The Haunters Spotlight is a series focused on presenting an inside look into the world of those who dedicate their lives to the haunt industry. Each piece will focus on owners, actors, and staff who have deep passion and love for haunting. With this edition, we take a look at the career of Anthony Massa, an extremely creative and tenured, six-year scare actor at the Hotel of Horror, in Saylorsburg, PA. Each season Anthony brings to life a new monstrosity and this season has transformed into “The Dutchman”.
Describe your history in the industry including what roles you play at your haunt. I am primarily a haunted house actor at the Hotel of Horror in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania. I have worked both inside and outside of the attraction in various roles and characters. For example, in 2015 I worked as entertainment in the line area. However, I should say that my preferred position is that of scare actor.
What made you want to work in a haunted attraction? What first interested or inspired you? Like most Philadelphians, I spent my childhood summers down the Jersey Shore in Wildwood. The haunted house dark rides on the boardwalk were my first and most impressionable experiences with the industry. Castle Dracula was particularly gruesome and overwhelming to my younger self. It was a huge, gothic and grisly haunted attraction that was dripping with palpable atmosphere. Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor blared from the castle turrets as you approached. Once you arrived, you had two attractions to choose from: the “Castle Walkthrough,” which was highly theatrical and intense or the “Dungeon Boat Ride” which was so lurid and gory that it could rival any haunt today. I was obsessed. I knew that one day I wanted to work in this attraction.
Sadly, I never got the chance to work Castle Dracula as it burnt down. As far as I was concerned, it was the best-haunted attraction ever and no other haunt seemed to compare. Everything else was too corporate, cookie cutter or politically correct. The industry seemed sterile after these childhood experiences. Gone were the days of gothic and theatrical haunts it appeared. That is until I encountered Hotel of Horror in Saylorsburg, PA.
As strange as this sounds, it was like a religious experience going into the Hotel of Horror for the first time in 2010. The building was over 200 years old, and it was the most atmospheric, intense and theatrical haunt I experienced in a long time. Outside it was dominating. Inside it was brutal, even in the queue area. From the musky smell in the basement to the Lucio Fulci horror movies blaring to the constant anxiety-building sound of the chainsaw, it was by far the most effective line area I ever went through. Even the actors in the line were terrifying, and I thought to myself, “If this is what we see in the line, then what the heck is waiting for us inside?!” And once I got inside… oh boy! I was smiling from ear to ear while others were screaming in terror. I got my childhood back! In a way, Castle Dracula had been reborn for me. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away again. I was determined to work at this attraction.
What is the source of your creativity? What drives you? This has to be an overwhelming passion for anyone to commit to it, but as far as where I draw my creative energies from, I would have to say that history and world culture are my primary sources. When I’m not working at the Hotel of Horror, I’m a high school social studies teacher. So, these are concepts that deeply fascinate me and I do believe that horror can be mined from almost anything.
Whether it’s Kabuki or the Pennsylvania Dutch or religious sects from the Middle Ages, there is a richness that comes from layering your character from actual history. Now whether or not that’s scary, I’ll let the patrons decide that, but I do believe that if a character is deeply layered and researched, then it makes the performance more real and genuine. It’s that realness I hope that comes across and creates an immersive and unnerving experience. Patrons may not know exactly what’s going on, but they know something’s going on. It often unnerves and overstimulates them as they try to process this. At least, that’s my hope anyway.
What do you enjoy most about your position? More than anything I enjoy creating those same experiences for others that I got to experience in my youth in Wildwood. That dark, immersive theatrical experience was so unique to me as a child. It was terrifying but tremendous fun at the same time. It’s strange really. I would get visceral nightmares about all these attractions as a kid, but I still loved them. They stuck with me. Now maybe I’ll live on in the nightmares of the Hotel of Horror patrons.
People may scream, or they may laugh hysterically. To be honest, I’m okay with either reaction. We are in the entertainment business, and if people are having a good time, then I’m happy that I was able to give that to them.
What are the most significant challenges you face every season? First and foremost is utter exhaustion. Trying to balance my haunt life with my “regular” life is very difficult. I’m a teacher, husband, and father of four wonderful children. Every one of these roles requires total devotion. I am burning the candle at both ends during haunt season. For example, it could be a long Friday night and I won’t get to bed until well after 1 am, but I have to wake up at 5 am the next day because I’m proctoring the SAT’s, and then after that I rush home to get in makeup and drive to the Hotel for our Saturday night performance which will go even later than the previous night. Repeating this routine (or one very similar to it) every weekend tests your stamina. Every October I get to a point where I am not sure if I’ll return for the next season. I get so tired that it physically hurts. There have been times where I told myself as well as others, “NO REALLY! This is my last season. I just can’t physically do this anymore!” That’s when my inner haunt instincts kick in and push me through to the end. When you love something with every fiber of your being, you find a way to make it work. You have to. It’s compulsive.
Character commitment is a lesser albeit still tricky challenge that I face every season. No matter the character that I’ve chosen, I will fully commit to it. You have to, but this brings its unique challenges. Back when I was a Theatre Major I learned several acting techniques for becoming a character. One of the most effective for me was changing something about myself physically and then letting that change guide me in the metamorphosis into my character. For example, when I was my Kabuki character the art teacher at my school made me geta, which are Japanese woodblock sandals. We made them very high and dense for dramatic effect. It caused me to walk very differently and thus take on some very different characteristics. It worked great but became incredibly uncomfortable over time.
This year I’ve grown a full Amish-style beard for my Pennsylvania Dutch character, “The Dutchman.” While I’m sure, archaic beard lovers won’t see this as much of a challenge let me assure you that when your wife and students voice their disapproval, it is indeed a challenge. That’s when you know you’re a committed haunter.
If you could tell your customers one thing, what would it be and why? I would say try to enjoy each room and character for what it is. More than anything, we are actors presenting a specific story or theme. Sometimes people are so terrified that they just run through the rooms. I’m glad that we scared them, but they often miss crucial parts of the performance. We are trying to convey precise characterizations and concepts, and we believe that makes the overall experience more macabre. Take your time and interact. You’ll find that we are a lot more than creepy rooms and gory makeup. Linger a bit. You’ll be glad that you did.
Do you have any stories you would like to share? Too many! As a teacher, it’s always fun to interact with your students in a setting like this. They all know I work at the Hotel of Horror, but they didn’t always know. I kept it secret for a while. One time I saw a student going through with his family and as it just so happens I had just discovered that he had cheated on my test. Well, when he came through I looked at his father and said, “You know, your son cheated on his history test!” He certainly got a scare that night that he didn’t bargain for.
Where do you see the industry in 10 years? I honestly have no clue. The great Italian horror director Dario Argento once said that horror is like a snake. It keeps shedding its skin and changing yet it keeps staying the same. There is a more “extreme” trend brewing in haunted houses right now, and we’ve consciously resisted that at Hotel of Horror, not because we think it’s wrong but because it’s not at the core of what we do.
Personally, “extreme” touch haunts are not my thing both as an actor and as a patron, but I don’t have any gratuitous hate for them. I’m just more of a fan of traditional theatrical haunts. While there are undoubtedly interesting innovations happening, I do believe that a psychological haunt will always leave a much more significant impression than a touch haunt, but that’s just my opinion. Wherever the industry goes, I do believe there will still be a place for the traditional haunt. It’s not gimmicky. It’s just the pure haunted house experience. If it’s done right then, I think it’s the height of the craft.
I do have a fear though, and it spelled out very clearly in an article written by the Pop Culture Blogger Oni Hartstein. It’s titled “Extreme Haunted Houses are Jackass Escape Houses.” ( https://boingboing.net/2014/10/13/extreme-haunted-houses-are-act.html ) The article discusses many things about the extreme trajectory that’s developing in the industry as well as the unsafe and sometimes dangerous gimmicks that lesser haunts are employing. That’s not to imply that extreme haunts are lesser, but rather that unprofessional haunts that casually engage in dangerous practices to boost ticket sales will hurt us all as an industry. Oni Hartstein cautions that someone is going to get badly hurt in one of these attractions and that the ramifications of this will be similar to that of the New Jersey Great Adventure Haunted House Fire in 1984 which killed eight people. Like then, there will be countless lawsuits, punitive regulations and a focused outrage on our industry. No waiver or signature acquired by a haunt could stop the PR nightmare that this would become. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen. I sincerely hope that extreme haunts choose to go in a more innovative direction rather than a dangerous one, like the Halls of Horror “Blood Experience.” To me they are probably the best example of an extreme haunt doing it the right way.
Any advice for those who may want to enter the industry? All you really need are 3 things to succeed as a haunt actor: Commitment, cough drops, and Red Bull.I have to say that I’m very fortunate because there are some very special people who have been overwhelmingly supportive of me and my haunt passion. My beautiful wife and our 4 fantastic children have certainly had to endure a lot. From sinks filled with makeup smears and fake blood stains to the high cost of the costumes to me simply not being there during the season, they have been terrific. They know how much I love it so they put up with it. As much as I love October, I love November even more because I get to be present again in their lives.
I also need to recognize a very dear friend of mine Daimon Price, an artistic and musical soul who has lent his creative energies to my haunt presentation. All of my pictures and trailers were done by him for no other reason than he is my friend. All photo credits without the “Hotel of Horror” seal go to him. He has been a great sounding board and collaborator on this wild journey. He is my brother in creativity and a wonderful human being. I highly suggest you check out his webpage and music: http://www.daimonprice.com
Finally, I have to say thank you to Dan and Marlo Ambrosio, the owners of the Hotel of Horror. They have given me an infinite canvas on which to paint and have always supported and accommodated every creative risk I wanted to take. I couldn’t ask for a better team.