I showed up late last week to the Lost Valley Mountain of Terror rehearsal run.

Big mistake.

As a result of my tardiness, I ended up unaccompanied and disoriented in the middle of a horrific landscape; just a curious reporter with pen and notebook surrounded by madmen in pig masks and body parts everywhere I turned.

In desperation, I tried to go back the way I had come in, but some lunatic had turned on the fog machines and strobe lights and suddenly right was left and up was down.

A hulking figure appeared out of the mist with a roaring chain saw. Shadows of all kinds lunged out of the foggy green haze. Hanging entrails brushed my face, and somewhere uncomfortably close, an obviously deranged young woman cackled high and soulless.

I’ll be honest with you, friends. For a few lurid minutes, I thought this might be the end of me out there in the wilds of Lost Valley.

I was rescued somewhat by a wide-eyed Russ Gavett, creator of most of this horror show, but Gavett had priorities beyond saving lost reporters. He tried guiding me to safety, but he was moving swiftly from one hellish scene to the next, leaving me to feel my way through the fog while hideous things reached for me.

“OK, let’s get ready,” he said to the hideous things in question. “We’ve got a group coming through.”

Gavett breezed past a mutilated body on a slab, ducking low like a soldier on a battlefield. He nodded to one of the pig-faced men in bloody aprons, and then disappeared around a corner, leaving me one more time alone in the unknown terrors of the mist. And as I stood there, limp notebook in hand, a hulking figure moved in on me, refusing to relent in its unspeaking menace no matter how passionately I tried to reason with him.

“Come on, now,” I implored. “I’m just a reporter.”

That’s when the screaming began.

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

The Lost Valley Mountain of Terror attraction this Halloween season is twice as long as last year’s. Much of its terror is located indoors, meaning thrill seekers can enjoy the claustrophobic nightmare no matter what the weather.

The attraction features a zombie paintball shooting gallery and the always popular dark cellar of untold nastiness. All the usual bad dream inhabitants are here – the clowns, the zombies, the dead and undead in various stages of mutilation . . .

The screeching Hellscape of the set alone is unnerving enough – Gavett artfully weaves in an unsettling mix of blind corners, overwhelming sound and perfectly timed distractions.

But to my eye, ear and fluttering heart, what sets this attraction apart from many is the quality of its actors – the 30 men, women and kids who have devoted chunks of their lives to scaring you miserable.

The hulking figure who reduced me to squeaky-voiced pleading, as it happens, is Frank Cottle, a 39-year-old from Auburn.

When Cottle moved in on me in the close darkness of that barn-like building, it wasn’t the leering pig face or the dripping bloody hands that evoked giddy, childlike fear in me. It was his silence. His presence. The encroaching, unknown quality of his menace.

Later, under the sanity of fluorescent lights, I congratulated Cottle on the effectiveness of his performance.

“That’s because last year, I got threatened with my job,” he said, pulling off the sweaty mask to reveal a friendly, non-maniacal face beneath it.

Gavett, standing beneath a string of latex intestines, chortled at the comment.

“That’s right,” he said. “We put Frank in a scene last year and I didn’t feel like he was living up to what my expectations were.”

After the underwhelming performance, Gavett worked with the actor and before they knew it, Cottle was the kind of loud, frightening figure that the Mountain of Terror demands.

“Once he got the idea of what we were looking for,” Gavett said, “he came completely out of his shell and became one of my top actors.”

“I like getting out there,” said Cottle, “and invading people’s personal space.”

Before and after every performance, the actors gather in a little room beneath the lodge and go over the night’s ghoulish play-by-play like a football team. Gavett is there with his wife, Carrie, who manages the crew. Also in attendance is Lost Valley General Manager Frank Herrick, who goes over safety procedures while also probing for ways to improve the performance.

In those locker room-style huddles, it becomes apparent at once how much these actors enjoy doing what they do. They like it so much, according to Gavett, that most of them have expressed that they would do it full-time if they could.

Cory Nicholson digs scaring people so much, he’s been doing it for 21 years, starting out as an actor at the original Haunted Hayride in Gorham and then moving from show to show until he ended up at Lost Valley.

While Nicholson was still sweaty from the 8-pound pig mask he’d been wearing for hours, I asked him why.

“Since I was a little kid I was a horror movie fan,” the 34-year-old Buckfield man said. “I’m very much an introvert, so when I did something like this, I could be someone else. I could put on a mask and nobody would know who I was. I could be whoever I wanted and express myself. In other aspects of my life, it’s really helped me come out as a person. It’s Halloween all the time.”

Not all of this year’s performers are veterans of “scarecraft.” For 16-year-old Kierra Bouchard, it’s a first. But what a first it is.

Bouchard, you should know, is a contortionist who can twist herself up into all kinds of unsettling knots and . . . but this is something you should discover on your own in the Mountain of Terror cellar.

She looks so sweet, does Bouchard, yet in her first year on the job, she may go down as one of this event’s scariest actors.

About which she is downright gleeful.

“I love every part about performing,” the Lisbon Falls teen said. “I’m getting paid to be as socially unacceptable and creepy as I can and scaring people. Its amazing. I love seeing people’s reactions. I remember going through last year and from either end, scaring people or being scared, you get such a rush from it. It creates memories for both people.”

Creating these kinds of memories isn’t all that easy, when you get right down to it. Never mind the performers who have to wear eight-pound masks for hours at a time, or those who have to follow a course of crouch-spring-hide all night as wave after wave of fright fans move through Gavett’s set.

Bouchard is a performer who gets down on the floor and scuttles about like some Hell-born spider, and she does this over and over for the awestruck masses.

“The hardest part about performing would probably be physically,” Bouchard said. “I crawl after people – which looks scary in the moment, but I am on my knees crawling for hours a night and it can really wear you out. Because of that I always make sure to stretch between guests and I have alternative ways to crawl to protect my legs.

Many of the actors keep throat drops and water with them, Bouchard said, because screaming all night takes a toll on the vocal chords.

“Another part that is hard,” she said, “is sometimes you don’t know what people’s reactions will be. People can react in funny ways when they are scared.”

Nicholson, after 21 years in the business, offered a bit of advice.

“Pace yourself,” he said. “If you let it beat you up, it’s going to be a long night. Know what your limits are. If you use all your energy in the first hour and a half, the rest of the night is going to be terrible for you.”

ROLL THOSE BEAUTIFUL INNARDS

Gavett began working on this year’s show in August, along with Portland fright meister Bob Tibbetts. He knows that the high bar he sets for scares is both physically and emotionally demanding for both the actors and the rest of the crew – in addition to his wife, Gavett’s two daughters also work on the show.

His daughters didn’t necessarily inherit their father’s lust for fright, Gavett said. In fact, his youngest was initially wary of her father’s weird milieu with all its looming creatures and strewn body parts.

They found a way to make it work.

“My 9-year-old is terrified to go down through there, even in the middle of the day with the lights on,” Gavett said. “But she spent several nights with me last year making intestines. On weekends, Saturday and Sunday nights, she’d go there with me and work hour upon hours rolling up liquid latex to make those intestines. It’s definitely a family affair for me.”

But is it scary enough? It certainly is if you happen to wander onto the grounds by yourself, notebook in hand, just looking for an interview or two.

One thing Gavett and Tibbetts do to maximize the scares is to send their visitors through in small groups, rather than pack them in by the dozen. The result is more direct interaction between the actors and the visitors and a greater sense of vulnerability for those who make their way through.

At least one visitor to the attraction so far has appreciated that touch. Walking through with a smaller group, said Joe Miville, of Auburn, makes the terror seem somehow larger.

“They had plenty of actors and their scare tactics were great,” Miville said. “My girlfriend was blackout terrified!”

You’ve got to admit that “blackout terrified” sounds pretty serious, and Gavett wouldn’t be sad to hear the description. Scaring people is the name of the game, after all, and scaring them absolutely silly is even better.

“That,” said Gavett, “is my goal.”

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Lost Valley’s Mountain of Terror

When: Friday and Saturday nights through the end of October, rain or shine

Time: 6 to 11 p.m. Peak time is 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Where: Lost Valley, 200 Lost Valley Road, Auburn

Cost: $20, $30; group discounts 

FMI: www.lostvalleyski.com

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Visitors run to get out of the basement at the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Visitors make their way through the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

A scene from the Mountain of Terror attraction at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

The Mountain of Terror attraction extends outside, but under cover, at Lost Valley in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)


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