spent 15 years heading up the March of Dimes haunt at the Old Mill.

"We do everything," he said of his creations at Fear Factory that include animatronics, video, state-of-the-art sound systems and, of course, the actors. "The only things that used to move were people. Now, we have all kinds of special effects."

Heidi Dunfield, the casting director at Fear Factory, said the family realized a lot of the haunts were in shopping malls and more modern buildings.

"That was not as spooky as we wanted," she said. "We thought it would be a fun family project to make a haunt in a spooky area. We looked at the Old Mill, but the building has been condemned. Then my husband, Robert, drove by and saw this building was for sale. We purchased it, but we didn't know everything that would go into an old historic building in the way of upgrades and safety measures. We were late opening last year."

The Fear Factory site is especially interesting because its owners, some paranormal groups and some of the actors remain convinced it is haunted by spirits who died over the years working at the cement plant. The place is so scary that Heidi Dunfield said some actors refuse to work in certain places. Mysterious green and black poker chips keep showing up with no explanation. Many actors and a few guests report experiencing a ghost named George after a worker who died at the plant. He apparently enjoys intimidating visitors.

So do the actors.

"Halloween is obviously my favorite holiday," said actor Daniel Alleman. "Coming in and scaring people is just a great stress reliever from my normal job at the sheriff's department."

Joyce Pease, who grew up going to Knott's Scary Farm in Southern California, said the thrill comes from the scare.

"A group of six kids, girls and guys, came through on a date night," she said. "I was sitting in a window pretending to be dead. The kids came up to the window and said 'That's fake, that's fake.' I moved and the guys fell on the floor. It is not easy to keep a straight face, but the makeup helps."

Actors range in age from as young as 5 (who worked with Mom in the vampire nursery) to folks in their 70s. Most can relate to the feelings of Gregory Johnson, who loves the horror, the gore and the scare of the Halloween season so much that his shower curtains have bloody handprints on them.

"We want you to know we are here," he said with a grin. "We just don't want you to know where we are when you are here."

Thus, the payoff for the volunteer actors who haunt Fear Factory is the ability to be so believable that guests leave scared out of their wits and then tell their friends about the experience.


Twitter: @tribtomwharton