Written by John Thomason. Photo by Aaron Bristol.
There’s nothing frightening about George Colavecchio. In fact, he’s kind of a hippie. In a previous life as a professional singer/songwriter, he toured with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and recorded with MCA under the name George St. John. Before that, he toiled the same coffeehouse circuit as Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
But these days, he strums scarier notes as creative director of G-Star School’s X-Scream Halloween, which bills itself as Florida’s third-largest haunted attraction. Built and performed by film students at the Palm Springs high school, this durable fundraiser has transformed G-Star’s benign soundstages into zombie apocalypses, Old West ghost towns, anarchic mental wards, demented circus shows and more, for intrepid visitors aged 8 to 80. It earned its haunt-industry bona fides in 2008, when the Travel Channel named it one of the 13 Scariest Haunted Attractions in America.
Colavecchio’s 200 X-Scream students, who comprise about a quarter of the school’s student body, have expanded well beyond the October event, staging FBI and first-responder disaster drills, writing murder-mystery dinner theater productions, and even decorating the Palm Beach Zoo for Christmas.
Colavecchio oversees it all, along with handling G-Star’s web and graphic design and most of its P.R. His job description is complicated. “If you ask the teachers what I do, they have no clue,” he says. “I found this niche for a very bizarre set of skills.”
With X-Scream’s lucky 13th anniversary this October, we asked Colavecchio to share insights from the spook trade.
Do you have a special affinity for horror films?
No. The funny thing is that I don’t watch horror films. The only horror films I’ve ever seen are going back to Lon Chaney—the original “Dracula” and “Werewolf.” Because you can scare people without all that [gore]. It’s more about the entertainment, and the fact that when doing a haunted event, you don’t have any boundaries. If you can think it, you can probably do it.
What’s the secret to a good scare?
There is a psychology to scaring people. You can try to rationalize it all you want, but when you take all of the sophisticated ideas about how haunting works, basically it’s just ‘boo.’ The key to it is getting you to look over there, and getting something to bump or scream over here. It’s like doing a magic trick—it’s all about misdirection.
How important is it to have a story?
There are two trains of thought in the haunt industry. There’s your standard, old-school vampire room, zombie room and clown room, that have no story—it’s just there to scare you. Then there’s a group of us who are referred to as themers, where you have a backstory.
I’m a big-time themer for a couple of reasons. No. 1, I’m a writer, and I’ve got all these stories in my head. No. 2, everything we do is somewhere in time. We’ve done haunts that took place in the 1400s. We’ve done them in the 1920s. In order to do it right, the kids have to research what we’re doing. They’re actually learning a lot of history. You have to learn the correct history before you can twist it.
Your website lists the 2017 X-Scream as the most ambitious one yet. Why?
We wanted to do something different with witches—not your stereotypical pointy hat and broomstick. The inside haunt is in the soundstage, and there are no walls: It’s a dark forest. A witch has cursed the forest and the creatures within it. It’s trolls and goblins and ogres and wood nymphs—all the stereotypical fantasy characters, with our twist on them.
The outside haunt is a medieval village during a witch burning. The village has been hit by the Black Plague—and Black Plague victims are basically zombies with slightly different skin tones. This year I’m also adding a hayride that goes around the property, and there are scare zones built in along the way.
Why do people enjoy being frightened?
It’s kind of like living on the edge. It’s safer than skydiving or bungee jumping. If your haunt is successful, when people come out that back door, I want them sweating bullets and smiling.
You’ve scared them, but you’ve also made it fun.
Our interview with Colavecchio took place over the summer. Visit xscreamhalloween.com to see the haunts at this year’s event, which vary slightly from those described in the interview.
X-Scream takes place Oct. 13-28 at 2030 S Congress Ave., Palm Springs. Tickets are $8 to $10. Call 561/967-2023 for more information.