Alive's John Ross joins the ranks of the undead at TerrorFest in the Brewery District.

In a haunted house, a good scare comes in stages.

The surroundings first set the mood - an old morgue or a graveyard filled with fog. It's horrid but intriguing, like a highway car crash you can reach out and touch. Adrenaline flows, then recedes. Stepping closer to examine a lifeless corpse, you feel you have things under control. You wait.

Then, from a corner you never noticed, your worst nightmare comes to life.

Tonight, I'm a nightmare.

One of roughly 50 actors working The TerrorFest in the Brewery District, I wear a tattered wool suit and bear a face that's been completely mangled. After 20 minutes in a backstage makeup room, it's now a rotting, zombie mess: pale face, dark eyes and open wounds filled with plastic maggots.

Throughout the night, fake blood literally drips down my chin.

My job is to hide in the cemetery, a room filled with foam headstones and gargoyles, and jump out before people enter a dark hallway filled with skulls. A strobe light obscures my tiny lair, covered by the kind of giant camo mesh you'd use to hide a moonshine still from an ATF raid.

Mostly I work in tandem with an undertaker named Steve, a lanky, mustached dude wearing a top hat and a black suit. The trick, he says during a normal Thursday night lull, is picking out the people who really want to be scared.

A zombie hiding in a dark corner has plenty of easy prey. Though numbers were expected to drop slightly due to the recession, nearly one in five Americans planned a visit to a haunted attraction in 2008, according to the National Retail Federation.

The TerrorFest is actually two connected attractions that funnel guests to the Brewery Butcher, a shy dude who supposedly made beer south of Downtown until he got fed up with bullies and killed 38 people. When they get to the cemetery, stationed midway through the 15-minute maze, most people are walking on edge.

From the front of the room, which is foggy and dark and filled with creepy music, Steve slides out from the shadows. He greets them with rasping whisper, wide smile and the angular head cock that indicates a person is completely insane. He lets them pass and slowly follows from the rear, dragging his shovel on the ground.

Metal scraping concrete is an absolutely awful sound, so without knowing it, each small group turns and looks back. When they turn around to continue, I throw open the net and jump out with an evil sneer and my most bloodcurdling shout.

A few greeted me politely or casually pointed out flaws in my costume, the horror fan's primary mode of condescension. But after an hour in the graveyard, you spot easy scares from 30 yards: middle-school girls separated from friends, first-timers clinging to dad, any lady who uses a blow dryer.

Most of these guests will scream, put their hand to their chest in relief and start laughing. Several people fell over backward, and I'm fairly sure one had a mild stroke.

It might seem cruel, even a little morbid. It's exactly what the people want.

Fear Factories

Appropriately, details about the first haunted houses are shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that a few decades ago, people started dressing up the friendly places they knew to look like the forbidden, broken-down abodes they saw lying at the edge of town.

For one or two nights in October, the Jaycees and other charitable organizations would piece together an amateur haunt for neighborhood kids. Before the golden age of special effects, they could get away with wispy cobwebs, plastic spiders and a math teacher manning the lights.

The local cinema wasn't airing a new horror flick in which a dude saws off his own foot.

Year after year, the horror bar continued to rise. Alongside their onscreen kin, haunted houses became scarier and more elaborate to attract audiences accustomed to seeing the imaginary come to life. The season lengthened.

In the mid '80s, private citizens with for-profit operations began to eclipse many low-budget fundraisers, which were already struggling to keep pace with stricter municipal codes. An era of bloody props and black walls came to an end the following decade with the use of animatronic props and an acute attention to detail.

"It has exploded in the last 20 years in a number of different ways," explained Jim Fetterly, spokesman for America's Best Haunts, which highlights leading attractions across the country. "What's been going on for the past seven to 10 years is incredible."

Haunted houses are a primary reason Halloween has become the No. 2 commercial holiday in America.

"Right now, if you want to do a living room scene, the scene is going to be approaching Hollywood quality," Fetterly said. "Your core audience is now 15 to 50, because the quality of the scares and the entertainment value is so much higher."

Bo Bruns, co-owner of Grandview prop company Unit 70, has also noticed the trend to be bigger, better and badder.

"People get desensitized to stuff, so you have to keep pushing it every year to show people something they haven't seen before," he explained. "It seems like every year we've had to increasingly add detail to our creatures."

Ohio has remained at the forefront of the exploding industry, with several area haunts recognized among the nation's best. Dead Acres in Pataskala was named one of the top 13 by Hauntworld magazine, while TerrorFest gained a nod from AmericasBestHaunts.com.

"We're constantly improving, adding, subtracting," said Dave Treisch, who operates TerrorFest with two partners. "You can only go see a movie so many times before it gets old. It's the same here."

As a Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer, Treisch would turn his basement into a haunt that eventually saw 400 guests a year. He went pro soon after, honing his skills until landing south of Downtown four years ago.

TerrorFest includes the familiar House of Nightmares and the Brewery Butcher, a new twist this year. Whatever your phobia, you'll find it inside: monsters, devils, botched surgery, insane asylums, shaky bridges, serial killers, dark hallways and confined spaces.

Each of the haunt's 25 rooms is a microcosm of what's required to stay afloat in an industry that gets more competitive every year. Assaulting every sense requires a seamless environment of terror tied together by a hidden web of wiring, MP3 players, piping and safety devices.

Partner Keith Korner specializes in vacuum-formed panels - giant sheets of plastic that he molds into brick walls, rows of skulls or individual props to be lit and painted. He and Treisch also built about 37 animatronic props, which drop from ceilings, pop around corners and explode from walls.

Peak nights require up to 60 actors who roam, hide and act out unique scenes complete with back stories and individual ambient soundtracks. Costumed zone leaders with tiny radio headsets communicate with managers to ensure safety and manage crowd flow.

Each detail is mapped out and dissected - from when a prop fires (motion sensors) to how actors take bathroom breaks (secret hallways).

"I enjoy seeing people have fun, and a lot of people like scary things," Treisch said. "I like coming up with something no one else has done. I work on it all year."

Actor's Theater

A few hours before the show Saturday night - prime time for haunted attractions - wild cackles bounce off the bricks of Ludlow Street, through a nearby parking lot and into the night.

The Brewery District was custom-made for Halloween.

Dressed and ready, a group of ghouls stands outside TerrorFest's service entrance smoking cigarettes, pounding energy drinks and competing for the most maniacal laugh.

The cast trades giddy stories about frightened guests running headfirst into walls or screaming so loud their gum shoots out. In the ghoul game, the best fear is genuine and clumsy: a candid shriek, temporary paralysis, total loss of motor skills.

For a dude voluntarily wearing a straitjacket on a Saturday night, this is the great yardstick of success.

"I had two people in my room who had to leave," says ballroom girl Elise Shell. "That doesn't happen too often in the first two rooms."

There's pride in her voice. People, not plastic, are ultimately the reason people fall over and cry for help.

"All the special effects are only tools for the actors to make a scene come to life," Treisch, the owner, says. "That's what I tell all my actors."

No amount of high-end animatronics, sets or props can take the place of quality actors, he insists. You can dress up all the moving monsters you want, but there remains a subtle magic in a young man pretending to have his leg amputated by a werewolf wearing surgical scrubs.

Like most, TerrorFest employs static actors that appear at first like props, high-energy actors for an element of crazy, and stalkers who follow you through an entire scene.

The level of detail in makeup and costumes has advanced along with a haunted house's technological aspects, and expectations for actors are more demanding than ever. Possibilities are endless, making the hours before first haunt kind of like undead career day.

Each actor dresses in a backstage locker room filled with masks, wigs, prosthetics and soiled clothing. They head next to resident makeup artist Kim Kain, who every night transforms more than half the staff into zombies, amputees, deranged murderers and vampire brides.

Many come in looking for a quick paycheck and leave after one night, but the best actors fine-tune costumes and develop characters. On my first night, I had tried a traditional zombie walk - arms out, breathing heavy, mind fixed on flesh.

It was not acceptable.

"Now, look, you're a zombie," said one graveyard haunter, his obvious look of concern hidden by a canine mask. "You've been dead for years. Your muscles just don't work anymore. Some of them might even be missing."

Actors take their craft seriously, and top haunts always receive high marks for the human element.

"I do a lot of community theater on the side," says Christopher Seitz, a 10-year haunt veteran, holding a cigarette with a bloody surgical glove. "This is just a different form of improv."

Unemployment and dreams of a horror-film career keep some working. Most, though, dress up night after night simply because they love Halloween. File clerks, bus drivers and full-time dads come from the Hilltop, Reynoldsburg, Hamilton Road and the North Side simply for the love of scaring.

"It's a release of yourself," says a smiling Derek Robbins, stepping into a beast costume and a blue jumpsuit. "When you put on the mask, you become a different person. It's fun to be something else."

Central Ohio Haunts

The TerrorFest isn't the only haunt to hit for Halloween. Here's info on a few of the area's best.

Dead Acres

Pataskala

Through Saturday

Cost: $25 total, $17 for individual attractions

Web: deadacres.com

Billed as the world's most extreme haunted house, this scare complex, which includes the notorious Haunted Hoochie, is built to make you sick. Literally, that's their motto. To do so, they employ live demon births, wicked clowns and some of the goriest, most inventive props you'll ever see.

Haunted Prison Experience

Through Saturday

Mansfield

Cost: $15

Web: hauntedx.com

It doesn't get much scarier than the Ohio State Reformatory, which is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in Ohio. To sweeten (err, sicken) the deal, the experience adds actors, animatronics and props. Its 45-minute length makes it one of the longest in Ohio.

The Scare-a-Torium

Through Saturday

North Side

Cost: $15

Web: scareatorium.com

Rated a top haunt in Wisconsin for three years, this "maze of the macabre" has come to Karl Road and State Rt. 161. The city's newest attraction boasts 55,000 square feet of fear curated by host Colonel Frightmore, who travels the world in search of its darkest secrets.