"Would you be Freddy Krueger?" came the question.
I hesitated only a moment - I don't consider myself especially monstrous, but it sounded like fun - and accepted.
The role was offered by Gary Davis, head Halloween honcho at the LuLu's House of Horrors, now in its ninth year. I was onsite prior to the house's opening, watching the preparations and getting the behind-the-scenes "dirt" on how nine nights of necromancy all come together at the Plymouth Meeting scare-fest.
It is a huge effort, involving several weeks' work and a "body" of volunteers who delight in scaring the pants off people brave enough to visit.
The centerpiece of the attraction is a former farmhouse that looms over Butler Pike. Davis cites its history: "It's at least 150 years old, as far as we know. We're not exactly sure when it was built, but some of the elements like the crown moldings are from that period."
Prior to being fully devoted to things that go bump in the night, the house was a rental property. "We had a family living here for quite a while," Davis says. "But eventually, the property needed a complete overhaul. Our budget couldn't handle the level of renovation required, so we let the lease expire."
The vacant building, however, caught Davis' fancy as a haunted house. "Although we did not have the resources to make it livable, we did have the funds to ensure the safety of visitors, bring it up to current fire code standards and install necessary technical capabilities like a sound system and closed-circuit television monitors in every room. After that," Davis smiles, "it was just a matter of adding the scary stuff."
When it comes to creating creeps, the LuLu Shriner cast and crew - upward of 60 volunteers - go all-out. The experience begins with a hayride through a haunted trail to a graveyard. Brave souls then walk through the fog-shrouded headstones to the front porch of the house. They then enter, quickly being introduced to "Uncle Louie" and his ghoulish guests. The route goes room to room, upstairs and down, and back outside. Then, it's time to re-board the wagons for a trip through the haunted woods to a cornstalk maze, where the emphasis is on the word stalk.
"We have people who ride the initial hayride and won't go through the graveyard," Davis says, commenting on the tone of the terror, which is, by design, not child friendly. "We then have people who walk through the graveyard and won't go through the house." Various "chicken exits" have been built into the experience for those who choose to bail out of the bloodbath.
It is in the haunted woods that I will recreate the otherworldly villain from the Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise.
Call time is 6 p.m., and I arrive to a bustle of activity. The 20-some members of the cast are filing through the dressing room and the makeup process with great efficiency. Freddy's unique look requires a latex overlay on my face, which takes a team of two to properly apply. Frank, an airbrush artist who also paints temporary tattoos and does face-painting, sits me down and blends the horrific mask into the contours of my face, transforming me.
All around, the cast is engaging in time-worn shtick: "You never looked worse," comments one, pointing out the ragged clothing and pallid complexion of one of the undead heading to the graveyard. A maniacal-looking hillbilly has a full lower plate of crooked yellow teeth showing from her mouth.
I put on the costume and report "on set." Davis has reviewed with me a number of safety procedures and some suggestions for interaction with the visitors, but the rest of it is up to me. I take what I know about the movies - Krueger kills teenagers in their dreams; he worked in the boiler room of a school; he was burned to death by vengeful parents - and weave together a few lines.
When the first wagon trundles out of the darkness and stops in front of me, I launch into performance mode. Evil laugh? Check. Plenty of knife-finger waving? Check. Growly threats of nightmares? Check.
The process repeats itself about every 10 minutes, and each hayride brings 15-20 people my way. Girls cower. Teenagers recoil. Screams pierce the dark. I am not afraid to get up close and personal, stepping on a ledge of the wagon to go face-to-scarred-face with the people who have "...dared enter my woods!"
Between visitors, the crew is never far away, checking on me to ensure I am safe and comfortable. At one point, I realize my shoe is untied, and I struggle to tie it: not an easy task with a fistful of claws on my right hand. A volunteer sees my predicament and ties it for me.
As the night proceeds, the crowds begin to thin and by 10:45, we are told the last wagon is coming through. I fire up one more rousing performance (I brandish one of my knives and tell a man with a bushy beard that I can give him "...a shave you'll never forget!") before closing.
I join the cast walking back to the farmhouse to return my costume and remove my makeup. Nearly 200 people have braved the LuLu House of Horrors on this opening night, a good turnout, according to the organizers. The haunt is open the remaining weekends in October, including Halloween itself, with the last presentation on November 1.
Looking again like me, I thank Davis and company for the opportunity to participate in the panic.
I climb into the car and start for home. Scaring people, I learn, is hard work. After nearly four hours of frightful behavior, I'm tired.
Dead tired, you could say....
As an escape from the nightmares lurking in Plymouth Meeting, scurry into a local hotel or B&B, where the only rapping on the doors at midnight will be room service bringing you a delicious snack or hearty beverage. Our website has plenty of recommendations.