Distortions Unlimited Corp. of Greeley produces monsters like this one. Jonathan Castner/for BizWest

Halloween firms scare up business

In the last couple of years, mask and prop maker Josh Randall couldn’t help noticing a resurgence in scare acting over big budget animatronics.

Randall, founder and owner of Kimbark Cemetery Productions Inc. in Longmont, saw large-scale animatronics gain hold in the early to mid-2000s as haunted attractions and theme parks brought them to their spooks and rides. Smaller amusement parks soon followed wanting to get into the haunts market to attract the crowds, he said.

Then in 2018 and again this year, Randall realized the market wants more of a live acting and theater approach to scares as opposed to animatronics, which use pneumatic operations to imitate the monsters and scary creatures of haunted houses.

The move to live scares is good for business, since Randall provides the tools, props and masks, plus small animatronics, for home haunters, scare actors and collectors.

“We’re starting to see a resurgence of consumers wanting to see live action,” said Randall, who has 20 years experience scare acting, building props, making masks and helping run home, charity and commercial haunts. “I’m seeing more and more smaller haunts pop up focused on scare actors. Consumers want a live, real atmosphere.”

Over the years, Randall changed the scope of what he does to meet the desires of the haunts market. He got started in designing and building props, masks and small animatronics for Halloween in the late 1990s when he built an animatronics electric chair to scare neighborhood trick-or-treaters at what would eventually be his mother-in-law’s house. After he and his wife, Jen, married in 2010, they turned their backyard into an annual yard haunt, which they grew over the years by adding props and effects and bringing in family and friend volunteers. They operated the home haunt from 2013 through last year’s Halloween season.

At first as Randall tried to shop for pieces for his haunts, he noticed an underserved niche in the haunting market. Mid-level commercial and home haunts often didn’t have the budget for high quality and expensive props, masks and costumes, but they also couldn’t get the use they needed out of the mass produced, seasonal pop-up store products, he said. Props, too, were expensive and mass produced, making it difficult for haunters to be unique with their haunting scenes, he said.

In 2019, Randall founded Kimbark Cemetery Productions to provide quality props and quality, safe and comfortable masks that can be worn for the long hours that scare acting can require, while also bringing the price down by several hundred dollars, he said. He uses an old-school handcrafted, hand-pouring casting process, followed with hand painting.

“(Haunters) needed something that is durable that is designed to be worn for upward to 12 hours a night,” Randall said. “If I can make a sketch and look at it and I’m disturbed by it … that will be a fun one to turn into a mask. Generally, if it’s got something to do with horror and makes me feel disturbed, then it’s a mask for the website.”

Randall named Kimbark Cemetery Productions after his home haunt on Kimbark Street.

“We called it Kimbark Cemetery as a joke,” Randall said. “We decided to keep the name when we launched the website.”

Randall won’t be doing a home haunt this year and instead will partner with the Empty Grave Haunted House in Denver to help design, build and operate a commercial haunt there.

“For a lot of people, it’s really energetic; they like the adrenaline response,” Randall said. “It’s safe and family-oriented. It’s a safe environment to get that adrenaline.”

Ed Edmunds, co-owner and president of Distortions Unlimited Corp. in Greeley, saw the large-scale creepy scene take hold with his creation of an electric chair haunt prop that he presented at a Halloween trade show in 1996. The electric chair used motors and pulleys for a fright scene, yanking around the creature getting the shocks. Edmunds expected to sell six of them, not more than 200.

Workers at Distortions Unlimited Corp. move a gargoyle-like monster. Jonathan Castner/for BizWest

“We were there as it all was changing, and we happened to come up with a crazy product,” said Edmunds, who owns Distortions Unlimited with his wife, Marsha Taub-Edmunds, vice president, and started the business in 1978 with her joining five years later.

Edmunds recalls growing up around charity-driven haunted houses with lots of black plastic and paper skeletons and cheaply made costumes.

“They weren’t elaborate deals,” Edmunds said, adding that his introduction of the electric chair prop “launched a surge of much more elaborate, higher attended haunted houses.”

Theme parks followed by bringing in haunted houses and rides in the late 1990s or early 2000s to extend their summer season by a month, Edmunds said.

“It’s become a big thing largely because they put crazy props up and started seeing what it did and investing more in haunted houses,” Edmunds said, adding that today, the computer has changed the industry even further with his electric chair down the list at places two or three. “We were there as it all was changing, and we happened to come up with a crazy product.”

Edmunds had to reinvent his business several times over the years as he saw the monster, mask and prop industry change — he does his work in a 44,000-square-foot warehouse with a staff of 20. He started out making hand-painted masks and body parts but found it hard to compete with imports, so he entered the large displays and props market. He manufactures his haunts for a variety of customers, such as haunted houses, home haunters, Halloween retailers and theme parks.

“When the electric chair came along, the company shifted again and went into animatronics and left behind some retail masks and things,” Edmunds said. “Even though I have some very nostalgic feelings growing up with monsters in the ’60s and ’70s, there’s never been a better time for buying monsters, full body or masks. …. There’s something in the human spirit that likes pushing it to the edge, and monsters can do that. Monsters can be pretty crazy.”

 

From the Archives

Read a previously published story about Distortions Unlimited from 1997.

In the last couple of years, mask and prop maker Josh Randall couldn’t help noticing a resurgence in scare acting over big budget animatronics.

Randall, founder and owner of Kimbark Cemetery Productions Inc. in Longmont, saw large-scale animatronics gain hold in the early to mid-2000s as haunted attractions and theme parks brought them to their spooks and rides. Smaller amusement parks soon followed wanting to get into the haunts market to attract the crowds, he said.

Then in 2018 and again this year, Randall realized the market wants more of a live acting and theater approach to scares as opposed to animatronics, which use pneumatic operations to imitate the monsters and scary creatures of haunted houses.

The move to live scares is good for business, since Randall provides the tools, props and masks, plus small animatronics, for home haunters, scare actors and collectors.

“We’re starting to see a resurgence of consumers wanting to see live action,” said Randall, who has 20 years experience scare acting, building props, making masks and helping run home, charity and commercial haunts. “I’m seeing more and more smaller haunts pop up focused on scare actors. Consumers want a live, real atmosphere.”

Over the years, Randall changed the scope of what he does to meet the desires of the haunts market. He got started in designing and building props, masks and small animatronics for Halloween in the late 1990s when he built an animatronics electric chair to…