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Haunted House trade show in St. Louis is not for faint of heart

Haunted House trade show in St. Louis is not for faint of heart

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ST. LOUIS • Inside a vast exhibit hall cloudy with fake smoke, not far from an animatronic doll grimacing like it was being electrocuted (Zappy, $232) and a bucking-bronco amusement ride featuring a rideable spider (Arachnid Attack) stood Tom Devlin touting the merits of his fake blood.

"A lot of fake blood turns a pink Kool-Aid color after awhile. Not mine," he said, pointing to a display showcasing his Fright Blood, Fright Sludge and Black Light Blood.

Devlin knows blood. He has worked as a special effects artist on horror films such as "Silent Night, Zombie Night." He's appeared on the SyFy channel's "Face Off," a reality show of competing makeup artists — "I won a blood challenge for that," Devlin boasted. He also runs 1313FX, a Florida-based business that sells fake blood and scary latex masks. Haunted houses are major customers. They buy fake blood by the gallon. And that's why he was in St. Louis this week.

The 17th annual Halloween & Attractions Show is a four-day trade show attracting an estimated 8,000 people from across the country, some from overseas, all who are involved in the very serious business of scaring people. The show runs through Sunday at the America's Center convention hall downtown, where it's been held for the last four years. Owners and staff of haunted attractions come to buy the newest props. They come to hear advice on maximizing revenue. They come to see the latest in painting gory faces. "You run a haunt?" is a common question here.

And when they all get together, it can be a surreal scene.

"It's definitely the one show everyone has to go to," said John Kennedy, publisher of Haunted Attraction magazine, who, too, was in attendance.

Haunted houses and other haunted attractions in the United States generate at least $300 million in annual ticket revenue, mostly in the weeks leading up to Halloween, according to industry estimates. The era of simple haunted houses with black plastic walls and store-bought masks are over, Kennedy said. He said he recently opened his own haunted house in Indianapolis and sank $1 million into it.

"It's a whole different ball game today," Kennedy said.

It is not easy to scare customers weaned on the over-the-top video games and horror franchises such as the "Saw" movies. But the hundreds of vendors packed inside the exhibit hall were going to try. It felt something like a typical convention, with eager salesmen at product booths and hundreds of visitors wearing green lanyards and ID badges milling about. But that was the extent of the familiar.

The space was filled with recordings of anguished cries and snorting animals. One booth sold Easy On The Pocket Paul 2 skeletons for $25. Another had specialized fake teeth. Another offered ticketing and banding devices. High-end silicone masks, for characters such as Pickles The Carnie, were selling for $519.95. Froggy's Fog promised "the world's greatest fog." There was a rollicking, smoking outhouse called Kamode Kaos and a $12,600, 15-foot-tall alien demon that jerked about angrily and a $45 "budget" bloody pig carcass. Nearby, three conventioneers struggled to recall which "Nightmare on Elm Street" film featured a character turning into a bug. (It was No. 4.)

"That's awesome," said one man, pointing at a doll of a deranged-looking woman in a floral dress.

The doll was part of the display for Abracadaver, a California-based company run by Peggy Carr and her husband, a movie special-effects sculptor. Carr has been coming to this show for 15 years. She sees the same people year after year, has watched their kids grow up. It's like a family, she said. The gore was just a distraction.

"Believe it or not," Carr said, "it's a very family-oriented show."

The trade show also offered educational seminars. On Friday, Brett Hays, an attorney who also runs Fear Fair in Seymour, Ind., talked about haunted attraction law.

A line waited to get in the door. Men and women, some in black T-shirts printed with names such as "Fright Farm" and "The Soultaker" and "The Dark Knight's Terror Trail," listened as Hays lectured on liability issues facing haunted houses. These were not abstract concerns. Last year, a 17-year-old girl who worked at the Creepyworld haunted house near Fenton was seriously injured when she nearly strangled in a prop noose as part of a display. A lawsuit filed in Jefferson County in January alleges the haunted house was negligent.

Liability and lawsuits are a constant worry, Hays told the audience. "This is a target-rich environment."

Across the hallway, another seminar, just as well attended: "Mind-Blowing Horror Face and Body Painting." Nick and Brian Wolfe seemed to wow the crowd with their advice. Got a worker who keeps sweating off his face makeup? Rub antiperspirant on his forehead. Need to do a bunch of faces in a row? Set up an assembly line, applying the same color to each face. Someone asked for tips to make face-painting less artistic and more horrific. The answer: Focus on emphasizing temporal ridges and cheekbones, go for an evil eye shape.

Outside the exhibit hall, as a man on stilts walked around in an evil-looking steampunk costume, three men sat on a bench. They looked a little tired. This was their first time at the trade show. They were from South Korea, here to get ideas. Jongwon Lee, a vice president at Shinik Corp., said his company distributes some Halloween-related items, such as a plastic pumpkins and masks — "but not this kind of stuff," he said. "This is really scary."

Lee looked around.

"American people, I don't know how they like these kind of things," Lee said, laughing.

And just then, what looked like a full-sized gorilla carrying a man in a metal cage walked past.

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