The Scare Sector

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In once-empty warehouses along the Front Range, eerie things are afoot: hordes of the shambling dead, insane asylums run amok, demon-infested ruins. They’re different spins on the haunted house, which open up this time of year. With Halloween creeping up on us, Colorado Matters takes a look inside the business of fright.

To start, CPR’s Megan Verlee takes us backstage at a Denver haunted house, to see what life is like doing some seriously weird seasonal work.

And host Ryan Warner talks with Ed Edmunds, founder and co-owner of Distortions Unlimited, a Greeley-based company that makes massive animatronics and petrifying props for haunted houses nation-wide. The company is also the focus of Making Monsters, a reality show on the Travel Channel.

[Photos 1-3: MVerlee/CPR]

[Photos 4-5: Distortions Unlimited]

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

Reporter Megan Verlee: In a paint-splattered dressing room, Jesse Buchholz is transforming himself for a night at the Asylum, a haunted house in a warehouse in north Denver. First goes on a prosthetic eye wound, then coat after careful coat of airbrushed monster make-up: black, white, green.

Actor Jesse Buchholz: "You kind of go for the effect of maybe someone that hasn’t slept for a while, or someone that their skin has been rotting. Also, it makes you look very intense."

Reporter: Buchholz is 31 now, with a wife, a baby, and a regular job. But he got hooked on haunted house work at 16 and never stopped.

Buchholz: "I didn’t quite want to grow up, you know, I wanted to make the trick-or-treating thing last. But unfortunately, people don’t really like to give you candy when you’re past 12 or 13 years old. They kind of look at you strange."

Reporter: Now Buchholz whole goal is to get people to look at him strange, not hard with his wildly ratted hair and dangling straight jacket. In the hierarchy of haunted house actors, he’s what’s called a “lot monster," prowling, pre-show entertainment dispatched to warm up the crowd, like this group of teens waiting to get in.

Buchholz: “Please let me know if there’s anything we can do for you to make it a pleasant, pleasant evening."

Girl: "Okay"

Buchholz: "You can’t go wrong with teenage girls. It’s almost too easy at times. But the teenage girls, they get the whole crowd amped up."

Owner Warren Conard: "This haunted house has always been the actor-intensive, gritty, in-your-face visceral thrills kind of haunted house."

Reporter: Warren Conard co-owns The Asylum and another haunted house in Denver. He says his performers are really the grisly, beating heart of the show.

Conard: "Actors will develop their chemistry with the actors nearby. Sometimes it’ll be nursery rhymes, or how they develop the timing of their scares with the person in front of them and the next person."

Shannon, actress: "Hi, checking in are we? Just proof of insurance and skin please. We accept all types of skin."

Reporter: On my tour of the haunted house, the first fright inside the Asylum was lurking behind a reception desk, a blood-spattered actress named Shannon who agreed to demonstrate her creepy tactics for me.

Shannon: "I might give them a couple of good sniffs ... now I’ve got your scent, I’ll follow you home!"

Reporter: Shannon’s what you’d call a pop-out scare, the ghoulies whose sudden appearance in dark gets you to jump and scream in spite of yourself. And when I say 'yourself,' I really mean 'myself.'

Reporter: [Bang. Screaming] "Oh my god! Oh my God!"

Reporter: Alright, they totally got me on that one. My first instinct was to shove the ghoul and run, but that would break the first rule of haunted houses: don’t touch the actors. Jesse Buchholz, my guide, admits that some visitors do pick fight over flight.

Buchholz: "I’ve had people trip over me, I’ve gotten nosebleeds. But that’s not as bad as what some people’ve gotten. Some people’ve gotten flat out hit in the face."

Reporter: The occasional contusion aside, this is still the highlight of Buchholz's year. He’s the guy who never fell out of love with the spooky possibilities of the season.

Buchholz: "When you used to go trick-or-treating it was from about 5pm until about 8pm and maybe even earlier, depending on your curfew. So I’m extending that three hours into a whole month."