By Melinda Lavine (
Video by Michelle Truax (

I asked his acting advice before stepping out into the office. Sporting his zombie makeup, I wanted to make him proud.

“Gargling noises and a leg crawl,” instructed Alex Dunning, local makeup artist and production manager for the Haunted Ship in Duluth.

He visited the News Tribune this week, and we’d spent over an hour together as he made me look like a rotting corpse for fun and for work. I heard about his likes, his upcoming costume and his experience planning scares at the Haunted Ship for 11 years.

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” he said, describing an energy people give off when they’re scared. When he’s acting, Dunning is unrelenting and unforgiving. “I’ll go to the extent that I need to go to get my job done, and I won’t break character.”

As he described his tactics, I remembered visiting the Haunted Ship my first Halloween in Duluth. I made it through with my eyes closed, shielding myself with other people’s bodies. I haven’t been back, and Dunning seemed pleased at a scare job well done.

He talked about analyzing fear triggers, and I remembered visiting a haunted corn maze in North Dakota. An actor traced a circle in the air around me with a running chainsaw as I hugged a corn stalk screaming “OK, OK, OK.”

Reactions, during a scare or after a makeup transformation, are Dunning’s favorite part of the job — and I didn’t get it until I got it.

As I dragged my leg, making throaty noises through the News Tribune hallways, I understood.

Scaring people is concentrated attention. Heads turn, people stand. Some grimace or laugh nervously. One coworker took a photo; another saw me at the end of the hall and went the other way, and when I didn’t get a response, I worked harder.

One man barely turned around as I slipped slowly into his office, my head tilted. “Coffee’s over there. That’s what I look like when I haven’t had any,” he said. As I inched closer, I heard a yielding in his voice, and I stopped.

Dunning followed close behind. “I get what you mean about the energy,” I whispered.

I’d made it through most of the second floor before looking in a mirror, and it was a wonder to see his work. A deep black ridge on my forehead, green rot around my cheeks, red blotches near my mouth, and the texture — it was gross.

To get the look, Dunning dabbed my face with latex. The tiny brush felt relaxing and, like he said it would, the latex smelled like cat urine. (It’s the ammonia.) He ripped little tears in toilet paper and placed them on my cheeks and chin. As the latex and TP hardened, it got harder to move my face.

He reveled in my forehead wrinkles, guides for his paintbrush. Then, he used a coarse spittle sponge on the makeup. “Nobody rots evenly,” he said.

I scratched my face and apologized in case I messed something up. You can’t mess it up, he assured. Zombie makeup is supposed to look ugly.

And ugly I was. The makeup, the character maybe superseding my manners.

Walking through the office, I interrupted a meeting with a slow, persistent moan. I knocked over a nameplate, and I slithered into offices unannounced. I was like that guy with the chainsaw, like Dunning when he’s working on the ship.

Unlike Dunning, though, I did break character.

I caught the nameplate before it hit the floor. I asked the meeting if they were in the middle of something. I stopped my zombie crawl to eat a mini Snickers. (Maybe that had more to do with chocolate.) I also laughed so hard, it broke through the latex around my mouth. It made for a fresh-wound look with one long piece dangling from my upper lip.

I planned to stay in the makeup for the business day, but after an hour, it started to smell. The rogue latex flap started to annoy.

After two selfies, I peeled off the material in big pieces. I used baby oil, witch hazel, Dawn dish soap to wipe the zombie off of my face, my ears, my hairline, my neck.

My skin could breathe. I could see my freckles again, and I was happy to be back to life.

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