Digital Dying has always covered Halloween and its many conventions and customs. After all, spookiness is at the core of Halloween, and spookiness is typically tied to cemeteries, tombstones, and the culture’s various rituals surrounding death.
For example, we wrote about Charles Robert Richet, the man who invented ectoplasm.
“In 1913 he won the Nobel Prize for his work on the occasionally lethal set of allergic reactions known as anaphylaxis,” our blog noted. “But Richet, a French physiologist, had a number of other scientific interests, namely ghosts… If there was a spiritual world invisible for most of us here in this world, and if entities were passing back and forth between the two worlds, then there would have to be some physical evidence of that connection. There would have to be some object that enabled the people of this world to connect with the people of that other world. And Richet came up with a name for that object: ectoplasm.”
And we have written about Halloween costumes, including the plague doctor mask. Certainly, in today’s world where we continually face threats from variants of the Covid-19 virus, such a costume might seem a bit too real.
“Plague doctors tended to victims of the Bubonic Plague, the abominable disease spread by fleas on rodents that killed roughly half of Europe during the 14th century and erupted again across parts of Europe during the 17th century,” Digital Dying wrote at the time. “To protect themselves against the disease doctors wore ankle-length overcoats, wide-brim hats, boots, gloves, and a mask with a long curved bird-like beak that was filled with sweet strong-smelling substances like dried roses and carnations, or lavender.”
And of course, we have covered Halloween-like ceremonies and holidays across the world, such as the Hungry Ghost Festival in China, Day of the Skulls in Bolivia, Day of the Dead in Mexico, and Scotland’s ancient holiday of Samhain.
But we have never interviewed someone who has made an exciting and lucrative career out of Halloween spookiness—until now. Last week, we discussed the world of Halloween props, and now Digital Dying presents an exclusive interview with the person at the center of that world. She goes by the name, Gory Girl.
Gory Girl discussed with us the difference between a haunted house and a home haunt, the hidden world of Halloween prop conventions, how to corpse your phone, and the fact that certain countries in the Middle East are looking to tap into Halloween in a major way.
Can you tell us just what it is you do, and how you got here?
Basically, I have been collecting and decorating Halloween on my own property since childhood. Once I had kids of my own we started decorating in our garage and we trick or treated. I would save the costumes every year. It couldn’t be the same, because that would be boring, so over the course of 21 years I just accumulated a ton of props—big storage houses full of props. I have always had the business name Gory Girl, because I used to throw parties way back when so I just added in the Halloween props and it took off because I am essentially the only one. For studios doing Halloween episodes, I am what you got.
I go to all of the Halloween conventions. We have a giant Halloween convention called TransWorld, in St. Louis. It is typically held in March, and that is where I order all the stuff and I plan a year in advance what my haunt will look like. Then, after the Halloween season, it goes into warehouses and people rent that throughout the following year. You have to start planning early. For example, next year I am probably doing dolls, and I want to do a really creepy doll scene, so I need some really big oversized creepy dolls. I will probably have to call my vendors and say, ‘What do you have? What can you make me?’
For the really good realistic stuff or anything custom-made, there are only a few people out there making these props. I like to put my orders in during November, because if you don’t have your orders in early enough you are not getting it by TransWorld.
Okay first, what is a home haunter?
A home haunt is like a DIY haunted house. So a home haunter is someone that really loves Halloween and they set up a home haunt. We call them haunters for short. They are extremely crafty and able to build things themselves. I have seen some amazing home haunts. Many of the home haunters have figured out how to innovate and make props without a lot of expensive materials. For ten years I did a haunt in Hidden Hills, which is where the Kardashians live. I just recently moved out of that world.
And just what does a Halloween prop convention look like?
TransWorld is the biggest Halloween convention in the country, and it is located in St. Louis. Most of the prop builders are from the Midwest. Prop builders go to TransWorld to show off their new products. These are mostly small independent companies. One of the most famous ones is Scarefactory, which is based in Ohio. You will see their props in most haunted houses across the country. The Midwest is also famous for its haunted houses and home haunts.
What makes a good Halloween prop?
It is an art to make a good prop. You have to make it real-world, then you have to make it gory. My stuff tends to be extremely graphic, some of it is too graphic. There is a prop I am thinking of with this guy sitting there with his brains completely exposed, and there is bloody brain everywhere. You can’t put something like that in a normal haunted house because it is too gory, you have to put it in a scary one. I have some props where people really think it is real. Some are portable. Some are animatronic, which means they are automated and move in some way.
How much are haunted house Halloween props?
If it is a static prop, it might run $1,500 apiece. And if it is animatronic, you are looking at up to 10 grand.
What sort of events do you set up these days?
I do haunted houses, but I also have a lot of other specialized events. For example, every year I do a party for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They give me a theme, like twilight, or eye of the beholder. I build the set and help navigate what they should get to add to what I am doing. I also do the Los Angeles Zoo. They do an event called Boo at the Zoo. If there is anything nice or happy-Halloweeny or child-friendly I have in my stock that goes to the zoo. That is not my forte, but it is happy and for little kids and I have managed to pull it off.
How does death work into the allure of a haunted house—Are we trying to get closer to it, or is it more our fear of death that draws us to these spooky places?
I think that especially during the Halloween season people want that scare factor. I think that they have always been fascinated by it, and I think when you put a really good haunt together and you are walking through different scenarios and different rooms, like a zombie setting or an asylum, the scare factor has to do with the idea that it is not real, but it could be real—but it is not real. A good haunt bridges the world between the two. It could happen to me, but also not. And I think that is why people go to haunted houses, to see these scary haunted things. The same thing as a horror movie.
What are some of your favorite haunted house themes?
One year I did my whole house themed like The Hills Have Eyes, which is this classic horror film from the 1970s where this band of cannibals lives in a cave in the mountains of the desert Southwest. They have been mutated by radiation from nuclear bomb tests and prey on lost tourists. I had to watch that movie over and over. I made the inside of the house as if it was going into that cave. When you recreate a movie with a haunted house you really have to be specific to that movie, and if you are going to do something common like coffins then you really have to pay attention to detail. As far as coffins go, I always like the traditional, the gothic toe pinchers, which are the coffins that are wide near the head then taper down near the feet and are the most narrow at the way bottom, by the toe.
I know Halloween has become a pretty Americanized holiday, but it is also based on traditions that exist in other countries and cultures—Do you set up haunted houses in other countries, or only in the United States?
I know Dubai and the United Arab Emirates are really getting into the haunt industry, and they wanted to have a big convention and they said they would fly us out there and put us up. But the date they had set was November 3rd, which of course is just a few days after Halloween, which is our biggest event of the year. You are not going to get anybody on November 3rd, you have to do these things in January or February, and we would be more than happy to come and be a part of your convention.
The theme parks overseas have also started to get into the haunted house theme. I know London does a lot of zombie crawls, where you have to run from the zombies. Halloween represents a separate ticket for the theme park industry and a really good way to make money for that one month out of the year, although it takes a full year to plan something good. For example, you saw during Covid that all of these drive-throughs started popping up, and they weren’t necessarily great drive-throughs, they were just passing out cheap candy and had some sets built. To do something good takes time and planning. And I think haunts and haunted houses will continue to get bigger and bigger here and around the world because people want that scare.
You have been in the industry for many years, and I know the American way of death has changed substantially in the past few decades, and even the last few years. This is something we talk about regularly on Digital Dying. What changes have you seen in your industry in this time?
The biggest change I have seen is that there are more platforms to get creative. You can go online to Pinterest and type in the right search words and click go and immediately see so many ideas for how to set up a haunt, even on a very basic level. People are able to get creative without spending a lot of money and there are so many people who post things they make and also the instructions for how to do it.
For example, one trend that has been ongoing involves corpsing phones, which is such a simple process. You get a cheap plastic 99-cent skeleton, and all you need is a painter’s heat gun, and some phone-shaped plastic, and a phone and you have corpsed your phone. It is like making a little skeleton out of your phone with some fake flesh hanging off. I think that everyone now can be able to sign onto social media and do this cheaply and easily is great. We all started somewhere. I started with the cheap homemade props, and a lot of us did. Hanging sheets in your garage to make the haunt and things like that.
Let’s end it with another topic we discuss quite a bit here at Digital Dying, cemeteries—Do you have any favorite ones?
I do love a cemetery. I always wanted to do the grave rubbing thing, where you rub over the words on an old tombstone with charcoal, but I just never got into it. No matter what country I am in I always go to one of the graveyards to meander. There is just such a peacefulness to it. As for my favorite cemetery, I don’t know. Obviously, New Orleans has some great stuff. Prague too. I went to the bone church there, which is one of the most insane places I have ever been. I have been to the Catacombs in Paris. I took my son there when he was five. Places like that. Wherever you go, there is always something death-related to see.