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Scary For Some, Home For Others: Kids Find Haven As Actors At Local Haunted House

An actor poses wearing a red-nosed, black-eyed evil clown mask.
Jenny Goldsberry / KUER
At Asylum 49, kids who are acting say scaring behind these lifelike, adult-sized masks gives them a sense of freedom they don't find in their day-to-day lives.

There’s an old hospital building in Tooele. If you ask the people who live there, they might tell you it’s haunted. It’s usually a functioning community center, but come September, it’s transformed into one of the most terrifying haunted houses in the state. And the actors behind the mask who make Asylum 49 so scary are kids.

Owner and founder Kimm Anderson says he was troubled as a kid himself, and his job at a local haunted house saved his life. Now, he’s on a mission to help kids who are on the same path he was before he turned his life around.

At Asylum 49, guests encounter prop severed heads, a re-creation of the human centipede and a chair that looks as if it were made of human skin. The actors behind the monsters range in age from 6 to their early 20s. Anderson says he’s often asked about whether he thinks it’s a good idea to have young actors around R-rated horror. 

“The 13-year-old of 20 years ago is not the 13-year-old of today,” he says. “They’re changing, right? And if we don’t evolve with them, we’re going to lose them.” 

Kimm says he encourages the kids to pursue their passions, and they’re involved in just about every stage of the haunted house. They make prosthetics, do makeup, design the rooms, create set furniture and terrify the guests. Most of them are involved year-round in the preparations for Halloween season.

21-year-old Andrew Lemmon says he’s been various characters for the haunted house since he was nine. Tonight, he’s got pointy ears and vampire fangs dripping with blood. With about half an hour to showtime, he refuses to break character, speaking in his monster’s accent. 

“I enjoy this, good stress relief for me,” he growls. “It’s the fact that knowing that you are behind the mask, no one knows who you are. And they can threaten you all they like, but it is warning: I will douse blood.”

Andrew is the type of actor who thoroughly researches his roles for months before performing them. Therapist Elizabeth Lewin-Shepley isn't associated with Asylum 49, but she explains role play can be an important tool during crucial periods of development.

“For some kids, role play is essential. It’s essential in healing. And for some kids, it doesn’t do anything.” Lewin-Shepley adds, “Hopefully [they] have adults that are supportive. And for some of those kids it might be what they need.”

A woman paints a young girls face with halloween makeup.
Credit Jenny Goldsberry / KUER
A full team works to get the kids into character with costume and makeup. The setups are elaborate, including fake blood splattered on their faces, some of which are done up à la "The Evil Dead."

Asylum 49’s management sees themselves in that supportive role. Dusty Kingston is the behind-the-scenes business partner, wearing all black and ducking in and out of every room in Asylum. She says she’s seen how kids have been transformed by the haunted hospital.

“Kids that were normally going down a wrong path are now in college, married, own homes, have kids now,” she says. “Or the quiet ones finally have a voice, and they speak up for themselves and they became some of our top actors.”

Julie Lemmon, Andrew Lemmon’s mom, says her son is one of those who has benefited from this experience.

“He’s opened up a lot more. ‘Cause he used to be really shy and quiet and reserved, and now he's got that outlet where he can be his weird natural self and not get judged for it.”

And Andrew’s been involved for so long because his parents are involved. They visited Asylum 49 on a date back in 2004, and that same night Andrew’s dad volunteered to work as a security guard. Julie soon started doing makeup and her kids became actors.

“It brought our entire family together,” she says. “It was something we’d all do as a family every October.”

According to staff, even those kids without family on the cast have found a place that feels like home. Once a kid has volunteered for a certain number of hours, he or she gets a football jersey for the Asylum team. With more time, a kid can “letter” in horror acting and receive a letterman’s jacket in Asylum’s yellow and black colors. They even do a team cheer every night.

According to Lewin-Shepley, it’s human nature to want to find a tribe.

“Doesn’t everyone want to belong?” Lewin-Shepley asks. “Doesn’t everyone want to be a part of something and say hey, I accomplished this even though it was really scary? To find that pride and that sense of belonging and knowing that someone cared enough and that they’re important?”

While veteran vampire actor Andrew has found that sense of community — he admits he does get scared at times, especially of the dark.

But he still heads back into the pitch black labyrinth of Asylum 49.

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