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 Exorcist traumatized 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.
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."
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.
"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.)
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.
It made more sense for the two men to get back to what they knew: spooky, technologically sophisticated attractions. They began building "dark rides" think Disney's "It's a Small World" meets A Nightmare on Elm Street.
"It just seemed like a natural progression," Kelly says. "A lot of the themes and special effects we used at the haunted houses were the same things people were doing for dark rides, and they also demanded a premium price."
Lit by black light and housed in theme parks around the world, the five-minute indoor rides typically use computer-animation depictions of pop-culture characters like Garfield and Spider-Man.
The grim headliners at Halloween Productions' first dark ride, "Fantasilandia," in Santiago, Chile, were vampires and werewolves same with the "Monster Mansion Dark Ride" they recently built in a rural Chinese theme park called Mysterious Island.
Installing rides in remote locales is challenging. Crew member Mike Cox reports it once took him a day and a half just to find screw tips for his screw gun in China, because he couldn't locate a hardware store.
"As far I know, there's no such thing as a Home Depot in Third World countries, so if you didn't ship everything you need, you're in trouble," says Kelly.
In recent years Halloween Productions has shifted its focus toward "dark" mini-golf courses, which also feature black lights and pop-culture characters. Their most recent creation is a Dungeons & Dragons-themed course, scheduled to open next month in Branson.
"Dark rides take two or three years and can cost millions of dollars, but [mini-golf courses] are better because they cost less to make and are quicker," says Kirchner.
"You could say we created a new market," says Kelly. "Mini-golf used to be [exclusively] outdoors, so bringing it indoors is a new thing. Our courses are all about the theming and the attraction, and golf is just something you're playing inside of the attraction."
In addition to his Halloween exploits, Kirchner is also a budding Hollywood screenwriter. Brew, which he co-wrote with recently deceased St. Louis-based filmmaker James Dean Schulte, is in pre-production and will star veteran horror actor Brad Dourif, according to the Internet Movie Database.
"It's a scary movie based on the Lemp brewery," Kirchner explains. "Some kids inherit a brewery which has been closed since Prohibition, and they try to reopen it. But the walking dead are still there, brewing beer.
"A lot of people will ask me, 'Do you like blood and guts?' I can't watch a show about a surgery. It makes me almost want to throw up. That's not how I got into this. I like monsters, but monsters don't necessarily translate to death and murder, you know what I'm saying? We don't just want to scare people. We want to entertain them."