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Terrormania puts students to the test

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 2:52 p.m.

As a child, Danielle Westendorf, of Freeport, borrowed her mother's mascara and lipstick so she could paint herself black eyes or draw fake cuts on her arms.

"I've been doing this ever since I was little," said Westendorf, 18, as she got into costume to portray a murder victim at Terrormania!, a haunted-house attraction in Monessen. "My mother would yell at me to stop drawing on myself."

On Halloweens past, 48-year-old John Meadows, of Toledo, Ohio, blared eerie music from his garage and dressed up as shock rocker Alice Cooper to greet trick-or-treaters.

"My garage was always turned into a haunted stage," said Meadows, who plays a gatekeeper who greets visitors to the haunted house. "They had to be brave enough to come to my garage."

When other kids talked of growing up to be policemen or firemen, 24-year-old John Vlanich, of Canonsburg, dreamed of landing a job that would pay him to frighten people.

"I wanted to make monsters," said Vlanich, an actor who also decorated several of the haunted house's themed rooms. "Things that hide in the closet or under the bed."

Westendorf, Meadows and Vlanich are students in Tom Savini's Special Make-Up Effects Program at Douglas Education Center in Monessen. Savini is a makeup artist best known for his work in Hollywood on horror films that include "Friday the 13th," "Dawn of the Dead" and "Creepshow."

Savini's students are not required to participate in the haunted house as part of their studies, but many spend as many as four nights a week acting in the show, because it allows them to put their studies into practice.

Third-semester student Kevin Shupe, 37, of Slickville, portrays a knife-wielding Norman in the attraction's Psycho room. He said Terrormania! offers visitors the best scare for the money, because it is staffed primarily by actors who already are working in the special-effects business, or who plan to enter that field after they graduate.

Students in Savini's program hail from all over the country and encompass a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Some, like Westendorf, entered the program just after finishing high school. Others pursued different careers before taking a chance on learning special effects.

Shupe is a licensed practical nurse with a degree in human services. He said he enjoys nursing, but he has wanted to work on horror films since he was a teenager — and he could no longer ignore the calling.

"I like to make nightmares real," Shupe said.

Sitting in front of a mirror, he sculpted liquid latex to resemble a gaping, bloody gash atop his head. "The fact you can make something that will scare someone, and stick with them throughout their lives, that just amazes me."

When he graduates, Shupe wants to move to New York City to apply for a job on the set of "Saturday Night Live." His long-term goal is to work in special effects in movies in California.

Vlanich worked odd jobs out of high school before settling on special effects as a career choice.

He specializes in sculpting, he said, because "when I see something scary under my own hands <#201> it's a real positive vibe."

Vlanich spends as long as 90 minutes before each show applying latex, cotton and greasepaint to his face for his role as a crazed clown. The end result is a realistic, three-dimensional effect Vlanich said cannot be duplicated by a store-bought, rubber mask.

Vlanich also wants to work on movie sets.

Brian Hillard, 32, of Richmond, Va., is in his third semester of the 16-month course. He dresses as a zombie for the show and sometimes spends 90 minutes applying makeup for the part.

Hillard has a college degree in sports psychology and was working as an account manager when he enrolled in Savini's program. He wants to work in special effects in either in television or in movies.

He said he has not regretted his decision to seek out a new career.

"I would tell anybody who's out there even thinking about it to follow your heart and your dreams and aspirations," Hillard said. "I've never been happier."

Graduates of Savini's program have found work all over the country, said Kevin Fear, marketing director.

Several are employed by Hollywood effects companies, he said, and two are working for an Ohio company called Scare Factory that makes attractions for amusement parks and haunted houses.

"Actually, they're at the Playboy mansion this week, getting ready for Halloween," Fear said. "How lucky is that?"

At least two graduates found jobs with Universal Studios, and another is with a West Coast company that is working on the movie "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

Fear said graduates can also find work creating scenes for museums, molding prosthetic limbs or sculpting toys for toy manufacturers.

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