Halloween Haunt Business Not For The Faint Of Heart

Halloween has become big business, earning at least $7 billion annually for those who make their living trying to scare us. Haunted houses, of course, are one of the biggest players, and NPR's Allison Keyes reports on the challenges of competing for our souls.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Halloween is just around the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And seven in ten Americans are planning to get their screams this year through decorations, costumes or creeping into a haunted house. NPR's Allison Keyes visited some haunts and reports on the industry's multi-billion dollar battle for your souls.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: It's dark. The people in front of you are cringing. And, hey, what's that stuff hanging from the ceiling?

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

KEYES: Kim Yates, proprietor of Kim's Krypt in Baltimore County, Maryland, has been terrifying customers at her old school haunt for 18 years. And she makes sure her volunteer monsters can get their roar on.

KIM YATES: A little bit like louder - volume.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roar.

YATES: Got to get it there. Roar. Like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roar.

KEYES: Yates lives and breaths Halloween. Her car is a hearse, and she has a copious collection of figurines that she began at age 9 after a trip to Disney World.

YATES: My dad bought me a monster mask and all the way home, 95 North, I was scaring kids and people.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL GIGGLE)

KEYES: Yates' customers such as Dawn Kuhrmann love bringing their kids to this neighborhood haunt on the basement level of a storefront college.

DAWN KUHRMANN: I mean, it took us two minutes to get here, free parking, you know, and relatively inexpensive to get in.

KEYES: But it's not inexpensive to Yates. She's got to pay for insurance, taxes, supplies and building fees out of the fifteen bucks she charges her 4,000 visitors a year. But Yates says she's not in this for the money.

YATES: I'll buy a dollar hamburger from McDonalds and make it last a week, because I just love this, you know. And I'll buy a really cool mask or something like that.

KEYES: Larry Kirschner is with HauntWorld.com, which has 4,000 listings for haunted houses around the country. He says many of the owners he's talked to this year are doing a lot more discounting, including his three epic haunts in St. Louis.

LARRY KIRCHNER: Obviously the economy has had an impact on everything. So it's not like, you know, our attendance is like horrible. But without a lot of discounting, it probably wouldn't be as strong as it is right now.

KEYES: Kirschner also says the season for haunting is longer now – from September into November. He says those at the helms of haunts are stepping it up to keep aficionados shaking in their boots because the business has evolved far beyond the old Jaycees charity events where you stuck your hand into a bowl of cold spaghetti masquerading as intestines.

KIRCHNER: As we like came out of the '80s and started getting into the '90s, it was the haunted house industry, solely 100 percent, that built the entire $7 billion Halloween retail industry.

ALLAN BENNETT: We realize that, you know, you have to spend money to make money.

KEYES: At Bennett's Curse in Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., owner Allan Bennett says he's spent between $5,000 and $15,000 each on at least a dozen giant animatronic monsters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kneel at the feet of Diablo.

KEYES: Admission here is almost double Kim's Krypt but there are hundreds of wall panels, fancy animation and 3D effects in a building with almost 18,000 square feet of haunt space. Bennett is also offering some discounts this year, but says customer come anyway because they're haunted house people.

BENNETT: It's not recession proof per se, but it definitely is something that can absorb a bad economy because it's so seasonal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

KEYES: He means seasonal for the customers, because both Bennett and Kim Yates say they work year round to freshen their haunts, and Yates opens on other dates than Halloween.

YATES: We do Valentine's, Friday the 13th, Fourth of July and Christmas.

KEYES: Which she calls Krpyt-ness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

KEYES: Clearly participating in what's now the second largest retail holiday in the nation is not for the faint of heart.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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