"I love seeing the fright on their faces, especially the ones who come in real cocky with their buddies, trying to show they're not afraid -- then I'm there in their faces, raising my ax . . ."
Yeow, and what a face to face!
That's legendary hatchet murderess Lizzie Borden, whose features are a fright of frazzled black hair, streaking mascara and blood rivulets on her cheeks that run down beneath the collar of her tattered black dress.
Actually, it's Neva Fleming, a mild-mannered emergency medical technician working in her first year of service at the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance Company -- usually helping people.
On October weekends, however, she and a creepy cast of other paramedics and community volunteers wreak mock mayhem and stir very real terror in House of the Living Dead, the ambulance company's annual haunted house presentation.
Among the most elaborate in the area, the Halloween attraction is in its ninth year, and associate producer Stacie Marie O'Guin says close to 7,000 quivering and quaking visitors are expected to pass through in just 10 days of weekend operation, concluding Friday, Nov. 3.
That is, if they survive.
"Oh sure, some of 'em go screaming out of here in the first room," chuckles Karl Korinth, a 17-year veteran of the ambulance company who has been in every haunted house production to date.
Sometimes they run out of the room where he performs, Leatherface's Kitchen -- named for the dreaded villain of the cult film "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" -- when they conclude the hacked-up body parts they've been given to handle are, indeed, real.
Mr. Korinth reaches into an icebox to prove it. Of course, the parts he produces are animal organs, including a deer's heart, slices of liver and a cow's tongue.
"Naturally, they say, 'Where'd you get that?' and I usually say, 'At the morgue.' And in the dark they don't know what they're really touching, so I ask 'em to smell their hands, and they know," the part-time purveyor of panic says cheerfully.
Ms. O'Guin also wants visitors to know that real toads and tadpoles and fetid ferns have been planted in The Swamp, where Leatherface's Brother rules. Visitors must pass over a perilous bridge in this area, after narrowly escaping Freddy Krueger, the manicure-challenged villain of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies.
In other months of the year, The Swamp and these other chambers of doom are merely the community hall the ambulance company rents out for wedding receptions, bull roasts and other friendly functions.
Larry Whetzel, a part-time paramedic volunteer at the company and a full-time Maryland state police officer, is the producer and principal planner of the House of the Living Dead. He volunteered to create a Halloween fund-raiser at the Middle River ambulance facility as he had done at earlier posts, including Sykesville, Taneytown and the Haunted Dungeons at Fort Howard, in the Edgemere-Sparrows Point area. Proceeds from the haunted house help support the volunteer company's work and training.
"Sometimes parents even carry real little ones in here," says Mr. Whetzel. But the horror presenters urge parents and other visitors to use judgment.
"We read them the riot act at the beginning and tell them that unlike some haunted houses, they may get touched by the players here and that it's really scary," says Ms. O'Guin.
She used to play parts in the drama, but the 21-year-old employee of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who has worked in radio and has ambitions to be a DJ, is now Mr. Whetzel's production protegee. She first volunteered for a role when she was just 13, bicycling to the ambulance company from her nearby home.
"She was one of the best witches we ever had," says Mr. Korinth.
About 150 volunteers are involved in the annual production, and more than 20 are performers in the cast, says Ms. O'Guin.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't really want to perform in this at first, but you kind of get into it," says paramedic Don Baker, apologizing for a hoarse voice after his first weekend performing as Freddy Krueger.
His role begins in a dimly lit funeral parlor, where twin caskets hold the skeletal remains of "Ma and Pa Borden," as Ms. Fleming terms them. As an unrepentant Lizzie lurking in the shadows, she disrupts the sanctity of the mourning scene before Mr. Baker, as Freddy, bursts from a coffin.
What would they do without the movies? The haunted house mixes a number of familiar Hollywood characters, also including Michael Myers (from the "Halloween" movies), Jason ("Friday the 13th") and even a touch of "The Wizard of Oz."
In an outdoor portion of this trek of trepidation, in the woods behind the ambulance garage (not used in inclement weather), actress Gale Ertwine portrays a witch who appears from behind a decrepit house to accost visitors. Her voice is dead-on reminiscent of Margaret Hamilton from "The Wizard of Oz."
"It's a time to get your inhibitions out," confesses Ms. Ertwine, who is an otherwise jovial veteran of the ambulance company and a nine-year participant in the haunted house.
The work offers an unusual theatrical challenge, for each performer plays his or her part in up to 60 scenes a night, notes Ms. O'Guin. Visitors proceed through the house in groups of about 15.
It's a bit of a reach from "South Pacific," concedes Ms. Fleming, who has some acting background and community theater aspirations. A South Baltimore native, she performed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and several other productions at U.S. Air Force facilities in Germany, when living there with her former husband.
"I loved it and was so happy when I found out I could do this here," she says.
"House of the Living Dead"
When: 7 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday through Sunday, plus Friday, Nov. 3
Where: Middle River Volunteer Ambulance Company, 2000 Leland Ave.
Tickets: $6.50 adults, $3 children 8 and under
Information: (410) 687-5399