The lifeless, eerie gaze of dozens of dolls is upon me, but I have conditioned myself to be unmoved. My own eyes locked on those of a sinister-looking porcelain figure directly across from me, I practice sitting completely upright on the twin-sized bed, my arms and legs extended at unnatural angles to mimic the doll’s pose.
Plastic knife in hand, I remind myself not to blink as a buzzer sounds in a nearby hallway at Darkside Productions’ Haunted House in Wading River, signaling that a group of thrill-seekers is seconds away.
As their dark silhouettes round the corner, I lock my arms and legs into place and stare straight ahead, lips slightly upturned and heart beating rapidly.
“Is she fake?” I hear a young boy ask his friends, who cautiously begin examining me from a distance.
Do it now, I think.
“Wanna play?” I yell dementedly, rising suddenly from the bed.
They scream and laugh before rushing to the house of horror’s next room. I sit back down on the bed in preparation for the next group when fellow actor Brenna Bennett, 17, of Mount Sinai hurries over to me.
“How was that?” I ask nervously.
“It was good,” she says before retreating to a curtained closet. “But you have to be louder.”
Last year, when Darkside owner Mike Meola suggested I act for one night at his 17-year-old Route 25A attraction and then write a firsthand account of the experience, I was interested — but noncommittal.
“Yeah, that would be fun!” I told him.
As the months passed, I gradually forgot about his offer. But two weeks ago, my boyfriend, Jonathan, mentioned it in passing.
“Are you ever going to take him up on it?” he asked. “I think you should.”
I wasn’t sure if Meola, a carpenter who transforms an old potato barn and surrounding field into a haven of horrors each fall, would even remember the conversation we had 12 months ago. But he was enthusiastic when I approached him about the idea.
“Definitely,” he said. “How’s next Friday?”
“I, uh … Yeah, that’s fine!” I told him.
“Great,” he said. “But you have to be able to bring it.”
“I will,” I assured him, not sure what I was getting myself into. “I’ll bring it.”
One week later, it was time to make good on my promise.
Around 6:30 p.m., I threw on the teal-colored dress Darkside manager Cathy Gillette handed me and closed my eyes as makeup artist Jake Rose airbrushed my face a ghoulish shade of bluish-white and used stencils to create fake gashes, scratches and bruises. Nearby, other actors — around 30 of us in total — were transformed into zombies, evil clowns and the like.
“What’s your number one piece of advice for me?” I asked Meola.
“Pace yourself,” he said. “If you scream and go crazy for the first couple of groups, you’re going to wear yourself out. And we want every group, whether they’re the first or the last, to have the same show.”
Cough drops and bottled water, I quickly discovered, were the key to preserving my voice as long as possible.
When my makeup was finished, Gillette introduced me to Brenna, whose pupils had been creepily erased for the night with a pair of specialized contact lenses, and told me we would be working together in the haunted house’s “doll room,” a new attraction this year.
Dolls! Go figure. I had been traumatized by the movie “Child’s Play” at the tender age of 4 and still have a visceral, negative reaction to the playthings.
“Well, I guess that’s good for the story,” I said, laughing nervously.
Thirty minutes later, it was show time.
Meola joined me in the doll room to help get me into character. Chucky, the demonic figure from “Child’s Play,” grinned maliciously at us while a disconcerting lullaby played overhead.
Meola explained that each room of his 3,000-square-foot haunted house has a fictional backstory. On this night, I was to play the part of a little girl who, after her parents were murdered, had become obsessed with tearing off her dolls’ heads and hanging them on her bedroom wall.
“You’ve been in here so long you’re sort of becoming a doll,” he said before disappearing into the shadows.
At Darkside, visitors must make their way through a 10,000-square-foot haunted village before entering the house. The doll room would be their first stop inside.
Brenna, dressed in a knee-length frock and pigtails, told me her job was to hide behind a curtain in a nearby hallway as attendees ventured into the house, then sneak up behind them and scream. She would then lead guests into the doll room, imploring them to “play” with our impressive collection of toys.
“Grab a doll; stay a while!” she’d shriek before cackling maniacally.
This went on until midnight, when a veteran actor informed us the last group had made its way into the house.
In the beginning, I felt like I did a pretty lame job of spooking customers, but Brenna assured me that was to be expected.
“You’ll get more into it as the night goes on,” she said.
As the hours progressed, and my voice steadily weakened from constant shrieking, that’s exactly what happened. I began feeling comfortable scaring people — even if they were sometimes less than freaked out by me. I got used to hearing the other actors repeat lines like “Time for shock therapy!” and “Let me out!” from their respective rooms.
Even Chucky, leading man of my most terrifying childhood nightmares, began to feel like an old friend by the end of the night.
An old friend who probably tried to kill me when I wasn’t looking, but a friend nonetheless.
Darkside Productions’ Haunted House is located at 5184 Route 25A in Wading River. Call 631-369-7227 for more information.