Brandon Santoro.

It’s 6:30 on a cool October night, and Mike Impollonia is getting ready for work. His schedule this week has been hectic, but he doesn’t mind. “Yesterday I was in the stripper room, today I’m in the cemetery, tomorrow I’m back in the stripper room,” he says with a smile. Mike scares people for a living. And 30 minutes from how, he’s going to do everything he can to scare me.

We’re standing in an underground dressing room at Blood Manor, a haunted house on the border of SoHo and Hudson Square that describes itself as “New York City’s premier haunted house attraction”—meaning, one of its scariest. The manor, which takes up the second floor of a warehouse building, opens in half an hour. A line of jittery customers already stretches around the block.

Tonight, I am the prey that gets a glimpse into the predators’ lair, and as Mike and I chat on the dressing room stairs, I can’t help but feel like a mouse interviewing a cat. The manor’s roughly 40 actors rush around us in varying states of undress: a man in an undershirt with brains pouring down his cheek, a girl in a neon leotard with a chalky, skeletal face. The smiles they flash as they pass only hike my heart further up into my throat. The next time we pass each other, things will be different.

But for the next 30 minutes, we’re on friendly terms. Mike’s been at Blood Manor for seven years, he tells me, and it’s clearly his favorite gig. “If you see my Facebook profile you’d think I’m psychotic,” he jokes. (Or a zombie, as he’s dressed in every profile picture.) As it turns out, his off-stage persona is closer to a Teddy Bear. He tells me about his childhood on Long Island, where he would visit four or five haunted houses every Halloween, and about his year-round job coaching disabled adults and children. He first came to Blood Manor as a customer, and loved it so much he applied for a job.

Brandon Sontoro.

Brandon Santoro.

A man in a tattered top hat and suit joins the conversation. He introduces himself as Brandon Santoro, a 23-year-old from the Bronx, and his eyes pop against the lurid green spray paint that covers his face. This is Brandon’s first year at Blood Manor, but he’s worked in the haunt industry before–most recently at Nightmare, another of New York’s scary attractions. “At my previous job I was often a very Gollum-y character who would follow people around the house,” he explains. Tonight, he’s a dressed as something like a crazed carnival master.

I ask Mike and Brandon to describe the finer points of their craft. A voice to my left growls, “We don’t say boo.” I whip around to see a man in a bloody hockey mask appear behind Brandon.

His point sparks a debate on the merits of the industry’s most commonly-uttered word. “Well, only sometimes,” Mike qualifies.

“There’s a right and a wrong way to do it.”

Brandon agrees with his masked companion: “You can’t just say boo and run away. Not in this house!”

Apparently, there are many rules of the game. “We’re a no-touch haunt,” Brandon continues. “We don’t get to rip your face off or anything.” That’s good, I think, and glance at the man in the hockey mask. It’s hard to tell whether he’s pleased with this rule or not.

Scaring strategies aside, the actors of Blood Manor come across more as siblings than co-workers. It’s no mystery why: from late September to early November, they live much like the nocturnal creatures they play, spending almost every night prowling the house’s fearsome exhibits until midnight and then going for drinks until the sun comes up.

Each actor gets three 20-minute breaks a night, during which time he scarfs down sandwiches and juice backstage while another actor slips quickly into his spot. “It’s very challenging,” Brandon says. “You’re repeating this gigantic performance on a loop for hours and hours.”

Despite this, Brandon and Mike don’t find their work too repetitive. Instead, they improvise and play off their customers’ reactions. “There are certain actors in the industry”—Brandon puts on a false aristocratic air—“who feel this work is beneath them. That’s ridiculous.” The actors’ performances at Blood Manor often land them other gigs, like staffing a scary movie premiere in zombie attire or, more recently, mingling in costume with guests of a haunted wedding at a Long Island mansion.

By now it’s getting close to call time, and the actors lead me down the winding basement stairs to the makeup room. A man with fake blood dripping from his mouth teases the hair of a woman in a purple colonial dress, giving her the look of a grotesque rag doll. Behind a plastic curtain, makeup artists spray the actors’ faces and arms with glow-in-the-dark paint. The makeup changes every night as people take on different roles, Brandon explains, so the look of each part is constantly developing.

2015 Woman Photo copy“Places! Places if you’re ready,” the manager yells from the costume room. I exit the basement and enter Blood Manor through its front door. I’ll be walking into the “attraction” as the seventh wheel to three terrified college-age couples, who cling to each other as we wait in the dark hallway leading to the house’s maze of haunted rooms. When our turn comes, the couples hesitate in front of the curtained entryway. I’m going to have to take the lead here.

I pull back the curtain and step into the first room. As my eyes adjust to the smoky darkness, back-lit tombstones come into focus. A gravedigger with a cobwebbed walking stick steps out of the fog and roars in my face, “Hey! You must be lost!” My scream catches in my throat and I manage to squeak, “A little!” I realize the man is Mike—or at least, he was Mike 30 minutes ago. “Go inside! Right this way!” he growls in my ear, and I feel his hot breath on my neck as I scurry into the next corridor.

The maze unfolds room by room: An organ plays a funeral dirge as a bloody child tied to a chair screams for me to let her free. I stumble into a refrigerator full of shrunken heads, then through another next door into the swampy lair of a werewolf. The raving, lunging monsters around every corner bear no resemblance to the jaunty, smiling people I spoke with half an hour ago. “Where’s Brandon?” I wonder, and turn each corner both hoping and dreading his neon-green face.

I reach the 3D maze, Blood Manor’s final gauntlet. A man with a top hat and a hideous smile thrusts a pair of 3D glasses into my hand. “Brandon!” I manage a wave, as if we’re meeting at a pool party. He puts his face nose-to-nose with mine and lets out a maniacal laugh. The college couples scream and flee into the maze. With one last crazed grin, he chases us through the black velvet curtains. Florescent clowns leer from the walls and ghoulish figures pop out of dark corners. As one of the monsters brandishes a chainsaw in my face, I try hard to recall Mike’s words from a half hour before: “These are really awesome, really friendly, social people,” he said. “They’re like my family.”