St. Louis, Missouri – It’s finally October, the favorite month of most of us here at Dread Central. It means the air gets a little cooler, shops stock up on candy and Halloween costumes, and folks wait with breathless anticipation for the one night of the year where it’s actually legal to scare the bejeezus out of your neighbors.
It’s also the time of year when people are faced with a choice. The “haunted attraction” business has been around for as long as anyone can remember, and every year it seems that there are at least two or three popping up in every city. So the conundrum: To which of the dozens of spook-houses should you go? Is there any way to guarantee a good time, scares, and (most importantly nowadays) that a body will get his money’s worth? If you are lucky enough to live in or around St. Louis, Missouri, the answer is a resounding and emphatic YES.
Larry Kirchner, the owner of St. Louis’ largest, greatest Halloween attraction, aims to please and delivers some of the most impressive scares in the industry. And that’s not just idle hype. Every year Kirchner invites the best and brightest in the industry to come and walk through his attraction, and every one of them comes out in awe. For his competitors to admit, on camera, that his attractions bury the rest, it has to be something big.
And big doesn’t even begin to cover it. To begin with, there’s “The Darkness,” a 30,000-square-foot monstrosity that packs in more scares per square inch than any other in the USA. Kirchner, who makes his living designing animatronic thrill rides all over the world, puts his heart and soul, and a wheelbarrow full of money, into the attractions. His work has been featured more than once on the Discovery Channel as the place to go for a terrifying experience. Included in The Darkness is a haunted hospital complete with the requisite cadavers, animated man-eating plants, and a psychedelic clown-house that is enough to give me nightmares for a month. It also includes “Terror Vision,” an interactive 3D haunted house. Let me be clear…This is not a video game or virtual reality. This is an attraction where the people wear 3D glasses and the walls around you come to life. And lest you think it’s all puppets and robots, the actors are well concealed to leap out at just the right moment. At the end of The Darkness is a gift shop and horror museum for those who are looking for a more tame experience.
Also onsite is “Creepy World,” a mammoth collection of seven separate haunted attractions. To begin with, there is “Drive-In 666,” an old-style drive-in theater complete with cars and a giant screen, on which movies like Halloween and The Shining are playing. The only problem is that all the audience is dead, and a few of them refuse to stay that way. There’s also the “Vampire Graveyard,” the “I Scream Factory,” and “Silo X,” which features a mutant melt-down theme. There’s also a bar and grill at the end, manned entirely by zombified Hell’s Angels. Included in Creepyworld is the traditional haunted hayride, which is nothing like the ones I went to when I was a kid. This one features creatures chasing the wagon, explosions going off left and right, and enough general mayhem to send everyone home happy. And to accomplish all of this Halloween goodness, Kirchner employs more than 250 actors, all trained in the art of making you piss your pants.
And, new for this year, is a special attraction that has both horror fans and paranormal buffs drooling. The Lemp Mansion, long famed for its haunted hijinx, has been featured in everything from top 10 lists to Life magazine, but few ever touch on the underground tunnels that connect the mansion with the former brewery. Kirchner, however, has capitalized on the famous haunt and has opened up “Lemp Brewery,” which takes place inside the Lemp tunnels. Yeah, you read that right. The feature begins with a fifty-foot ride down in a rickety old freight elevator and takes place entirely underground in the caverns and tunnels dug by Lemp.
Kirchner, who started making haunted attractions before he was even out of high school, has a passion for this business, and it shows. He’s found an audience, partially because the movie industry has, for the last few years, largely ignored Halloween as a time to release horror movies, and the ones they do release just aren’t scary anymore. “Hollywood is a $9 billion a year business,” says Kirchner, while Halloween-themed businesses pull in “$7 billion in the month of October alone.” And while he doesn’t really have to compete with movies, he does feel he gets real competition from the video game industry. Games like Left 4 Dead and Silent Hill desensitize folks, but it also brings with it greater challenges to give them those few moments of real abject terror.
When asked about the best reactions he’s gotten from his audience, Kirchner chuckles. “People tend to psyche themselves out,” he says. While the men in his audience are more easily startled, women, from his experience, feel the terror more deeply and with longer lasting effects. “We did have one woman literally jump out of her shoes.” According to Kirchner, this patron jumped so hard that her shoes stayed behind. She ran in her socks out to the parking lot and got in her car. When the performers tried to bring her shoes to her, she screamed even louder.
To find out more about St. Louis’s greatest haunted attraction, check out the Scarefest website, which includes more tasty pictures, videos of some of the action (including what I believe is the single most frightening gag in any haunted house in history), and their schedule of operations.
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