Pretty Scary: Amber Hickson takes haunting to heart

Amber Hickson in character before performing at the Dark Walk in Andover, a haunted campground fundraiser for the  Channel 3 Kids Camp.
Amber Hickson in character before performing at the Dark Walk in Andover, a haunted campground fundraiser for the Channel 3 Kids Camp.

It's one thing to attend a haunted attraction - pay your admission, huddle with your friends and scream your way through the dark hallways or eerily lit woods.

But have you ever wondered about the performers lying in wait? What is going through the minds of the people who've treated themselves liberally with fake blood in order to scare the eyebrows clean off the face of a visitor like yourself?

Grace caught up with Hartford-area actor Amber Hickson to get some insight. Hickson performs in the Dark Walk haunted campground in Andover, a fundraiser for the Channel 3 Kids Camp.

The attraction is now closed for the season, but you can bookmark on your browser for next Halloween. This year marked Hickson's third year at the attraction and the experience, she said, has given her time to flesh out her characters and their history. Like characters in a play, the gruesomes who populate a haunt have reasons and motivation for being there. Unlike a traditional play, the audience screams and runs away from the actors - which can present a few challenges:

When and how did you first embrace your love for Halloween?

I guess you could say, Halloween has been a daily holiday for me as I've been living inside my imagination my entire life. I have dressed up every
year and my indoor Halloween decor stays up until Christmas or even New Year's. I actually wish my cats would allow it year-round. I was
super excited when I finally had time in my schedule to help Jim and Jennifer (Wieloch, the organizers) with the Dark Walk.

In your work at Dark Walk, do you have a hand in creating the characters you portray?

I am usually placed in an area of "greeting the guests" which makes me portray several different characters, depending on who I encounter. I'm often comedic relief to entertain them while they wait for the main attraction. I often use the storyline to embellish my character; one year I said I was cast into the woods by my father (the professor) for my ungodly experimentation which I did because I was in love with the mad scientist in the woods. I research the era being portrayed to discuss a few historical events. ... Either way, I adapt the character to fit the situation and I add pieces to the costume yearly; this year it was adding chains to my face. Michael's craft store and antique shops are often an inspiration. This year, I [also] helped create some of the dolls in the Toy Shop. I work on the bus that transports the guests from the parking lot to the camp. I like to walk on the seats - some said I look like I'm wearing stilts - make people awkwardly sit next to me or the giant stuffed rabbit I have on the bus. I spook and entertain them on the way in and gather their feedback on the way out! Lots of improv.

What do you think people love about being scared? Is it cathartic? An adrenaline rush?

I think there is something very innocent and pure about fear. People are a bit desensitized to gore due to the graphic nature of movies and TV, so I think they crave the unknown; a new invigorating feeling. At the Dark Walk a person will experience going through the woods via tiny candles in glass jars, not knowing what it lurking next to them in the depths of the dark, and having heavily costumed, creepy characters jumping out at them. It is very scary! Even people who are already crying on the bus in fear will brave the Dark Walk. When they return to the bus, they have nothing but excitement in their voices.

Haunting is a different kind of theater, immediate and interactive. How does the audience affect your performance? How do you engage with visitors?

There are a few categories [of people who visit a haunted attraction]:
1. The scared younger group. Usually they are all huddled together near mom. If I enter their space, there's running away, more screaming, some crying, and a mother who says "please stay away." We always respect this and keep our distance. I once had to comfort a girl who was petrified. I explained to her, "No one will touch you, stay with your friends, stick to the path, and you will be OK." I let her touch my hand to know I was a person and that made her calm down. It can get pretty intense with this type though, so you have to be sensitive to how they react. If you continue to torment them, they can lash out physically; and that's not our goal.
2. The older, hit the bar before coming, feeling good crowd. Usually married couples, college kids, definitely more rowdy. This is where the comedy comes in. I have many tools to measure things as a scientist or toy maker, so I allow this crowd access to my instruments. It usually turns a bit bawdy, but they all have a great time.
3. The "I'm not afraid of anyone" crowd: Usually tough guys. Deep inside, they are petrified. These ones you stare at or ask if they want a kiss (I have very disgusting teeth I wear, so it creeps them out even more.)
4. The tired, crabby group. Generally just want to keep to themselves. We try scare tactics, humor, plain conversation.
5. The teenage girls who want to be your BFF. They come in groups and are very silly. I usually get them to teach me a song or dance and they laugh
hysterically when you copy them.
6. The "Where did you get your costume and makeup, etc.?" group: The more silence you offer them, the more they pester you ... It's quite funny ... or you can reply, "What makeup? I filed these teeth myself; the better to tear open flesh."

Any tips for those who are interested in auditioning for a haunt next year?

The best way to get started is to remember your childhood and locate your imagination. From there, surround yourself with creative people, share your vision, and start building. But most important, always have fun!


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