Sunday, October 1, 2017

My First Weekend At The Marr Branch Haunted House

Damond Nollan at the Marr Branch Haunted House

This past Friday night, I decided to go behind the scenes of the Marr Branch Haunted House. Last year, I came as a guest, but this year I wanted to participate in the annual production as a cast member. While it is important to note, this particular haunted house is not intended for small children, the easily offended, or the faint of heart, we developed a connection with the owners and performers, which is what brought us back for their Valentine's Day Madness. Not only that, but it has been years since I was on the stage last and I thought it would be fun to expand my acting experience to include a deranged lunatic.

Leading up to Friday, I wondered what my role would be. What character would I play? What part of the house would they ask me to support? Would I be able to live up to the standards of a good scare actor? Without knowing what to expect, I arrived on the set wearing a pair of old blue jeans and a grungy white t-shirt. My jeans had a huge hole in the knee with a few smaller ones near the back pockets. Just in case I needed to change, I brought some extra clothes and left them in the car.

The call time was 6 pm, but since I was driving from Durham, the earliest I could arrive was around 7 o'clock. While I wasn't exactly on time, I was there early enough to get into character. Jon-Blaney, founder and ringmaster for this unhinged circus, welcomed me with open arms. In thinking about how best to describe him, he reminds me of a younger version of Negan from The Walking Dead. He has a similar swagger about him in that he has attracted and actively leads a merry band of psychopaths. He has a slender build with straight black hair. He wears a closely cropped haircut that runs longer on top and a chinstrap beard with a full mustache. On this particular night, he is wearing a fur vest with no shirt that revealed a number of tattoos both on his arms and chest. His face is painted white with black circles around his eyes. Even in character, he is extremely personable and charismatic.

As we stand in the dressing room, which is the grassy area leading into the entrance of the house, Jon-Blaney provides directions using his deep voice that is wrapped up in a strong North Carolina accent. With a plastic tub of dark black ash in his hands, he asked me to close my eyes. For the next minute or so, he applied the substance in a random slashing motion across my chest and shoulders. He explained that we need to look the part. He then pulled out a large bottle of deep red liquid that serves as blood and followed a similar motion. By the time he finished, my shirt definitely looked like I had been rolling around in the back woods. My skin was dark and my clothes looked worn and extremely unclean. If you saw me in the store, you would probably think I haven't showered in months.

As a final touch, Jon went to his box of costumes and he pulled out a hard plastic mask that resembled Rich Uncle Pennybags from the famous game, Monopoly. Using his already filthy hands, he continued to wipe the black substance to the clean surface of the mask. With my character in hand, he introduced me to a guy named Chris, who would help indoctrinate me into this new world of haunted houses.

Chris, a middle-aged man wearing jeans, a kid-sized white t-shirt with multicolored words written on the front, and suspenders, revealed our location for the night. He explained, while standing outside of an old barn, that we are on the second floor of this building along with a room full of dolls. I smiled because this was a new room and I was extremely excited about getting started. He continued with his introduction by explaining that Jessy, a young teenaged girl who has a passion for make-up, would serve as the third person in our area.

After introductions and a short game planning session, Chris led us toward the barn where a tall wall of thick black plastic construction film hid the secret entrance. Just beyond the opening, there was a corridor that led straight ahead toward the middle of the barn and a staircase on the right. He headed toward the stairs.

Once we reached the second floor, the three of us stood in a large open room made entirely of wood. Based on the condition of the building and random artifacts, I would guess that the barn was built in the early 1900s. With the sun setting, there was still enough light to complete a cursory inventory of the room. In the four corners, I saw large piles of wooden sticks. If I were to guess, these were used in combination with wire to build a fence. On one pile, I saw an old shovel, pitchfork, and rake. In the other pile I saw an old mattress, two old dusty wreaths that one would find near a grave site, and other random items. The remaining piles were too dark to see clearly, but I would imagine they collected similar things over the years.

Looking up from the floors, I noticed beams of wood running from one side of the building to the other. Despite the tall ceilings, these rafters were about 6 feet off the ground and a potential hazard for us taller individuals. In one of the dark corners, I saw about 6 rows of dried tobacco leaves hanging free. On the other side of the room, the one nearest the farm tools, there were long rolls of material that resembled old sheets and old-fashioned insulation. When touched, they practically disintegrated in my hand. Like the tobacco leaves, this material ran across the rafters and hung down in random spots.

Outside of the original items that have clearly been here for years, there were a number of newer objects set up around the room. On the floor, there were random baby dolls of various shapes and sizes. Near the window, there was a motorized swing set that carried three badly mutilated dolls in a circular motion. Near the tobacco leaves, there was a mahogany colored vanity with a matching stool. To the left of the vanity was a small mechanical teeter totter with two dolls sitting on each end. Near the front entrance, there was another doll hanging motionless from the rafters.

While I was looking around the attic, Chris put his cooler down just beyond the sheets and walked over to the vanity. He grabbed the stool and moved it in the middle of the room where he then stepped up with arms above his head. Within a few seconds, I heard a clicking noise and the room came to life.

From far above, I saw black lights turn on which caused all of the white objects in the room to illuminate like the jungle in Avatar on the planet Pandora. The two swings that were dormant slowly started to move. One of the dolls on the swing made a weird laughing sound as it cycled through its programmed messaging.

Over the next few minutes, Chris went through the process of turning on the strobe lights and an eerie soundtrack on the boombox resting above. Between the laughing dolls and spine-chilling music, this room was primed perfectly for a good scare.

While we waited for our first group, Chris once again walked the team through the game plan. Jessy, who looked like the long-haired girl from the The Ring, will sit at the vanity, I was placed near the entrance, and Chris behind the hanging sheets. As guests walk in, I would go first, followed by Chris, and then Jessy.

"Any final tips on how to be scary?" I ask. Chris shared that less is more. No need for yelling or screaming. The scariest thing you can do is come up from behind someone and whisper whatever comes to mind. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but the best I could come up with in such short notice was, "Get your hand out my pocket!,""Pink cookies in a plastic bag getting crushed by buildings," and "Yummmm, your hair smells nice!" I'm pretty sure that's not what he meant.

While I don't remember much about the first group, I do remember spending the majority of the night trying different things. Do I sneak up from behind, jump out in front, or rattle them from the side? Should I yell or whisper? My options were open.

With each attempt, I made a mental note of what worked and what didn't. Although, it is important to recognize that everyone is different. Some scare easily while others don't appear rattled at all.

By the end of night one, which went by very quickly, I was ready to receive any feedback that I could get and then go home to wash away the dirt.

My mind, which was focused on how to improve my scare tactics, spent the most of Saturday watching videos and reading about the anatomy of fear and how best to apply it. While limited, I found a few resources that gave me something to try later that evening. My two most memorable takeaways were to close the gap and get big. Instead of standing at a safe distance, which is what I did the first night, I was advised to get within 4 feet from the guest. For many, this is extremely unnerving because we're breaking the bubble of personal space. Second, to appear bigger and more threatening, we were instructed to open our arms and widen the body to create a sense of  massive intimidation.

On night two, I also decided to change my outfit a bit and get more into character than before. I bought a red flannel shirt and a white kid-sized tank top. The tank top was so small that it barely covered my bloated stomach. In addition to the clothes, I bought a dust mask out of necessity. Due to the large amounts of dust in the attic, my sinuses released a thick black discharge while in the shower. I also got some white paint in hopes that it would help illuminate my face as I came in for the scare.

After getting my make up applied, we went back up to the attic for round two. In Chris' absence, I took the pole position behind the dangling sheets. In addition to the minor modifications to my outfit, I also continued to use a shovel which created a loud and often high pitched scraping noise when applied against the wood. What I found is that I didn't need to yell or scream because the shovel made enough noise to startle even the most unresponsive visitor.

As I think about the scare tactics for night two, I definitely think I did much better. Timing was still a concern as I often waited until after the first person walked by before I ran out from the shadows. However, I found that the scare on night two was far more frightening than on day one, but I will continue to work on the performance.

Thinking back over the weekend, I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. The other performers are really great people who have normal lives outside of the house. Shout out to Darlene, Chris, Jessy, Jon-Blaney, Jimmy, David, Brad, Van, Dwayne, Cheyenne, Lynne, and Josh for a memorable weekend. Thank you for accepting me as the newest member of the Marr Branch family.

Additionally, thank you to the guests for being such great sports. It's a lot of fun when you get a good group of scaredy cats in your midst. You never know what to expect out of them. Last night, for example, there was a group of grown men who literally freaked out at every single station. I couldn't stop from laughing. Too funny!

Do you like haunted houses? If so, look no further than Marr Branch Haunted House in Mount Olive, NC. Do you want to come through when I'm there? Drop me a message and I'll let you know when I'm performing. Remember, it runs between now and the first weekend in November. Buy your tickets online or at the door for $20 per person.

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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