16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

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iStock.com/HKPNC

One by one, they form a little conveyor belt—throngs of students lining up to sit in a chair, look into a camera lens, and smile. For millions of kids, picture day is a way to memorialize their appearance in a given year, although later the out-of-fashion clothes or cosmetic growing pains may be a way to memorialize pure awkwardness. For the photographers tasked with the job, however, picture day means corralling hundreds of children and establishing a comfort level without any time to waste.

“We get about 30 seconds per kid,” Kristin Boyer, a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been taking school portrait photos for eight years, tells Mental Floss. “And it’s amazing how much impact you can have. You want to make them feel like a million bucks—beautiful, awesome, and smart.”

To get a better sense of what goes into the job, we asked Boyer and two other school photographers to divulge some of the more interesting aspects of wrangling kids for posterity. Read on for some insight into uncooperative subjects, why mornings make for the the best shots, and the importance of booger patrol.

1. SCHOOLS GET A CUT OF THEIR FEE.

While deals can vary by school, photographers typically get paid when parents order photos. The school then takes a percentage of that fee.

To select a professional, schools will often take bids. "I make a presentation," Boyer says. "I'll explain what I do. Sometimes schools are looking for certain things." Boyer takes more dynamic shots with ambitious outdoor backgrounds; some larger schools herding 1500 or more kids, she says, may want to opt for a simple portrait to expedite the process.

As for what schools do with their portion of the revenue, it depends on the school. But many usually sink it back into student programs.

2. PARENTS TAKE PICTURE DAY VERY SERIOUSLY.

A child poses for a school photo
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“Parents are very passionate about their kids getting good school photos,” Courtney, a photographer based in Canada, tells Mental Floss. They might send along a note with their kid describing what they didn’t like about the previous year’s photo. “When I started, I didn’t expect the level of hostility with parents when a photo doesn’t go the way they want it to.”

Boyer has sometimes had parents ask to stand behind her while she shoots so they can take their own pictures. “I usually say no cell phone photos. If they take theirs, they won’t buy mine.”

3. THEY TRY TO TAKE PICTURES BEFORE LUNCHTIME.

For younger kids, mornings are better. After lunch, photographers are likely to need the help of photo-editing software. “One of my first-graders got spaghetti on them,” Boyer says. “You don’t want to let them start to get markers or food all over.” Boyer’s most unusual Photoshop request? “I edited out a cookie once. The kid would not sit down unless he had a cookie.”

4. KIDS ARE SOMETIMES TERRIFIED OF THEM.

A little girl in a yearbook portrait photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

Portrait photographers typically work across a spectrum of ages, from kindergarteners to high school seniors. If a child is very young, it’s possible the entire idea of sitting for a portrait will scare them silly. “You always get one or two that are just terrified,” Grant, a portrait photographer who works on pre-K to 12th grade, tells Mental Floss. “I’m a big, beefy dude, and sometimes a kid will get in there and see me and go, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this.’” To placate the pensive pupils, Grant makes a big show of leaving by stomping his feet, then lets one of his less-threatening assistants take the pictures.

5. YOUNGER KIDS TAKE EVERYTHING LITERALLY.

Photographers need to be careful when giving instructions to kindergarteners and first graders, who tend to process things with little nuance. “Sometimes I’ll ask a kid to high-five me and I'll act like it hurts,” Grant says. “I’ll ask for a Band-Aid. Sometimes they’ll look very serious and say, ‘I don’t have one.’” Another time, Grant asked a kid to point his knees toward a nearby computer. “He came over and touched his knee to the laptop.”

6. SOME KIDS INSIST ON HAVING PROPS.

A student poses for a school photo with an electronic keyboard
iStock.com/RyanJLane

A lot of photographers are switching up the conventional portrait by snapping pictures of kids outdoors, in "action" poses like jumping, or against more eclectic backgrounds. Kids are getting more creative, too. Like prop comedians, they will sometimes arrive for picture day armed with accessories. “I’ve seen everything from Halloween costumes to dogs and other pets,” Courtney, says. “Or they want to wear hats or sunglasses.” If it’s within reason and OK with the school, she’ll take one traditional photo and then let the subject pose with their prop for the second.

7. SELFIES HAVE MADE THEIR JOB HARDER.

Posing for a professional portrait can be a strange experience for a kid who has spent considerable time on a cell phone. “Kids have gotten much more comfortable in front of the camera, but it’s bad selfie behavior,” Boyer says. “Doing duck lips, thrusting their arms out to make their shoulders straight. You kind of have to re-train them.” Boyer lets them know it doesn't look good, but "I say it in a nice way."

8. “ORANGE CHIN” IS A PROBLEM.

A child poses for a school photo
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Sometimes, fashion can betray kids. “Fluorescent green and orange tops seem popular now and light tends to bounce off of it and on the chin,” Grant says. “The bottom of the chin tends to turn orange.” Unless they happen to have an extra shirt or request a photo retouch, they’re stuck with it.

9. THERE'S A REASON THEY ASK KIDS TO TILT THEIR HEAD.

Aside from some unfortunate fashion choices, one staple of school photos is the head tilt, with kids cocking their faces off to one side. According to a school photographer on Reddit, there's a good reason for that. "These photos are going to be used for the yearbook (more than likely) and everyone should have somewhat of the same head pose," they explain. "The way we stage our lights does not flatter the subject when they're looking straight at the camera. If you tilt your head you're more likely to also move your chin in that same direction, which makes for a more interesting highlight/shadow play and also has the added benefit of making the face look smaller (if you're a little overweight)."

10. THEY USE A SYSTEM TO TRACK EACH KID.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

With hundreds of students at a given school, photographers need a reliable system of identifying kids and making sure their names match up to their portfolio. While systems vary, one of the most common is to collect school data and then print a unique ticket with a student’s name, grade, homeroom, and a number. “Those have a barcode,” Grant says. “So they come up, we scan the ticket, and pull up their record. It’s like scanning soup at a grocery store.”

It’s also error-free, unless some senior decides to trade tickets with a friend so their names get mixed up on their school identification cards. “They don’t seem to think it out, though, because the homeroom teachers pass the cards out and will notice the picture isn’t of them.”

11. THEY HAVE SOME SILLY STRATEGIES FOR MAKING A KID SMILE.

Photographers have less than a minute to relax a kid enough so they deliver a broad, genuine smile. To facilitate that, Grant says he keeps a laundry list of groaners at his disposal to provoke a laugh. “It’s like a script tree that a telemarketer would use,” he says. “If a kid says they play soccer, I’ll say, ‘Oh, so you like kicking people?’”

Photographers also rely on another age-old technique: embarrassment. “In grades four to six, if you ask girls to say ‘boys’ and boys to say ‘girls,’ it’s so scandalous,” Grant says. “For a second shot, you ask them to say, ‘cute boys’ or ‘cute girls.’ That typically works.” Grant can also provoke smiles by asking about pet names. Elementary kids react to being asked to say, “trick or treat, smell my feet.” If they remain stubborn, Grant will pull out all the stops and request they say “stinky feet.”

12. SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE ON BOOGER PATROL.

A child picks his nose
iStock.com/RichVintage

While photo-editing software can address rogue snot, no one really wants to spend the extra minutes digitally erasing boogers from photos. Boyer typically enlists volunteer parents to make sure faces are wiped clean or has assistants armed with tissues, combs, and other grooming products to make for a stylish and snot-free image. “We usually try to catch things like that before they get in front of the camera,” she says.

13. SOMETIMES THEY REGRET ASKING QUESTIONS.

To build rapport, photographers are always looking to get kids to talk about themselves. Once, one of Grant’s assistants asked if a child had any pets. “Yes,” the kid responded. “Rabbits. But we ate them last night.”

14. KIDS LIKE TO MESS WITH THEM ...

The older kids get, the more they tend to commit acts of subversion. “One kid came in with his jacket on, took it off, sat down, and was ready to go,” Grant says. “I knew something was going on. I looked at his shirt and it said ‘Student of the Month.’ Except he put masking tape over the ‘ent’ so it read ‘Stud of the Month.’” (After consulting with the principal, the kid was allowed to keep it on for the photo.)

Courtney had a kid sit down with what looked like a nice shirt with birds on it. “It was actually middle fingers,” she says.

15. ... AND SOME KIDS ARE JUST A PAIN.

While most kids are cooperative, Grant will sometimes see subjects who want to make their life as difficult as possible. "Seniors tend to fool around more and be difficult on purpose," he says. "Some of them are just perpetually in a bad mood or feel self-conscious." Sports teammates might egg each other on to not crack a smile. One school photographer who works for Lifetouch writes on Reddit that there are one or two "problem kids" per class: "You just have to remember they're just doing it for attention because they aren't getting it somewhere else."

16. ACCORDING TO THEM, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCHOOL PICTURE.

A student poses for a school photo
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The internet is overflowing with awkward and embarrassing school photos, from unfortunate backgrounds to unfortunate hairstyles. But according to Grant, “bad school photo” is a misnomer that gives photographers a bad rap. “There’s a common idea school pictures are bad,” he says. “No. School pictures are like shooting fish in a barrel. Is a kid going to smile? Is a kid going to lean into it? Or is it going to be bad no matter what I do? If you think the picture is bad, well, no, that’s you. The picture was fine. The bad haircut wasn’t.”

13 Secrets of Tombstone Engravers

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iStock/marako85

Creating a tombstone is more complex than just sandblasting letters onto a slab of granite. Designing memorials involves helping families of the deceased—or people looking to plan their own resting places—figure out the best way to represent a whole life in a single, permanent monument. Here are 13 secrets of memorial engravers that we gleaned from the experts:

1. THERE IS NO "NORMAL."

A mausoleum in a graveyard on a sunny day
Vince Dioguardi

Clients don’t necessarily know what they want right off the bat, and they may even feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the possibilities. “A lot of families come in and they bring up the S word—standard,” explains Vince Dioguardi, the president of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-area Rome Monument, a company founded by his great-grandfather in 1932. “There is nothing standard.”

Even the preferred size of a memorial can vary vastly from client to client. What seems tiny to one person might seem huge to another, and vice versa. And so a monument designer will sit down with clients and discuss the person the memorial is for, including their hobbies and interests, their family, and other aspects of their lives—then come up with ways that life could be symbolized in stone (or another material). The end result is always unique.

2. THE PROCESS CAN TAKE YEARS ...

Everyone deals with death differently. Some people want to decide on a memorial immediately after a loved one dies, while others might take years. Even just signing off on a contract can be an emotional step for someone who's grieving. “The most important thing you can do is give people the room to process their grief,” Greg Lundgren of Seattle-based Lundgren Monuments, which focuses on cast-glass memorials, says. He's come up with ideas for clients who then went dark on him for two years before moving forward on the commission. It usually takes him just a week or two to come up with preliminary drawings, but he and the client might go back and forth for up to a year discussing dimensions, prices, and other factors before the client is 100 percent sure about the design. Then Lundgren drafts up a contract, and typically finishes up the memorial in six months or so.

Dioguardi estimates that crafting a memorial takes around eight to 10 weeks at his company. First, however, customers typically come in for two or even three consultation visits where they learn about the process, talk about design ideas, decide on something, and finally come up with a contract.

3. ... SO THEY OFTEN FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEIR CLIENTS.

A grave marker for Franz Xaver Gabl
Greg Lundgren

In the course of creating a monument, "you become very deeply engaged with the family," Lundgren says, much more so than you would in any other sort of designer-client relationship. Talking about a deceased loved one and trying to come up with a design that will adequately capture who they were as a person is naturally more intimate than if you were designing, say, a piece of furniture or a new kitchen. The process can create a relationship that lasts beyond the scope of the project itself. "I have families in other parts of the world where if I were to visit that city, I would completely go visit them and have dinner with them, and I know that I would be welcome," Lundgren says.

4. CLIENTS OFTEN TRY TO CRAM TOO MANY MOTIFS ON ONE GRAVESTONE.

“One of the most important parts of my job is to remind people that there’s no way they can capture a real person in a piece of stone,” Lundgren says. Clients often want to incorporate as many symbols of their loved one’s life as a stone can fit—requesting that the designer incorporate an image of their college mascot, and their truck, and a dove, and a photograph of them, and a poem memorializing them, for instance. But that impulse can mean the memorial “ends up looking like a NASCAR [vehicle] with all the company sponsors on it,” Lundgren explains. His biggest advice is to follow the old adage "less is more.”

5. FAMILY DISAGREEMENTS ARE A CHALLENGE.

One challenge memorial designers face is that families often don't come to unanimous decisions. “Everyone has an opinion,” Lundgren explains. “It’s a hard thing, especially when you’re faced with the legacy of a person and it is so permanent—it’s not like buying a shirt.” While a family might be able to agree on the size, shape, and color of a monument, they often get hung up trying to decide on the specific text that should be included.

6. A NUMBER OF THEIR CLIENTS ARE STILL LIVING.

You don’t have to leave your gravestone’s design up to the people who outlive you: You can choose something for yourself before you go. “It’s extremely common here,” Dioguardi says. It’s called “pre-need.” That way, there’s no guessing or arguing among your family members about what you might want—it’s already determined.

7. THEY DON’T ONLY MEMORIALIZE HUMANS.

A modern urn
Ruth the dog's urn
Greg Lundgren

When asked about the most elaborate memorial he has ever designed, Lundgren described not a huge tombstone or complex statue, but an urn he made to memorialize a dog. Ruth was a stray Australian shepherd his client found on the street, and when she died, he was heartbroken. To honor her memory, Lundgren created a bronze and stainless steel urn. Ruth had one brown eye and one blue eye, so he incorporated two semiprecious stones, one brown and one blue. “I think it was the fanciest urn I’ve ever made,” he says. The result is an urn that looks more like a piece of modern art than a memorial for a deceased pet.

“If you lost something you love and want to pay your respects to it, I’m going to approach it with that same sense of humanity,” he says, whether it’s a person or a pet.

8. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS CHISELING BY HAND.

How your memorial is made depends a lot on who you commissioned it from. Lundgren doesn’t consider himself a stoneworker. He labels himself a designer, and says much of what he does is really graphic design. “Basically what you’re doing is creating line art,” he says. “Most engraving is not done [the] old-fashioned [way], like hand chiseled and chipped away. I’d say probably 99.9 percent is formatted on a computer, cut as a stencil, and then sandblasted and carved into the surface.”

Dioguardi disagrees with that assessment. “A lot of consumers think this is all machinery-based,” he says, but not all firms rely entirely on stencils and computers. Rome Monument uses an automated sandblaster for lettering, but also uses chisels and other tools to create designs by hand. If a family comes in and asks for a gravestone with a rose on it, one of their sculptors will actually carve that rose into the stone freehand.

9. YOU CAN BUY A MEMORIAL FROM WHOMEVER YOU WANT.

A family mausoleum
Vince Dioguardi

Just because you choose a particular cemetery or funeral home doesn’t mean you have to buy a headstone or monument directly from that company. “Cemeteries that do sell memorials make the consumer think that they have to purchase a memorial from the cemetery,” Dioguardi explains, but that isn’t the case. You can commission a memorial from any designer, and then have it delivered and installed in that cemetery. Both Dioguardi and Lundgren design and ship memorials to cemeteries all over the country. Lundgren, in fact, has designed memorials for installation all over the world.

“There’s a lot of funeral homes and cemeteries that will show families a very narrow slice of what’s possible. They’ll say, ‘Pick something out of this book,’” Lundgren says. “I think it’s important for families to remember that there’s no limitation on what can be done.”

10. SOME DESIGNS CAN BE VERY ELABORATE ...

Just because he advocates for “less is more” doesn’t mean Lundgren thinks all memorials should be simple grave markers with minimal text. He has designed memorials shaped like giant boomboxes and unicorn heads, hot pink headstones, and all manner of custom sculptures.

“Whatever that consumer can think of that they want to do, we can design it,” Dioguardi explains. That goes for the industry as a whole, not just his firm. “There’s a monument in Vermont that it’s a full scale Mercedes-Benz [made] out of a single block of granite,” he describes. The only thing that truly limits what kind of memorial you can design for your loved one is your budget— and your imagination.

11. ... BUT THEY HAVE TO CONFORM TO A CEMETERY’S RULES.

A headstone designed with a rainbow on top of it that reads 'Marcie Ann Ljunggren'

Cemeteries do have some say over the type of memorial you install at your love one’s final resting place. “A cemetery is like a condominium association,” Dioguardi explains. While you may own the gravesite itself, there are still certain rules you have to abide by. Specific motifs typically aren't off-limits, but designs are often restricted by size, material, and sometimes even by color.

These restrictions can even vary within cemeteries. In one cemetery Rome Monument has worked with, for instance, some areas are restricted to bronze monuments, while monuments in another section have to be granite. Recently, a customer called to inquire about buying a memorial for a family member, but didn’t know where in that cemetery they were buried. “We had to make a couple phone calls to the cemetery to find out where this family’s loved one was laid to rest so that we know what type of monument that we [could] design,” Dioguardi says.

Some of these rules stem not from cemeteries looking to strong-arm customers into buying monuments from their own catalog—though that’s an issue, too—but from real concerns about how certain materials age. “It’s always a good idea to have restrictions and rules to make sure a cemetery is going to age well,” Lundgren says. Many rules were developed in the 1920s and '30s to keep people from installing materials that would quickly deteriorate, like wooden crosses or metals that would rust. But those rules haven’t necessarily kept up with new technological advances. The large-scale cast-glass memorials Lundgren makes are only possible because of computer technology that wasn’t commercially available until the 1990s. Part of his job is simply educating cemeteries and funeral homes about what long-lasting materials are possible.

12. CARS ARE A SURPRISINGLY POPULAR MOTIF.

The guy in Vermont who was memorized with a giant Mercedes-Benz sculpture isn’t a total outlier—a fair number of people ask to somehow incorporate cars or trucks. While many of Dioguardi’s clients request memorials that incorporate themes like faith, family, hobbies, and career, Lundgren says he’s created multiple memorials that somehow involve vehicles. “Strangely I’ve gotten more cars than I would have thought,” he explains. He suggests that it could be a demographic pattern. “A lot of the work we do is for younger people, and when you have someone who’s 17 or 19 years old and the family is trying to recall what’s important to them, cars are often a lot more important to [teenagers] than if you’re 60 or 70 years old.” He says he also receives a lot of requests for birds, flowers, and butterflies.

13. WORKING WITH DEATH ISN’T ALWAYS SAD.

“As depressing as it might sound to be a monument designer, it’s really amazing,” Lundgren says. While most aspects of dealing with the logistics of a loved one’s death are stressful and depressing, figuring out a way to memorialize them permanently is actually a positive process. “To be able to be that one person that can talk about beauty and art and legacy is really powerful,” he explains.

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted House Actors

Courtesy of the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania
Courtesy of the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania

You may know them as the deranged clown, the mad scientist, or that guy with the chainsaw who won't stop chasing gaggles of shrieking girls down a dimly lit hallway. But behind the fake blood spatters and caked-on makeup, they’re just regular people trying to have some fun while making money. To find out what it takes to be professionally terrifying, we spoke with three people who served as "scare actors" (as actors at haunted houses are known in the industry) and lived to tell the tale.

1. THE JOB ISN'T JUST FOR HIGH SCHOOL KIDS.

Sure, you’ll probably see some high school students working at haunted houses, especially smaller operations run by community centers. (Some work for free to rack up their volunteer hours—a requirement at many high schools.) But students aren't the only people employed at haunted houses. Christine Mancini, who works at the ScareHouse in Etna, Pennsylvania, says the actors at her establishment come from a diverse array of fields. “We have anywhere from doctors, lawyers, and psychologists to college kids working at McDonald’s and waiting tables,” she tells Mental Floss. Mancini and several of her ScareHouse colleagues are mental health professionals by day—a job that's not unusual in the scare industry. “We actually hire a lot of therapists and psychoanalysts [as actors playing torturers] because they actually get a kick out of seeing how this all plays out,” Joshua Randall, the co-founder of Blackout in New York City, told CNN.

2. MANY ATTRACTIONS MAKE YOU AUDITION—AND RE-AUDITION—EACH YEAR.

Hiring protocols vary from place to place, and some haunted houses don’t hold auditions at all. For those that do, managers generally want to check out an actor’s improvisation skills and ability to think on their feet. The ScareHouse, for instance, has prospective actors complete a traditional interview first. Some questions are standard, while others are more specific to the job (Why do you want to work in a haunted house? Are you allergic to latex or makeup? Are you physically able to wear heavy costumes?). Once the interview portion is out of the way, candidates are asked to act out a spooky scene.

Actors have to re-audition each season—which generally begins in early September—and “not everyone is always hired back,” Mancini says. This could be for several reasons. For one, the sets are usually already designed by the time auditions are held, and managers might be looking for certain skills or body types to fill a particular role. For instance, a petite person might be needed to squeeze into a tighter space, and some of the costumes might require an actor of a certain height. Then there’s the competition. “Better talent [at auditions] is a thing each year as well,” Mancini says. “ScareHouse is consistently upping the performance expectations each season.”

3. SCARE ACTING IS NOTHING LIKE REGULAR ACTING.

Actors perform at 'Terror Behind the Walls' haunted house in Philadelphia
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Acting in a haunted house requires more improvisation and audience interaction than most other types of acting. Some people come in with extensive theater experience and fail miserably in their auditions. “Just because you’re a good actor doesn’t meant that you’d be a good haunt actor,” Mancini says. Others get hired but end up quitting halfway through the season because they hate the high level of interaction and demands of the job (both physical and mental).

Shawn Lowry, a railroad construction worker who used to volunteer at the Haunted Hillside in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, says being confronted by customers is often the hardest thing for new actors to adjust to. Patrons might scream in your face, mock you, try to get you to break character—and you have to be able to take it. “You’re going to get heckled. It’s not going to be like being on a stage where people are paying to watch and be quiet,” he says. “You’re being challenged by the audience.”

4. THEY MIGHT GET PUNCHED.

Getting hit in the face is one of the many occupational hazards of being a haunt actor. If actors are doing their jobs really well and scaring the living daylights out of people, it could trigger a “fight or flight” response in their patrons. The former reaction is when things start to get pretty scary—not just for customers, but for the actors, too. “They forget that they paid to have fun and play along with the show, and that they are not really in any danger,” Lowry says. “I’ve seen some hairy situations with drunk folks showing up and getting rough with actors.”

Jacob Hall, a former haunted house actor in San Antonio, Texas, wrote about his experience with drunk customers for Esquire. “On Friday and Saturday nights, the bar-dwellers came out. So did their inner demons. The first time I was ever punched in the face came courtesy of a frat bro,” he wrote. “The scariest thing in a haunted house is often the people who visit it.”

Because of the potential for danger, many haunted houses are well-equipped with security cameras and guards. Mancini says a security guard is always stationed inside the ScareHouse’s camera monitor room, and if any of the workers need assistance, they can turn to the nearest camera and make a hand signal that they've been briefed on in advance. That will summon backup immediately.

5. THEIR BODIES TAKE A BEATING.

In addition to the risk of getting clocked in the face, the job is also physically exhausting. Some actors have to sit motionless in a rocking chair or stand quietly in a corner for hours on end, pouncing only when a group of people walk in. Others are required to slide across the floor on knee pads or hobble around on stilts all night. Ky Scott, who volunteered at a couple of haunted attractions in Vancouver, British Columbia, told Mental Floss she worked three-hour shifts with no breaks, lying quietly in a coffin and popping up whenever a group walked through. “To stay in character doing the same thing more or less over and over again is hard on the voice and hard on the body,” Scott says. “By the end of it, your voice is hoarse, you’re sweaty, and you need a shower and a nap.”

6. THEY MIGHT WEAR ICE VESTS TO KEEP COOL.

It can get really hot in the haunt, especially early on in the season when temperatures might be upwards of 80 degrees. This is especially true if you happen to be wearing a full-body costume. “In the past we've had a full grizzly bear costume—head-to-toe fur, fairly realistic. It can be too much for some actors,” Mancini says. “But if someone does one of those characters, the haunt has ice vests for folks to wear so they don't overheat and stay as comfortable as they can in it.” The many-pocketed vests are filled with little ice packs, and a manager goes around replacing the ice packs in the pockets when they melt.

7. THERE’S A RIGHT AND WRONG WAY TO SCREAM.

An actor scares visitors posing for a photo at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
Mark Makela/Getty Images

When it comes to voice protection, proper screaming technique is crucial. “If you scream all night from your throat, you’ll lose your voice after night two,” Mancini says. The actors at her haunt are taught how to growl and snarl from their diaphragms instead of their throats—the same technique many professional singers use.

Even if there's no screaming involved, different character voices require a bit of preparation. Scott studied theater arts at Vancouver's Studio 58 training school, so she knew she should do lots of vocal warm-ups before talking in her “weird little girl voice” for the role as a possessed doll. If all else fails, tea and honey are a scare actor’s best friend.

8. THEY MIGHT BRAG ABOUT MAKING YOU FALL DOWN.

When customers aren't around, one actor might call out to another “I dropped them!” In haunted house parlance, this means a visitor was so scared that they fell to the floor—and it's considered an accomplishment. “It’s always great every time an actor does that for the first time because it is one of the cooler things to do,” Mancini says. It's an even bigger win if someone “melts into the floor” in fear and has to crawl out of the room on their hands and knees.

Some might even lose control of their bowels. One time, a ScareHouse patron was so petrified that she pooped her pants, Mancini recounted with a tinge of pride in her voice. (She's not an outlier, either. One haunted house in San Antonio offered a $200 reward to any actor who could make a customer defecate.)

Sure, it might be a little sadistic to enjoy scaring people, but Lowry says adult customers are fair game because they knew what they were signing up for. “I’ve seen actors high-five and laugh because they had grown-ups crying—like, ‘Oh man, did you see that woman? She was bawling,’” Lowry says. But for him and many other actors, kids are an exception. Lowry has broken character before to stop other actors from tormenting children who were already terrified.

9. CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE OFTEN KEPT NEARBY.

Considering the loss of bodily function that happens from time to time, cleaning supplies are often tucked away where customers can’t see them, according to Mancini. Someone from management will come clean up any puddles of pee or piles of poo that may have escaped their frightened guests, and this can usually be taken care of quickly without interrupting the flow of foot traffic. For bigger spills, an actor might be asked to stay in character and prevent customers from advancing to the next room while other staff clean up. Staff have also been known to hand out garbage bags to patrons who have had accidents—“to protect their car seats when they leave,” Mancini explains.

10. TWO ACTORS MAY TEAM UP TO GET A BIGGER SCARE.

Two actors in scary nurse costumes at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
Mark Makela/Getty Images

It’s a classic scare tactic: One actor is the designated “distraction” while the other swoops in from some dark corner to scare you silly. The decoy actor then does something even bigger to keep ramping up the fear. “It’s a team effort,” Mancini says, adding that she loves being the distraction.

For example, in one outdoor scene this season, she plays the role of a demon. She starts out by crouching down in the middle of the path and staring creepily at guests, which freaks them out without her having to do anything big or bold. She adds: “Then they scare themselves more by continuing to move by me, still wondering what I'm going to do. Then the other actor in a hidden space amongst the trees in the yard scene comes out to do their scare. Then I would pop up and scare them from the rear. So, four or more scares by two actors in a relatively small space by using distraction and timing to our advantage.”

11. IF YOU’RE VISIBLY SCARED, YOU’LL PROBABLY BE TARGETED.

Feel like you’re the only one being chased and taunted? You probably are. Many scare actors look at a customer’s body language when choosing their next victim. “You always know who’s going to be an easy scare because they’re walking in a guarded [way],” Lowry says. “They’re holding their boyfriend or girlfriend tighter and they have their arms crossed.” Other actors, like Mancini, prefer to target patrons who look like they’ll be more of a challenge to get a reaction out of. “Our goal is for every customer to ‘get got’ at least once,” she says.

12. THEY HAVE FEARS, TOO.

An actor in a scary clown costume at 'Terror Behind the Walls' in Philadelphia
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Longtime scare actors might be desensitized to haunted houses, but that’s not the case for every actor. For some of those with fears, it’s a lot easier to work in a haunted house than to visit one. “I’m petrified of going into haunted houses but I really like acting in them because I’m on the other side of it,” Scott says.

Similarly, Lowry is claustrophobic—a common fear that many haunted house designers try to tap into. Once, while visiting a new haunted house, he freaked out in one those “giant sphincters” (officially known as squeeze rooms) that you have to push your way through. “Other people’s faces have been exfoliated on those things. I’m walking through and it smells like a locker room and I literally had a panic attack when I went through it,” he says. Fortunately, the haunted house he worked for didn’t have any super-tight corridors.

13. IT’S NOT ALWAYS EXCITING.

Haunted houses have plenty of slow days early on in the season, so there’s a lot of standing around. Sometimes, things can get a bit too sleepy: Lowry says once one of his fellow actors was supposed to ring a bell to alert actors in the next room that a group was about to come through, but since there were so few customers that day, he fell asleep at his station. Patrons thought he was a prop so they kept walking into the next room, where they were puzzled to see Lowry and a few of his co-workers “BSing out of character with masks off.” Oops.

On the other hand, Lowry recommends not waiting until Halloween day to visit a haunted house. Not only will it be crowded on Halloween, there’s also a good chance the actors will be tired and “phoning it in,” so you probably won’t get to see their peak performance.

14. THEY’RE NOT IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

Scare acting jobs tend to pay around minimum wage, or roughly $20 a night, Mancini says. However, this varies from one haunted house to the next. A couple recent job postings on Indeed, for example, offered a rate of $50-$75 per night. Suffice to say, it’s not exactly a money-making venture. Both Lowry and Mancini love the macabre, and Scott says volunteering at a haunted house was a fun way to develop her acting chops. “Everyone who loves haunt acting does it because they get something out of it,” Mancini says. “No one continues to be a haunt actor for an extended period of time for the money.”

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