Prince of Darkness

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

Halloween Productions, which has hauled in more than $20 million since its creation, is considered by many to be America's most famous name in haunted houses. Kirchner, St. Louis' very own prince of fear, recently had his handiwork displayed in USA Today — the story was published, of course, on Friday the 13th. Soon, The Darkness will be featured in a National Geographic Channel special.

"Larry wants to be the Donald Trump of hauntrepreneurs. He's got his fingers in everything," says Anthony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, a New York magazine devoted to horror entertainment. "They're the best haunt-builders in the business. Larry and company really know what scares you."

Says Kirchner: "I'm just trying to give people a live movie experience. Every person that comes in, I want to feel like they could be on a Hollywood movie set. They're Jamie Lee Curtis. They're the one being stalked."

Larry Kirchner's dark past informs his fear-inducing career. 
"The Exorcist traumatized me when I was a little 
kid," he says. "Every time it came on, I had to watch it."
Jennifer Silverberg
Larry Kirchner's dark past informs his fear-inducing career. "The Exorcist traumatized me when I was a little kid," he says. "Every time it came on, I had to watch it."
Halloween Productions' family affair includes Jim Kelly 
(right) and his mom, Jean.
Jennifer Silverberg
Halloween Productions' family affair includes Jim Kelly (right) and his mom, Jean.

On a mid-September evening, Jim Kelly is working on his laptop at Halloween Productions' Soulard headquarters, wolfing down White Castle burgers and fries. Later, he'll hit a mini-mart for some Ding Dongs and Mountain Dew.

"I got three hours of sleep last night, so I have to keep juicing myself," he explains.

Kelly lives with his wife and their two young kids in Oakville. Although he's six-foot-two, he bears a striking resemblance to actor Jason "Wee-Man" Acuña, of Jackass fame. Typical workaday duds are dirty New Balance shoes, and a black T-shirt featuring The Darkness' new mascot — a gold-toothed woman scowling behind black-and-green hair — tucked into Levi's.

The busy season has begun and The Darkness is set to open. Dozens of actors have to be trained. Strobe lights, sirens and lasers need to installed, and the fire department still has to do its annual inspection. Located on the second floor of the warehouse, Halloween Productions' office is filled with boxes of promotional fliers. Videogame consoles clutter the space, and an eerie cackling from the haunted house is a constant soundtrack.

Kelly leaves the office now to give a tour of the haunt's brand-new "swamp scene," where lifelike moss and trees surround an animatronic horse ridden by a headless horseman. The horse rears back on its hind legs when triggered by a motion censor. Other Darkness attractions include a library inhabited by scholarly skeletons, a meat locker of filleted boars and an African jungle with robot gorillas.

Experienced through the distractions of machine-generated fog and dim lighting, these intricate details are probably lost on many of the 30,000 people who each year pay $15 for a terrifying experience — about the same number as Fearfest.

"It's very elaborate, scary, atmospheric, and has Hollywood-style quality," says Fangoria's Anthony Timpone, who calls The Darkess the best haunted house he's ever seen. "Other haunts just throw up a bunch of black walls and have a pimply thirteen-year-old going 'boo.' But they hire better actors and have better costumes, sets, lighting and special effects."

"The Darkness is the flagship," the 35-year-old Kelly notes. "[Fearfest] is a decent attraction, but it doesn't get the love and affection that Darkness does."

Halloween Productions spent a half-million dollars building The Darkness this year, not including $200,000 in advertising costs. Much of the production budget went toward custom-made animations, computer-generated images, sound effects and music.

"Larry hears all this stuff in his head, and then I try to re-create it," explains Ed Brown, the director of creative services for local Emmis Communications radio stations, who also does Halloween Productions' sound and voice work. "If I'm trying to make the sound of a monster chained to the wall, I might have to go to the hardware store to get a bigger chain. To get just the right werewolf sound, I might have to combine a squealing pig and three different howling dogs, slowing some down and speeding some up."

Kelly's mother works as office secretary during Halloween season, and when visitors come by, she shows them pictures of her son, regaling them with stories of his childhood. "He has a photographic memory," she says. "He would always wait until 10:30 p.m. the night before a physics test and still ace it every time."

Kelly, who studied radio and television production at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, largely oversees the media and technical aspects of Halloween Productions' attractions. Kirchner's main role is as creative visionary and business negotiator.

"From a young kid I was always good with my hands and into building things," Kelly says. "This is a hobby that's become a job."

For decades haunted houses have given Halloween-happy Americans an excuse to scream like banshees. As Haunted Attraction Magazine editor Leonard Pickel puts it: "Haunts are an art form that each year entertains millions of souls brave enough to encounter their worst fears about what lies within the darkness."

Pickel, a venerable haunted-house historian, says that the "Tunnel of Love" attractions of the 1890s were precursors to today's haunts. "They were a boat ride through a series of static, scary scenes designed to frighten the 'weaker' sex, thus giving the male rider an excuse to put his arm around his date and comfort her."

Once the preferred children's Halloween activity, trick-or-treating habits slowed in the 1960s, after reports of saboteurs planting razor blades and poison in candy. To fill the void, charitable organizations on the East Coast outfitted halls to resemble scare-houses, which featured red-paint-splattered mannequin parts. Jaycees organizations in Philadelphia and Louisville filled the first October seasonal haunted houses with another critical innovation — actors.

« Previous Page
Next Page »