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I Spook People on Halloween for a Living

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I always knew that writing and visual arts would be unpredictable career paths. But I’ve discovered that there is one thing that I can always count on: dead bodies.

As the art director for the “Scare Zones” at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, I oversee the zombies and ghouls that overtake sections of the park every October. I was just 18 when I started working at Universal. In the fall of 1980, I graduated from high school in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and was trying to find a job. My sister heard the theme park was hiring so I went in for an interview. Later that same day, I was being fitted for a costume for a full-time job playing the Phantom of the Opera.

It was a perfect job for me: I grew up on horror movies and made haunted houses in backyards and basements with my childhood friends. Over time, my character resume grew to include the Wolfman, a mummy, and my crowning achievement, Beetlejuice.

Over the years, the park grew and so did the creative opportunities. I started building props for the performers and created a few small street shows. At the time, we had a lot of classic Hollywood look-alike performers. So my job could involve finding a giant rubber fish for “Laurel and Hardy” or enlisting park guests to do a screen test with “Humphrey Bogart.”

A seed for my current work was first planted in 1996 when I saw an Ed Kienholz exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. Kienholz was an installation and assemblage sculptor who took found objects—car parts, broken dolls, damaged furniture—and reassembled them into works of art. He relied on a screw gun, not a paintbrush. That was a concept I could wrap my hands around. I started to create my own assemblage work.

By the early 2000s, I was a part of a small department at Universal called Entertainment Production that creates special displays and events in the park. No event is more special than our annual Halloween Horror Nights, where I have the opportunity to scare up to thousands of people a night.

In addition to the usual rides, weekend nights in October feature mazes based on movies or TV shows, such as The Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator, and An American Werewolf in London.

There are also five Scare Zones that act as “warm ups” to the mazes. Scare Zones are dimly lit, fog-filled streets overrun with actors who have one job and one job only: to scare the crap out of you. And it’s my job to ensure that happens.

That’s where the dead bodies come in.

In mid-May or so, I meet with the event’s creative director and the head art director to hash out ideas. They oversee the creative content for all the mazes as well as the Walking Dead Scare Zone. As with the mazes, our first options are films or television shows related to the studio, which is one reason why New York Street has been overrun for the last two years by crazed mobs inspired by the Purge films. Occasionally our marketing department plays a role in the process: Halloween fans got to vote on a theme for our French Village Street this year. Sometimes I’ll do Internet searches on the history of London, disasters, notorious criminals, or ghost stories to get ideas. This year, the overwhelming favorite zone was an idea I pitched: “Dark Christmas.” Evil elves, Krampus (the half-goat demon who frightens children into being nice), and a scary Santa Claus all ran amok down our version of London’s Baker Street.

My budget is tight so I reuse a lot of stuff year after year. For example, I once repurposed some killer clowns into zombie hookers. Some of our dead bodies are brand new, but we also have “veteran” bodies held together with tape and hot glue. There is nothing you can’t accomplish with a screw gun, a roll of gaff tape, and a bag of zip ties.

I often work high-art or folk-art flourishes into the designs. The concept that received the most audience votes for French Street this year was “Mask-A-Raid”: a horde of cannibals masquerading as French aristocrats. I arranged French aristocrats at a massive table laden with fruits, vegetables, and human body parts in the spirit of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and the grotesque tableaux of contemporary photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. A string quartet of skeletons is playing violins and cellos behind them. In 2010, I created a Scare Zone inspired by the Mexican folk legend “La Llorona,” the “Weeping Woman” who is searching for her dead children.

This year’s Halloween event is winding down. All I do now is periodically walk through to check for damage and readjust the lights. I can relax until November when it all gets packed up for next year.

Patrick Quinn is a mixed-media artist living in Los Angeles. More of his art can be seen here. Universal City’s Halloween Horror Nights continue through Nov. 2. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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