I've always wanted to become a monster.

It wouldn't even really matter what kind: flesh-eating zombie, bloodthirsty ghoul, tentacle-waving creature from the deep, maybe a deadly space alien bent on taking over Earth.

So long as it could strike fear into the general public, for just a little while, that would be cool with me.

Unfortunately, directors Wes Craven, George Romero and Frank Henenlotter have never cast me in their movies. I assumed I was out of luck -- until California's Great America invited me to join the dark legion of fully costumed character actors whose job it is to terrorize patrons in its annual Halloween Haunt attraction, which runs through Oct. 27. These are the folks who dress up like bloody psychopaths and flesh-rotting corpses, then leap out from the shadows to scare the unsuspecting.

Jim Harrington, music critic for the Bay Area News Group, is transformed into a monster by make-up artist Heather O’Connell for the Halloween Haunt
Jim Harrington, music critic for the Bay Area News Group, is transformed into a monster by make-up artist Heather O'Connell for the Halloween Haunt at Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, September 28, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

I've long been a fan of Halloween Haunt. I've paid my money and stood in line many times for the chance to venture through the horrific mazes and "scare zones" with equal amounts of trepidation and joy. So an opportunity to actually dish out the fear sounded like a blast.

It didn't dawn on me until the opening weekend of Halloween Haunt that I'm not really a scary dude. As much as I like to watch such four-star fare as "Basket Case" and "Zoltan, Hound of Dracula," I'm actually the type of guy who ponders all alternatives before squashing a spider in the house.

Might that be a problem?

Someone suggested that the best way to get into a properly menacing mood was to think of a group of people I truly despise. Yet try as I might, it seemed unrealistic to picture the crowd as the Boston Red Sox.

I quickly sought more advice at the park. I saw a clown with green hair and blood smeared across his mouth and figured he'd be a good source for tips. He told me that long, intense stares followed by abrupt movements toward patrons worked for him. He also said he favored the Just Act Crazy school of terror.

"There's nothing more enjoyable than running at someone and scaring them," said the clown, who is known outside the Haunt as San Jose resident Robert Ingle. "I love to see the facial expressions."

His enthusiasm was shared by the other costumed characters I met. It's a large crowd, dedicated and twisted. Great America employs about 500 people during the Haunt, most of whom look forward to this monster mash all year long.

"I have always loved Halloween," a bullet-riddled mafiosa, aka Tara Swan, of Los Altos Hills, told me. "It's like my favorite holiday ever -- even over my birthday and Christmas."

It begins

The first step in the transformation was a visit to the wardrobe department, where I was dressed in a vintage suit that had seen better days. Then, it was off to the makeup area, where my rebirth would really take place.

I had no idea what kind of creature I'd be when makeup artist Heather O'Connell started to work her magic on me. She spent the next 20 minutes spraying this and that on my face, then attaching things with glue that (days later) I still can't wash from my skin. There was my first-ever dose of eyeliner, which allowed me to feel a bit closer to David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and some of my other glam-tastic heroes, and lots of spray painting around the ears. It all made me want to sneeze.

It wasn't until O'Connell was nearly done that I saw what I was transforming into -- a hideously disfigured lizard man.

Yes, dreams do come true.

Then they let me loose in the park to frighten the guests.

Getting busy

Jim Harrington, music critic for the Bay Area News Group,  dons his reptilian prosthetic to scare visitors to the Halloween Haunt at Great America in Santa
Jim Harrington, music critic for the Bay Area News Group, dons his reptilian prosthetic to scare visitors to the Halloween Haunt at Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, September 28, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

What I found out was that scaring people isn't easy. I hid in the darkness and jumped out at couples wandering by, unleashing what I believed to be truly bloodcurdling screams. Most folks weren't buying it.

So I tried the silent approach, hoping my mere proximity would produce the desired creepy effect.

Not so much.

So much for being the stuff of nightmares.

I got a few people to jump, but most just wanted to chat. Some patrons, even kids, asked if they could take pictures with me.

Pictures? But I'm the terrifying lizard guy!

Well, OK, I'll say cheese.

Apparently, it takes more than a prosthetic face and a wardrobe change to be a real monster. I guess I'll never be scary.

Yet, I sure had fun trying to be.

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

GET SPOOKED

Here's a rundown of some of the Bay Area's best known Halloween haunted house attractions.

Halloween Haunt

Details: 7 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Sundays through Oct. 27; California's Great America in Santa Clara; ticket prices start at $27.99; www.cagreatamerica.com
Fear factors: The Haunt serves up such main attractions as "Dia de los Muertos" ("where sacrificial blood rains down from the sky"), rides, mazes, scare zones and live performances.

Pirates of Emerson

Details: Through Nov. 2 (hours and days vary); Alameda County Fairgrounds, Pleasanton; $25-$75; www.piratesofemerson.com
Fear factors: This Halloween extravaganza offers up six haunted houses, including such scary destinations as Clown Evil, Hotel Hell and Mental Maze. Other attractions include the Frightmare Sideshow, Misfortune Teller and Emerson's Oddities.

World's Largest Haunted House

Details: 7 p.m.-12 a.m. Fridays-Saturday, 7 p.m.-11 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 1; Santa Clara County Fairground, San Jose; $20-$22; www.worldslargesthauntedhouse.com
Fear factors: This really is a big production with plenty of like-sized scares. Beyond the house itself, the event also features carnival rides and games. The popular Family Fright Night is held on Oct. 26.

Fright Fest

Details: 4-10 p.m. Fridays, Noon-10 p.m. Saturdays, Noon-9 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 27; Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo; $41.99-$61.99; www.sixflags.com/discoverykingdom
Fear factors: The 135-acre theme park's annual Halloween extravaganza includes costume contests, kid-themed shows, pumpkin patch and, of course, the famed haunted houses and mazes -- such as Massacre Mine and Bloodbath Bayou.

Sarah Winchester's Mystery Maze

Details: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through Nov. 10; Winchester Mystery House, San Jose; $8-$12; www.winchestermysteryhouse.com.
Fear factors: Northern California's creepiest tourist destination celebrates the season with a giant maze, filled with more than 5,000 bales of hay and extending over a half acre. Local ghost busters might also want to learn more about the special Flashlight Tours being offered of the Mystery House (separate admission).

-- Jim Harrington, staff writer