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STYLE & CULTURE

Gasp! It's how much?

Want to scare the devil out of someone for Halloween? It could cost you a lot.

October 29, 2002|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Until recently, the only way to create a proper haunted house was to orchestrate a heinous murder on your property and then thwart justice so the dead spirits would have a reason to hang around and cause trouble.

Leave it to technology to eliminate such hassles. This Halloween, homeowners can spookify their abodes with expensive Hollywood-style special effects, including walls that come to life, toilets that explode, "industrial strength" attack alligators and a "Deep Fryer" electric chair equipped with a thrashing mannequin who screams, sizzles and spews "authentic foamy drool."

For added terror, customers can also buy a $3,400 "vomit barrel" (vomit not included), a $2,000 haunted mirror and a $35,000 animated ogre that stands 11 feet high.

Traditionally, such props were built primarily for theme park Halloween haunts. But as consumer spending on the holiday has surged from $2.5 billion in 1995 to a projected $6.9 billion this year, some of the prop manufacturers are branching into the home market.

Prices are still way beyond most people's budgets, but that's changing. Ed Edmunds, whose Colorado company, Distortions Unlimited, designs creepy props for Six Flags amusement parks and rock star Alice Cooper, hopes to introduce a $400 version of his $6,900 electric chair.

"The home market is growing very quickly," says Edmunds, a born-again Christian who also specializes in blood-squirting guillotines ($7,950) and dismembered space aliens ($1,130). "We're shifting our Web site toward that."

Smarthome.com, an Irvine-based purveyor of home automation gadgets, has also jumped on the haunted bandwagon with a catalog of "extreme Halloween" products. Company bigwigs came up with the idea at a Halloween industry trade show as a way to boost interest in their less-expensive Halloween paraphernalia, such as a $20 talking skull and a $70 fog machine.

"It's eye candy to pull people through our catalog," says Leo Soderman, Smarthome's marketing director. And because the big-ticket items have to be custom-ordered, Smarthome loses nothing if they don't sell.

Here are some choices

The high-tech props, which are made by Edmunds' company and several other theme park suppliers, include:

The Living Wall, which can be used to freak out sleeping house guests. Place it behind a bed, turn on the switch and the wall roars to life with two hands and a head trying to push through it. Price: $3,000.

T rex, a shrieking 6-foot-high dinosaur head that springs out of the bushes with jaws snapping. It's yours for pocket change: $9,999.99.

The fake car crash, a simulated brick wall that suddenly gives way to a realistic car front with working headlights and blaring horn. Price: $5,000.

Satan's spawn, a 13-foot-tall animated demon that writhes and jumps out at visitors ($8,000).

The Explode Commode, a slime-covered toilet that erupts with a 25-foot geyser of air and water.

The automated gator, which lunges forward along a metal track. "It's a real steady seller for swamp scenes," says Edmunds, who cast the critter using a frozen reptile shipped from Florida. "It took us two years to legally get a real alligator," he says. After two days of thawing, the gator was placed in a fiberglass mold, which took a couple of days to set. By the time it was ready, the animal was decomposing and the smell was horrific, he says. Price: $14,000 from Smarthome.com; $8,508 from distortionsonline.com.

A few items were deemed too gruesome for Smarthome's catalog. The Ghoul Grinder, in which a mannequin is lowered into a whirring machine that sends fake blood and guts spilling out the bottom, was rejected because the only photo available from the manufacturer featured a bound and gagged female mannequin dangling above the device. "We thought that would be offensive," Soderman says.

Smarthome execs also vetoed vials of oil formulated to smell like a rotting corpse. The stench was a little too realistic, Soderman says: "If FedEx broke one of those vials during shipping, they'd come after us with machetes."

Although the catalog has garnered considerable media attention, it hasn't generated many sales. As of late last week, the only high-end item that Smarthome had unloaded was a $2,000 haunted mirror, which flashes the image of a talking skull when someone steps on the pressure-sensitive floor pad.

Be patient, advises Edmunds. "Certainly you're not going to sell as many electric chairs as blenders, but we've had good results," he says.

Parties get more elaborate

Edmunds traces the rise in Halloween spending to the Tylenol poisoning scare a few years back. "Parents started doing parties for their kids instead of trick-or-treating," he explains. Each year, the parties got more elaborate, and adults got more and more into the spirit of the holiday, he says.

All sorts of entrepreneurs have pounced on the trend.

A company that makes anatomical skeletons for universities now sells its rejected bones to Smarthome, Soderman says: "We buy them by the pound and sell them as our 'Bag of Bones.' "

However, it isn't always easy to satisfy America's hunger for haunting.

"We've raised a generation on $50-million and $100-million budget movies, so it's tough to manufacture things that will impress a teenager," Edmunds says.

But he's got a few ideas.

"We used to have trouble dreaming up what would be next," says his wife, Marsha, quoted on the company's Web site. "Now we have trouble crossing off things we just do not have time to produce."

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