Ah, Saturday morning. A time traditionally reserved for sleeping in, watching cartoons, and resting up for the inevitable rager happening that night. For some, however, this past Saturday meant one thing and one thing only: auditions for this year’s Dark Harbor haunt on the Queen Mary.
I drove from my apartment in West Hollywood down to the Marriott Courtyard in Long Beach. The Dark Harbor performances take place on the historic (and purportedly haunted) ship The Queen Mary, but the production team reserved space in the hotel to host the auditions.
“I feel so bad for the hotel employees,” one of the members of the Dark Harbor crew laughs. “They have no idea what’s about to go down!”
What’s “going down” is hordes of people coming together to showcase their acting chops, intimidation tactics, and circus skills. The crowd here ranges from 20-somethings decked out Beetlejuice-inspired costumes, folks in horror-themed shirts, tough-looking dudes rocking large-scale tattoos and facial piercings…and some who chose to wear simple ensembles of leggings and tee shirts.
In the waiting room, the Dark Harbor hopefuls talk to each other (some came with their friends), stretch, and practice their specialities, such as juggling, performing acrobatics, and making gruesome faces. One thing is clear: everyone here really wants this gig.
“We’re looking for people who want to have a good time,” Charity Hill says. She’s the producer of Dark Harbor and has been for eight years now. “The cast members serve as ambassadors for the guests. When the monsters are having a good time, the guests’ experience reflects that. Beyond that, we consider everybody. All ages, all experience levels, all races, and all genders.”
Charity tells me that they’re also looking for healthy performers with a lot of stamina—performing at a haunt is physically demanding, so they need to create a cast who can handle that.
“It’s grueling,” Charity says. “But it’s fun. We have our own subculture here at Dark Harbor. We have a new maze this year and more special effects.”
That’s all she’ll say about it.
“I can’t tell you anything more,” she teases. “But we’ll be making an announcement on August 4th at Midsummer Scream.”
Since Dark Harbor welcomes everyone to audition, regardless of “haunt experience,” there were a lot of newcomers to the scene. One of which is Laura Price, a 20-year-old UC Irvine student with wavy blonde hair and white fishnet stockings under athletic shorts.
“My speciality is dancing,” she says. “Go-go, tap, and pointe. I think I want my character for the audition to be cute and creepy. Like, so sweet it’s disturbing. Kind of like a doll.”
Laura tells me that her favorite horror movie is The Conjuring and that her audition strategy is to have as much fun as possible.
“I don’t want to get to in my head,” she says. “I’m just going to do whatever feels natural.”
Having fun seems to be a running theme with the auditionees. At least among the ones I spoke to. Friends Taylor Tracy and Katy Ford spend the waiting period chatting and laughing together. They tell me they met on a film set. Katy, a 27-year-old actor (she played a zombie once and is proud of her “screaming abilities”) has been developing her character for the audition: a love-obsessed, murderous woman who also reads tarot cards. This is her first time auditioning for a haunt.
Taylor, on the other hand, is a scare veteran. She worked with Dark Harbor for two years and did an additional year at Horror Made Here.
“My go-to character is a demon ballerina,” she laughs, running a hand through her bright blue hair. “I use my height and girly voice.”
Our conversation is cut short when a member of the Dark Harbor production team ushers us into a separate room to warm up.
Oh, I forgot to mention—I decided to fully throw myself into this article. By auditioning for Dark Harbor.
After jogging in place and going around in a circle reciting nursery rhymes in character, we are sent back into the waiting room. There, I meet Nikelola Balosun, a contortionist, and Bob Voshell, a juggler and unicyclist.
“I’m creating my monster based on my talent,” Nikelola says. “Contortionists can be perceived in a horrific way, so contortionism is a way to showcase horror in a fun way. I don’t mind being a freak when it comes to art.”
Nikelola tells me she loves scary movies.
“I just saw Midsommar,” she exclaims. “And I love gore.”
Bob is also a fan of horror. He tells me he’s performed for private Halloween parties and wants to play a “scary juggler type” in Dark Harbor.
We’re finally herded up again and this time, led into a large room with a simple maze set up. We’re greeted by David Wally, the executive talent director of Dark Harbor. He’s been doing this job for ten years—the entirety of Dark Harbor’s existence. He splits us into two groups and guides us through another warm-up: walking around the maze and acting like a virus is making its way through our bodies, starting in our fingers. Then, he tells us that our dog was killed and that he is the person who committed the heinous act. The next exercise involves Group One (my group) hiding in different corners of the maze to pop out at Group Two. Admittedly, I was not great at this part.
Then comes the main event: the individual auditions where we would showcase our creepy characters for David, who eggs us on and prompts us to either change up our routine or simply try something different.
I wait for my turn and realize two things: I have not developed a solid audition character as everyone else has, and I am nervous as hell. When it’s finally my turn, I improvise: I come on stage reciting a couplet from Stephen King’s IT (“He thrusts his fists against the post and still insists he sees the ghosts”)…and proceed to tell David that “they” are keeping us here and “they” took my baby.
My media diet primarily consists of true crime and horror. Luckily, David is into it. I end up chasing him around the maze screaming that I was going to cut his heart out.
“I want to make sure the cast is comfortable in their own skin,” he tells me after the audition. “I’m looking for people who can make interesting, compelling, and fun choices. And also be able to change it up and make different choices.”
He explains that other factors, like body control and physical fitness, also play a role in deciding who to cast. But physicality is only part of what makes Dark Harbor so great.
“We need a cast who we can get along with and want to work with,” he tells me. “Everyone needs to work hard and take this seriously. It’s not just about choosing a good cast; it’s about also about choosing good employees.”
I ask him if he can share who stood out to him in the audition. He brings over a stack of auditionees’ paperwork and Poloroid headshots. To my delight, Taylor, Katy, Laura, Nikelola, and Bob have all made the stack. And to my surprise, so did I.
Although I’m not able to make the commitment of being a Dark Harbor cast member this year, I’m seriously considering auditioning for real next season. David, Charity, and every other person I encountered who works with Dark Harbor all seem to genuinely love what they do—and most importantly, they all seem to care about and respect each other. I have no doubt that everyone’s passion, drive, and sheer talent will result in an amazing performance. For more information on this year’s Dark Harbor click here.