CHICAGO — As spooky season in the city returned in full swing this year, one group in particular had more reason to celebrate than most: “Haunters” — people who work in the haunted house industry.
Haunted houses were not allowed to operate last year due to the coronavirus pandemic — but they’re back this fall. As a result, Brad Sauper, who has worked in haunted houses in the area for 18 years, said the 2021 Halloween season has been the most fun and energy-filled season he has seen in more than a decade.
“Last year, everyone was lonely, everyone was sad, everyone was missing it. This season has re-forged the bonds of all of my friends and fellow haunters in Chicago,” said Sauper, of suburban Forest Park.
Most haunters find their way into the industry in their teens and early 20s, and they return to it year after year, they said.
Alex Woday, 22, a Lemont resident and assistant tent manager at the Statesville Haunted Prison, acted in her first haunted house when she was 12 years old. She said going back to haunting this year was “pure bliss.”
“My opening night was so sentimental because I was wishing to be there like all year in 2020, and now I was finally there,” Woday said.
Part of what makes haunted houses so special is how close-knit the community is, she said.
“It’s an intense experience to do what we do over and over. You can’t come away not being incredibly devoted and supportive of the people around you,” said Tiela Halpin, who got her start in the industry as an actor in the Fear Haunted House at Navy Pier in 2009, when she was still a student at Columbia College.
Jason Sullivan, who plays a graveyard worker at the HellsGate Haunted House in suburban Lockport, said he has “found unconditional acceptance” in the industry.
Sullivan studies at the Carl Sandburg High School in suburban Orland Park, and he has been haunting for four years. He said high school students huddled around in study groups to catch up on missed work are a common sight at the haunted house.
It can be long work: Sullivan said he arrives at 4:30 p.m. and leaves between 11 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., depending on the night.
Despite the big time commitment, many said they approach haunting as a passion rather than a job.
Ashley DeCillo, who has been involved with Zombie Army Productions for 11 years now, works in the paint department at her local Home Depot by day. Haunting has helped bring her out of her shell, she said.
“I was really shy and timid. … I didn’t really want to make any friends. When I’m there, I’m super outgoing and outspoken,” DeCillo said. “Being back in these halls and hearing people scream, it gets my heart going.”
For others, like Halpin, it is a form of release.
“You put on your makeup and costume, you go into that dark room and you just let it out,” she said.
Actors in haunted houses often play a variety of roles: They’re photographers, make-up artists and stage managers. They are able to let their creativity flow through the work, Halpin said.
At Zombie Army Productions, she said, they often collaborate with owner and showrunner John LaFlamboy to create their own characters.
“You dress up in a costume and you go scare grown adults,” said Jax Bruneau, who works as the operations manager at the craft store Michael’s by day and trains haunted house actors by night. “When you put it that way, it sounds a little off. But it’s what we love to do.”
Bruneau said this year has been a little different because of the COVID-19 precautions in place, but, “I would rather do that than [they] tell me I can’t do this again.”
“It’s like I tell people,” Bruneau said. “If there’s something you really like to do — golf, watch movies — you can go do that whenever. Now imagine you could only do it for 18 days of the year. That’s where a lot of the drive and the passion [in haunting] comes from.”
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