Prince of Darkness

A St. Louis company is making a killing off Halloween. Your screams are music to their ears.

It's an early October evening, and nineteen-year-old Kurt Walters is psyching up for his fear-mongering role as a mutilated army zombie. Soon, he'll be squatting in a darkened corner, clad in bloody scrubs and waiting to scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting teens. "It's the best job in the world," says Walters. "You go around scaring people, making them pee their pants — and you get paid for it."

Welcome to Fearfest, an enormous fright factory contained within the blood-splattered walls of two dozen rusted-out truck trailers. Located in Fenton on five wooded acres next to Saline Creek and a plastics factory, this haunted wonderland features, among other attractions, crazed scientists conducting grisly experiments on aliens, rifle-bearing skeletons and toxic-gas-infected soldiers.

So, what makes this place so bloody scary? "More room to chase people around," offers owner Larry Kirchner, comparing Fearfest to his other local haunted house, The Darkness, which is located in a Soulard warehouse. "And here, you can run gas chainsaws. People are really scared of chainsaws, let me tell you."

Come Halloween weekend, 3,500 customers each night will pay $20 each to walk through these grounds.

Kirchner didn't invent Fearfest — his Halloween Productions bought it for $100,000 from its previous owner five years ago — but he's always thinking of ways to make it more terrifying. Baby-faced and dressed casually in a suede jacket, Old Navy T-shirt and designer jeans, Kirchner says it's tough work running a successful haunted house.

"You have to have passion for it," says Kirchner, editor of HauntWorld magazine and guiding force behind www .hauntworld.com, which will get two million hits before Halloween arrives. "You have to be very creative. You have to have good word of mouth, good marketing, good customer service and a good Web site. It's very expensive and you don't make money hand over fist."

It's well past midnight now, and Kirchner and his seven year-son, Riley, climb into the family's luxury Chrysler 300 sedan and head off to refuel at a Jefferson County Steak 'n Shake.

"My favorite holiday was always Halloween," Kirchner muses as he digs into his bowl of chili-con-Fritos. "I think I trick-or-treated until I was a senior in high school. My goal was to fill up a pillow sack. I wish I could still trick-or-treat."

The 37-year-old Kirchner, who lives in St. Charles, is fan of classic horror figures such as Dracula and Frankenstein. As a fifth-grader, he ran a haunted house out of his family's apartment complex in Houston. He played the Wolf Man and wore a mask made out of a fuzzy purse. "I agree with this friend of mine, who says, 'Who wouldn't want to be a monster? Dracula stays up all night partying, gets all the girls. Frankenstein is super strong, can lift anything and can beat up anybody.'

"Horror movies were better before, back when they were simple," Kirchner continues. "Now they try to impress you with stupid effects. In The Mummy, who would be scared of that silly CGI mummy? The Exorcist is the scariest movie of all time, because people believe it could happen to them. If you believe in the Devil, then you've got to believe that what happens to the girl could happen to you. Being possessed is scary.

"The Exorcisttraumatized me when I was a little kid. But here's the thing that's morbid about me. Every time it came on, I had to watch it. I've probably seen it ten times. It still scares me today."

Kirchner's childhood, a time split between St. Louis and Houston, traumatized him as well. His father, who worked in the oil industry, physically abused him and his younger brother, he says, and abandoned the family when Kirchner was a teenager.

"I had a terrible childhood. My brother's really messed up. He has to take medication," Kirchner says. "[Abuse] does affect you. It makes it hard for you to love people, or be affectionate."

After graduating from Arnold's Fox Senior High School, Kirchner convinced a man named Bob Strayhorn to let him manage his haunted house in Imperial, called the House on Haunted Hill. Run on a shoestring budget, the amateurish production displayed "floating" books and lamps — which were actually tied with fishing lines to ceiling-mounted record players — and a rocking chair set in motion by a windshield-wiper motor.

After dropping out of Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Kirchner decided to go into business for himself. In 1994 he opened The Darkness in Soulard's Sunshine Factory. "I don't think college necessarily prepares you for life's twists and turns, that's for sure," he says. "I just could never see myself working for someone else. I just don't have that kind of personality."

The following year he and a high school buddy, Jim Kelly, incorporated their own company, Halloween Productions. (Kirchner owns about two-thirds of the company, and Kelly the rest.) Since then, they've built around 150 haunted houses across the nation, including ones at Six Flags, Busch Gardens and Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Bob Costas was once so terrified at their Madison Square Garden haunt, claims Kirchner, that "he literally peed in his pants."

The pair has also put together water parks, mini-golf courses and children's rides in such far-flung locales as Santiago, Chile, and Zhuhai, China.

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