Like a football coach, Chris Grooms huddled his team members together and tried to inspire them before the big event.
It hadn’t started, yet some participants were bloodied and had oozing wounds.
“The first thing is safety; judge your audience,” Grooms commanded, just like any sensible coach would.
Deep into the dark, deserted woods, disrupted only by a graveyard and blood splotches on the ground, the 25 zombies circling Grooms stared intently ahead, some from behind masks.
“There are a couple of ways to scare,” Grooms told his troops. “Ladies, you can let out a blood-curdling scream. Silence is also scary. It stops them in their tracks.”
At the Haunted Ranch on Lorraine Road, in Lakewood Ranch, Grooms and Dennis Hyma, of YMCA Adventure Guides, coach their volunteers in the art of scaring to make this first-time event authentic.
Some of the 25 zombies, as Grooms calls his scarers — mostly high school students needing community service hours — who work the half-mile haunted trail will be there Oct. 31, for the eighth and final night of Haunted Ranch.
By then, they will be scarier.
“I have mastered the sad face,” said Hannah Fossum, a Southeast High School student who sits at the entrance to the trail’s graveyard and mock cries. “I put myself in their shoes. I think of sad things, like my grandpa dying. I love that feeling of being scared. It makes you feel human.”
Grooms and Hyma created the event to be scary but, also, to cater to children.
Haunted Ranch attendees can watch horror movies — some PG — in an open field sitting on straw bales.
They can make s’mores around a campfire and enjoy food and drinks, as well.
The trail itself is less scary early in the night — fewer zombies, less sneakiness — and scarier as midnight approaches.
For four years, as part of the YMCA Adventure Guides program, Grooms and Hyma have taken families to Timberlea Ranch in Myakka during Halloween and put on a less-scary version of the Haunted Trail.
Last October, as they finished the event, they thought they could do something bigger.
“We said, ‘We ought to really do this,’” said Grooms, who grew up in a home decorated with spider webs and skeletons during Halloween.
Through seven nights, Grooms and Hyma had covered the expense of putting on the event — which takes place on naturally spooky, open land at 5418 Lorraine Road. Any extra money benefits the YMCA Adventure Guides Program.
The friends and co-workers have experience putting on events and leading groups, so they easily learned what makes the event a scream.
“The number of zombies we have on a given night out on the trail is directly equivalent to how good the experience is,” Grooms said.
Like any good leader, Grooms empowers his staff to believe the end result is only as good as their performance.
Every night, before the pre-meeting in the woods, Michelle Clinton, an art teacher at Manatee School for the Arts, makes the zombies look ready to scare.
One-by-one, outside an out-of-sight trailer, Clinton creates characters.
Some of the volunteer students come to her with an idea of the identity they want to assume, but most don’t.
She paints on their skin with blood gel and plasters wounds onto their bodies using liquid latex and tissue paper. A creaky lantern warms the work place.
“Every creation is different,” Clinton said. “Some bleed from the eyes, some have gaping wounds. I don’t even like horror. I am an artist.”
Clinton spends about an hour creating each character — long work that requires tolerance.
“The paint starts to smell like kitty litter, but you get used to it,” Clinton said. “It’s not such a lovely family affair.”
While Clinton works, Grooms and Hyma walk the trail, as if they were customers.
They walk some more during the pre-meetings, after the huddle and designate specific spots on the trail to a zombie.
Scaring has ground rules:
“Don’t speak,” Grooms said. “Silence is good. Either hide and let them pass you and then pop out or just jump into the middle of a crowd as they come.”
For some, scaring comes easy.
Student Steven Haftkey stood shirtless, his gashed skin exposed.
“You feel a little bad scaring kids, but there’s something about putting a jolt into people out in the cold,” Hafkey said.
Stephanie Rinehart, a Braden River High School student, ducks behind a bush before popping out after a group of three passes.
“I don’t watch scary movies,” Rinehart said. “I’m not even fond of scary stuff. But this is really fun. You make them feel good for a second and then, bam, you scare them.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].