The sky is turning dark, and a 49-year-old parts salesman named Steve is one step from transforming into this city's pre-eminent psychotic clown.
He has already pulled on his signature orange clown suit and laced up new yellow Nikes that will soon pound the pavement as he sprints after terrified teenagers.
He has already spiked his thinning hair into a thinning mohawk and hair-sprayed the shaggy sides until they stick straight out, a hairdo best described as “Martha, hide the children.”
Standing alone in a walk-in closet deep in the bowels of Omaha's Mystery Manor, he has primed an airbrush — the kind you might use to repaint a Chevy — and sprayed his face white, red and yellow before adding the signature black squiggles to his forehead.
The Mystery Manor, where Steve Sell has spent nearly every October night for the past 18 years, boasts several top-notch makeup artists who take normal-looking Omahans and turn them into soulless ghouls and ax murderers and brain-snacking zombies. These ghouls, killers and zombies scare the bejesus out of the gigantic crowds of humanity shrieking their way through this haunted house each Halloween season.
Steve thinks the makeup artists are great. Steve loves them — loves everyone here — like family.
But he doesn't trust them. Not for this.
“Almost there,” he says quietly after he finishes his face paint.
You know this deranged face. This face has graced promo posters and magazine ads. It has leered down at you from billboards.
Last year, a man and a woman bought a dozen of the $20 T-shirts that feature this face — the rest of Mystery Manor's T-shirts sell for $15 — and gave them to their wedding party. They walked down the aisle, into holy matrimony, wearing this face on their chests.
Steve swabs glue onto his nose and sticks on the fire-engine red clown nose shipped all the way from Pennsylvania.
Just one step left. One step until Steve ceases to be a mild-mannered parts salesman. One step until he becomes something else, something that makes high school girls cry and turns grown men into quivering puddles of goo. Something that scares the bejesus out of Omaha.
He fishes the latex shark teeth out of his duffel bag. He heats them up using a hand dryer. He pops them into his mouth.
“HELLO!” he screams into the mirror. He cackles crazily. “I'm hoooo-oooome!”
Bobo the Clown is alive.
Bobo lurches toward the back door, heading off to scare the people lined up in front of Mystery Manor just as he's done nearly every October night since the Clinton administration. On the way out, he passes his daughter, who has been coming with him to this haunted house since she was in grade school.
She watches as Bobo opens the door and limps into the chilly night to fulfill his duty — his unpaid calling — as the face of this popular haunted house.
She has seen this transformation hundreds of times.
“Daddy's got his teeth in,” she says knowingly.
The Legend of Bobo began one night in 1995, when Steve stopped by Mystery Manor to see his wife (now ex-wife), who worked in the haunted house's back room.
That night the Manor happened to be short one character. Wayne Sealy, Mystery Manor's owner, could have been short one murderous butcherer in “The Slaughterhouse” or one murderous mummy in the “Egyptian Room.” But he wasn't. Wayne was short one murderous clown.
So he tossed a pair of latex shark teeth Steve's way. “Will you fill in?” he asked. Steve shrugged. Why not?
That first night, the newest clown didn't just scare people. He made them want to run out of the clown room screaming for their mommies. Which at least one man did.
Steve came back a second night, a third, a fourth. His clown didn't even have a name, but it quickly earned a reputation as the single freakiest thing in Mystery Manor.
Even now, Steve doesn't really know why. He has no clown experience, no actor's training, no previous knack for being scary.
All he knows is this: He could find the line between frightening and truly terrifying, and he could cross it over and over, cackling all the way.
One night, Steve jumped out of the shadows and terrified a man who shouted, “Who the (bleep) are you?”
“I'm Bobo the (bleeping) Clown!” Steve growled back.
The second year, The Legend of Bobo got so famous, so frightening, that people actually started refusing to enter the clown room.
Wayne moved Bobo out front, making him a “line monster” — one of the few actors meant to entertain the hundreds of people waiting to get into Mystery Manor.
Now Bobo didn't get a couple of fleeting seconds with each of the Manor's paying customers. Now he had 20 minutes. On busy Saturdays, when the line snaked through north Downtown and all the way to 19th Street, he had two hours.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
On this Wednesday night, Bobo walks through Mystery Manor's dark side yard and around to the front of the haunted house. He limps into the glow of a street light, and for the first time, the dozens of people waiting to get in see him.
“Bobo!” they scream. “Bobo!”
Bobo hears them. He picks out a scared-looking high schooler. He sprints directly at her.
“AAAAHHHH!” she yells. She runs down the sidewalk. Bobo chases her. She looks back. Bobo is gaining on her. Bobo is fast.
Just before he catches her, Bobo pulls up. He returns to his signature limp, which is a fake limp. He wanders back toward the line. He begins to growl at small children.
You wouldn't know it, but Steve's legs are killing him this year. He's pushing 50. He's nursing an old hamstring injury.
But Bobo's knees are fine. He breaks into another sprint, this time toward a Honda Pilot that is just parking. He stares through the back windows at a pair of teenagers whose eyes are as big as saucers. He begins to shake the Honda Pilot. He throws back his head and screams into the dark sky.
Steve has 18 years' worth of line monster moves tucked away in his memory. He has learned to approach people from their blind spots, hide behind unsuspecting accomplices, get within inches of his targets so they don't see him until a deranged clown pops up directly in front of their faces.
But Bobo doesn't need the help. Bobo can sense the teenager trying to hide behind his friends. He can sense the grown man who secretly wishes to turn invisible.
Bobo beelines right for the poor sap, gets right in his face and bares his fangs. His goal: Scare the grown man so badly that his wife gives him grief about it until death does them part.
“It sounds weird, but it's an instinct,” he says. “It's like I can smell fear.”
Steve also has 18 years' worth of memories. He remembers the time that he fell off his pole-dancing stage — yes, he has a pole dancing stage — dislocated his shoulder, showed up in the emergency room in full costume and terrified the nurses.
He remembers the time that clowns came to protest him, for giving clowns a bad name, and the time a church group came to protest him for reasons Steve still doesn't fully understand.
“I made sure to sneak up on them and scare them,” he says.
He remembers the face of a young boy who came to the Manor a dozen times every Halloween season, a boy he always managed to scare. He became a teenager and disappeared.
This year he showed up again. He had joined the Air Force. He had become a father.
He was bringing his young son to meet Bobo the Clown, so Bobo could terrify both father and son.
But Bobo himself doesn't have any time for these memories. Bobo is a one-man fright machine, and there's no rest for the wicked.
Which is why he spies two teenage boys walking down the sidewalk — they haven't even reached the Mystery Manor line yet! — and he sprints off after them. Their eyes go saucer-wide. Their legs churn in the opposite direction. They are screaming. Screaming and laughing at the same time.
By the way: Steve doesn't get paid for any of this. He shows up here after his day job, changes into his costume and works for free from dusk until 10 p.m. most nights between late September and Halloween. Almost all the Mystery Manor actors are volunteers, because the haunted house gives most of its proceeds to charity. Steve actually does make tips when he pole-dances. He made $380 last year. He gives every last cent to cystic fibrosis research.
Steve promised himself that he would retire in 2007. Then again in 2008. 2009, 2010, 2011 ... . Every year, he swears he's hanging up his clown nose and his pointed teeth.
But Bobo won't quit. Tonight Bobo spies a bus filled with teenagers from the Boys and Girls Club. The bus door is open, so Bobo does what he always does. He jumps in.
They yell at him. He yells back. They try to push him out. He makes jokes about riding home with them. They scream. They shriek. They take his photo with their phones. They shriek some more. Finally, Bobo exits the bus and it pulls away.
Omaha's pre-eminent psycho clown is alone, a block away from Mystery Manor. Sweat drips down his psycho clown face. He looks toward the haunted house where he's spent the past 18 Octobers, and in the distance he spots more Omahans just waiting to be afraid.
His lips curl into a smile.
“This clown is going to kill me,” Steve Sell whispers. And he takes off in a dead sprint toward his victims.