TransWorld's 19th National Halloween, Costume, and Party Show


In a heavily Christian country—growing heavier every day it seems—the observance of a holiday celebrating fear and the supernatural is profanely miraculous. As the only holiday to go economically neck and neck with Christmas, it is not to be written off as mere kid's stuff either. The annual TransWorld National Halloween, Costume, and Party Show, which took place March 8 at Rosemont's Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, certainly underscores that fact.

What I remember most about childhood Halloweens are the scents: the sugary rich waft of a goodie bag say, and the sickly sweet smell of chill autumnal decay. At TransWorld's show, however, one familiar scent dominated: plastic—newly minted and as thick as if I were breathing it though a vinyl mask. Wandering about the show too was not unlike trick or treating, though rather than Snickers bars, Pixie Stix, and Mary Janes, my goodie bag was filled with catalogs, brochures, and plastic bones.

The show is not open to the general public—merchants and professional scaremasters over 18 only, please—and though the center somewhat resembled the freakiest theme park in the world for the weekend, no bones (no pun intended) were made about Halloween's status as a $7 billion industry. When all the costume, decorating, party supply, and candy sales are totalled up, the Prince of Darkness of holidays kicks Christmas' ass.

The show itself, as its name suggests, is split into two sections, Halloween and costumes on one side, party supplies on the other. Wonderfully named show manager John Wolf assured me though that every year when the doors first open, the crowd inevitably heads for the Halloween show. Somewhat appropriately, it sits on the left-hand side.

The layout is standard to most trade shows. Several hundred 10' by 10' booths surrounded the larger, center island booths, and all were separated from one another by white curtains. The difference lay in the decor. The center was as colorful as Mardi Gras—even the non-Mardi Gras parts. Bats, spiders, and assorted other rubber beasties accented the tables and displays. Skeletal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and vibrantly orange plastic pumpkins lined the walkways. Here and there Christmas and other holidays tried to punch through—one of Santa's helpers even wished me a Merry Christmas—but All Hallows Eve prevailed.

Regardless, even as no-nonsense merchants haggled over their contract tables, a giddy amiability could be felt. Business is business, but it's difficult to believe the folks of the Anatomical Chart Company, for example, can remain poker-faced while shilling 200 units of brain-shaped Jell-O molds. A surreality predominated, as suits and ties interacted with a leather and latex crowd, and cornfed, polo-shirted reps from Amalgamated Ballon Manufacturing crossed paths with staff from Horseman Hayrides and Haunted House of New York, dressed in head-to-toe black like a spooky security force.

I encountered revelations. In the celebration of any holiday, it's easy to forget all that magical frippery comes from somewhere. For instance, until I met Edward Douglas, I never bothered to consider the origins of haunted house music. Douglas is one half of Midnight Syndicate, a duo that produces background tunes for the haunted attraction industry. If you've visited a spook house at Six Flags, Universal Studios, or elsewhere, it's likely Midnight Syndicate provided the musical atmosphere. Previously a standard rock 'n roller, Douglas found a need and filled it. Though infectiously chipper himself, Douglas hated chintzy sound effects disks and cheesy monster mash mixes. Where, he asked, was the soul? "There wasn't enough good spooky music out there," he told me, "We've created sort of a niche market." Midnight Syndicate's latest album, Vampyre, played as we spoke. I can't describe the music as dirge-like—that would be redundant. Suffice to say haunted houses don't call for polkas and tarantellas.

I moved on, discovering a runway show at the Pony Express Creations booth. One after another, snow queens, high priestesses, and Elton John surrogates emerged from the curtain, strutted the ego ramp, and vogued to techno. In a rare moment precisely dubbed as Felliniesque, a bishop stepped out, offering benedictions and robe-highlighting twirls. "Oh look! The bishop has joined us," said our announcer, "Coming to give his blessing on his costume's licensing."

The costumery is not restricted to Halloween. Doublets, ruffs, codpieces, and other creatively anachronistic wear was on display for would-be Guineveres and Falstaffs. Delicate butterfly wings and pretty princessy gowns were attended to by equally fluttery ladies and gentlemen. The Grin-kin Horn Company carried highly realistic molded ceramic horns for goths, faire goers, and others seeking their inner faerie or devil. The Leg Avenue booth was hidden from view, and probably for good reason. More lingerie merchant than costumer, a long-leggedy Leg Avenue model briefly strutted out of the tent in an knuckle-gnawing nonregulation cheerleader outfit.

Among other thoughts, the latter event inspired a philosophical quandary: Why are women's Halloween costumes almost always "sexy" while men's costumes are not? I asked Michael Cooke, 13-year costume veteran and production manager for Cinema Secrets—purveyors of an impressive line of "woochies," prosthetic makeup devices simulating simple scars, enucleated eyeballs, and even more vomit-inducing treats. How very interesting. Now, what about them sexy wimmen costumes? Why does Cinema Secrets offer traditional cheesecake (sexy catwomen, nurses, schoolgirls, and witches) and more esoteric fare (Prudence the Naughty Pilgrim?). Mr. Cooke says he considered that question himself for a time. The answer seemed obvious. "Uh... I believe sexy female costume use extends well beyond Halloween."


Oh my goodness.

Not that I didn't have my suspicions.

In another area, the American dream was borne on bats' wings. Lee Seymour, yet another chipper fright merchant, debuted his inflatable haunted house. Scaring folks at Halloween since age 15, Lee later joined his local Jaycees and learned the basics of haunted attraction management. After hosting backyard haunts for years, he and his wife looked into buying an inflatable edifice they could disassemble and pack away on November 1. Materials and construction quotes came in under $20,000, and Lee's entrepreneurial spirit lit up like a Jack O'Lantern. He started ScAir Structures (get it?) to sell blow-up surreal estate to those lacking time, materials, and space for traditional, non-pneumatic houses.

On a walkthrough it seems no different than most park district spookhouses I've visited, though softer on the body when one stumbles in the dark. Square and just under 1,000 square feet, it has alcoves aplenty for props, lights, sound equipment, and teen Jaycees waiting to leap out and scream their damn heads off. My walkthrough was uneventful, though the steady roar of the compressors was unnerving enough. I asked Lee the inevitable question about puncturing. Smacking his "house," he happily explained its air membrane structure, unlikely to pop and fly around a parking lot. "You could stab it with a knife and it won't deflate!" he proudly claimed. I doubt Mr. Seymour was suggesting equipping your staff with real cutlery, but it would certainly make for a more invigorating experience.

For the casual attendee, the real money shot was the Dark Zone, and enclosed area where haunted house attractions roared, shuddered, and bled admirably. Whereas the costume and decoration areas are fluorescently lit and staffed by suits and neatly attired artsy types, the Dark Zone was, well, dark, and peopled by scraggly, long-haired wild men and women who wore much black. Many southern accents were heard amongst the professional haunted attraction folk as they inspected displays like "Shake and Bake," a disquietingly realistic electric chair prop, and "New Spew," an animatronic good ole boy hunched over a barrel who audibly wretches, quakes, and barfs. Really. Nearby, a biker dude—fearsome enough on his own—closely inspected a fanged clown... which suddenly came alive, jumped up, and screamed at him. "You got me! You got me!" said biker dude, more delighted than pissed.

In the Dark Zone proper, it was tough to find your way around—strobe lights and infrared beam-activated displays threw off the best sense of direction. A rattling truck driven by a laughing skeleton bore down on me, followed by a likewise grave steam train. I survived. "Here!" a son of the South suddenly drawled in the dark, thrusting 3D spectacles at me. He pointed at his display as I slipped them on. "All the backdrop paintings and exhibits are in 3D chromapaint. I guarantee it'll scare the pants off 'em!" He pressed a button, and sure enough a depantsing event took place as a hideous, twitchety spider baby shot out from a dark corner and screamed shrilly. Only LOSING one's pants might be the best case scenario.

On the far end of the Dark Zone, the Scarefactory company pushed the envelope of good taste: bless their bloody hearts. Stomping the cute out of Halloween with spiked iron boots, their displays fired shrieking, gibbering, and wailing corpses, demons, skeletons, and vampires at attendees from beneath tables, through walls, and out of Mother Earth herself. Realism rules, and though I'm not entirely sure what a cackling manbat shuddering on a steel pole thrust through its chest would look like in real life, Scarefactory provides a fair approximation.

While the room abounded and keened with screeching, mossy, desiccated, reptilian, and chthonic critters, the centerpiece of it all was a lovely creature known as "The Impaler." Referred to as an "animated super creature" in the catalog, this 13-foot tall hellmonster invoked pulp cosmic horrormeister H.P. Lovecraft more than a little. Amidst the pssh, whir, and clicks of hidden pneumatics, the elephantine creature performed a jerkily balletic routine of toothy grinning, spear brandishing, and the waving about of the bottom half of a bisected human being, its flabby guts quivering repulsively amidst a dry ice mist. Horrible! Disgusting! Repugnant! Signore Impaler, I say, bravo! A bloody end to a bloody wonderful day. I retreated home, scarcely able to sleep. I counted the 236 days left to Halloween all snug in my bed/While visions of bloodied thumbs danced in my head.

®2003 Dan Kelly
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