• Joe Capozzi

They put the fright into Fright Nights — Proud 'Family of Freaks' celebrates 20 years of scares

Updated: Oct 19



THERE’S A LAWYER, an armored truck courier and a Starbucks barista; a first-grader, a fashion model and a firefighter; a Chipotle cook, an English teacher and a lifeguard; a Marriott marketing rep, a few moms with daughters, and lots and lots of makeup artists.


They’re all part of a proud extended “family of freaks” who start filing in just before 4 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in October, eager to spend the next eight hours in bloody makeup, campy costumes and mischievous spirit.


They’re the “scarers,’’ “haunters” and “scareacters” — to borrow their lingo — who put the fright into Fright Nights, the annual Halloween attraction celebrating its 20th year at the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach.


And they’re just dying to frighten the bejeebers out of you.


Bob Caine Jeffcoat touches up his Boss Bob face backstage at Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022. (Joe Capozzi)


“By day, I’m a mild-mannered accountant. By night, I scare the crap out of people,’’ said Josh Whitman, who plays the creepy greeter “Sprinkles” in Dead of Winter, a haunted house with a twisted nightmare-before-Christmas theme.


Besides Dead of Winter, two other haunts take over the 20,000 square feet inside the fair’s Agriplex this month: the pirates-themed Siren’s Revenge (a sequel to last year’s Curse of the Siren), and Country Bill’s Meat Market (an inaugural Fright Nights 2003 theme inspired by horror-gore classics like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”).


“We have normal jobs during the day,’’ said Karlene Llopis, a Wellington surgical center accountant who portrays maniacal Mrs. Claus, “but we get wicked at night.’’


Outside the haunts, patrons must walk through “scare zones” haunted by scareacters like the chainsaw-wielding maniac played by Brandon Kaminsky, who works as an armored truck courier and musician.


Makeup artist Kristen Patten touches up creepy eye lashes before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)


“It’s fun, just terrorizing people,’’ he said. “I guess it takes a certain type of person to enjoy that, but everybody here enjoys it.’’


The 150 or so scareacters, 120 of whom are paid $11 an hour and assisted by actor coordinator Adriane Hill, are not alone. They’re among 200 creative spirits lurking in the shadows at Fright Nights.


They include a design team that meets in January to plan the themes, a crew that attends the Transworld Halloween and Haunted Attraction trade show in St. Louis in March, and construction workers who arrive in early August to start building the detailed sets (which are taken down after Halloween).


“It's really a herculean effort by a lot of people,’’ said Whitman.


Fright Nights actor David Payne, the greeter at Country Bill's Meat Market, arrives for work on Oct. 15. (Joe Capozzi)


Come October, they are joined by Taylor Doukas and her team of 12 makeup artists, whom many consider the rock stars of Fright Nights.


Armed with an assortment of sweat-resistant makeups, grease paint, silicone, air brushes and sponges, they work nonstop backstage during the three hours before each haunt opens (7 p.m.), turning ordinary folks into evil mermaids, chainsaw victims, creepy clowns and frostbitten carolers.


“It takes about 15 to 20 minutes per person, but we want it to be like 10,’’ makeup artist Kristen Patten said, raising her voice over the sounds of air-compressors (for makeup spray guns), box fans, revving chainsaws and Metallica.


“By far my favorite part of the day,’’ midway scareacter Kyle Smile said as makeup artist Kelly “Vengy” Lasch dabbed red paint on his forehead. “Makes me feel like a god.’’



Some participants are as young as 6, like Sirens actor Pepper McHugh, who said she “started scaring” last year, following the footsteps of her mother, Cori McHugh, who started acting in Fright Nights in 2008.


Others are veterans like Alex Rodriguez, who joined Fright Nights as an actor 19 years ago and now oversees the haunting production as director of operations for the South Florida Fair.


Everyone is driven by a shared fascination for things that go bump in the night.


“To work here, you have to be a little bit of a sadist and a little bit of a masochist,’’ said Lexi Harrington, a private school teacher who portrays a dead siren.


Makeup artist Rin Murphy puts final touches on Sirens actor Lexi Harrington (Joe Capozzi)


“It's definitely a lifestyle,’’ said Brad Cain, a West Palm Beach city maintenance worker, who started working at Fright Nights in 2003, the event’s second year.


Taking into account how The Children’s Museum Haunted House in Indianapolis opened in 1964 and is the longest running haunt in the United States, Fright Nights is a relative youngster with humble beginnings.


“It’s come a long way,’’ said co-founder Jeremy Schroader, who started hosting a haunted house with Cain in 1999 on Lantana Road.


In 2000, they moved their haunt to the 400 block of Clematis Street, for the next three years turning the long gone D&D Center (currently the West Palm Beach City Hall and library) into a $20,000 production called A Haunting Experience.


October, 2002 (Palm Beach Post via Newspapers.com)

Schroader and Cain were still spinning cobwebs on Clematis when Fright Nights hosted its first event at the fairgrounds in 2002. “Their construction team asked us to come out and give them pointers,’’ Cain said.


“The next year, they asked us to do the event because their guy was not able to do it. That’s where it started and it hasn’t stopped.’’


Today, Fright Nights has a $1 million production budget and is one of more than 1,200 haunted attractions in the United States, including about 80 in Florida, according to the websites America Haunts and Florida Haunted Houses.


Ruling the $300 million haunted attractions industry are Godzillas like Haunted Overload in Lee, N.H., 13th Gate in Baton Rogue, La., Netherworld in Stone Mountain, Ga., and Florida’s top dog Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando.


(L-R) Fright Nights co-founders Jeremy Schroeder and Brad Cain with creative director Craig McInnis backstage Oct. 13, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)


“We are just standing in the shadows of these Goliath-like events,’’ said artist Craig McInnis, the creative director at Fright Nights. “I’d say we are nestled securely in the middle of the pack.’’

But he said the West Palm Beach show casts an exceptionally dark shadow over rival Sunshine State haunts from the Panhandle to the Keys.


“I would give us scariest in Florida for sure,’’ he said. “What we mostly concentrate on are scares. The sets are beautiful, even though they are tear-down, but the scares are our main concern.’’


A large production like Halloween Horror Nights attracts throngs, but those crowds can hinder what McInnis calls the scare experience.


“I don't want to say anything disparaging about them, but you are in a conga line, and to me that is a weakness for scares,’’ he said.


Makeup artist Maya Suchy turns Korei Trevino into a dead siren (Joe Capozzi)


Using its relatively small size to its advantage, Fright Nights limits tours to groups of eight to 12 visitors at a time. Visitors pay $40 to stroll in virtual darkness through a maze of rooms in each haunt, unaware of the scareacters lurking almost directly behind, beside and above them.


“The actors have an easier time of enveloping the groups in a scenario where they can actually get scared,’’ he said. “There's a good dozen gags that are repeated in different variations, but they are tried and true so we go to those same wells every year.’’


While it may take just five minutes to walk through Country Bill’s Meat Market, for many visitors it can be a long and terrifying five minutes.


“We get hair pieces on the floor. Vomit. We overhear people walking through the haunt telling their friends, ‘I just peed my pants,’’’ Cain said with a prideful grin.


Fright Nights scareactor Kyle Smile greets visitors on Oct. 15, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)

“The best part,'' Cain said, "is opening night, standing outside the haunts we created and listening to the reactions of the first couple of crowds. Then we know whether we need to dial it up or dial it back. We almost always dial it up.’’


But they know when to dial it down. They make sure to direct their scares away from small children. They never touch visitors. And they always try to improvise new scares on each group, jumping from behind a wall for one, out of a dark corner for another.


“It’s a constant stream of people coming through and everybody paid the same price, so everybody’s got to get the same scare,’’ said Cain.


While it’s all fun and entertainment, the crew take its scaring seriously, a strive-for-perfection approach that starts long before the houses start haunting at 7 p.m.


Brandon Kaminsky terrorizes the scare zones and midway at Fright Nights (Photo by @TylerHaunts)


When Sirens designer Beck Osborne was shown the photograph at the top of this story, of scowling Sirens scareacter Rain Knowth, she shrieked disapproval: Natural skin, without makeup, was visible on the arms! (The photograph was taken before the makeup had been completed; by showtime, Knowth’s fair arms were all zombied out.)


The Fright Nights staff incentivizes the actors with a “prize closet,’’ a post-Saturday night ritual where the weekend’s best scarers are rewarded chances to take home gaming systems, blue-tooth speakers and other goodies.


During the weekend performances, McInnis and other creative team members sneak into the haunts as undercover judges, mixing in with the groups of visitors to assess the performances of individual scarers.


Monsters on the midway: Sirens scareacters chill out before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)

“If they are kicking ass, we give them a ticket,’’ he said. “They write their name on the tickets and throw them into the squirrel cage” where tickets are selected. “The more tickets they get, the better chance they get at the 12 prizes someone can walk away with.’’


Most actors don’t need encouragement to get into character. But they get it, anyway.


As the crowds start lining up each night outside the entrances to the three haunts (behind gates marked “R.I.P waiting area”), the entire Fright Nights crew gathers backstage for a nightly pep rally led by McInnis.



Last Saturday’s rally started around 6:40 p.m. when the PA system boomed to life with “Bohemian Rhapsody,’’ the Queen classic whose opening lyrics pay eerie homage to Fright Nights:


Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?


After more than 150 costumed actors danced and sang along to the song — an enthusiastic bunch momentarily formed a mosh pit — McInnis took the mike and reminded everyone that their “first big fat juicy Saturday” promised to be a busy night.

“You still need to do what you do best, which is scare the hell out of people,’’ he said.


A few minutes before 7 p.m., Fright Nights veteran David Gricius screamed into the mike like Nick Saban in a crazy butcher costume.


By day, Fright Nights actor David Gricius works in quality control for an aerospace engineering company (Joe Capozzi)


“Are you ready to scare the hell out of South Florida?”


The backstage ensemble replied with a thunderous roar.


“Who are we?” Gricius yelled.


“Fight Nights!”


“What are we?”


“A family of freaks!”


“Now go scare the shit out of everybody, everybody!’’


 

Gallery: Behind the Scenes at Fright Nights 2022 👻


Sirens scareacter Pepper McHugh, 6

Fright Nights scareacter Hailey Bert and makeup artist Giavanna Fida on Oct. 15, 2022


Josh Whitman as "Sprinkles," the maniacal greeter at Dead of Winter (Joe Capozzi)


Makeup artist Kristen Patten rocks out backstage with Gabriella Llopis on Oct. 13, 2022



Gathering for the pep rally before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022


Pepper McHugh, 6, makes a new friend backstage at Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)




Fright Nights scareacter Nikki Laabs (photo by @TylerHaunts)




Crazy clown Serge Mardy relaxes backstage before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022



Makeup artist Conner Manweiler applies zombie hair on Rain Knowth



Jonathan Seth, an attorney by day, gets int o character before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022

Deputy makeup coordinator Olivia Garcia applies a bloody gash on a Fright Nights scareactor



Skye Rose, a fashion model, gets into character before Fright Nights on Oct. 13, 2022



"It gets me out of the house,'' Country Bill's scareactor Kevin Wimer said before Frights Nights on Oct. 13, 2022



Gabriella Llopis and makeup artist Kristen Patten



Kody Pennock



Kelly Lasch turns Kyle Smile into Fright Nights midway greeter "Dirty K"






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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.







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