A spirited affair: “Fright Night” draws mix of actors, Halloween enthusiasts


Kurt Miller

courtesy of Kurt Miller

By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer

For some people, Halloween doesn’t end with childhood.

Every fall season for the past 14 years, local amusement park Kennywood has drawn actors with varying experience to dress up and scare visitors during its Halloween-themed events, Phantom Fright Nights, which spooks visitors every Friday and Saturday in October. 

“Fright Nights are a unique time of the year as far as who comes out to apply,” said Scott Sypien, one of the managers who oversees the haunted attractions during this season.

Though high school and college students dominate the staff during the summer, Fright Nights attract a smattering of enthusiastic performers.

One of them is Eilaina Velan, a senior chemical engineering major at Pitt, who has worked at Fright Nights for six straight years.

“It’s really something that I can’t miss, it’s honestly the only thing that makes me consider staying in Pittsburgh when I graduate,” she said. 

Despite earning a managerial position after her first two years scaring visitors, Velan’s primary Fright Nights occupation is still performing, particularly as two characters — a Predator-like creature with fangs and Pinky, an insane asylum escapee who rides a scooter and carries an umbrella.

Velan said Pinky draws the most violent reactions, sometimes causing visitors to break out into a frightened sprint.

Fright Nights lure actors of all ages and experience, according to Sypien, who conducts the auditions for scarer positions.

“We have 16-year-olds where it’s their first job ever … we have young adults who just love Halloween … and then we actually have some older retirees who have worked here for a number of years and have awesome characters,” he said.

Applicants submit an interview and audition before going through training to prepare to interact with the few thousand people who attend any given Fright Night.

In the weeks before October, newbie scarers prepare in a classroom-style orientation to learn the expectations and appropriate behavior, such as how to engage visitors without touching them, as well as types of scares and how to apply them effectively.

The scarers then perform a dress rehearsal, where inexperienced actors pair with veterans to learn their specific station’s workings and props.

Once they learn the ropes, employees tend to stick around.

“We’ve had people who have been coming back as a specific character, some for [the] 14 years that Fright Nights has been in existence,” said Nick Paradise, a Kennywood spokesperson. “We have about 250 actors this year, and a large number of those are returning.”

One of them is Sypien, a 2001 Pitt graduate, who worked as a Kennywood ride operator in the summer during his college years.

He joined the Fright Nights team for fun and extra cash, but is now one of its three highest managers. Fright Nights has developed a loyal employee base, like Sypien and Velan, which Sypien credits to the visitors’ reactions.

“It’s a kind of adrenaline rush,” Sypien said. “When you get a good scare, when you see somebody jump up in the air, or grab onto their boyfriend or girlfriend, or yell out some kind of exclamation, it’s rewarding. I think people enjoy it just for the reactions that they get.”

Applicants’ auditions and personalities mainly determine their position within the park. Kennywood also assigns actors based on their comfort as an inside or outside scarer — the latter involving much more public interaction walking around the park as opposed to a single spot performers keep inside pop-up booths.

According to Kennywood spokesperson Nick Paradise, previous experience is hardly required to be part of Fright Nights — there’s only one universal trait.

“Above all, it’s passion,” he said.

Not all actors come into the job ready to out-scare Freddy Krueger, however.

“It’s amazing how someone can get hired — and they may not be the most outgoing or loud or boisterous,” Sypien said. “But once they get into this and they find their niche, they really develop a character. So if they do come back later, that person has this whole identity for Fright Nights as opposed to who they are the other 350 days out of the year.”

Velan, who lives a self-described “under-a-rock” academic lifestyle studying chemical engineering, said Fright Nights are the “one thing I look forward to every  year.”

Fright Nights’ Halloween spirit doesn’t escape even the top bosses, however. Despite his bigger responsibilities, Sypien enjoys donning the makeup and costume whenever he gets the chance.

“On nights that go smooth I do like to get in character for a little while — it’s certainly an exhilarating time,” he said. 

After visiting the 10 haunted attractions at least twice per night — to check on the actors and offer them feedback — Sypien uses his spare time to slip into some of his favorite characters.

The first character is what he approximates to a dead Willie Nelson, where he uses the strumming of a guitar as a way to startle guests. The other is a giant angry ear of corn, which he often uses to scare people in the corn stalks.

“I actually have regular ears of corn that I use for my hands,” he said. “I hold the end of an ear and let it stick out of my jacket.”

Velan finds a similar joy in her work. Aside from the “family” she has found in her coworkers, the best parts for her are the interactions with patrons.

“I know it might sound a little sadistic or weird wanting to go in and scare people,” she said, “But it’s really for the laughs that people get when they get scared.”

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