Exclusive: “THE FOREST OF FEAR” Speaks!Books/Art/Culture,News,Reviews Ken W. Hanley
Earlier this season, FANGORIA recapped one of New York’s premiere haunts, The Forest of Fear. Located in Tuxedo, NY, at the famed Sterling Forest, this interactive haunt is one of this writer’s personal favorites, combining a real passion for horror with a homegrown humility that makes the experience feel as communal as it is creepy. In gearing up for their last weekend of the season, FANGORIA spoke to the people behind The Forest of Fear, including haunt actors Tom Zorn, Cat RoPo, Armond Cecere as well as the haunt director, Christopher DeTroy (pictured above).
FANGORIA: How did you get involved with the Forest of Fear?
TOM ZORN: My family has always been into Halloween, and we used to travel here. I’ve been coming to [The Forest of Fear] for the last 14 years and about 7 years ago, I saw that there were job auditions so I tried out, scared the lead guy and I got the job. I’ve been here ever since and I love this job.
The weirdest part is that my dad is a methodist pastor, and he was all about Halloween. We used to set up a haunted house in our home for people to walk through and it got to be a huge thing. I think I did it for like 7 years but that was a lot of fun. My mom loves to do gore make-up, and when we went to school, we’d win all the contests for “Most Scary Costume.” We’d come in with Freddy Krueger-esque skin and people had no idea if it was real or not. So obviously, that plays into it.
ARMOND CECERE: I actually started out as a professional wrestler in the area and later moved on to stunt work in movies. So in my travels, I saw that the Renaissance Faire was in need of some stunt men for the jousting and stunt shows. So I auditioned and it was there that I met Chris DeTroy, who brought me here at The Forest of Fear. So I’ve been their go-to guy for physical stuff ever since.
CAT ROPO: Well, I started at the Renaissance Faire as a fairy, and I found out a lot of the people who do the Faire do The Forest of Fear. So I went to the audition, did well, and I love horror myself so here I am. The Renaissance Faire is more kid oriented, so when you’re an Ice Fairy, kids stare at you in awe, but here, you have 5 seconds to scare them and make an impact.
CHRISTOPHER DETROY: When I was 15, I worked at a haunted attraction and I immediately fell in love with the idea of scaring the fuck out of people. So I lied about my age and worked there, and the next year, they let me do rooms. So eventually, I started The Forest of Fear, and now I’m involved with Transworld and conventions. I just love scaring people. I love it.
I put my blood, sweat and tears in The Forest of Fear. I was here when this haunt was just an empty building and I designed these very walls. I love this place. I’m even here for the Renaissance Faire as the Sheriff of Nottingham, so I’m all-in here.
FANGORIA: What do you find most appealing about having the kind of job where you make an art out of scaring people?
ZORN: It’s fun. That’s a huge part of Halloween and I love Halloween. I’ve played a lot of different characters here; last year, I did this wheelchair creature and that was a lot of fun. But I also volunteer here for a month beforehand; I go to work and then I come here. I donate so much time to this place and it’s like having a second family. That’s why I think this place works so well; everyone plays off each other.
I was actually really excited about working at this place, and I am still am 7 years later, but my next-to-youngest brother came up to audition when certain people didn’t show up and finished up season as a volunteer. So then another one of my little brothers, who worked at a zombie laser tag thing, came up and tried up. So he’s now here also. So I have my own family in my work family.
DETROY: I hate when people say that “I’m the king of Halloween!” because they’re never going to learn. You need to learn and as much as we have great haunts on display, you need to keep looking for the next big thing. I came up with “Blind Panic” (the completely in-the-dark haunt) and now I have more ideas in my head. So I’m still learning.
I like this job, though, because I can go crazy with it. Anyone can jump out and go “Boo!”, but it’s the uncomfortable stuff that really gets you. When people are uncomfortable, that’s when they’re most vulnerable to be scared. We don’t try to break anyone, but we do want them to be uncomfortable right before they get scared.
FANGORIA: How do you create these characters? Do they assign them to you or is it more like you create from what’s available?
CECERE: Well, I started here doing a pro-wrestling luchadore show where we’d dress up as monsters and fight; that was called the “Monster Bash.” But after a couple years of that, they let me have my own spot as the werewolf, so they’d chain me up and I could pretty much do whatever I want in that space. But this year, they have me on stilts playing the bigger creatures, and every night I do a Frankenstein Dance Party with some of the girls here and that’s a lot of fun. So it’s pretty much whatever they want me to do; if they want me to be the werewolf in a cage, that’s fine, but if they want me to climb up on the roof and do some kind of stunt, they know I can do that.
ZORN: Normally, for me, they assigned it to me. They had me in a room, and when you’re in these rooms, there’s a specific character that you play. But as years went by, they started letting me do pretty much whatever I want. I was talking to Chris and we came up with the idea for “The Crawler,” which is the wheelchair thing so I did that.
ROPO: Well, it was assigned to me that I’d be doing a vampire but there wasn’t any specific guidelines. [laughs] But with this being my first year, people have been so helpful and involved. So it’s a really communal experience that makes me feel like I’ve been doing something awesome.
DETROY: I always think of a haunted house as a magic trick or like the box from HELLRAISER. Every character is a cog in the wheel that makes it all work, and that comes down to finding the right actors. I need to find someone who knows that they’re a part of that magic trick and we’re very diligent on how we cast and train our people.
At the same time, it’s all about the individual in terms of nurturing their strengths. Everyone is different, and every scare is different. We take care of our people because they treat it as art that they bring to life. I make the art, but they’re the ones who make it live.
FANGORIA: Is there any specific reaction you’ve gotten from someone that has stuck with you?
ZORN: Yes. [laughs] I always remember all of the faces, but one time I was working out in Toxic Waste, which is the outside section of the main house, and I don’t remember exactly what I did, but I jumped out to scare a group of people. I remember specifically there was a mom and her daughter, and the mom used the daughter as a human shield. So I made another noise and she threw her daughter into one of the metal barrels and ran away, leaving her daughter there. So I made sure the daughter was okay and made sure she got back to her mother.
CECERE: Oh yeah! Last year, when I was doing the werewolf cage, people didn’t know I could leave the cage. One night, a bus full of kids from the city came and they were trying to act tough the entire time. So about 25-35 kids gather around the cage and this one girl comes up and she starts cussing and getting everyone worked up. So I go back into my little doghouse, and she starts cussing some more and I wait. I wait until the laughter and everything gets to a fever pitch, and then I sprung out of the cage. Man, you should have seen those kids run for the hills. It was hilarious.
ROPO: I’ve had some really funny ones. I like when the teenage boys try being all brave and stuff, but then I’d pop out and they go, “Ahhhh!” I had one girl who was maybe a pre-teen and I scared her really good, and after she was shaking and went, “I like your make-up!”
FANGORIA: Outside of The Forest of Fear, have you ever considered pursuing acting elsewhere?
ZORN: I’ve done little things here and there but I don’t think I’d want to make a living out of it. The Forest of Fear happens once a year and I’d be more than happy if it happened more than that. But I don’t think I’d do the “acting” thing.
ROPO: Well, I’ve done freelance modeling and I’ve done some acting in the past. The Forest of Fear has really given me the bug to pursue more acting, but freelance modeling is really my main artistic outlet. The Forest of Fear is a whole different monster, though, since you have to be in the moment all the time. It’s been a really awesome experience for me.
CECERE: Well, I actually do stunt work when I’m not here. Because of the wrestling thing, Darren Aronofsky hired me as Mickey Rourke’s stunt double for THE WRESTLER and he’s been really good to me since. He also hired me to do stunts on NOAH, and that opened a lot of doors for me. So I’ve been getting little acting parts here and there. And I keep missing the call for DAREDEVIL! I’m waiting for them to call back but if you’re a stunt guy and you’re not by the phone when they call, they go on to the next guy. But I’m sure I’ll be on there soon enough.