LEESBURG, Va. - George Pellicano's daughter just killed his wife. The girl's charging around the room with a cleaver, shrieking uncontrollably. People are screaming. There's blood everywhere. And now, the dark-haired 11-year-old is running into the hiding spot where her father is waiting in the darkness.
She lowers her knife.
Their eyes meet.
He lifts his hand up in front of his face - and gives her a high five.
Pellicano is a man who spends his day job at a desk. He looks at spreadsheets. Pores over government contracts. Goes home.
But now it's October, and October means that when Pellicano leaves work on Fridays, it's to take his wife and two children to a decrepit 140-year-old mansion. Just as they've done every fall for five years, the Pellicano family is spending their weekends working at Shocktober, a haunted house in Leesburg, where all the proceeds go to a nonprofit organization for people with disabilities called the Paxton Campus.
His wife and daughter change into costumes for their murder scene, his son goes to help out in the parking lot and Pellicano, the most dedicated volunteer, transforms into a role that has no name, but was made especially for him.
He could call it the "scare monitor." Scare captain. Surveyor of the scare.
For $30 apiece, around 10,000 people will stream through the attractions all month at Shocktober: a clown-themed fun tunnel, a basement called the "well of souls" and the main event: a 32-room manor of dark, dead and dreadful.
That's Pellicano's domain. He helped design each room, and now, he's going to make sure the house scares like it's supposed to.
"I roam around, hide, and watch to make sure everything is going smoothly," he says.
He knows it's going smoothly when he can hear the screaming. The crying. The people running away, closing their eyes and, more often than he's comfortable admitting: peeing their pants.
On opening weekend, those noises of fear are what makes the scare monitor smile. The gray makeup and fake blood splatter on his face crack from how much he smiles. Because history, science and ticket sales all tell him the same thing:
We like to be scared.
Two hours after the doors opened, Pellicano is making rounds on the second floor of the mansion. He's dressed in a ragged flannel and corduroy overalls that have a small Winnie the Pooh sewn into the back. (They were donated.) In the darkness he sneaks past groups of teenagers whose parents dropped them off and sports teams in matching sweatshirts toward one of the hiding places for the actors.
He taps a door disguised as a wall to let them know he's coming in.
"It's just me guys, just me," Pellicano whispers. It's so dark they can't see his face. He knows some of the actors hate it when he sneaks up - most of them believe the mansion is actually haunted.
"Wait," he whispers. "Are there only two of you in here?"
A voice comes from the corner.
"Nah, my wife's just in the bathroom," says the voice, a guy who is crouched down on a wooden platform behind the makeshift wall, waiting to pounce. "She'll be gettin' them from the grate when she comes back."
Pellicano seems relieved. The set-up in every room has been meticulously thought out by the staff at Shocktober - how dark it is, what it smells like (think air fresheners but with labels that say "rotting flesh" or "burning body"), and what section of the group (front, middle or back) the actor should try to scare. The result is maximum screamage.
The croucher's wife makes it back just as Pellicano hears a group entering the hallway, and the scene as they planned it begins.
"Help me! Help me!" she screams from a grate low on the wall. She has a fake hand on a stick that she can reach out to grab around their ankles, but she waits for the person in the front of the group to pass. Building their anticipation.
The group turns the corner - and nothing happens.
Pellicano watches from a quarter-sized hole in the wall as the front man in a group of six looks at a four-poster bed where a body lies still. Pellicano knows they're wondering, is it real? Is it going to jump out? Then ...
The croucher pops over the wall, grabbing the spotlight with a well-practiced guttural noise of nightmare-soundtrack quality. He shocks the group from above.
They howl and run, just as planned, toward an innocent-looking mirrored vanity. Pellicano turns to see if the third actor behind the vanity is ready, and she hits the button. It's supposed to flash a light so blinding that the vanity mirror goes transparent and the running group comes face to face with a deadly-looking "bloody Mary."
The screams tell him that it worked.
For Pellicano, each scare feels like he's a painter, and this is his gallery show. "The satisfaction comes from watching them react," he says. To him, it's art. But the thing that keeps them coming back? That's science.
"The brain perceives each scare as a threat to your safety," explains Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear. The shock then triggers a cascade of chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline. (We tend to associate these with sex and exercise, too). As the group is running from Bloody Mary, Kerr imagines, the chemicals make them feel euphoric and strong. In the same moment, their brains are recognizing that they're not in any real danger.
They're left with a high that carries over to the next room, where there's only a bathtub full of fake bugs waiting. Scary enough to make them keep moving, but calm enough to give their systems a chance to relax before the next shock.
It's a roller coaster of emotion humans have been putting themselves through since at least the 1600s, when the Russians reportedly built one of the first purposefully fear-inducing attractions: extreme slides made of wooden ramps and ice. These days, an estimated 32 million adults (1 in every 5 who plan to celebrate Halloween) will visit a haunted attraction this year, according to the National Retail Federation.
At Shocktober, the team has designed the creaky winding pathway through the manor to constantly present different types of scares: a giant wooden beam swinging for their heads (a "startle scare"), a girl carving up a dead body then following behind the group ("stalker scare"), and of course all the phobias: snakes, doctors, chain saws and worst for some people - dolls that come alive.
"Don't you want to play with dolly?" a bloody pigtailed little girl screeches in a room full of dismembered dolls. "Nobody will play with me and dolly!"
Many of the visitors guard themselves by talking at the actors. "Sure I'll play with you," they say. Or, "No, you've been very bad."
Scare-surveyor Pellicano teaches everyone to keep to the script. Stare them down, he says, but don't talk back.
"They're only trying to prove you're human."
Whenever Pellicano makes it back to the room where his wife, Mary, is, he finds her slumped over, peeking out from the corner of her eye to see who is coming.
"It's going really well," Mary says, describing all the scares their daughter Brigid has made. "One guy fell on the floor. We've had a good number have to leave, too."
Some of the early-departers seemed to have been dragged into the haunted house by friends. There will always be people who never enjoy being scared. Part of the reason could be, according to sociologist Kerr, that their brains don't release as much serotonin when they feel threatened. Studies (mostly on the brains of chimpanzees) have shown that serotonin levels are likely to be genetic - meaning some people are predisposed to get less of a high from being scared.
Sometimes the people hitting their breaking point when they saw Brigid's bloody knife were kids around her own age, brought along by parents who thought they could handle it. When children are scared too soon, Kerr says, the experience can be traumatic. "Especially if they're too young to realize what's real and what's fake," she said. In her mind, that age comes around 7 or 8 years old.
Brigid was 8 when she first asked to be a character at the haunted house. Her parents knew that all actors had to be 14 years old. Then the haunted house staff saw how scary Brigid could be. She promised to stay with her mom, and they let her in at age 9. She loved it.
"We really thought it would toughen her up a bit," Mary says. "She'll be less prone to scary things in life."
Another group is coming. Mary plays dead again, Brigid gets ready to start screeching and waving her knife.
"A family that slays together, stays together," they like to say.
Pellicano breaks into another facepaint-cracking smile, and goes to check on the scare in the next room.