Published October 29th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
What are you afraid of?
A bump in the night? Blood and guts? The hollow stare of a horrible creature?
Amber Arnett-Bequeaith is a little creepy herself.
Also known as The Queen of Haunts around Kansas City’s West Bottoms haunted house scene, Arnett-Bequeaith would absolutely agree.
Since 1975, she’s played at least some part in scaring the living barbecue sauce out of anyone brave enough to pass through her family’s now-three haunted attractions that occupy the brick, abandoned-looking buildings in one of the oldest corners of the city.
Each fall, The Queen, along with her uncle Monty Summers, are responsible for staging and staffing a few of the country’s top commercial haunted attractions in the oldest haunt of its kind, The Edge of Hell, its notorious neighbor, The Beast, and the scary movie-inspired Macabre Cinema.
With more than 45 years in the business of boos under her belt, it’s safe to say Arnett-Bequeaith knows your nightmares. But that’s only part of pulling off the perfect scare.
Thirty-five miles west of the epicenter of everything scary in Kansas City, Nicki Reynolds is learning the ropes when it comes to creepy.
Similar to the origin story of Arnett-Bequeaith’s family leaving their Ozark theater each fall for the money-making opportunity of a haunted attraction in Kansas City back in the ‘70s, Reynolds saw the chance in her 62-acre slice of land in Eudora, Kansas.
This is the opening season for her family’s The Grove Haunted Hayride, to the public, at least.
“It’s given me something to do and it’s been a real project. Bigger than I imagined,” Reynolds said.
In years past, the hayride was for friends and family. Reynolds’ now high school and adult-aged kids grew up loving scary movies, Halloween and dressing up in costumes. When Reynolds came up with the idea of opening the hayride to the public, local high school students were happy to step in as scarers.
“We’ve had people play It, we’ve got Leatherface from ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and he’s good. They’ve just sort of dove in and some of these kids aren’t even in drama,” Reynolds said. “They’ve played their parts fantastic.”
The 30-40 minute ride takes guests through 15 scenes set up across the property and pecan grove. More than “jump-out scares,” freaky scenes unfold around the ride, which is accompanied by music and a guide to share bits about the historic Bluejacket Crossing property, which includes a little girl’s actual grave.
The “mom and pop” haunted attraction is still getting on its feet, but Reynolds says her scarers are getting better each night. And although it’s a bit out of character for the Kansas mom, Reynolds has tried her hand in haunting as well.
“I’m almost 50 years old and it’s been so fun to get out there and feel like a kid again,” said Reynolds, who notes that sometimes not saying anything at all and just acting crazy can freak people out.
“When it’s time to get costumes on and go down there, I’m ready to relax, have fun and scare some people.”
“The number one question I get every day on the phone is, ‘Is it scary?’” Arnett-Bequeaith said, sitting at the top of The Beast’s grand staircase.
Her answer is yes.
The Queen of Haunts wasn’t scared of her family’s line of work as a five-year-old and she’s a tough scare for co-workers who often try to get one another before customers come through.
A woman in a male-dominated industry, Arnett-Bequeaith practices her craft year-round. Putting black makeup on and hiding around a corner to “bring down her husband a notch” — even in June — is not out of the ordinary. She taught her children how to howl like werewolves.
She admits the 21st Century customer is a bit more challenging. Video games and special effects set high expectations for what’s scary.
“The thing that makes our job hard is that everyone scares differently. Some freeze, some cry, some fall down, some pee their pants. Some don’t make it,” Arnett-Bequeaith said. “Some turn around and go right back out the front door.”
The boss considers the latter a customer getting their money’s worth.
She thinks blood, guts and gore can be a cheap fright. Her keys to killing it in the dark corners of the haunted houses include staying low, paying attention to shadows, realism, the perfect growl or screech and most importantly, timing.
Scaring someone is science that Arnett-Bequeaith understands well and passes on to her employees. The increased breathing and heart rate, shakiness and sweat that comes with passing through the doors of a haunted house are the body’s physical response to the fight or flight reaction unfolding in our brain.
A 2017 article originally published by The Conversation goes into how our brain responds to fear and why it can be enjoyable in the end.
Simply put, it boils down to an interaction between the “thinking” and “emotional” parts of the brain. When a chainsaw revs in a dark room, the “emotional” brain perceives a threat and results in a fear response. The fun comes with context, when the “thinking” brain is able to rationalize the situation.
This is why it’s fun to see your friends jump or duck when someone or something pops out at them. It’s also why working in a haunted house can be so enjoyable.
Pumping heat into the The Edge of Hell, paying close attention to smells, textures, where the floor is flat versus an uneven surface, it all goes into how Arnett-Bequeaith’s attractions “tickle the brain” and suspend disbelief.
It’s all about setting the scene. In the good old days, her family would collect old flowers from the cemetery.
“We’d scatter them through the building to create that feeling. In 1975 you could even buy real skeletons,” Arnett-Bequeaith said. “There may still be some here, you never know.”
Just around the corner from the West Bottoms’ trio of terrors, The Basement Escape Room offers an entirely different form of fright.
A sort of haunted house-escape room hybrid, The Basement puts guests into the locked basement of a cannibalistic serial killer’s deceased mother. Groups then have to escape the basement using flashlights and looking for clues … before it’s too late.
Abigayle Huggins works at the escape room. She believes it’s the popularity of murder documentaries and true crime, plus the natural curiosity as to what it would be like to be kidnapped or pursued by a killer, that makes the hybrid experience so popular.
The preset storyline and puzzles put The Basement’s guests into a situation that feels as real as it gets. She says The Basement offers a unique challenge to its actors because they are often forced into answering questions from groups working to escape the serial killer’s grasp.
“It’s something that makes our room a little more challenging than a haunted house for the performers,” Huggins said. “They have to engage in conversation.”
As for tips for newbies, Huggins, who has worked at The Basement since 2018, says it’s all about letting the anticipation build.
Emily Bozarth was once a “creepy little clown kid.”
Bozarth’s hiding spot at her previous haunted house gig in Springfield, Illinois, was a terrible-looking toy room. She wore her high pigtails and said creepy things to passersby in a high-pitched voice.
“That’s what worked for me,” Bozarth said after leaving her application with The Beast, just a few weeks before Halloween.
Dropping the resume, Bozarth appeared to be far from any sort of threat. She smiled and said “probably not” when asked whether or not she would be afraid at all to work in the acclaimed haunted houses, despite not having been through them herself.
“Once you’re behind the scenes it’s totally different,” she said. “You’re on the other team.”
The “other team,” led by Arnett-Bequeaith, is a tight-knit group of folks who suit up to spook night after night during the Halloween season. Once a background check is passed, applicants find their own unique role.
“Is the person big like Frankenstein or are they slender like a wolf? You ask for their best howl or vampire. How does the vampire move and smell?” Arnett-Bequeaith said.
Should she get the job, Bozarth will line up next to both fellow first-timers and seasoned vets in the scary business. Some of The Beast, Edge of Hell and Macabre Cinema scarers have been doing it for more than 30 years.
“I like to say it gets in your blood,” Arnett-Bequeaith quipped.
Whatever character Bozarth plays, the recent Kansas City transplant is well aware of the brand of fun she’s entering.
“I think it’s one of those things where it’s like you almost shouldn’t be doing it, but the environment makes it acceptable,” Bozarth said.
“I can do things and upset people and that’s the goal. Not in a morbid way, but, well, kind of.”
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis also is a social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.