Morgan Malice grins like a teenager when you walk into his workshop.
“Are you my victim?” he says, his excitement barely contained. “Who’s my victim?”
His “victim” for this evening is finally revealed to be Erin Boles, a 30-year-old Tampa paralegal who is working through October as a substitute “scareacter” in one of the five scare zones at this year’s Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream.
Malice, who has been doing makeup effects for 10 years, serves as Howl-O-Scream’s Atmosphere Director, which means he is the person responsible for directing the team that transforms the actors who roam the park, doing their best to freak out and terrify event attendees.
Malice’s team of nine artists, which includes his brother, Devin, are tasked with quickly, and professionally, turning 50 or more people into zombies, monsters and nightmarish creatures four nights a week. Some artists are “lightning fast,” he says. Others are "builders," meaning they are skilled with prosthetic applications. A few are strictly airbrush artists.
It’s grueling work, at times, but rewarding. Each member of the Atmosphere team has a full-time day job. When they arrive at the park, however, there’s little downtime. The team tries to adhere to a strict schedule, meaning 15 minutes or less per actor being made up.
“We’re trying to keep it in that range,” he says. “We can do a four-minute monster.”
Every night, he and his team try to bring something different to play, whether it’s incorporating different candies, like Skittles, to give a makeup an unexpected, extra layer, or experimenting with different techniques.
Some quick applications include the "fresh kill," which means zombie victims who “just got the virus” might receive an oozing bite, a sunken cheek, spider veins around the eyes or quick airbrush definition around their ribs to make them appear sicklier.
The goal is simple: Scare hell out of the guests.
“It’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s about the reaction out there.”
Malice also assists Howl-O-Scream by conceiving of new ways to enhance the visitor experience. For 2017, he said, they wanted to give paying customers an opportunity to take a free "Zelfie" — yes, that’s zombie selfie — with characters who are assigned to a specific area of the park.
“This was the dream job,” says Andreas Taborda, 35, a two-year veteran of Malice’s team. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
Taborda, a full-time artist and illustrator who creates murals in St. Pete, had airbrush skills when he first arrived at Busch Gardens. Howl-O-Scream has helped expand his repertoire significantly. Since July, he and other artists have been working 12-to-14-hour days on the various Scare Zones located throughout the park.
Malice gleefully recalls past years when his crew would set up the equivalent of a buffet line where a table would be strewn with different containers, each holding a textured food or product to be incorporated into the makeup — from Cheerios and Corn Flakes to fish food and strips of toilet paper.
For this application, an exclusive creation for Creative Loafing, Malice looks Boles up and down. He decides to give her an exposed jaw, which he can hand-place real teeth in to stick out amid the melting flesh.
“We want our zombie teeth to stay on while they are attacking our guests,” Malice says, grinning.
As he, his brother and Taborda get started, it’s like being on set during a special episode of SyFy’s Face Off, only instead of Glenn Hetrick’s guyliner and signature scowl, Malice can barely contain his excitement at describing each phase of the application.
He rushes forward, clutching a "secret weapon," which is a shredded dryer sheet, before explaining how the gauzy material can be placed over an actor’s eye to give the appearance of an empty socket, even though it doesn’t obscure the performer’s sight. The trick, he says, is to carefully tear off all four corners of the piece of material so it has a more organic look when placed on the face.
Malice takes a triangle sponge, tearing it apart, to achieve different textures when working with clear latex, which is known as "stacking."
The trio use a glue stick and powder to make Bole’s eyebrows disappear so they can then stipple over the area to create a unique effect. If applied improperly, Malice says, an actor can lose tufts of eyebrow when it’s removed.
Malice rushes away, then rushes back holding a box of teeth he’s plucked from a counter littered with tubes and jars with labels like Faux Puss and Faux Mucus.
He carefully inserts the teeth into the exposed jaw prosthetic, and then uses an airbrush to flood the sockets with dark colors — red, purple, black and green — so the paint spills forth around the teeth for a drip effect.
“I don’t know whose teeth these were,” he whispers to Boles, before laughing.
“Sorry! They’re brand new!”
With so much happening during a normal night, Malice says he and his artists must remind themselves of certain critical steps, like structuring the makeup to leave room to allow the actors to eat or drink while on break.
“I encourage my actors to go through the drive-through at one in the morning in makeup,” he says. “Sometimes they get free food. People just throw it out!”
As they each apply different shades of color to Bole’s entire head — the goal is to achieve a 360-degree effect with no borders — Malice cautions his brother and Taborda not to go too dark.
“Your instincts are to make zombies dark, but in reality, go lighter,” he says, explaining that lighter colors stand out more in the dark of night as his creations roam Busch Gardens.
As Boles’ face completely disappears beneath the dripping gloop sliding off her exposed jaw, Malice comes racing back into the room, his pocket stuffed with Halloween-sized mini-bags of M&M’s. He rips open a packet and begins placing the colored candy pieces around Boles’ mouth and chin.
Boles stands up from her chair and approaches a full-length mirror before posing for a few "zelfies" of her own.
“It was a lot of fun. I love theatrical makeup. It’s all for the art, so if I lose an eyebrow, it’s worth it,” she says, admiring her visage, and imagining what it will be like to be let loose on unsuspecting visitors.
“I’ve always felt like I was a scary individual,” she says, laughing, “but this makeup definitely helps me get into the role. This puts me in that mentality.”