Airbrushing goblin face paint

A Busch Gardens employee air brushes on face paint to Catrina Lorensen of Norfolk, who plays a goblin in Busch Garden’s Howl-O-Scream. (Patty McDonald, Daily Press / October 19, 2009)

JAMES CITY COUNTY — The witching hour of 6 p.m. is almost nigh. That means dozens of phantoms, ghouls, goblins and a few hulking Scotsmen are preparing for a night of morbid mischief.

Behind the scenes at Busch Gardens' annual fright-fest Howl-O-Scream, latex masks (affixed to panty hose) are being pulled over heads and a pair of makeup artists are using air brushes to paint healthy human flesh shades of ghoulish gray or goblin green.

An employee — sporting nothing more threatening than a collared shirt and a clipboard — helps out one creature whose costume clasp is failing. Elsewhere, a goblin helps a tartan-clad Scotsman strap on a leather bracer.

"That's got to be a strange sight," the goblin says as she tightens the lacing. "A goblin helping out a Scot."

And that's merely one of many strange sights in the Howl-O-Scream green room. For Howl-O-Scream's 11th year, Busch Gardens seems to be offering park guests more of everything creepy: More werewolves, more vampires, more trolls and more of these odd lumbering creatures covered in weeds, grass and vines. At Howl-O-Scream, even the shrubbery is out to get you.

"We looked to expand offerings we've had in previous years," said Scott Gasparich, vice president of entertainment for Busch Gardens Williamsburg. About 75 percent of the Halloween attractions are said to be new. "We expanded our scare zones, going from two to seven this year," Gasparich said. "We heard from guests that they liked being scared throughout the park, even in places they might not expect. It helps to keep them in the moment between the haunted attractions."

In other words, as one strolls along pathways between roller coasters or Howl-O-Scream's haunted houses or outdoor mazes, one is apt to be accosted by roving bands of monsters. They won't touch you, but they don't mind getting up close and personal.

Until 6 p.m. Busch Gardens simply looks like a theme park dressed up for Halloween. Pumpkins are everywhere. Ghost-like sheets dangle from tree limbs. But when the clock strikes 6, the haunting begins.

The theme park employs more than 300 costumed characters for its "Scare Squad," a team of part-time monsters who take their jobs seriously. "We spend a lot of time in orientation and training sessions with our Scare Squad," said Gasparich, "and we spend a lot of time rehearsing on the pathways."

What does Busch Gardens look for in a potential Scare Squad trooper? A scary voice, for one. "The more people are able to vocalize, the better," Gasparich said. "For example, a good hiss works really well for the vampire maze … They do vocal exercises, physical exercises. And a lot of scares are done in pairs. One person gets your attention, then the other gets you from the other side. That teamwork element is definitely something that has to be sought out and refined."

Looking beyond the spooky human resources, Howl-O-Scream goes to great lengths to create a macabre mood throughout the park. More than 60 fog machines are strategically installed. In one evening, Busch Gardens will go through some 160 gallons of fog juice.

Lighting is also a key element. In preparation for Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens changes out some 7,000 light bulbs. They replace cheerful white light with eerie green or unsettling orange.

The Harvest Hallow scare zone, normally the site of light-hearted concerts held at Festhaus Park, is particularly spooky.

"It's a massive undertaking," Gasparich said of changing out the theme park's lights. "It's important to create the right ambiance in the park. It really creates the right backdrop for the scare company …

"It's a subtle thing, but it enters into the subconscious, I think."

News to Use

What: Bush Gardens' Howl-O-Scream

Where: 1 Busch Gardens Blvd., Williamsburg

When: Fridays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Howl-O-Scream lasts through Nov. 1.

Admission: Single day adult admission $61.95, children ages, 6-9 $51.95