Nightmare on Pearl Street

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Actors from Nightmare Vermont, a haunted house headed by Colchester's Jana Beagley, are pictured outside at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct. The show includes a "haunted circus" theme this year and is rated PG-13. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Actors from Nightmare Vermont, a haunted house headed by Colchester’s Jana Beagley, are pictured outside at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct. The show includes a “haunted circus” theme this year and is rated PG-13. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Nightmare Vermont event creator and Colchester-native Jana Beagley doesn’t usually act in her show. But after a few of her recruits suddenly dropped out last Saturday night, she took to the stage.

As a makeshift tour guide, Beagley welcomed a crowd to the Champlain Valley Expo grandstand in Essex with enthusiasm. A crew of suspicious circus characters was hanging around since the Champlain Valley Fair, Beagley told guests, and she needed their help to kick them out of town.

She led the group inside, shrieks and screams abounding, and returned to the entrance with a smile.

Just minutes before, a few dozen actors circled up for a pre-show pep talk. Some used duct tape or staples to quickly repair props. Others shoved hand warmers in their pockets, prepping for a cold night ahead.

Two cast members dressed as clowns sat outside the Expo in increasingly inconvenient rain. Beagley promised to find a dry place for them soon as she had a free moment. They didn’t seem to mind.

Now in its 10th year, the show combines live stage combat, an original theatrical storyline and plenty of interactive scares and special effects – some so extreme, patrons are asked to sign a waiver before entry.

This year, Nightmare introduced a thrilling “strings and stings” maze. The blindfolded experience invokes psychological manipulation and unexpected sensations, Beagley said. An animatronic monster also makes its debut, created by Burlington-based Generator Maker Space.

At least 10 percent of gross ticket sales are donated to local charities, including Generator, Del’s Ride and Essex CHIPS.

The haunted circus theme was cemented months ago, Beagley said. When a creepy clown craze took hold of nearby towns, she said things got a little awkward for the Nightmare cast.

“On the one hand, there’s no bad publicity,” Beagley said. “On the other hand, we really pride ourselves on giving people the experience they want to have. People pay to come here, [and] it’s important to us that everything we engage in is consensual.”

Fostering a spooky yet secure environment is a goal the Nightmare cast works hard to achieve.

Beagley said the cast instituted a safe word for the first time this year. Patrons who want to exit the event immediately can say “green balloons,” and a cast member will escort them out.

“When people consent to have a scary adventure that they know is safe, it can be very powerful, it can be very uplifting and it can be very bonding,” Beagley said. “When people have a scary experience that they do not have any control over and they’re not sure is safe, it can be very traumatic.”

There’s no age limit on who can attend the show, but coordinators tell guests to expect a PG-13 display. A sister event called Spookyville Vermont is housed across the fairgrounds and sports a family-friendly label.

And while no one will be turned away from Nightmare, folks won’t allow anyone to be dragged into the event unwillingly, according to Beagley.

“It gives people a bad experience with haunted houses,” Beagley said. “They don’t want to come back.”

The crew also has additional measures in place to help visitors customize their experience. Flashing “monster teasers,” or glowsticks, tell the Nightmare team you’re willing to become a part of their show. Conversely, “monster wards” let the actors know you would like some personal space as you navigate through the house, Beagley said.

“We love giving people who might be nervous a chance to safely experience our show so they can feel empowered,” Beagley said. “They can enjoy the show without having to put themselves in a situation that they just don’t like.”

Tickets to the Nightmare Vermont show can be purchased online for $12 – $15 at www.nightmarevermont.org. The show continues through Saturday. See our calendar page for more information.