The Unofficial Launch Of Halloween
Home Haunting And ScareLA
Monday, September 1, 2014
Aired 9/1/14 on KPBS News.
KPBS arts reporter and home haunter Beth Accomando visits a Halloween convention and looks to the growing popularity of the spooky holiday.
For most people, Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer. But for me, it’s the unofficial launch of the Halloween season as candy corn hits retail shelves and spooky Spirit stores open their doors.
Halloween means one thing to me… scaring the crap out of the kids in my neighborhood. For more than two decades I’ve been decorating my house as everything from a Killer Klowns carnival to a quarantine zone for infected people. One year I recruited two teenage girls to play elves in my demented Santa haunted house. They screeched and cackled and made kids scream. Then they told me what made this so much fun was that when they were little I had given them nightmares and now they were thrilled to be the ones terrifying a new round of trick or treaters.
Some years I've gotten about 500 kids and I can keep count because I give out full size Snickers bars that come in 48 count boxes, so the number of boxes I go through gives me a head count. So while I felt like a veteran of many Halloweens I only recently discovered that there’s a name for what I am — I’m a home haunter. And now there’s even a convention geared toward me and my needs.
"So we make bodies and body parts," Grace Feigh told me as she stood beneath a rack of Dapper Cadaver’s latest products, "This year we’ve started a new line of body parts that we call danglers where we make them with the rope insides so they can hang easily from butcher shop hooks and you can hang them up over hallways and people can run into them as they are going through a haunted house."
And how much will that set back the home haunter?
"So most of our full bodies, fully cast bodies, are around $600, $700 but you can get a leg for about $100 or an arm for 60 bucks," Feigh said.
Dapper Cadaver makes horror props for Hollywood movies and TV shows but now it’s finding a new market -- homeowners with a twisted streak. Last month I joined 6,000 giddy Halloween enthusiasts checking out the 125 vendors at the second annual ScareLA, the Los Angeles Halloween Convention.
Feigh’s colleague Melissa Sack said, "The other day I had a guy call in and order, and he got like tons of big huge props and he’s just like I need this guy to float in the swimming pool. And I need this guy to hang out outside, this is his home haunt."
"A home haunt, obviously it’s what it sounds like," ScareLA attendee Brian Jorgensen said, "it’s a haunted attraction that people are putting on in their own home, in their front yard, their backyard, potentially going through their own house. For us it started out with just the driveway and then it expanded into the street and then we started building walls and then we started building bigger and bigger props. And this years we are looking to expand all the way into back yard and go through the house."
Jorgensen and his friend Donald Julson attended panels and classes including one taught by Reign of Terror's Bruce Stanton, a professional haunter.
"He taught us about liabilities, all this other stuff, the fire marshall, what they are looking out for and everything, little things we really haven’t thought of."
Liability? Fire marshalls? Whoa! These guys up in LA are a lot more serious than I am and put my meager efforts to shame. So while most folks don’t go to those extreme lengths, nearly three quarters of Americans do say they celebrate Halloween, according to Kathy Grannis, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation, says people are willing to spend a lot more on Halloween these days.
"Halloween has completely changed from even 15 to 20 years ago and we think a lot of that is being driven by the fact that adult costumes are more popular than ever before. Halloween today is really just as much of an adult holiday as it is a children’s holiday," Grannis said.
So if Dad wants to dress up as Leatherface, Jennifer Smith of Savage Productions has just the right accessory: "We have cosplay chainsaws, so they are all hollowed out and they don’t run, and then we have regular chainsaws that do run but we fix the blades and extend them so they are lighter. And they won’t cut or hurt anybody."
The San Diego-based company caters to the needs of the haunt industry.
"Our running ones are $425."
If that’s a bit too pricey how about dropping 10 bucks to fill your home haunt with just the scent of chainsaw and gasoline.
"We just saw a study where scent is the number one sense that is triggered in memory," said Scott Lynd of Froggy’s Fog, which sells fog machines and “makes a fluid for every effect."
”Your costumes, your zombie doesn’t want to smell like Febreze he wants to smell like a zombie. The one for zombies is called rotting decay," Lynd said, "If that one’s not good enough for you, I have an awful one called slaughterhouse," Lynd elaborated, "That will ruin your lunch if you spray it on your finger. It’s one of those strong scents, and our number one seller. Not only do people buy it for their costumes but they buy it to prank their office workers and spray their desk chair or their wife’s pillow with it."
But you might want to avoid scents like smoke and gasoline because those smells could be signs of real danger in a haunted house. I opted for Rain Forest to add to my fog machine after hearing Stanton's recommendation at his haunted house panel. It’s a little musty with a hint of green moss.
"I run a haunted house professionally," Stanton said, "but I started as a home haunter and I want to give people the tips and the tricks that I learned to help them achieve their goal without making the mistakes I made or the mistakes I learned not to make."
ScareLA organizer Lora Ivanova said Stanton's panel was just one of the dozens of offerings conventioneers could choose from.
"We have a pumpkin carving class that is led by some of Disney’s finest pumpkin carvers. We’ve had a class on the psychology of fear that showcases a haunter with over three decades of haunting experience talking about what really makes a haunt scary, and classes on writing for horror and marketing your horror film."
Co-organizer David Markland said, "People wanted taxidermy classes and we almost had one of those but it didn’t quite fit in but I think next year we will have to have one of those."
Steph Koza, a special effects make up artist, taught a class on nightmare clown character design.
"I was teaching them how to create a killer clown from start to finish," Koza said, "I taught how to do the flat make up, I taught how to do the wardrobe, and how to do a custom prop for very cheap materials."
While people buying both cheap and expensive items for the trick or treat season, Grannis said there's a misconception that Halloween is second to Christmas in terms of consumer holiday spending.
"When it comes to the rank of consumer holidays each year," Grannis explains, "Christmas of course takes the cake at about $602 billion, down the line you have Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, typical gift giving holidays, each bringing in around $17 billion or $18 billion. A little bit farther down the line is Halloween as a nongift-giving holiday."
Last year Americans spent nearly $7 billion on Halloween, including $135 million on just costumes for pets. But Halloween does come in second to Christmas in one area of spending: decorations.
"That is very true," Grannis added, "Americans take Halloween decorations very seriously just as they do the Christmas season. So Halloween certainly is not the biggest but definitely one of the most important holidays."
All this makes Scare LA organizer Lora Ivanova smile.
"It is ultimately the holiday that brings all ages together and it brings together not just families which is the MO of most other holidays but it brings together strangers and that’s really what’s beautiful about it," Ivanova said.
Markland says home haunting is not really new but people are becoming more interconnected: "Those people are networking more I think a lot of it is part of the Internet and the more people are sharing so I think it is spreading but they have been around for decades."
Indeed we have. But it is nice to have things like the Internet and ScareLA to help us home haunters kick up our game so we can enjoy the screams and squeals of children as they drop their candy bags and flee from your house.
You can listen to the NPR version of my story.
(BTW: Only 60 days till Halloween. Just saying.)
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