Scaring people is fun.

It’s OK, we’ve all done it. Hid behind a blind corner or jumped out of a closet to give a friend, lover, family member or pet a quick jolt of fear as we laugh at their momentary terror.

But some folks truly delight in scaring people, especially total strangers. What better time to indulge your slightly sadistic jones for briefly altering people’s heartbeats than All Hallows’ Eve.

The folks at the Haunted Schoolhouse and the adjacent Haunted Laboratory in Akron (and yes, the proper pronunciation is lah-BORE-a-tory, preferably spoken in a deep menacing voice) have been scaring the pants off of folks for more than 40 years. The buildings feature seven floors adorned with 60 to 70 scary actors each night — with a small amount of that animatronics stuff — more than 50 elaborately designed sets and monsters, and a dark and claustrophobic path through the spooky buildings, designed to keep even the bravest of patrons off-guard.

I recently spent an evening at the two-fer of haunted buildings as both a patron and a scare-inducing monster while meeting owner Cindy Johns, who along with her late husband, Don Johns, birthed the Haunted Schoolhouse in 1974 in the former Thomastown Elementary School after visiting Scream in the Dark, a former haunted house in Akron.

“He was sick and depraved,” Johns joked of her late husband’s desire to open a haunted house. “The very first haunted house we went through, I totally freaked out and he thought it was absolutely hilarious. And from that experience he said, ‘I can do that, but I can do it better,’ and he spent a whole lot of years trying to prove that.”

In 1981, the Johnses transformed the Guggenheim Airship Institute into the Haunted Laboratory, adding four more floors of frightening possibilities.

Don died in 2013, leaving Cindy, who also works full time planning weddings, receptions and corporate events at Stan Hywet, to carry on the family business making for a very harried six weeks of both day and nocturnal activity. Though Johns is now the sole owner it is in many ways a family affair.

“My daughter works here, my son-in-law works here and those who are not family have become like family,” Johns said, noting that the staff mixes young high school- and college-aged youths with several employees who have worked there for as long as 30 years and even a few professional types who trade their work-day suits for night-time scary costumes.

My scary story

As I entered the employee entrance to the Haunted Schoolhouse an hour before the 7:30 p.m. start time, there were already plenty of monsters hanging around checking their phones, wondering which stations they would occupy and generally being quite unmonsterly.

The employee area itself is a friendly place. It resembles a haunted taxi company’s waiting room with tables, a small office where the night’s assignments are handed out, a room full of masks and clothing and walls painted with highly detailed murals of the scary reaper that serves as the schoolhouse’s logo.

The monsters casually waited for their turns in makeup chairs where the artists — some of whom also partake in the frightening — efficiently turned regular folks into scary monsters and other Halloween-like freaks, much to their delight.

I spent my time in the makeup chair with Bill Harrison, a 17-year veteran of the Haunted Schoolhouse who has worked on a few films, including the locally made 1989 non-classic horror film Robot Ninja.

Harrison’s skills with the small airbrush machine make him one of the more admired makeup guys at the Schoolhouse. After spending about 15 minutes in the chair with him drawing gobs of blood on and spray painting my face, I resembled a blood-tinged extra on The Walking Dead.

Next, with my new frightening undead face, I walked through the Schoolhouse as a patron. Despite being a grown man raised on slasher flicks and horror movies, and seemingly safe in the knowledge that there is no touching of customers, there were moments where biology trumped any sense of cool.

The pervasive darkness, claustrophobic hallways, constant spooky sound effects and random jolts had me jumping and giggling a few times as random monsters seemingly popped out of nowhere, screeching, screaming and shouting. There’s an entire room that MOVES precariously with vampiresses creepily screeching their desire to taste your blood, zombie hillbillies requesting you speak to their dear mother, and a skeleton in a wheelchair with an IV going into her bony arm.

Meanwhile the screams and shouts of both the frighteners and the frightened echoed throughout the building, reminding me that there was something scary around the next corner or in the next room as I wound my way through one floor and down to the next.

“There are two more floors to go,” a zombified tour guide informed a group of teenagers forming a hand-chain for security.

“There’s two more floors?! I don’t think I can take it!” one teen-aged girl exclaimed on her way down.

Next I was taken down some steep back stairs and through some unseen hallways, pretty spooky on their own, to a set featuring the front half a van that sped toward patrons with bright headlights and a blaring horn, manned by Steven Amodio of Akron. Amodio, a first-timer at the Schoolhouse, is a veteran at scaring folks as he has spent a few years working at Blossom’s annual Carnival of Horrors.

“The customers that come in are sweeter and nicer here, and the workers around me, I like them a lot more too; they’re pretty cool,” Amodio said.

But soon our conversation stopped as the next group of patrons made their way to the station. We ducked down and waited for the entire group to position itself in front of us.

“Ready? 3...2...1,” Amodio whispered before we pushed the half-van violently forward, triggering the headlights and the blaring horn. With our yelling and terrifying visages, we got the satisfying feeling of making the entire group jump and eliciting a scream or two.

“It’s fun,” Amodio said calmly.

It is fun. The employees admitted that getting a jump from the cool, I’m-not-scared-of-anything guy or my-video-games-are-scarier-than-this teenager is among the most satisfying.

“When people duck down and hit the floor, especially when you get the grown men to hit the floor, that’s the best,” said Kelly Raber of Akron, aka Vampira in Dracula’s Castle.

“I also had a guy tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, I just peed my pants a little bit,’” she added smiling and cackling.

A first-year frightener, Raber first visited the Haunted Schoolhouse at age 7 with her Indian Maiden tribe back in the 1970s and said the experience changed her.

“I’ve loved Halloween ever since. I’m a big, big Halloween fan. I love scary movies and just … scariness,” she said.

With my makeup still fresh, I took a tour of the Haunted Laboratory, which though not quite as claustrophobic has plenty of cool stuff, including two 10-foot tall Tesla coils, one on the roof and one inside that emits sparks and is “manned” by a taunting, evil scientist. There is also a vertical wind tunnel, a leftover from days when actual, presumably nonevil scientists performed experiments that caused immediate and very disorienting vertigo. There are other smaller details, most salvaged by the Johnses over the years, such as real old-time test tubes and an old coroner’s table with a desiccated, ravaged corpse lying on top.

Of course, much of what was considered terrifying back in 1974 has become the stuff of horror movie parodies in the 21st century. Upping the fear factor while maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere is a near-constant battle and the sets and stations are frequently updated and modified.

Georg Weitzel, whose wife Debbie works in the office, started as a teenager in 1974 and has worked at the Schoolhouse for 38 of its 41 years.

“When they told me they were going to pay me to scare people, I was in. To watch someone jump up and run and not go anywhere, nothing could be better,” Weitzel said with a grin.

He now fixes props, keeps the scenes fresh, opens and closes the buildings and still loves to scare people.

Weitzel likes to keep the scenes and sets old-school, using only a minimum amount of animatronics, nothing religious-themed and an unofficial cap on the amount of blood and gore.

“I feel like if a person can’t scare them, those animatronics won’t scare them either,” he said.

Fred Coladonato spent 17 years scaring folks as a warlock and the Undertaker and, like Weitzel, is now the Haunted Laboratory building manager.

“I’ve always loved Halloween and I do miss [dressing up]. I still miss scaring people,” Caldonato said.

Both Weitzel and Coladonato said many people, especially kids, have become desensitized to and expect to see more simulated viscera, guts and gore. A few haunted houses even allow touching patrons. But few folks can resist the jolt of a scary monster-man or ghost-faced woman jumping out of the shadows, and the Haunted Schoolhouse has hosted more than a quarter of a million people in its 40-plus decades.

Anticipation

Scaring people is fun.

Quietly lying in wait, with my face covered in creepy makeup and listening as the footfalls and heavy breathing of already-unnerved patrons approached my scene, built a fantastic state of anticipation and a desire to genuinely scare the crap out of whomever dared to enter my domain.

When Amodio and I popped out of the van and yelled, I savored the wide eyes and involuntary yelps of patrons as they jumped straight into the air or ducked down and clutched the nearest friend.

It was hard not to immediately crack a smile. But though scaring people is fun, it’s also a business. So instead I settled for sharing a knowing glance from my fellow frightening partner and quickly reset the scene to do it all over again.

Boo!

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.