For some participants in Central Kentucky haunted houses and similar attractions, you could sum up the best way to scare people in one word: Boo!
"I like to make sure they're not paying attention," says Amy Stephens, one of the actors on the Halloween Haunted Train Ride, presented by the Bluegrass Railroad Museum. "If they are looking out the window, then I can get up right behind them, with my nose just a few inches from them, and when the turn around ..."
They see an old witch with deep green skin, a long nose and chin with big black warts and jagged teeth staring them in the face.
And they respond appropriately, needing to be peeled off the train ceiling after their initial encounter with Ezmerelda.
Acting scary is a bit different from just straight acting, the practitioners say. Like comedy, when laughter — or a lack of it — tells you whether the act is working, if your goal is to frighten people, you can see the results if the audience is pulling together, wide-eyed, short of breath or just plain screaming.
Stephens' husband, Eric Stephens, found himself at the wrong end of a grandmother's cane last year when he played a werewolf on the Haunted Train Ride.
"She was with her grandkids, and I guess she just felt like she had to protect them," Stephens says.
In eliciting a beating, Stephens might have exceeded the train ride's expectations for terror.
"This is a family-oriented event," says John Penfield, director of the museum in Versailles. "We're not trying to terrify anyone."
There's another consideration when acting scary: How scary do you want to be?
Are you going for the fun, laugh-about-it-a-minute-later kind of scary? Or is your goal a "please have a thorough heart exam before you enter" kind of scary.
That would be the difference between, say, the Haunted Train Ride, where parents bring their kids out for fun, and Terror on Tates Creek, which really does want you to wonder whether you are going to get out alive.
"I want to scar them for life," says Mark Lockhart, who plays The Mutilator at Terror on Tates Creek. "That's why they come."
The Terror on Tates Creek crew has a variety of techniques for sending visitors screaming to the parking lot, to which they will frequently chase people.
"When you go after people, that really freaks them out," says Kristin Kerby, who, with one eye hanging from a bloody socket, plays what looks like a victim of The Mutilator.
Other techniques include listening to hear what people are apprehensive about, or even just to get names.
"We'll pass it up the trail so that when people come, we're calling their name, and that really scares them," says Kathy Lockhart, who plays the devil.
Emily Adams, who plays Polar, a psychotic clown, surmises, "If I can get them to pee in their pants, I've done my job."
Even at family-oriented attractions, the actors like to scare adults.
"It takes some patience, because you have to get close to them and then wait," says Jason Flynn, who plays the Grim Reaper on the Haunted Train. "But that's the best thing: when you can get close to an adult or a teenager and make them scream like a little kid."
At haunted houses and similar attractions, actors have proximity on their sides. But what about stage actors?
"You get to utilize a full range of expressions," says Adam Luckey, a Lexington actor who is working on Haints in the Holler: Appalachian Ghost Tales and Superstitions at the theater in the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort. The play is set up as if siblings were telling ghost stories. Luckey says it gives the actors "a feeling of the inherent joy of telling that story and making them tremble a little bit."
Some keys to making the stories scary are slowing down the delivery to dial up the suspense and flashing wide eyes to convey a little fear.
Last summer, Luckey was on stage at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive, playing Mr. Hyde in SummerFest's production of the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As a stage actor, in a role like Jekyll, he says a key to being scary is putting on a little charm, so people can be drawn into evil.
Luckey also offers an essential tip to anyone who wants to convincingly play a scary character, whether on stage or at your doorway on Halloween night.
"No matter how creepy or scary, you have to find some connection to that character," Luckey says. "You have to understand where the character is coming from, because they don't think they're doing anything wrong."
That's a scary frame of mind, isn't it?