Prince of Darkness

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

"People are scared by things they're not expecting," says Pickel. "The hardest person to scare is a 21-year-old male, because he's going through the attraction with a date or his friends, and cannot afford to be seen screaming like a girl. So the only way you'll be able to get him to jump is to surprise him, like if the actor pops out of something that looks like a solid wall."

Some haunts are used by religious groups to raise funds, including Gateway Tabernacle Church's infamous "Hell House," which came to life in the late 1990s and features such gruesome imagery as a doctor performing an abortion on a screaming woman and a gay man killing himself after learning that his partner is HIV-positive.

After 9/11 some politicians began to demand a halt to Halloween festivities, which resulted, says Pickel, in some scarefests' attendance plummeting as much as 60 percent. Today, though, the fear industry is back with a vengeance. In fact, Pickel estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 professionally run haunted houses throughout the country will do $1 billion in sales this Halloween. (Kirchner puts that figure closer to $300 million.)

Dozens of actors suit up every night at The Darkness, 
hoping to inspire frightful clutching among visiting teenage 
Jennifer Silverberg
Dozens of actors suit up every night at The Darkness, hoping to inspire frightful clutching among visiting teenage couples.
Jennifer Silverberg

Still, nonprofit haunted houses are becoming extinct, says Pickel, mainly because of rising real estate costs and the big-budget corporate haunts that are driving them out of business.

"It's definitely a logistical challenge," says Doug Glenn, executive director of Renaissance St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that was forced this year to shutter its Molly Crenshaw's Haunted Forest in Wentzville. "We don't raise enough money to actually be able to pay actors, so we run entirely on volunteers, and a lot of them are high school students with band and sports commitments."

But big-budget Halloween attractions are thriving. In late September Kelly and his St. Louis crew journeyed to the Long Island enclave of Bayville, New York, just west of Billy Joel's beachfront mansion, to build a $300,000 haunted extravaganza. The faux mansion, about the size of a Wal-Mart, consists of two separate walkthroughs — "Bloodworth Manor" and "Uncle Needles' Funhouse of Fear in 3-D." The latter requires special glasses and has psychopathic clowns botching surgeries, tossing knives and hanging themselves.

"Clowns in 3-D are a popular theme," Kelly says. "Clowns naturally correspond to the bright colors that 3-D fluorescent paint comes in. It doesn't come in gray, obviously, so it's hard to do a graveyard scene."

Adds crewman Mike Cox: "People don't know they're scared of clowns until they see one in the dark."

Fueled by caffeine, nicotine and sugar, Halloween Productions' employees put in sixteen-hour shifts as they travel around the world, building the latest horror center.

"Jim's got us traveling so much, I never get to see my wife," complains newly married Jason Ganser.

"You don't want to see his wife," snickers Kelly.

The Bayville attraction, meanwhile, is slowly taking shape, though the gruesome scene featuring a family of cannibals sitting down to a dinner of human flesh isn't quite finished. "I've got to go over it again with polyurethane to make it real gooey and nasty," says the crew's artistic director, John Ives, whose work also includes a skeleton drinking a blood martini and a heart served in a gold chafing dish. "It doesn't look like a heart just sitting there; it looks like they actually cooked and prepared it."

It is twisted minds like Ives' that make Halloween Productions successful, says Kelly. "He's our blood-and-guts guy. He specializes in thinking of creative ways to kill people. He sees a street sign and thinks, 'How could I kill someone with that?'"

"I'm a good decorator too," protests the 33-year-old Ives, who, in the off-season, works as a bouncer at a biker bar in Wentzville. "I've been typecast. You're acting like I'm the psychopath of the group!"

That September night in Long Island, Cox and crewman Rob Buck set off to pick up televisions for the spooky mansion from a nearby Circuit City. Along the way, Cox shares a popular urban legend he's heard many times in his decade of service to Kelly and Kirchner.

"Every year I hear the rumor of the 25-story haunted house, where, if you get to the top, you get $100," says Cox. "Supposedly, you have to sign a waiver, saying they can touch you, they can beat you, and they do whatever they want to you. I say, don't believe the rumors."

Cox says he knows the best way to scare someone. "The guy taking the tickets will get on his radio and say, 'A little blonde in a blue shirt named Amy is coming in.' And then we try to get every actor in the house saying, 'Hello there, Amy! C'mere, Amy!"

Agrees Buck: "I've never seen anyone so scared as when you call their name in the house."

Remember a dance club on Laclede's Landing called Tasmania? Larry Kirchner opened it in 1994. Housed in the building that is now the Study Hall, Tasmania was known for its '80s-themed "Retromania" parties.

There, Jim Kelly, then its manager, met his wife one March weekend. Ultimately, Kirchner, who worked the turntables, decided the lifestyle didn't suit him and he closed the club in 1998. "I hate the smell of smoke," he says, adding that he doesn't drink and has never had so much as a puff of marijuana.

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