Dean Kemper figured he had a great idea for Halloween. Rather than come up with just another haunted house that charges folks ten or fifteen bucks a pop to traipse through a bunch of scenes of fake gore, why not charge folks ten or fifteen bucks a pop to traipse through a bunch of scenes of sexed-up fake gore?
So the 44-year-old St. Charles resident and owner of the gaming store Animation Depot rented out a wing of the nearly empty Mall at Wentzville Crossing off Interstate 70 and set to work building Mall of the Dead: The Interactive Horror Experience. The concept: A genetic research company's experiments go awry and their living-dead test subjects escape to terrorize humanity. Kemper erected about sixteen makeshift sets in unoccupied storefronts. One scene features a distraught overweight woman in curlers cutting the skin off the back of her husband, who had molested their son. Another depicts a girl being hung from a meat hook and having her guts ripped out. In another two young women neck, then appear to castrate a man who gets in the way. Yet another features a male submissive whose tongue is punctured by the stiletto heel of a dominatrix.
Thinking big, Kemper took out ads on local radio stations (and in the Riverfront Times). Hyping his haunted house as "the only adult attraction in the St. Louis area," he warned that Mall of the Dead "is NOT suitable for anyone under the age of 17. There is realistic graphic violence and sexual situations."
That might help explain why Wentzville city officials refused last week to issue Kemper a permit to operate the facility. In a letter to Kemper last Wednesday, October 8, Police Chief Robert J. Noonan informed Kemper that the city had received several calls about the "sexual content" of the show, as well as claims that fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds were involved. If the Mall of the Dead wants to do business in Wentzville, Noonan wrote, Kemper would have to apply for a license to operate an adult-entertainment enterprise.
Mall of the Dead had been scheduled to debut October 3, but the open-ing was delayed when Wentzville building inspectors cited Kemper for minor code violations. Kemper quickly corrected the shortcomings and invited the inspectors back. Sensing that the city was out to deny him a permit, he brought along his lawyers to witness the second inspection. But although there was a code violation or two to yet to be taken care of, the city's building division appeared poised to grant a permit -- until Chief Noonan intervened.
In Wentzville, "adult entertainment" is defined as a performance that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors" and which "depicts or describes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sadomasochistic abuse, or any explicit sexual material, in a way which is patently offensive to the average person applying contemporary adult community standards with respect to what is suitable for minors."
Protests Kemper: "They're trying to apply a law for live sex shows to a play."
Adds his attorney, Mary Ann Wymore: "There's nothing here that would rise to the level of an obscenity charge." (Wymore has represented the Riverfront Times on First Amendment matters.)
Applying for a license as an adult business would present two problems for Kemper. First, there's the bureaucratic red tape involved, measured against the ever-dwindling countdown to Halloween. Moreover, if Mall of the Dead, which currently operates with a cast composed largely of Wentzville Holt High School students, were to be run as an adult establishment, Kemper would not be allowed to employ performers under the age of eighteen.
Of course, when they denied Kemper a permit, no Wentzville city officials had actually seen Kemper's show. The city acted on complaints from parents whose children Kemper has hired as performers. According to Chief Noonan, some parents said their underage children had been coerced into participating in racy scenes.
Kemper denies the charge. "We let people pick the scenes they want to do," he says. "Every kid under eighteen has to have a consent form signed by their parents. Their parents have complete knowledge of what their son or daughter is doing."
At a rehearsal last week, Jessica Potts, one of the female performers in the castration vignette who said she was seventeen, appeared enthusiastic about taking part in a scene that involved tromping around in a short black dress and sharing a brief kiss with a fellow female performer. The two of them then wield a knife, which causes gouts of fake blood to spurt from a pump hidden under a bed.
If it sounds cheesy, well, it is. Larry Kirchner, a veteran of the business who runs three St. Louis-area haunted houses, took a look at photos a friend snapped at one of Kemper's rehearsals. "The haunted house is dumb," Kirchner pronounces. "When you walk through a bunch of barrels and some teenaged girls jump out at you, you'll think it's a rip-off." Kirchner says the facility's spare furnishings and layout -- which features welded barrels that create a corridor, as opposed to an unpredictable, twisting path -- will disappoint patrons.
While Kemper calls Mall of the Dead "minimalist" in its design, Kirchner -- who says he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on special effects and sets for his haunted houses -- is more critical. "All it is, is some blood spattered on the wall and some junky furniture in the rooms. There's nothing built; there's nothing there."
At this point Kemper's funds appear to be running on empty. Though he has promised to pay his performers $8 an hour, he warned them last week that if the haunted house doesn't open, they might not ever see a dime. Most of the young staff seemed fine with that arrangement. But Chris Hensen, whom Kemper hired to weld barrels, wasn't in a forgiving mood when a $300 check bounced. "He was using my services for nothing," says Hensen.
Kemper acknowledges the debt and concedes that he has also failed to cover payments for at least $10,000 worth of ads. But despite the problems, he's determined to persevere.
"He's trying to make as much money as he can," scoffs Kirchner. "He's trying to create a controversy, create a lot of PR, trying to make it more than it is. You could see more on the Cartoon Network, probably. The bottom line is, the guy's in the middle of nowhere, has an awful haunted house and is trying to convince people to come out there."
Says Kemper: "We're not out to send people to the therapy couch. We just want to scare adults and give 'em something fun and different to do."
On Friday Kemper buckled to the pressure and removed both the castration scene and the scene with the tongue-puncturing dominatrix. That was good enough for Chief Noonan. "I'm not trying to censor the man," the chief insists. "I'm just trying to direct him on what kind of license he needs. This guy came into town and told us he was putting a haunted house on. If he'd have been upfront with us and said, 'Here's what I want to do, what do I need to do?' he'd have had all the stuff in the first place."