Most employed people might begrudge getting up early to make it to work on time, however they can be reasonably assured they aren’t going to arrive at their place of employment and have the daylights scared out of them. For some in the Bay Area, however, the opposite is true. If the scariest thing that happens at your job is encountering agrumpy supervisor before they’ve had their morning coffee, consider yourself amongst the normal. There are others who would call that a boring day at the office.
Believe it or not there is actually one thing scarier than working at Alcatraz and that is working at Alcatraz at night. Rich Wideman, Park Ranger for the National Park Service, is one of the few who has pulled his share of nightshifts out on the island. He describes the nights out there as, ‘really odd’. “The isolation is kind of extreme. You are surrounded by all these people yet they are so far away.” In fact, when the prison was in operation, this was considered one of the most mentally damaging aspects to the inmates. Prisoners would be so tantalizingly close to boat parties in the marina or celebrations from the Wharf that they would be able to see and hear exactly what they were missing out on.
The allure for visiting the island is widespread. Originally taken over by the Park Service in 1972 the whole place was in such bad shape that the initial expectation was that it would close within five years. Now it has become a huge economic draw for the city, with over 1.4 million annual visitors. It is sold out seven months out of the year and has such international recognition that the audio tours are recorded in eight different languages.
The ferries of bustling tourists have replaced the daily despair of prison life, but once the last boat has left the island for the day it is easy to get a sense of the infamous gloom. A real-life Alfred Hitchcock example occurs every evening between February and August when thousands of nesting birds use the island as a temporary home. As they return to their roosts the sweeping beam of the lighthouse cuts through the dark sky to momentarily highlight their incoming flight—thereby giving onlookers an immediate sense of doom. Wideman has worked on nighttime film shoots and says the whole event is an emotional experience that makes alasting impression on the film crew. “We have people come back to work on another film ten years later and they always say this experience was one they never forgot.”
Wideman believes this lasting impact is because it is more than just a visual experience. “It plays on all of your senses. First of all you have the cold. It is a brutal, damp cold that sucks the heat right out of your body. The sights and eerie sounds add to the experience, but also there are some places that play on your sense of smell.” One of the best examples of this is the former infirmary. As he explains, “I try not to tell people ahead of time about what to expect. But as soon as they walk in each person asks ‘what’s that weird smell?’ ” Odors from the chemicals once used there have permeated the wooden shelves and worktables so that anyone who walks in is quickly transported back to scary days of prison health care.
Frightful employment isn’t limited to isolated islands surrounded by frigid waters. Inland a person can earn a paycheck the spooky way by being on nighttime guard duty at the zoo. Even though animals are kept behind locked gates their howls and growls can be heard from miles around. The midnight roar of a lion or tiger is enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine. Another well-known place for fright is the average cemetery. With fog swirling around the tall headstones and the strobe effect of passing headlights, this is a job for someone so grounded in reality that there’s no way their mind will play tricks on them. It probably also helps if they have low blood pressure and no family history of sudden heart attacks.
From time to time words like ‘scary’ are used to describe the job market, but rarely does actual fear become a part of the job description. For some, however, spending day after day in a cubicle is scarier than the adrenaline rush of haunted locales. When asked why he likes working at Alcatraz, Wideman doesn’t even think about the past. Instead he chooses to focus on the present. As he says, “For me it is all about the energy and excitement of working in a place that people from all over the world want to come to.”