In a sweet little dress with freckled cheeks scrubbed clean, Shelby Honea is about to become a monster. Contact lenses give her eyes an undead gleam, and airbrushes go over and over her face, neck and chest until they look like new porcelain. Then a latex piece, lacy and pitted, is ready for shading that will make the rot as arresting as the savage red lips of the White Widow. Beautiful and ruined, she has consumed the UNLV student.
“I approach it from a very playful place. She’s flirty; she doesn’t know she’s dead; she likes you," Honea says, "and she happens to have a rotting face.”
The character was born at Fright Dome last year, an embellished version of a costume Honea (who has acting experience) brought to her audition. The tattered and stained wedding dress and veil, weeping doll mask and messy wig add to the illusion, but the face is the thing. Special effects artist Niki Gratton is applying the prosthetic, which looks like a cross between a horrible burn, decay and the result of someone clawing her own skin off.
"You want to take away from the natural beauty that they have. … You want to do something that’s very grotesque with the latex. I try to make it look very dead, very rotten, a lot of pulls and tears and ripped skin. Of course, blood’s a big deal. Don’t overdue it but it’s got to be there," says Gratton, who does effects for local media and movie projects. Her goal is striking contrast. “One side of her face she usually does really pale, really pretty, almost a wedding makeup. And the other side we do completely gored up and ripped to pieces."
Jullian Carrabis doesn’t need gore. The faint spattering of blood on his skeletal clown face is enough, sneering black lips and grotesquely jutting chin as carefully applied as the stains, rips and rivets in the suitcase-worth of costume that turns the security guard into a nightmare. His sunken eyes make even rainbow suspenders sinister.
"The very first night Fright Dome opens, I’m on my game. I wait all year. My girlfriend calls me a nerd. She says I have nothing better to do with my life than try to worry about what I’m gonna wear for Fright Dome."
This is Carrabis' second year as a clown in the haunt. He says the clothes mostly came from the Goodwill, and he keeps adding his own touches of grime and destruction and fun little details, like the honker-horn hanging at his waist with a chain of tiny human skulls (he says you can tell the veteran clowns by how disheveled their wigs are). As one of the ghouls who "strolls" the attraction, he freaks and creeps people out mostly unscripted.
“People say I’m a weirdo, but it’s actually really fun to scare people. They have no idea who you are, and they’re running from you and crying and peeing their pants. We scare because we care,” he says with a chuckle. For him, the look isn’t even the key to the scare factor. It’s the laugh, the one that coils around your spine as you run like hell for the nearest door. Honea agrees that the terror is often in the details. It might be overt, like a fake chainsaw ("the workhorse of the haunted industry") or the booming, jarring sound of a "thunder jug" full of clattering spoons. Or it might be subtle, like the White Widow's jingle bells rattling in the silent fog or the brokenness of her movement as she shuffles toward you with her veil down. If she senses that you've seen enough scary, that's when Honea busts out the fun side.
"It’s like a theater performance, where it is really a two-way thing. It’s so intimate. The energy that I give, [guests] usually return to me in a scare or a laugh. ... We keep feeding off of each other. The energy in the Dome is electric, and on a good night, we’re all bouncing around feeling it.” She says the best satisfaction comes from the domino effect, when the guy in front who thinks you can’t scare him stumbles into the rows behind him.
Fright Dome founder Jason Egan says the actors are trained not only to know where the line is, but also how to scare people until they're right on top of it. They pay for that thrill, and while Egan invests a lot in Hollywood-quality effects and makeup, he insists that being scary is way more about the vibe. "I can go throw a sack on my head and hide myself around the corner and scare the heck out of you. I like using, of course, the combination of everything. That amazing look, that amazing actor and that particular scene that we’re putting you in," he says. "We are competing with some of the best attractions in the world. We’ve been ranked with Universal Studios, Knott’s Scary Farm; we beat out Six Flags, beat out Busch Gardens. This is a big-budget show to put on."
Egan says guests are given exit surveys throughout Fright Dome's run to see what's working and what needs tweaking. So far, they're loving the main haunt's homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the isolation maze and the gross-out factor of Hillbilly Hell. The environments are important, but the spooky characters inhabiting them are what make you see things in the shadows afterward. When he hires actors, Egan looks for a certain spark, rather than acting experience.
"Maybe they didn’t have the skill set but they had that love of Halloween. ... That’s what this is about."
FRIGHT DOME October 30 & 31, 7 p.m.-midnight, $40-$90; Afterlife Day of the Dead special event November 1, 7 p.m.-1 a.m., $50-$100. Circus Circus, 702-691-5950.