Theme Parks Keep Fall Guests Screamin'

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Theme Parks Keep Fall Guests Screamin'


Byline: Arthur Levine

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of the regular operating schedule at most theme and amusement parks. Defying convention, many parks have been extending their "shoulder" seasons well past the time there is frost on the pumpkin.

In fact, pumpkins are the focal point. Halloween events at parks like Pennsylvania's Sesame Place give operators new reasons to keep their guests screaming straight through to the end of October.

The trend among parks to tie-in with the spooky holiday, together with the scores of stand-alone haunted houses and specialty attractions that open only in the fall, has created an entire, burgeoning Halloween industry. One of the biggest scaremeisters is Larry Kirchner of Halloween Productions.

When he's not busy building one of the many animatronic werewolf effects and other equipment his company is shipping to haunted houses around the world this year (How do you say "Awoooooo!" in Spanish?), Kirchner is putting the finishing touches on his own haunted theme park in St. Louis. The country's second-largest exclusive Halloween event, Kirchner hopes to attract more than 100,000 brave souls to his The Darkness attraction in the few weeks leading up to the holiday.

Archduke of spooks

A long-time horror fan, Kirchner began his unusual career at an early age. He and some kindred spirits in the fifth grade put together a makeshift haunted house in the community room of his apartment complex. Once Kirchner squirted some fake blood and heard the screams of the crowd, he was hooked.

After spending a few seasons helping others in the area design and operate their haunted houses, the twenty-something Kirchner decided to break off on his own. Four years ago, the "hauntrepreneur" persuaded a manufacturer to convert a part of his downtown St. Louis factory into a haunted house. The Darkness Haunted House proved so successful, the manufacturer closed down his company, turned over the entire massive complex to the attraction, and is helping to finance and run Kirchner's Halloween Productions.

Rather than rely on bogeymen jumping out and other easy scare tactics, Kirchner's team has loaded The Darkness with special effects and high production value. A pre-show film sets the stage for the time-travel story that unfolds inside the attraction. An elaborate haunted hotel scene begins the walk-through tour. Lasers, theatrical fog, high-end animatronics (severed heads that dance across a table are among Kirchner's favorites), and a synchronized soundtrack immerse guests in the action. Kirchner says a good haunted house is better than a good horror movie because "It's interactive and three-dimensional. You're the star. You're in the middle of the action."

While the shroud of darkness and the witching hours of evening can enhance the anticipation, it is a haunted attraction's imagery and sensory stimulation that deliver the thrills. "A haunted house done right," Kirchner asserts "works just as well during the day." Indeed, unlike most haunted houses, The Darkness is open during daylight hours. And unlike many haunted houses, which appeal primarily to a semi-depraved audience of gore-happy teens, The Darkness books children's birthday parties during the day. "We're reaching out to families, young children. Everyone wants to experience the holiday fun," says Kirchner.

Oh, the horror

Last year, Kirchner expanded The Darkness into a multi-faceted entertainment center. Besides the haunted house, guests can visit the Hollywood Horror and Sci-Fi Museum. Props, effects, posters and other Planet Hollywood-style displays from films like "Mars Attacks" and "Interview with the Vampire" line the museum's halls. Before The Darkness opened this season, the St. Louis Science Center displayed exhibits on loan from the museum.

Celebrities scheduled to appear and sign autographs this season at The Darkness include George "Michael Myers" Wilbur and Kane "Friday the 13th's Jason" Hodder. …

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Theme Parks Keep Fall Guests Screamin'
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