MASON -- By day, Dan Fread is just a "regular Joe," a family man who works as an electrician and goes home to his house in the suburbs.
But come Friday and Saturday nights each fall, this mild-mannered Liberty Township father of two transforms into the stuff of nightmares.
It's all in a day's work at Kings Island, where more than 600 "scareactors" prowl the hair-raising mazes and fog-shrouded streets during Halloween Haunt, all with one singular goal: to scare the daylights out of you.
The annual gorefest, which runs through Oct. 31, offers 11 haunted mazes and four outdoor scare zones in what has become one of the largest live theater productions in Ohio.
Bringing the frights to life requires a skilled mix of improvisational acting skills, an understanding of human psychology, lots of physical endurance and a talent for terror.
'The Reactions You Get Are Hilarious'
It's the third round for Fread, who plays a scareactor (rhymes with "character") resembling the Swamp Thing emerging from the pond scum-laden backwaters of a Louisiana bayou-inspired scare zone.
"This is an outlet," he said. "I get to scare other people and the reactions you get are hilarious."
Hundreds of people each year audition for one of the coveted scareactor roles, said park spokesman Don Helbig.
Most aren't professional actors, he said. They're college students, office workers, grandparents, housewives and Little League coaches who share a twisted love of the macabre and a desire to bring the nightmares of strangers to life.
Cake decorator Marcia White came to Halloween Haunt three years ago after seeing how much fun her fiancé, four-year Haunt veteran Fred Radcliffe, had in tingling spines.
The Elmwood Place couple now work together as blood-thirsty pigs in the Slaughterhouse maze, in which humans transform into livestock.
"I like the rush of it," said Radcliffe, who is positioned in front of a table laden with bloody intestines. "People don't know if I'm fake or not. I'll charge after them, or if they think I'm fake, I'll let them get close to me and then I'll jump out at 'em."
"It's a great opportunity to get rid of a lot of stress," added White. "You expend a lot of energy and giving good scares makes you real happy."
Learning The Art Of The Scare
Scareactors first spend several days learning various techniques in the art of scares and cultivating their otherworldly personas before heading out in the park.
"There's a learning curve on the right way to do it," explained Helbig. "You have to learn the proper way to approach a guest and a certain way to make a bigger impact."
Fread said he often disguises himself as a background prop and lurks in dark corners before lunging out at unsuspecting passers-by. He and fellow maze monsters also team up to double-down on the frights.
"You find out somebody's name and pass it down the line and call it out, and it freaks people out," he said. "Or one of us will distract them while the other sneaks up behind them."
Matt Lovell works in the same attraction as a demented Creole plantation owner who has risen from the dead. The Sharonville horror fan says he prefers the psychological spook to traditional shock-scares.
"I let them pass me and then get right up behind them and talk in a high-pitched voice," he said. "They see you there and they're still scared by what you say and how you move."
Fread said he gets a special thrill in scaring guests who try to pass themselves off as unscareable. He even keeps a running tally of how many "big, burly guys" he's able to knock down in sheer fright.
"I scared this guy so good I thought I gave him a heart attack," he said. "He grabbed his chest, let out a squeal and hit the ground. At first I thought, 'Holy crap, I think I just killed somebody.' Then he smiled and popped up and walked away. I punked him in front of his girl, so he was trying to play it off so that he didn't get made fun of too bad."
Helbig said 55 percent to 65 percent of Halloween Haunt scareactors are returning employees.
Pam Stephan started nine years ago as a scareactor who roamed the midway before moving behind the scenes as a makeup artist. The Fairfield Township executive assistant handily transforms dozens of actors each night into snarling werewolves, mutated monsters, killer misfits and other assorted freaks.
"There's just something about it," she said, taking a break from the assembly line of gore. "We're like one big creepy family."
Kings Island's Halloween Haunt
When: Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. until Oct. 31.
Where: 6300 Kings Island Drive, Mason
Cost: Tickets start at $29.99
Information: www.visitkingsisland.com/haunt, 513-754-5700.