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Stage Fright

John Coon uses serious scare tactics in a nightmarish new show


Published October 29, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

The scariest part wasn't the witches and the wizards -- it was losing the kid. This year's edition of The Haunted Forest, the "theatrical Halloween in the woods" at the Catamount Family Center, culminated in a stumble through a pitch-black hut. Scott Richer and his family got a little turned around trying to find the exit, and when they emerged one member was missing: 10-year-old TJ.

Nervous moments ensued. But it turned out the resourceful TJ had managed to find his way out earlier, and everyone was reunited at the end of the walk.Except for that brief fright, the Richer clan agreed that the Forest had been more funny than scary. That was just fine with them, and right in line with the goals of Fun for Change, the nonprofit that runs the event. "Our goal is to have safe family entertainment," says managing director Sara Haggerty. "We always get complaints that it's not scary enough."

The same probably won't be said of the area's newest frightfest. TV ads for the Halloween Nightmare Horror Walk show a terrified young woman being pursued by a zombie. The mood is more Blair Witch than Great Pumpkin, and the walk is not being recommended for children under 9. To quote the event's mastermind, John Coon: "This isn't Catamount. We're not Casper the Friendly Ghost. We're the in-your-face, Texas Chainsaw sort of site, where people are going to be unsettled and unnerved."

There's a variety of reasons for the proliferation of Halloween walks, haunted mansions and bloody barns. For one, they raise lots of money for worthy causes. The original Haunted Forest was a fundraiser for its founding sponsor, the Green Mountain Audubon Nature Center; Fun for Change, which Forest volunteers founded last year after Audubon bowed out, supports groups like the Youth Conservation Corps. John Coon's horror walk is for charity, too; it's a project of the Jericho-Underhill Lions Club, which is raising money to build a new pavilion in Underhill's Mills Riverside Park. Another social benefit: Attending, or acting in, Halloween events is an alternative to real mischief making.

Which brings us to the psychological appeal of these hair-raising events. In addition to the folks who welcome the frisson of the unexpected, there are also those who like to scare. They love the idea of playing a role, jumping into someone -- or something -- else's skin in order to make us jump out of ours.

While most of the Haunted Forest folks are either first-time performers or once-a-year vets, the Horror Walk boasts a cast of experienced actors who, one assumes, can put real teeth into their roles. Stowe Theater Guild actress Jana Beagley has found the time to act in The Haunted Forest for the past 10 years, even while a student at Middlebury College. This year she's acting in Horror Walk as well.

"I love freaking people out!" she explains.

And who first encouraged her taste for terrorizing? None other than her drama coach, John Coon. Now 51, he's been a teacher and drama coach at Colchester High School for a quarter century. Although he targeted adults with his Dresden's House of Horror, which ran for a month in 1995 at the now-defunct Green Mountain Sports Center in Essex, he made a more lasting mark with the school's now-annual haunted forest along the Colchester bike path. His success with the event prompted the Lions Club to seek him out.

Coon traces his fascination with Halloween to his theatrical roots. A former member of Actors' Equity, he was once a regular stage presence at St. Michael's Playhouse, where he also ran the props department. Halloween offers him "the fun I look forward to in theater, an expansion of the imagination."

But it's also a serious hobby. Coon owns more than 4000 videos and DVDs in the horror, sci-fi and mystery realms, plus multiple horror-movie posters, masks, skulls, severed limbs and a fog machine. He's been a source of paranormal trivia for famed local ghost-expert Joe Citro. He knows how to get silent-auction donations from Stephen King. And he's buddies with horror-movie icons like Dawn of the Dead's Dave Emge, also a St. Mike's Playhouse alum, who will be on hand at the Horror Walk to sign autographs.

Even Coon's daughters, 10 and 13, get into the spirit: They've been known to answer the phone, "City Morgue."

Not that Coon seems all that spooky in person. "He has this little twist in him," as Lions Club vice president Tom Nugent puts it. But, except for a mildly satanic goatee, he just seems like what he is -- a gregarious high school teacher with a talent for telling a story.

On a dark and stormy night last week, at a meeting in Essex Center's Covenant Church, Coon is putting all his story-telling skills to work. He's seated in a circle facing 11 scared faces. Some of the fear is attributable to first-time jitters: unlike most of the participants in the walk, these Lions Club members and other volunteers have little to no acting experience. They're going to be guides, leading visitors from one grisly vignette to the next, and in between they're expected to provide the back story -- in character.

That story is based on the lives of a well-known Jericho family, Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, the photographer who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike, and his brother and sister-in-law, Charles and Mary. With contributions from Jana Beagley, Coon's script conjures up a jealous townsperson who makes a deal with the devil to win the beautiful Mary and accidentally opens a vortex of evil. It's up to each guide how to describe these events, their sympathies dependent on the characters they choose to play.

Once they choose a character, that is. Bruce Blokland, a John Denver lookalike, finds the prospect a little daunting. "Just look at me," he says. "I'm Mr. Dull."

Coon doesn't miss a beat. "So who would Mr. Dull be if he were in rural Vermont in the 1920s? In my opinion it would be the undertaker."

He keeps going like this, taking the briefest hints and spinning them into full-blown scenarios.

"Can you be the jealous girl who hates Mary Blood?""A pirate? Be a real pirate. No fake parrots."

"Nothing is sacred," adds Beagley, who is present along with tech director Dave Hall to give amoral support.

"Be as sinful as possible," urges Coon, then looks up at the lofty upper reaches of the chapel. "I can't say certain things here or I'm going to be struck by lightning."

The zombies begin to perk up.

"I want to be the psychotic housekeeper for the Bentleys!" proclaims Kathy Smith.

"She won't even have to act!" says her friend Laurie Bergeron, who has already decided to be Mary's sister "Hazel."

Along the way, Coon alludes to some of the evil apparitions he's planning: the machete-wielding clown, the guy in the electric chair pleading for his life, the "spewing site." (Be sure to stand clear of that one, he warns.) But all this begs a question -- how do you make all this gore look authentic in the close environs of a cattle barn? Or more specifically, how do you machete someone effectively in full view of the audience?

"You know how many professional actors there are," he says, deadpan. "You can always afford to lose a few."

But seriously, folks, he's got good technical help in Hall and retired government worker Jack Ramussen, who's constructing the electric chair and the Oriental box, among other things. The Colchester High School art department is helping supply the hanging corpses. And any macheteing will probably take place at a distance.

That's the case with an opening recreation of the TV ad, a vignette that takes place while ticketholders are standing in line outside. That scene's already undergone a change, says Coon. The weapon of choice was originally a gun, not a machete, but "the Essex police won't let me use my stage pistol outside."

Won't some parents complain about the violence?

"I don't fear that," says the Lions' Tom Nugent. And anyway, the club is making a real effort to publicize that "this is scary -- underline scary."

Of course, the scare factor is why Coon expects people will show up.

The recent remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre grossed more than $20 million on its opening weekend. The Lions can't expect those kinds of numbers, but they do hope to attract 3000 people paying $10 and $8 a ticket to the three-day Horror Walk. With a $3000 facility rental as their only major expense -- it's an all-volunteer effort, including Coon -- they might find that blood and guts buys them a pretty nice pavilion.