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Frightworld gives new meaning to theatre

Buffalo’s No. 1 haunted attraction proves to be more than just costumes and makeup


Frightworld may just be open for one month out of the year, but making Buffalo’s No. 1 haunted attraction takes a lot of careful planning.

Stephen Szortyka, general manager of Frightworld, said that even during the off-season, the haunted attraction is still his full-time job.

“This whole operation starts a year ago,” Szortyka said.

Frightworld is a month-long production with a full cast and crew, dedicated to entertaining thrill-seekers and shocking the timid. Although the premise is the same, each year has its own unique assembly of story lines and scene selections. Some might think it takes as little effort as flipping the light switch, revealing a display of creepy clown masks and gory remains in the exact spots as the previous year. But, similar to theatre and film productions, haunted houses require long periods of planning and construction.

It’s actually a year-round business.

Frightworld is tucked in the corner of Youngman Plaza in a former BJ’s lot and was voted scariest haunted attraction in both 2013 and 2014. The premier scream park now offers a new interactive flashlight experience, “Night Stalkers,” heightening the allure of a chilling theatrical performance.

Before the sets are constructed, costumes are designed and actors are hired, the company explores ideas and concepts that are different from previous years.

“A bunch of us sit around a table pretty much and shoot ideas to each other,” Szortyka said. “And everybody builds off of it.”

The build crew, owners, management team, makeup team, design staff, costume staff and even actors attend the meetings and propose fresh ideas that haven’t been implemented in Buffalo or across the industry.

Once members agree on initial concepts, the owners and management have to find an available building. They will then begin working with local contractors to create a floor plan.

“We consistently challenge ourselves to do better than what we’ve done in the past in creating new and unique ideas,” Szortyka said.

From there, management will conduct “interviews” or auditions for desired applicants.

“We focus on stepping out of your comfort zone and [applicants] unique ability for movements and sounds,” Szortyka said.

He added that applicants must also show that they want to learn more about the fear business.

“The experience was like trying out for a theatre play – showing them you have the talents, movement, improvisation and projection vocals to do it,” said Sean Sanders, an 8-year veteran of the team. “They had me walk from wall to wall as different monsters.”

He first auditioned as a zombie, then a killer clown. His third role was a monster possessed by a demon.

Frightworld requires more than an audition, however, as employees are obliged to attend “Boo School,” a 4-hour orientation that teaches useful scaring techniques.

This process “teaches character utilization and string theory,” Szortyka said.

String theory, a term most often associated with the study of physics, is considered one of the many possible explanations for ghostly phenomena.

To grasp even a fraction of the theory helps employees act more frightening.

Szortyka said 85 percent of Frightworld’s actors have theatrical backgrounds. Some employees, like Sanders, have performed in high school drama clubs, college theatre, or local films and their talents are “completely unrecognized.”

“It’s definitely a great acting experience whether you do acting for a living or like to try it out,” Sanders said.

To Sanders, Frightworld is similar to a Disney theme park in that everyday actors can go to work dressed as some other character and spend hours imitating them. But in this case, it’s with a haunted theme.

Frightworld draws large crowds during the Halloween season, so they have to be prepared to impress.

“It’s our job to keep them entertained,” Sanders said.

Buffalo’s highest-ranked haunted attraction leaves room for improvement each year.

“It allows all of these people to come in here and really expand their horizons and push out their skills and assets,” Szotyka said.

Andrew Lavin has contributed to the theatricality of Frightworld for the past seven years as a makeup artist.

Graduating in 2007 from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor’s in Special Effects and Industrial Design, Lavin is a multi-faceted artist with a particular interest in the haunt industry.

“Fruit bowls and landscapes got really old real fast,” Lavin said, “so I’ve always been into this.”

Halloween, costumes, and scary movies mixed with a passion for art led him to where he is now. During his time at the Art Institute, Lavin worked as a makeup artist for independent films. He found that he was truly infatuated with creating art on a person’s face.

“Every single actor is unique and different,” he said. “Even if you are doing a similar makeup scheme, if you are doing it on a different person, it’s a whole different ballpark.”

This year, he made a custom silicone pullover mask for Eric Haeusser, nicknamed “Tiny,” Frightworld’s almost 7-foot, 500-pound actor.

Lavin worked on the mask, sculpting, molding and casting, for a total of 60 to 70 hours for about a month.

“ I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re different,” he said, “because we put that time in, where other haunts will say, ‘Just buy props and screw them to a wall.’”

Frightworld’s five separate houses form one theatrical performance. The time, work and dedication put into its production are what make it a collaborative experience, entertaining and engaging to its audience.

To Szortyk, Lavin and Sanders, the houses are their stage and the inside is their set.

Frightworld is open until Nov. 1.

Alexandra Saleh is an arts staff writer. Arts can be reached at 

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