WASHINGTON – If thoughts of visiting haunted houses give you the creeps, and horror films keep you awake at night, a visit to Kim Yates’s home in Rosedale isn’t for you.
“The Regan doll from The Exorcist sits on my couch,” Yates said.
Other seats in the house, including the dining room electric chair, are occupied by skeletons and other spooks. It’s not just for Halloween, but year-round, except for October when Yates and her cast of creepy characters move to Kim’s Krypt, a haunted attraction in Middle River.
“I absolutely love Halloween and horror,” Yates said, even when it’s not October, “I wear Halloween socks and drawers every day.”
Yates may seem unique, but she’s not one of a kind. In recent decades, scores of Halloween fanatics nationwide have taken their passion to the next level by entering the haunted industry.
Yes, you read correctly — the haunted industry — the people who work under most community radars 11 months of the year then surface in fall to peddle faux frights for Halloween.
These aren’t just hobbyists; the industry has its own member organization, the International Association of Haunted Attractions, and two annual trade shows, the International Halloween Costume & Party Show and the National Haunted Attractions Show, which are held in early March.
Americans are predicted to spend $3.3 billion on Halloween merchandise this year, said Diane Langhorst, director of marketing at TransWorld Exhibits, Inc., the suburban Chicago company that puts on the trade shows. If they do, that would make a 5.5 percent increase over 2004 Halloween spending.
No one has gotten a handle on how much of that money is going into the haunted industry, Langhorst said, but the Haunted Attractions Show grew so big that it was separated from the Costume & Party Show this year after 20 years sharing the same space.
This year, the shows’ combined attendance was more than 10,000, with haunters coming from 39 different countries and across the U.S., Langhorst said.
“(Haunted attractions) first started becoming popular in the early ’90s when horror movies were in decline,” said Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, a magazine that covers horror media.
Now, haunted houses are one of the fastest growing forms of entertainment enjoyed by people worldwide, said Larry Kirchner, this year’s IAHA president.
The industry is growing in the U.S. and is being exported worldwide, Kirchner said, and most of the haunted house products are made in America.
“It’s a product of America and people in America should be proud” to know that this is a 100 percent American-made industry.
Like many industries, the haunted one is not equally distributed throughout the country. Neighboring Pennsylvania has a rich tradition and is one of the top four haunted house states, Kirchner said.
So far, Maryland’s players are small, but striving for the same kind of success. Kirchner expressed doubt that the state’s haunted industry would ever grow as big as Pennsylvania’s, where many of the top haunted attractions are the result of year-round, full-time work by people who don’t have other jobs.
Still, he said, one Maryland haunter has a chance to make it big.
Allan Bennett of Joppatowne works at the University of Maryland Baltimore, but makes haunting his second job and is in his fifth year of running Bennett’s Curse, a haunted attraction in Hanover.
Although Bennett isn’t haunting full-time yet, he is likely to succeed, said Kirchner, because he and his wife have passion for the haunted industry and passion equals success.
After visiting haunted houses in Pennsylvania, Bennett said, he decided that someone had to create a high-quality haunted attraction to keep Marylanders in-state. Now his goal is to become a regional attraction like many in the Keystone State.
He wants to keep the business here in Maryland, Bennett said, so people will realize: “Look, the Maryland haunted house scene is growing.”
It’s growing so much that Baltimore even has its own haunted convention, Horrorfind Weekend, which is held in early August.
Conferences like Horrorfind and other haunted gatherings are a major trend in the industry, Kirchner said. They allow haunters an opportunity to come together and learn from each other.
Moreover, these events have developed camaraderie among haunters, with the yearly trade shows being their grand reunion.
“The haunted attraction people are like a huge fraternity,” Langhorst said, and the show is “sort of like a homecoming thing.”
Like fraternity brothers, the haunters stick together when times get tough.
When a New Orleanian lost his haunted house to the real horrors of Hurricane Katrina, Kirchner said, haunters across the country joined forces to raise money to help him recover.
Earlier this year, Dennis Kingsolver, who ran Catacombs Extreme Scream haunted house in Kansas City, Mo., died in an elevator accident while preparing the attraction for Halloween, Kirchner said.
To help Kingsolver’s widow and five children preserve his spirit and keep Catacombs going, Kirchner said, the best haunters in the world are going to donate a weekend of their time to renovate the house in preparation for Halloween 2006.
It will be “quite the undertaking,” he said. “Now his haunt is truly haunted by him.”
While regretting Kingsolver’s untimely demise, Kirchner expressed a twinge of envy at the way his fellow haunter passed: “If I died, I’d like to die in my haunted house.”