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For almost all of its 22 years of filling visitors' lives with good-natured dread on Halloween, Cutting Edge Haunted House lacked a formal training ground for its terrorizing troupe.
But that all changed eight years ago when Cutting Edge started taking on scream-worthy students at its "Boo U." The result has been a steady stream of actors schooled in the fine art of scaring the living daylights out of the thousands of patrons who file annually through the 103-year-old, former meatpacking plant on Lancaster Avenue.
Each week, beginning in early September, roughly 25 aspiring ghouls, ax-wielding cannibals and vampires -- whose age ranges from teens to their 60s -- attend Cutting Edge's school of chills. The Thursday class is taught by a team of three "professors of fright," each of whom has accumulated 22 years of acting experience with Cutting Edge. Tuition is free. The goal is to find actors who can become permanent members of the terror troupe. (Actors are paid an hourly minimum wage, though most say they do it for personal enjoyment.)
"We're extremely picky about who we choose as our final performers," admits Todd James, one of the co-creators of Cutting Edge Haunted House, which consists of 235,000 square feet of scary sets, tricked out with the latest in animatronic gear.
Adds James, "You can build a lot of great special effects, and sets, and have great lighting, but unless you have a great cast, it is really hard to pull off a good haunted house."
In order to run its nightly haunted house, Cutting Edge uses as many as 65 actors. Yet zombies and serial killers aren't necessarily born that way -- sometimes they need to be taught and trained. Once past the 15-minute preliminary interview, a prospective Boo U. student enrolls in one 90-minute class where he or she learns Cutting Edge's basic approach to producing a most frightening evening.
The first lesson is that actors need to get uncomfortably close to the patron's "bubble" or personal space. But once up in a petrified patron's grill, no Boo U. grad will ever snarl or curdle blood with a scream.
"We don't want them to vocalize," says James. "Because the minute they vocalize, it humanizes their character, making them less scary."
The other crucial lesson imparted at cost-free Boo U. is never lingering too long after seizing that well-timed scary moment. It might as well be the chorus to the Boo U. fight song: An actor who lingers goes from scary to annoying in just seconds.
James says the Boo U. professors emphasize "building to a crescendo of scaring someone and then disappearing into the darkness."
The night after the 90-minute Boo U. session, each of the students does a full-dress audition, inhabiting one of Cutting Edge's 23 haunted house rooms. It is during this audition that the aspiring actors will be graded on timing and teamwork skills. Based on their scores, usually about four actors are plucked from that Boo U. session to join the larger troupe.
It is often during this final audition when some of Boo U.'s real talent emerges. In one instance, a physically imposing (over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds) ultra-serious, white-collar professional insisted on bringing in a home-grown character sporting a gas mask and apron and brandishing a menacing ax.
Sure enough, this Boo U. grad ended up with a regular spot in the haunted house's meat-processing plant.
"At the end of the day," says James, "what makes a Boo U. student stand out is that he or she already comes to us with a genuine love and energy for scaring people -- especially on Halloween."