During daylight hours, you can usually find Junior Iulia Ionesco on the third floor of Hancock, busily answering the phones and assisting directors at the Marist Poll. But once the sun sets, you will find Iulia in a seemingly abandoned building, praising demonic statues and speaking in tongues amongst her other cult members. The poll’s head coach is seemingly unrecognizable with her slashed wrists and sleep deprived eyes peaking out from under her black cloak.
No, Iulia is not a part of an actual cult. But, her second job does entail scaring the brave souls that dare to enter the Headless Horseman Haunted House, the Hudson Valley’s spookiest fall attraction.
The Headless Horseman’s Haunted House is among the scariest in the nation, bringing in about 8,000 guests per year. The 250 year-old farm incorporates over 65 acres of naturally landscaped property, including foreboding woods and surreal ponds, which sets a perfect scene for Halloween thrills. Visitors can choose from a variety of activities: a theatrical one-mile hayride, a corn maze and haunted attractions which include a zombie-occupied motel, a slaughter house, the Horseman’s tomb and a nursery and greenhouse.
This is Iulia’s second year as an actor for the Headless Horseman, and while she is paid to interact with other horror characters and scare other people, she shares a surprising secret, “When my friend suggested I audition to work here, I thought the idea was crazy. I had always been terrified of haunted houses and gory horror movies. But then I thought, maybe if I worked at one and learned all the logistics, I wouldn’t be scared anymore.” Two years later, while she has conquered her fear to an extent, Iulia admits she has scared herself several times after the makeup artist is finished and she looks at the horrifying reflection staring back at her. The Headless Horseman typically has five to six professional makeup artists on set each night, working for several hours to help make all the zombies, vampires, witches, old dolls, crazed killers, and yes, creepy clowns, come to life. Last year, Iulia played an old porcelain doll who was trapped in a motel room filled with old puppets, “It was so much fun playing this character because I was able to scare people without even moving. I made several people fall to the floor shrieking, as well as not wanting to go any further.”
The Halloween attraction continually evolves each year with unique blood curdling illusions and new, original costumes. Every year the team looks to recreate a famous scary movie or put a sinister spin on a classic fairytale like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Darren Wells, who is the head manager at the Headless Horseman talked about this year’s familiar characters, “We like to bring back a lot of characters from classic horror films. This year we have our two youngest actors dressed as the girls from “The Shining”. You will also find It the clown dancing around in the Horseman’s tomb, which can go without saying, has really tapped into the legitimate fears of people this year.”
Wells says that one of the biggest concerns for first timers is the possibility of the actors touching them. While the their jobs is to essentially make people scream, there are some rules and guidelines as to how far they can go, “If there is someone who is absolutely terrified and on the verge of a panic attack, especially with younger children, we tell the actors to avoid further scaring them. The actors cannot touch the people and visitors are warned not to touch them. They’re allowed in some cases to continue to follow certain people till the end of their “station” in the haunted house or on the hay ride trail. The actors really enjoy doing this and it’s incredibly effective when we have someone coming in to review us professionally.”
Although the hours are long and unpredictable, some nights starting at 5:00 p.m. and ending at 4:00 a.m., Iulia says it’s absolutely worth it, “The work is intense, but it’s honestly a great job for someone who is looking for a small acting gig. Between school and working at the poll, it’s hard to continue acting as much as I did in high school. The Headless Horseman allows me to work for a couple of weeks and get paid a decent amount to do what I love!” Iulia has already signed up to work next year and is looking forward to what other scary character she will get to play.