A Look Behind The Scenes As Haunted Houses Try To Get The Perfect Scream

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Americans pay about $400 million a year to be scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Laughter) Too late now.

MCEVERS: No doubt many of us will be visiting haunted houses, spooky theme parks and trails of terror this weekend. To get an idea of what goes into making one of these, NPR's Adelina Lancianese went behind the scenes of a haunted farm just outside Washington, D.C.

ADELINA LANCIANESE, BYLINE: For 40 years, Cox Farms has been known for its produce. But since siblings Lucas and Aaron Cox took over the farm in 2008, their biggest moneymaker has been Fields of Fear. It lasts a month and includes three haunts - a dark forest, a dizzying corn maze and a sinister hayride. This year, they've brought in the clowns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Laughter) Come play me.

LANCIANESE: Lucas Cox takes me through the new finale to the scary hayride on his golf cart.

LUCAS COX: So you'll have to use your imagination a little bit because it's not dark out.

LANCIANESE: The theme is the lost circus. Clown dummys guard the entrance of a drive-through barn. A sensor catches our movement, and suddenly...

Oh, my God.

...More clown dummies drop from the ceiling head-first. But as I later learn in scare training, props alone a haunt does not make. Haunts need people, and those people need to be scary.

(CROSSTALK)

LANCIANESE: Scare training starts a month before the opening of Fields of Fear. Nearly 75 teenagers crowd around tables, listening to Aaron Cox.

AARON COX: Yes to fright, scare, shock, startle, implied violence, stage blood, witches, ghouls, skeletons. No slashers, guts and gore, physical or mental handicaps, sex, nudity, drugs and alcohol. So we're a classy place. I mean, that's what we're going...

LANCIANESE: And then it's on to scare training

L. COX: All right, everybody. Follow me. Let's go. Follow me.

LANCIANESE: Lucas leads them into the forest, maybe the scariest of Cox Farms' three haunts. It's a torturous trek through "Deliverance"-esque woods where trainers wait to teach each group of actors a different scare technique.

NANCY MEADE: The most important thing to learn about scares is your body movement.

LANCIANESE: One trainer leads scaring in open space. Then another teaches how to scare from behind.

KATRINA FOARD: OK. You pop out here. They get their senses down. They're getting to that exit. You pop them again at the exit.

LANCIANESE: Katrina Foard tells the students she's an experienced scare actor.

FOARD: I have been here for six years. I work full-time as a real estate agent. I am a full-time mother. And I run a political campaign. I do this for eight weeks out of the year because it is the greatest job you could possibly have. You get paid to scare people. There is nothing better, OK? The two...

LANCIANESE: And then in the middle of her lesson, the teens are suddenly startled.

FOARD: We do not use blood. We don't need blood to scare people. That just scared y'all, didn't it? That just got you. And that was just the sound of a air compressor turning on.

LANCIANESE: Next, the would-be scare actors hear a primer in safety because when your job is to pop out at unsuspecting victims, sometimes you get popped in return.

LISA HAWKINS: Above all, remember that safety comes first. If somebody does attack you or punch you, you do not want to retaliate.

LANCIANESE: There are nine lessons in total, and they all end with auditions. Actors try their best scares for a panel of three judges who assign their roles based on their performances tonight.

JEREMY GERKIN: I'm just going to say go, and then you're just going to do your thing, OK?

LANCIANESE: One actor screams...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Screaming).

LANCIANESE: ...And a judge scribbles down, too short. Another laughs...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Laughter).

LANCIANESE: ...And a judge writes down, good volume.

GERKIN: Thank you. All right, next.

LANCIANESE: The props, the training, the auditions - haunted attractions like Fields of Fear spend months perfecting just a few moments of terror, and those are the real tricks to the treat. Adelina Lancianese...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Laughter).

LANCIANESE: ...NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS' "THE CARNY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.