Scare Tactics

Scare Tactics

Atonal organ music plays in repeating loops. The faint melody of a nursery rhyme floats somewhere far away. Louder are the ragged screams coming from an unsuspecting victim—or the bloodthirsty creature that’s captured them.

Such sounds of terror greet you as soon as you enter Fright Haven. I arrive before Charles Rosenay, my interviewee, and so, alone, I walk the winding, claustrophobic path ahead. Even two hours before the doors open at 7, even with the lights on, the maze is terrifying.

“Where are you, Daily Nutmeg?” a singsong voice calls out from a distance. I pass through a nursery strung up with bloody baby dolls and then begin to walk through a long dark hallway flanked by skeletons. I sense that I’m no longer alone. I turn around and a man is standing near me, staring at me expectantly, silently.

I’ve found Rosenay, Fright Haven’s “scare master”—or perhaps he’s found me.

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To say that Rosenay takes his job at Fright Haven seriously would be accurate. But it would also belie the obvious joy and excitement he finds in his work. After our spine-tingling introduction, Rosenay takes me through the rest of Fright Haven, showing me some of the tricks of the trade, constantly grinning as if we were in a theme park—and I suppose we are. Rosenay says that he compares his work to that of a comedian or a DJ, except that he and the rest of his “Fright Family” aren’t looking for belly laughs or joyful dancing. They “want to scare people,” Rosenay says. “If we can get someone to fall on the floor or pee their pants or jump into the air with tears, we’ve really done our job well.”

“Believe it or not,” Rosenay says once we’re safe in a well-lit office, “there’s a science to scaring people.” He pauses the interview to don, along with Fright Haven manager Ari Gorfain, a giant rubber baby-faced mask. They both pretend to cry. The effect is undeniably creepy. A tall man in a sleeveless vest walks by and greets us. “That’s our chainsaw massacre guy,” Rosenay says. A menacing, hollow growl echoes from the hallway and then there’s the piercing sound of a girl screaming. “He’s already started,” Rosenay says gleefully.

The volunteer actors who come to Fright Haven night after night are effusive about how much they enjoy their work. Killer clowns, bloody skeletons and dead prom queens all exclaim that they love scaring people, that they’ll certainly be back next year. In the back of the warehouse-sized layout, there’s a makeup room where they get their faces airbrushed, and one by one, pleasant people of the sort you might pass in the grocery store transform into ghouls, chainsaw killers and demonic pumpkins.

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As I’m exiting the makeup room, Gorfain passes me in the hallway. A rat has gotten free from the tank of white rodents in the front of Fright Haven. He asks if I’ve seen the rat. I haven’t.

The youngest of the Fright Haven actors are in middle school, according to Rosenay, and the oldest is a local actor named Batso, who, at 81, has a storied acting career behind him, including a part in Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler. “We have students, we have housewives, we have firemen. Just people who love Halloween, who love scaring people and who love the whole ambiance of this fright family,” Rosenay says, showing me photos of his actors in character.

20 minutes later, I pass Gorfain again. He’s scanning the ground where I’m standing. “I’m pretty sure she’s pregnant,” he says of the missing rat. “Look out where you’re walking.”

Fright Haven, which got its start in New Haven before moving to Stratford, has combined the gruesome blood-and-guts slasher aesthetic with a campy, happy family of misfits. It’s like walking through a horror movie where all the die-hard fans have a cameo and are trying their darndest to scare you silly. Many of the actors need to be brought cough drops throughout the night, because they’re hoarse from screaming. One young man gave himself a concussion recently because he was so committed to his part as a demonic clown that he slammed his head into an iron pole. He grins as he recalls the story.

As I’m leaving, Gorfain appears for a third time, seemingly out of thin air. “Have you found her? I think I hear her squealing,” he says, eyes still scanning the ground. “Do you hear her?”

“I’m really blessed,” Rosenay says of his work at Fright Haven. When asked to account for the popularity of his haunted attraction, he says, “I guess what we can compare it to most is… going on a roller coaster. You’re going on it for the thrill, for the scare, for the charge. Knowing that when it’s done, you’ll be able to say, ‘Whew, I’m safe now.’”

Rosenay pauses, grins more widely, then continues, “But that’s not always the case. Because when you walk out of this building, there might more scares around the corner.”

I leave Fright Haven and make the long walk across the dark, empty parking lot to my car. I feel the cold breath of the wind on my neck as it starts to rain. I hear the skittering sound of rats running, see the shadows of monsters lurking just beyond my car. I take a deep breath, tell myself it’s all in my head.


Fright Haven
411 Barnum Ave Cutoff, Stratford (map)
Thurs 10/27 7-10pm, Fri & Sat 10/28-29 7pm-midnight, Sun 10/30 7-11pm, Mon 10/31 7-10pm
(203) 795-4737 (daytime) or (203) 799-FEAR (nighttime)

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. Image #2 depicts Charles Rosenay.

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