The term scare actor refers to the costumed entertainers lurking in the halls of any Halloween haunted house event. (Legend has it, it was coined by Universal for their Halloween Horror Nights personnel.) Giannoutsos started out doing that, but has also flexed her skills as a makeup and prop artist and a business manager in her years on the job.
She shared some secrets with Orlando Weekly on the gory innards of the life of a scare actor, including how a scare actor measures success.
“Most scare actors look for a trifecta of personal trophies,” she says. “These personal trophies are things like fainting, puking, peeing, pooping or just freaking out.”
Though she’s as friendly and congenial as can be, there’s a glee in Giannoutsos’ retellings of hard-knock stories on the job, a kind of playful sadism when an annoying customer gets what’s coming to them.
“I was at the end of this old ride,” she recalls. “At the exit, they have columns. I’m standing there in a tank top, ripped-up jeans. I’m bored out of my brain, because it’s about 11:30 at night. This girl comes up, she’s maybe 17. She says, ‘I’m not afraid of you, you’re just a chunky chick in makeup.’ I’m like, eh, I don’t care, go away.
“She keeps talking and talking, and I kinda notice I make her jump just a little bit. I grunted at her, then she jumped. I went, there it is. I turned around and screamed. She starts screaming, she starts bouncing … I start bouncing with her. She completely and utterly freaks out. She turns to run and, bam! She runs right into the column. Ooh, that’s got to hurt. I went ‘Medic!’ and I walked away. I never looked back. Faceplant. It was a beautiful thing.
“You need to be twisted, warped and a little messed-up in the head. I mean, not everyone enjoys a full faceplant like I do,” she concludes. “You mess with us, we’ll mess with you. As hard as we can.”
But Giannoutsos has made quite a life from her twisted and warped mind. Her beginnings date back to Kissimmee in 1998 at the Haunted Mansion.
She remembers distinctly the look of that big gray castle, long since torn down, drawing her in when she was 19 and broke, traversing 192 in Kissimmee.
“They had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” she says. “I needed an extra job. I was making $6.48 an hour. I wasn’t even bringing home rent. I couldn’t even afford transportation to get to the job I had.”
So she applied for the job and got it. She was never a fan of horror movies growing up and still isn’t now, she says: “That stuff gave me panic attacks.”
So she remembers the early days at the Haunted Mansion being a marathon of learning. She got the ropes down on how to time a scare, when to stay quiet and how to create a character that matched her costume.
And she never stopped.
Since then, she’s done time at several major theme park Halloween attractions as well as more Do-It-Yourself local operations – she’s worked at the Haunted Grimm House, Halloween Horror Nights, A Petrified Forest and Mortem Manor.
“I’m a Jack-of-all-haunted-trades,” she says.
This year Giannoutsos is managing the fledgling Sanford Screams house in its first year of existence. Seated in a Sanford strip mall right off State Road 417 as one drives up 17-92 into the city, it looks like just another storefront from the outside, sandwiched by a furniture store, a dermatologist and a supermarket.
When one enters the lobby, they’re greeted by haunting, blaring funeral organ tones and a casket with a man-pig hybrid lying “dead” inside.
Inside, it’s a winding maze of black-painted walls, fog and strobe lights, with actors disguised as clowns, butchers and zombies lurking around every corner.
Giannoutsos banters with a tall, slender man in a black suit and a horned devil mask, the two exchanging playful barbs as the house opens for the evening.
It’s easy to make friends on the job, she says. At Kissimmee’s Haunted Grimm House some years ago, she met a young man named Michelangelo Baretto. He was brand-new that year, but Giannoutsos heard from the manager that things weren’t working out with him.
“The owner did not like his work,” she says. “And, the owner came to me and said, you know, Terri, we’re not going to schedule him anymore, because I don’t like what he does. I said OK. I didn’t know him yet.”
But then things changed.
“Over the next few days, him and I worked together a few times,” she continued. “He didn’t have a car yet because he was young. He asked me for a ride home. Well, he turned out to be that guy who was just, no judgment. So this was the friend I needed at the time, because he didn’t judge me for who I was, what size I was, or anything,” she says. Baretto revealed himself to be a kind soul, understanding and accepting of her as a lesbian. The two bonded fast and she knew she couldn’t let him be fired.
“I wasn’t supposed to tell him, but I was like, ‘Hey listen, our boss is going to fire you.’ And I went to the boss and said, ‘How about we train him and see how he does?’ And he said OK.”
After a few nights of training, Giannoutsos proposed a team-up with Baretto.
“The lights are low and flickering, and there’s a lot of ambient noise,” she says. “I’m in this old tuxedo, and I’m sitting in an old highback chair, legs together. The lights are flickering, I’m still as a statue. Now for approximately three or four minutes, they’re trying to figure out the riddle. Part of the group is freaked out because Mike is standing there, staring them down, licking a lollipop and giggling. And the other half is staring at me going ‘That’s real? No, that ain’t real. It’s not real. Touch it …’ And when they find the door, I jump up and go, ‘I’M REAL!!!’ Every one of ’em, all 14, drop to the ground. You’re supposed to take 15 minutes to walk through that house. I think they were in and out in four.”
She and Baretto have been best friends ever since, she says.
This year, Baretto is visible in the Sanford Screams house clad in overalls, blood on his face, wielding a butcher’s blade and screaming threats at passersby about cooking them for dinner.
But not everything in the world of scare actors and haunts is all morbid fun and games.
Giannoutsos describes pettiness, mistreatment and backstabbing at times in various haunts she’s worked. Some houses tell scare actors they can’t work for competing houses in the area, even though Giannoutsos says that’s a common way for scare actors to make extra bucks and often the dates don’t even conflict.
At one haunt, which she says she won’t ever do again, the scare actors were not allowed breaks or water bottles even through the long hours standing at their posts.
Things can get physical inside a haunt. And as a woman, she says, harassment was common.
“You’ve got to be strong to be a scare actor,” she says. “You’ve got to be strong enough to take a hit, in case you’re bumped into or hit. And you’ve got to be thick-skinned. There are people who are jerks. Being female, men hit on you and say nasty things. Old people, you wouldn’t believe the things they say ….”
For all of these reasons, the turnover rate, even in the middle of Halloween season, can be high.
“Some of these small haunts will hire 40 actors at the beginning of a season, and they’ll end with 23,” she says. “Universal Studios [might] start with 2,000 and end up with 1,300.”
Asked how they deal with the losses, Giannoutsos says it’s no big deal.
“We call it the fire crew,” she says. “We’re back-ups.”
And what of the ones that do stick around?
“We’re family,” Giannoutsos says. “A twisted and warped family.”
She says they keep in touch year-round. They’re enthusiasts who live and breathe horror and haunted houses.
“A lot of us have been doing this 10 or 12 years,” she says. “We’ll stay friends. We stay in touch and look for new houses and go, ‘Let’s visit this or that.’ We want to see what different houses are doing.”
They also band together when their comrades need help. When one haunted house, St. Augustine’s Warehouse 31, was hurting after recent hurricanes, they decided to do a lip-sync challenge to raise money and awareness for them. Often, lip-sync challenges go viral online and can lead to more awareness and thus more funds for businesses that do them, Giannoutsos says.
“It’s silly, but it’s good for team-building,” she says. “It’s positive interaction.”
It’s a strong, connected network, she says, and everyone talks to one another. If a house acts unethically, they tell each other about it.
Giannoutsos says her time spent as a scare actor, that one macabre month every year, has enriched her whole life. She’s gained new friends, found new business opportunities and grown as an artist with props and makeup as well as improving her acting abilities.
And what is her goal when she steps into the dark of a haunt to wait for unsuspecting paying customers to walk through her maze?
“The big thing is to be someone’s story,” she says. “Like, ‘Last year when I went to this haunted house, this weird-looking guy scared me so bad, I did this.’ Or ‘Last year, I went to the theme park, and this tree creature scared me so bad, I peed my pants.’ Be someone’s story. That’s been the biggest thing.”