The Darkness, one of St. Louis's most popular haunted houses, opened last Friday, and that means Larry Kirchner, co-owner and creator, hasn't slept in days.
Kirchner, along with co-creator Jim Kelly, owns three of the major haunted house attractions in the St. Louis area -- Creepyworld in Fenton, The Abyss at the Lemp Brewery downtown and The Darkness in Soulard.
Kirchner's thirst for the terrifying started at a young age. At six years old he set up haunted houses in his basement and charged friends a quarter to get in.
"I was always a horror sci-fi fan," he says. "My favorite movies were the Exorcist, and Godzilla, and I still have all the Godzilla toys. I like Planet of the Apes, too. I just recently bought the whole set of Planet of the Apes dolls, and I actually play with them and make them shoot each other."
But little Larry fancied himself a ball player. Horror shows were just a hobby. When his first choice of careers as a professional baseball player didn't pan out, he thought he would settle for a job calling the games. When that idea tanked as well, he dabbled in movie making before falling ass backward into building haunted houses. It was just a job he took to make some money.
"But then you catch a bug for it," he says. "Twenty seven years ago, I never thought I would be doing this now."
The Darkness is now in its 26th year, and will open again this coming weekend along with the other two attractions, Creepyworld and the Abyss. The Darkness is open every night starting October 3 until November 1. Creepyworld and The Abyss are open Wednesday through Sunday during that time.
Despite his crunch-time lack of sleep, Kirchner took some time out recently to talk with Daily RFT about about how he plans to scare the pants off St. Louis this Halloween season and his motivation for doing so.
So what's new at each of the locations this year?
"We really changed it up this year. We built this one new room, I call it Sawzilla where all these serial killers hang out and there's a bunch of dead bodies hanging from the ceiling. And there's a big animated saw blade that rips right across the room like it's gonna rip your head off," Kirchner says.
"But the coolest thing that we built, it's just bad ass."
At one point an old man in a wheelchair comes rumbling down a flight of stairs screaming "Where's my cake?! Where's my cake?!" based on the old horror movie Creepshow.
The Darkness will be more interactive this year, too, Kirchner says. Gigantic puppets, one of which may or may not be a clown, reach out and grab people.
"And they have teeth, so they'll try and munch you," he says.
Kirchner's haunted site in Fenton includes twelve different attractions for $25. For an extra fiver, you can shoot paintballs at zombies from a hayride.
"And we added like 40 more zombies and more stuff to shoot this year," he says.
There are two new attractions at Creepyworld this year: Supermax: Riot at Rikers is a prison compound with flame machines, wacked out riotous prisoners, and a death chamber all encased in a maze you'll have to escape. And Saint Lucifer's Hospital, well that's self explanatory -- deranged nurses, psycho patients, you know the deal.
"And we kept the Evil Dead from last year," Kirchner says. "It's big, it's beautiful, it's freakin' awesome."
The Abyss at the Lemp Brewery:
"This year, we decided to do an extreme haunt, something that will play on your phobia of the dark," Kirchner says.
Located in the natural caverns under the Lemp Brewery, The Abyss is completely dark except for sporadic red lights that lead the way. Explosions boom from every direction, the walls close in and you won't be able to see a thing.
Where do you get inspiration for your haunted houses?
"When you go through a haunted house a gazillion times you start to hate the place," Kirchner says. "At least I do, and I can't even look at it anymore. All I can think about is the new stuff, how it could be better. That's where most of my inspiration comes from is just being in the haunted houses. There's these one or two scenes that make you want to vomit, so I tear them down and build something new."
Other than that, Kirchner draws from classic horror movies and stuff he knows will scare people: clowns, carnivals, severed heads that are still breathing, ravenous zombies, Medusa and apparently a hideous rabbit that pops out of a hat.
You're pretty passionate about scaring people, huh?
"Yeah, I work on The Darkness all year," Kirchner says. Maybe not actually building, but thinking of ideas for new scenes, new fears to poke at.
"We built this one little scene (in The Darkness). It's a crypt, and it's very small, but it took like three weeks to build. I used real mortar and real bricks to seal the coffins. I'm really excited about it.
"It's almost like being Leonardo Da Vinci. The house is like your painting canvas. But building a house is so much harder than what Leo did. It could take weeks or months to build a single scene," he laughs.
Although Kirchner's a bit frazzled during the month leading up to Halloween, he thrives in the chaos. During his conversation with Daily RFT, he has to stop twice to answer phone calls -- one from his "monster guy" who builds the monsters that roam his houses (he's already placed an order for 2015).
"A lot of people think it's a part time job, but when we're not building projects for people all over the world, we're working on The Darkness," says Kirchner. "It's my passion. I'm too old to do stuff that doesn't interest me anymore."
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