With each passing year, thrill seekers take on incredible challenges, from cliff diving in flying squirrel outfits to devouring chicken wings doused in ghost pepper sauce to riding the latest death-defying roller coaster. And with Halloween approaching fast, these adrenaline junkies are on the hunt for the most terrifying professional haunted houses, looking to see if they have what it takes to pass the scare test without flinching . . . well, at least not too badly.
When it comes to haunted houses, however, there is a symbiotic relationship between actor and patron, one where patrons submit to their fears rather than try to overcome them. With that nonverbal agreement between guests and zombies, monsters, etc., any haunted house adventure lies in the willingness to accept farce as reality, i.e., anything can be scary as long as one is willing.
One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of conquering fear is the enablers, the creative minds and bodies who take pleasure in rattling cages and spirits. But there is more than meets the eye to these dedicated fear mongers. With the help of the creators of Dead Zone 805, which has been Ventura’s main (if not only) professional haunted house for the last four years, the VCReporter was given an inside look at the true identities of these scare crafters, who are enigmas in themselves.
Behind the scenes
The dressing room was abuzz with happy reunion remarks and the recollection of successful scare tactics of years past at the one and only dress rehearsal before opening weekend on Oct. 14 and 15. It had been just shy of a year since the dozen-plus volunteers for Dead Zone 805 had seen each other. (According to Nelson Cooper, head creator and co-founder with his wife, Kim, over three dozen volunteers had signed up to help. During their first year, they had over 100 volunteers, which made for a bit too much chaos.)
At the dress rehearsal, volunteers took to their positions like clockwork. The D.R.E. (Doctor Red Eyes) Gang are the most vocal, building up the story of twisted sub-humans who make light of torturing those who innocently fall into the Dead Zone trap, while zombies turn up in often hidden, claustrophobic spaces, hissing and grunting. Each actor has a brief role of engagement: Some have a minute, while others have just seconds to frighten guests. As tedious as it is to repeat the same lines and gestures a couple of dozen times in a night, standing or sitting quietly in the dark for hours, every volunteer plays his or her role with gusto.
“I don’t get scared easily, so why not scare people instead?” said Lauren Anthony, 16, of Camarillo. “I really like to scare people; it’s an adrenaline rush.”
Anthony works as one of the D.R.E. Gang as a demented child who takes pleasure in tormenting humans. She started off as a zombie when she began volunteering three years ago, but Nelson and Kim saw her love of haunting theatrics and bumped her up to a role with lines. Lauren and her mom, Tracy, make it a family affair, volunteering together, though Tracy usually works as staff, taking tickets and whatnot.
Lauren and Tracy aren’t the only mom-daughter pair. Becky, 19, and her mom, Lupe Rodriguez, of Ventura, volunteer as zombies, and they look as eerily similar in makeup as they do without. Becky has fond memories of setting up a haunted house maze in their garage at home.
“I am not easily scared,” said Becky, who thinks it’s funny when people get scared. “I am a prankster.”
Dax Rooks is a professional plumber by day (he owns Rooks Rooter) and a member of the D.R.E. Gang by October weekend nights. He plays a Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees look-alike. His deep booming voice can certainly be jolting, but add a creepy hockey mask in a dark hallway and only one thing comes to mind — RUN! Despite his larger-than-life persona, his natural demeanor is rather calm. He recalled his most memorable experience.
“A couple years back, a group of kids came through. I was talking to them, yelling at them. At one point, a clown came out,” he said, “and all of the kids scattered and we didn’t know where they were.”
He tried calling out to them to get the group back together, but it was all in vain — he later found out that the kids were deaf. Thankfully, everyone made it out just fine.
DW, of Camarillo, refers to himself as a computer nerd, which is his bread and butter. But his true passion lies in live-action role playing, teaching sword fighting and scaring people. His wife came across the Dead Zone 805 Craigslist ad years ago and he’s been volunteering ever since. His extra-long gray hair adds to his creepy clown persona.
He recalled a recent thrill when a guest handed his phone over to have his picture taken with friends. Later, when the guest was going through the pictures, DW was clear as day in the background of one of the pictures. “You son of a bitch!” DW recalled the man yelling, who was visibly shaken by the surprise appearance in the picture.
“It’s one of the wonderful things you didn’t see coming,” DW said.
Laura Harris, 30, of Oxnard, has been volunteering at the Dead Zone for the last two years. Though she plays a twisted, sewn-up D.R.E. Gang member, her love is really in makeup.
“I am able to use my makeup skills,” Harris said. “I was pulled into acting and drama club. I love looking at costumes and makeup and I became a cosmetologist.”
But volunteering at Dead Zone 805 has additional benefits.
“I like hearing screams because you know you are effective,” she said. She added that the Coopers and their other volunteers are like family to her and enable her to be more creative. “I am learning more here than I did there [at another local haunted house].”
Caleigh Wiseman, 16, of Camarillo, has been volunteering as a zombie for the last two years. But her real passion, like Harris’, is doing makeup.
“I love scaring people and doing makeup,” said Wiseman, who shares her horrendously creative work on her titular Instagram account and website. Her model: herself. “Not a lot of my friends are into horror. I like seeing their face when they get scared.”
Wiseman readily admits, however, that she won’t go through the maze herself and hates getting scared.
Ken May, 35, of Ventura plays Dr. Red Eyes, the chainsaw-wielding freak who pushes human suffering to its limits. Outside of the Dead Zone, May works as a professional scare actor, and has played a zombie at Comic-Con. He said that he enjoys the macabre, from death metal bands to horror story podcasts.
“I love scary shit,” May said. “In this kind of environment [at the haunted house], you can kinda be yourself. You can express a darker side and feel comfortable, bringing out a little mania and nihilism. It is really cathartic to get out of your own skin.”
Travis Harkey, 33, of Ventura, who was friends with the Coopers for many years before Dead Zone 805 came to be, works as staff and as a stand-in for May as Dr. Red Eyes, raising a faux chainsaw to frighten guests and using his deep voice to scare them out of his lab.
“It’s kind of fun to be able to get some major aggression out,” he said. “It’s damn near therapeutic.”
Harkey recalled his first year as a zombie actor, when patrons were able to shoot paintballs at him.
“They always aim for the nuts.”
The Coopers have since discontinued that segment of the haunted house.
Woody Evans of Ventura works as a “premier” zombie, one of Dr. Red Eye’s experiments, using his own tragedy — the amputation of his lower left arm — for dramatic effect.
“I was in a drunk driving accident. It pinched meat right off the bone,” Evans said, raising up his amputated arm. “It was turning purple; I was told that I have to cut off.”
Evans is a lighthearted man, who laughed about how having lousy (or rather, a lack of) insurance left him with half an arm. He said that he was considering doing stand-up comedy.
Dominique Martinez, 24, of Ventura; Tyler Harvard, 15, of Ventura; Kimberly Mumford, 43, of Oxnard and others all seem to have similar passions for horror flicks, though they do not all watch the same type. Martinez will watch slasher movies while Tyler loathes films that are too realistic. They all enjoy the thrill of scaring others. Some do not scare easily, while others enjoy being scared as much as they like being on the flipside of that coin.
Liza Thompson, Ventura, has a little different perspective from most. She talked about years of working in hospice and how watching people die had deeply impacted her. She also talked about losing her husband to cancer and keeping her own fight with cancer a secret for some time so as not to shock her family. She is currently in remission. Though she enjoys doing makeup and mainly works behind the scenes, she relayed that it was a nice escape for her.
But in the end, there is no doubt that the volunteers and the Coopers keep coming together year after year because of the sense of family and reunion.
Nelson, 37, got into ghoulish art just in the last eight years, starting at the Pain Parlor when the owner showed him the grisly masks that he had made. From there, Nelson has gone full throttle into creating the grotesque, from masks to set design to Dead Zone 805.
“I like being scared,” he said. “Knowing that you are safe, that’s totally different.”
But his true motivation lies in connection.
“I’ve met a lot of cool people I wouldn’t have met before,” he said. “Bringing everyone together. There was a possibility we weren’t going to do it this year, but I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Nelson and I do it because we have a lot of passion, which drives us to do the hard work,” Kim said. “We see how much fun it is for our scare actors and the people who come to visit. It’s something we work on together as a family. We meet new people we normally wouldn’t meet, and now have new friends who are great people. It’s really hard work, and we sacrifice a lot, but it’s all worth it.”
The author performed as a zombie for two nights, on one of which she terrified a woman so badly that the woman reacted quickly, putting up her hands and hitting the author in the nose — a fright well done. Dead Zone 805 is at 2889 Bunsen Ave., Ventura, Friday and Saturday nights throughout October. For tickets and more information, visit www.deadzone805.com.