Undead again: Howl-O-Scream's happy zombies

They return year after year for the simple pleasures of terrifying people.

click to enlarge ZOMBIES IN LOVE: Scare actors Deb and Martin Johnston grab a last-minute embrace before launching into a night of terrorizing the public. - Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens
ZOMBIES IN LOVE: Scare actors Deb and Martin Johnston grab a last-minute embrace before launching into a night of terrorizing the public.

It is quiet outside the mortuary as the late afternoon sun begins to fade. The high fence, spotless landscaping and corrugated metal walls give the building the look of a warehouse on a military base. There are no signs to mark its purpose. Inside, a young man in an orange polo stands with his back to a corner, surrounded by zombies.

Their rotting skin visible through tattered shirtsleeves and mechanic's coveralls, they stare with sunken, dead eyes at the man in the corner.

But he's not afraid. He speaks to them loud and clear.

"So the potluck dinner is coming up soon," he tells them. "We'll start collecting the money for that this week. And I guess that's it. Everybody ready?"

A small woman in a matching polo appears by his side. She has a huge smile and a streak of blue in her otherwise raven hair. She leads the zombie horde in a chant.

"When I say 'Zombie,' you say 'Freak.' Zombie!"




"When I say 'Living,' you say 'Dead.' Living!"




It's minutes before the first official Friday night opening of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens, and the mortuary has become a zombie locker room.

Every fall, the seasonal Halloween attraction transforms the 335-acre theme park — a G-rated celebration of faux-exotic cityscapes, real-exotic animal shows and twisting metal roller coasters — into a land of PG-13 nighttime terror. This year the park is expecting more than 100,000 visitors to walk through its seven haunted houses.

It's no small effort turning the Ubanga Banga bumper car rink into a vampire king's lair, or making the pavilion across from the flamingo habitat into a prison full of demented inmates. It takes some serious staffing. Between the hiring of costumed performers, extra marketing staff, and people to work the gift shops, snack carts and security gates, Howl-O-Scream added close to 1,500 seasonal jobs to the local economy this year.

However, nearly 900 costumed "scare actors" — the zombies, blood-suckers, chainsaw-wielding clowns, and other miscellaneous freaks — are the ones who complete the illusion. Without them, the employee parking lot could never be a believable labyrinth of lost souls.

Among the hundred or so chanting zombies are college students, grandfathers, stay-at-home moms and aspiring actors. They return night after night, and often year after year, to work eight-hour shifts that can push them to physical exhaustion. They get paid about $9 per hour.

Their world isn't easy to penetrate. They've sworn a pact of silence, or, as Busch Gardens calls it, they "signed an employee confidentiality agreement." They won't normally talk about their lives as ghouls or scare actors. With their bosses' approval, however, a few of them agreed to be interviewed for this story.

Deb Johnston, 53, has been an accountant for 25 years. She sings in church. She beams with pride when describing her "gorgeous" 2-year-old granddaughter. But that's not the only time she beams: She's also extremely proud to be in her twelfth year as a scare actor.

"There's only two other people in this whole park that have been doing this as many years as me. I remember when there were only two haunted houses," she said proudly. "In 2000 I was the Morgue Cousin at Bloody Bayou...the Voodoo Queen in the Wicked Woods...the Singing Executioner at Vengeance," and so on. (This year she's playing a zombie named Front Yard Francis.)

Howl-O-Scream had her hooked from her first role, Witch 49.

"Unless you've done it, it's kind of hard to describe the exhilarating feeling you get when you really [scare] someone," Johnston said. "As soon as you do it, you just want to do it again."

Her husband of 19 years, 56-year-old Martin Johnston, also knows the "addictive fun" of scaring people. He said he's caused grown men to fall to the ground in fear during the six years he has been a scare actor.

This year he's playing Mike The Mechanic, the zombie grease monkey.

Martin Johnston's original reason for taking the job was more practical than fun. He'd worked as a lab tech for over 13 years, but, he said, there wasn't a demand for milk testers after most Florida dairy plants shut down.

"I was out of work at that time and [Howl-O-Scream] was good money coming in," he said.

He has been a customer service rep since then and returned to school to learn medical billing and coding. However, without experience, it's been tough to find a job in the field and he's looking for full-time work again.

"It's a good thing this is here," he said.

Nikki Blue, the woman with blue bangs and big smile, is working her first Howl-O-Scream as the stage manager for Zombie Mortuary. The 24-year-old recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a theater degree and spent the summer in Utah as an opera stage manager.

Blue still lives in Orlando and commutes to Tampa. On a shelf in her apartment, zombie classics like Sean of The Dead, Night of The Living Dead and 28 Days Later sit mixed among her romantic comedy DVDs.

Howl-O-Scream offered her a chance to combine her love of zombies with her aspirations of becoming a stage manager.

"There are similarities to traditional theater," Blue said. "Everyone has to audition, and zombies are kind of the ultimate tragic character. They're removed from all soul and emotion, but they're still in that human shell."

She'll spend the night assisting with costumes and makeup, ensuring the mortuary is running smoothly, and coaching scare actors on how to stay in character.

"For zombies we tell them to pick three body parts and act like they're broken. Then the next night they should pick three different parts. You know, so their one arm doesn't get all sore."

USF biology senior Chelsey Chynoweth is playing Tina Tinkle in the Nightshade Toy Factory this year. Her rubber mask is a mangled face with thick streaks of blood streaming from the eyes. She said she dislikes gore in scary movies.

For Chynoweth, becoming a scare actor meant a chance to escape from the shyness that was holding her back from meeting people. As a timid freshman, she came across the Howl-O-Scream booth at a job fair on campus. Thinking it looked like fun, she pushed herself to audition. She got the job and is now on her fourth year as a scare actor.

"When I'm there, it's like being at a home away from home, so I feel more comfortable and less shy," Chynoweth said. "There's all sorts of people who work there. Some are in school like me, some of them have full-time jobs and do it for fun, and some are just weird, which is great, because it means anyone can fit in."

Deb Johnston takes it a step further.

"It's like a family, and every year I look forward to seeing that family," Johnston said. "It's a weird, off-the-wall, nutzoid family, but it's a family."

This story by CL Intern Christopher Spata was originally written for USF's Digital Bullpen news service.

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.