Kirchner is something of a Halloween Renaissance man. In addition to creating one of the nation's most elaborately detailed haunted houses, The Darkness, Kirchner has designed scary walk-through attractions for Six Flags, Busch Gardens and other haunted houses in Europe, Asia, South America and the U.S. His hauntworld.com site is a top resource for the industry, offering a Yellow Pages for those looking for foam headstones or fake blood in bulk quantities. He sells the interiors from last year's haunted houses in complete sets to those looking for a budget-friendly way to start their own. He's also sold more than 20,000 instructional videos featuring tips on building haunted houses, and he designs and builds components for amusement-park "dark rides."
"These days, we've gotten so huge," says Kirchner of his business. "I could never have dreamt that I would be going all around the world and the U.S. doing this stuff."
He started out, naturally, as a kid who dug monster movies. He built his first haunted houses in his basement and, as a fifth-grader, in the rec building of an apartment complex, he says. He worked at various haunted houses run for charity, graduated from Fox High School in Arnold and, in 1988, spent $1,000 to open the House on Haunted Hill in Arnold. Today, he spends 150 times that amount annually, he says, to gut and redo The Darkness in Soulard and Screamworld in Fenton.
Of all the houses Kirchner has been involved in, The Darkness remains the flagship of his fleet. "The Darkness is one of the five best haunted houses in the U.S.," he boasts. Kirchner says he doesn't try to make the place more gory or even more scary each year; instead, he tries to render it more realistic. The Darkness is noted for sets and props that are fabricated to look as real as possible, whether that means exposed concrete, Gothic banisters choked in cobwebs or animatronic zombies vomiting green chowder. "We have a mansion section, and it looks like a rotted-out mansion that you could shoot a movie in tomorrow," he says. "There's a basement with everything you would expect to see in a dingy, creepy, old basement."
Kirchner says haunted houses have come a long way from being "black-walled mazes with strobe lights and fog and actors in Metallica T-shirts," to the point that this year's incarnation of The Darkness includes some computer-generated illusions intended to make it seem as if the walls are on fire. Taking haunted houses to the next level is Kirchner's charge.
"Everybody in this industry, no matter where they are in the world," he says, "knows about Halloween Productions in St. Louis, Missouri."