Queen Halloween savors her season

What scares Queen Halloween — a.k.a., Jana Beagley, the 29-year-old creator of Burlington’s “Nightmare Vermont” and the assistant managing director for Williston’s “Haunted Forest?” A bunny.
In all fairness, the bunny was in heat. And Beagley was home alone watching a remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” when her pet bunny, (named, appropriately, Boo), decided to jump out at her from behind the couch, catching her off-guard and, she says, giving her the biggest fright of her life.
Now, why was Beagley watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” alone? Frankly, I don’t even cue up “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” unless there’s a crowd in the house.
The answer? Research. “I was studying the movie for timing and trying to see precisely how they set up their false scares,” she says.
Yup, for Beagley it’s all about timing. And authenticity. And really good special effects makeup because the last thing you want (for example) is a zombie in a nightclub who doesn’t look like he’s really risen from the dead and feels like devouring a little human flesh while the band’s taking a break.
Beagley is a Halloween impresario, a creator and coordinator and artist behind all things Halloween. If something wicked this way comes, you can bet Beagley has had a claw in it — hence her nickname, Queen Halloween. “I just love this time of the year,” she says. “The bugs are dead; the leaves are gorgeous; and now that I’m a grownup, I don’t have to go to school.”
Ironically, after graduating from Middlebury College, she was a schoolteacher. But she found that she “didn’t like having a captive audience. I wanted an audience that wanted to be there.” Moreover, Beagley discovered that she liked the sort of audience that comes to a Halloween event, and she liked the way they responded: “An audience at a haunted event will really respond to you. At a traditional stage event, they’ll clap politely when you’re done. But at a haunted event, you know you’ve done good because people are screaming.”
Indeed, one of her favorite moments occurred when she was performing in the Halloween “Tooth and Nail” show at the Champlain Valley Exposition in 2004. Clad in a black hood and a black dress, she ventured into the bleachers during the performance and found that an audience member was actually sitting on the stairs on precisely her mark. Beagley, who might be flirting with 6 feet, simply lifted the man up by his shoulders and moved him, and she nearly fell out of character when she heard him murmur to a friend, “I think I’m in love.”
Beagley was a founder of the Equinox Theatre, which when it isn’t trying to scare the heck out of its audience with Halloween productions brought us “Dangerous Liaisons” in 2005. Her new show, “Nightmare Vermont,” opens at Memorial Auditorium this Friday night. It has some of the characters you might find in any Halloween production, including vampires and, um, a power-mad deejay. But Beagley hopes the show will offer a new twist on women’s roles in the horror genre: The female characters this year are very powerful, she says, not merely the traditional Halloween victims. Of course, she also admits they’re “scantily clad, and there’s a lot of vinyl,” so clearly the show has something for everyone.
Meanwhile, the Haunted Forest with its shadowy paths of goblins and ghouls and painfully bad puns opened Friday at the Catamount Family Center in Williston. This is the Forest’s 26th incarnation, and Beagley has been volunteering for more than half of them, carving pumpkins and writing and jumping out at people whenever possible from behind trees. Next year, when the current director Sara Haggerty steps down, Beagley will take over, inheriting the Kingdom of 1,000-plus jack-o’-lanterns.
“I just adore Halloween,” she says. “I love the sense of transformation. I love the darkness. I love the way it’s a license to twist things.”
Perhaps someday she’ll even find a costume for the scariest thing she can think of: a bunny named Boo. No doubt, she’ll give it fangs.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 22, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.