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Pulling the mask off: The artistry, and industry, behind haunted houses in St. Louis

Scarefest Haunted Houses
An attraction at The Darkness haunted house in St. Louis

The National Retail Federation recently found that 157 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year. Not impressed? That equates to over $6.9 billion in spending—on costumes, parties, candy and…wait for it…boo! Haunted houses. Nearly 20 percent of those 157 million will step foot in a haunted house this season alone.

On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air” Larry Kirchner joined host Don Marsh by phone to discuss the artistry—and the industry—behind St. Louis’ haunted houses. Kirchner is the president of St. Louis-based Halloween Productions Inc., which operates the Scarefest haunted houses across the region.

"I wanted to make movies," said Kirchner of his start in the haunted house business. "I wanted to write and direct movies, that's what I wanted to do. I didn't live in Los Angeles, I lived here in St. Louis. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I didn't want to sell cars. I wanted to run my own business. I really like Halloween, creating things, that is what drove me over to it, I suppose."

There are roughly 2,700 haunted houses nationwide.

  Kirchner’s also a big player on the national, and international, haunted house scene as the president of trade organization Haunted House Association. In a recent Smithsonian piece detailing the rise of the haunted house industry, he estimated there are roughly 2,700 of them nationwide—a relatively recent phenomenon. 

"There's a lot of different kinds of haunted houses," said Kirchner. "There's the 'try-to-get-scared' haunted houses where you jump out and scare people. There's other haunted houses where people are very theatrical and play out roles as you walk through. When you go to The Darkness, for example, ... we're trying to create an environment that when you're in there, that's where you're at. When you're in the haunted mansion section, I would challenge anyone to tell me they're not in a haunted mansion. The roof beams are rotted, the walls are rotted, there's demons, ghosts, spirits and monsters...we're trying to create that realistic experience."

While the amount Americans spend on Halloween entertainment may seem astronomical, that’s matched by an equally unimaginable amount of spending on the part of the haunted houses themselves to stay hip with the latest in spooky trends. Last year, Kirchner estimated that local haunt The Darkness spent over $15,000 per interactive monster puppet that terrorized the haunt’s guests. 

It's all for the sake of scaring people better than they were scared 20 years ago at the movies, although Kirchner does admit that's getting harder to do.

" ... you become more of a Jamie Lee Curtis. You become the scream queen." - Larry Kirchner

"To me, a haunted house is way better than a horror movie because, to me, you're sitting in a seat staring at a screen and you know nothing is going to get you," Kirchner said. "But when you're in a haunted houses and you have no idea where you're going, where you're turning, what's going to come out here, there, whatever, you become more of a Jamie Lee Curtis. You become the scream queen. That makes it more interactive."

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.  

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.