words by Mackenzie Mehrl and photos by Paul Hoffman
Even stepping out of an SUV covered in Umbrella Corporation stickers, Ryan Cunningham doesn’t seem like a scary guy. He smiles too much for that, and eager to tout his happy 13-year marriage to Kimberly with whom he has two kids. Plus, it’s hard to picture the guy soaked in (fake) blood and chasing you with a weapon when he’s so at home in proud dad mode, calmly sipping lemonade in the midst of an Oktoberfest celebration in Cuyahoga Falls.
His “haunter” gig is a second job work-wise—he’s a machinist by day—but it’s less about the business than his passion.
In early 2010, he helped start a group called “Z.E.R.O.S.” – Zombie Eradication and Rescue Operation Squad—who’d act out doomsday scenarios as highly-skilled zombie killers (or, “survivors,” as he’d call them) who were tasked with hunting the dead to save the living. Once they fished the living from “infected areas,” the Z.E.R.O.S. would escort them to a safe zone—all of this part of the sort of live theatre innate in a “zombie walk.” Later that year, in October of course, Ryan was approached with an offer for work by the owner of a haunted house, a gig that lasted three years.
That led Ryan to the Carnival of Horrors at Blossom Music Center. He’s entering his second year, performing as Dr. Douglas Capitate, the Head Psychiatrist at the Insane Asylum, who you’ll recognize by the menacing syringe he carries: Ursula. His buddy Billy, who joined us for our impromptu Oktoberfest, plays the second doctor, Dr. Needles. He sports a head saw.
The Carnival of Horrors is a four-part haunted experience. The adventure begins with the Fun House, filled with twisted clowns waiting just out of sight for you. Next you’re given a flashlight to lead you through the Wicked Woods, dodging the monsters hiding just out of sight. Only then do you enter the Asylum, an abandoned building overtaken by Dr. D. Capitate, Dr. Needles and their patients. Once (or if…) you escape the doctors, then you must face the 3-D Freakshow.
I watched crews set up and caught some of the auditions. After everyone arrived, the first 10 minutes were filled with laughter and embraces—a reunion of returning haunters, playing catch-up once again. Clearly, they saw themselves as more than merely coworkers as this crowd quickly transformed from a sea of strangers to a family that celebrated and cheered each other as their audition groups’ performances ended.
After having spent only a few short hours with Ryan and his fellow haunters, it was easy to see how this has become much more than a job for him. Unfortunately for you, when you meet Ryan—er, Dr. D. Capitate—don’t expect a warm welcome paired with a smile.
To see Ryan Cunningham and the monsters of the Carnival of Horrors in action this October, they open at varying times each weekend throughout the month. You’ll find their schedule at CarnivalOfHorrors.com.
Pro Tip: Ticket prices range from $18-$25 at the door, but can save a few bucks by purchasing them online beforehand.
To learn more about Ryan’s haunted house character, Dr. Douglas Capitate, visit facebook.com/doctorcapitate
Check out the zombie-fighting Z.E.R.O.S. at facebook.com/ZEROSOHIO