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There's no business like scary business

What's the best horror movie?
Posted 11:52am on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

The monsters are everywhere.

As children, furry beasts with glowing eyes hunkered down in our closets or lurked just outside our windows -- always on the verge of roaring to life and dragging us deep into our worst nightmare.

In our teens, around the campfire, we thrilled to a good ghost tale.

But when we heard such spooky stories, we probably didn't equate them with commerce -- and we definitely didn't think of them as a way you could earn a living.

Even as adults, as we fork over $20 to wander through a haunted house, we hardly realize that we're helping to finance an industry (in the case of haunted houses, an industry that is expected to take in more than $1 billion worldwide this year).

For a handful of Metroplex residents, though, there's no business like scary business.

These people know that we live in a mass-market world where Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer are brand names, a world where Paranormal Activity 2 grosses more than $40 million in its opening weekend alone, a world where vampires and zombies are more popular than they've ever been in history.

And while these local frightmasters -- a chupacabra chaser, a couple who write stories that drip with blood and horror, and a woman who breathes life into the undead through the magic of her own haunted house -- haven't yet lined their pockets with millions, their accomplishments are still hair-raising: They all earn a steady paycheck from Monsters, Inc.

Nick Redfern

Nessie bit Nick Redfern when he was about 6 years old.

He stood on the shore by the mysterious black water of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands -- a lake 22 miles long, a mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep -- and wondered: Was it true?

If Nick peered long enough, surely he would see it. His dad had told him the legend. Below the water's surface, some say, lives a colony of still-surviving dinosaurs. Or at the very least, giant, monstrous eels.

The English-born lad was in Scotland for a week's holiday with his family, and his imagination was on fire: Was he now just a stone's throw from a jaw-dropping experience?

There was no sighting that day, but the event sealed his fate. He grew up reading about monsters -- at bedtime, he often stayed up under his sheets with a flashlight. Over time, his interest in monsters grew more refined -- their study took on the grownup-sounding label of "cryptozoology." After working a few 9-to-5 jobs in his early 20s, he decided to take the leap and turn his passion into a profession.

"I literally spent nearly two years nearly flat broke, living on savings, and I became self-employed," Redfern says. "And thought, well, I've gotta do it."

He started freelancing for UFO and paranormal magazines, and a friend got him hooked up with a literary agent (perhaps you caught his piece on paranormal sex in the October issue of Penthouse?).

To date, the British transplant, who now lives in Arlington with his wife, Dana, has written 18 books, on everything from UFOs and Area 51 to Bigfoot and chupacabras, the livestock-killing creatures that made headlines in Texas this year.

His most recent book, co-authored with Ken Gerhard, is this year's Monsters of Texas (CFZ Press), which explores local legends like the Lake Worth Monster, and devotes a whole chapter to the chupacabra. Redfern has also appeared as an expert on TV shows such as the History Channel's MonsterQuest and UFO Hunters, the National Geographic Channel's Paranatural, and the SyFy Channel's Proof Positive. He hasn't yet earned enough to retire to Easy Street, but he brings in enough from book sales and TV appearance fees to call it a living.

Redfern knows the stigma he's up against. The word "crackpot" comes to mind. But with his shaved head and two tiny hoop earrings, he looks more punk-rock hipster than Lone Gunmen.

"I think there is a tendency when people find out you write books about Bigfoot and UFOs that you gullibly accept every story with your jaw hanging wide open," he says, laughing. "I try and investigate these things as systematically and as down-to-earth fashion as possible."

He adds, "On the other hand, I do marvel as to how these stories and legends begin and mutate to a fantastic level. I think that does say a lot about an unconscious need or hope for monsters and strange things to be out there, because it adds a bit of color to our life."

"As far as I know, he must write in his sleep," says Patrick Huyghe, who met Redfern while Huyghe was an editor for an imprint at Simon & Schuster. (He now runs the independent Anomalist Books, which has published four of Redfern's books in the past five years.) "He's the Stephen King of the paranormal field. He's so prolific he could keep a small publishing company busy publishing nothing other than Redfern titles."

But, Huyghe says, unlike a lot of other prolific writers, Redfern does a lot research and reporting, which keeps his work fresh and at the cutting edge of writing in the genre.

"He never seems to get flustered and has a good sense of humor. And he never misses a chance to go head-to-head with a spook or other unnamed source at Denny's. No story is too far-out for Nick."

So, UFOs, Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot -- does he believe?

"I'm willing to admit I don't know," he says. "It would be arrogant and wrong -- literally wrong -- to say we know what is or isn't going on."

But in many cases -- in Roswell or Stephenville, in South Texas with the chupacabras -- he knows something's going on. But that something could be military aircraft or, in the case of things like the Loch Ness monster or the chupacabra legends, it could be a genetically mutated animal.

"I think the term 'monster' is a great, eye-catching term, but it's the thing that detracts from the credibility," he says. "If they exist, then they're just animals that science hasn't classified yet. They may be in an evolutionary decline. They may actually become extinct before we can prove they exist. But some people won't be satisfied until somebody runs over Bigfoot in their car."

Fulbright & Hawkes

Snapping fangs, depraved carnage, burial chambers, blazing infernos: All just another day on the job for husband and wife Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes.

The Rockwall couple are horror writers trying to make it in a foundering book industry in a still-dodgy economy. And while conventional wisdom might say that the horror market is booming on the back of the Twilight craze, pure horror people see it differently.

"Mass-market editors are not buying straight horror," Hawkes says. "They're buying mash-ups -- paranormal romance under the cloak of horror, and other thrillers, and labels that they're putting on horror in order to sell it. The vampire books that are currently popular are not true horror.... Vampires rip throats out and relish slurping up blood, not winking and brooding and making little faces at each other."

"That's right," Fulbright chimes in, adding that the movie posters of Robert Pattinson as Twilight's Edward Cullen always remind him of Derek Zoolander's signature "Blue Steel" pose.

Hawkes and Fulbright write novels, novellas and short fiction, with titles like Symphony for the Forgotten and Shades of Blood and Shadow (Hawkes), and Of Wolf and Man and The Bone Tree (Fulbright). They also write as collaborators (Blood Coven, Then Comes the Child). Their work so far has been published by small, independent presses.

Their styles are very different; Fulbright is more contemporary, while Hawkes does a lot more historical horror and Earth-based fantasy.

All it takes to understand the difference is a look at their divergent childhoods.

Fulbright's thirst for horror was stoked by a more familiar story: Solitary kid, not extremely popular, disappears into books and writing as a way to create his own world. In his late teens in his home state of Colorado, he read his first Stephen King novel, Christine, the story about the geek who comes across the possessed Plymouth Fury. As a teen reading a book about teenagers, with such well-crafted characters, Fulbright was truly thrilled.

"The lights went on, and I said: 'Wow. Now that's what I wanna write,'" he said.

In the conservative town of Rockwall, Hawkes was living a childhood that was worlds apart.

She was the daughter of a Methodist pastor, and rules were very strict at home. "In the beginning, it was no cutting the hair, no makeup, no jewelry," she says. "My life was one big 'No.'"

Religion was everywhere. Everything Hawkes wrote tended toward the dark -- paranormal, ghosts and the lot.

"The Bible to me is the ultimate horror book," Hawkes says. "And I'm not down on Christians, because I am a Christian. To me, life, from a very little child, was all about dying -- and going to hell, and not going to hell, and not being possessed, not getting raptured, and not getting left behind, and not getting decapitated," she says, her voice rising into a faux fervor as her husband laughs.

"And that," she says, "is why I write horror."

Just don't ask her to watch horror. "I won't watch The Exorcist, and I won't watch Rosemary's Baby. I avoid demons, because I don't want to be scared. I know it sounds really messed up," Hawkes says, laughing. "I can write about demons, because I create those demons. I am a horror writer that doesn't want to be scared."

And if you were expecting Fulbright and Hawkes to look like Anne Rice and Stephen King, think again. Hawkes is a self-described suburban mom whose attire is more preppy than Satanist-chic. And Fulbright, well, he looks like he could work for an Internet technology company in Carrollton. And he does. He's a technical writer there, which, he jokes, feeds his coffee habit.

It pays the bills, too, when the book money isn't rolling in. The book industry operates on the basis of advances and royalties. Royalties are paid out up to four times a year, which doesn't make for steady income.

If there's no monetary avalanche, though, there is an occasional critical bragging point: Hawkes' collection, The Commandments, was a 2006 finalist for a Bram Stoker award. Past winners for her category have included Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Dan Simmons and Peter Straub.

Obviously, a mass-market deal would be killer, but the independent presses give both writers the freedom to write what they want, not just what's in vogue.

The pair have a lot riding on one of two forthcoming books they've written together, namely Scavengers, due in April 2011: It'll be their first book in bookstores without special order, through the independent Elder Signs Press.

The book is locally set, and follows a mother from Arlington to Hunt County to save her daughter after a terrorist attack has released a substance that has zombified everyone.

"It's important that the other books sell," Fulbright says, "but it's really important that this book sells. It's the first book through bookstores that's really going to count for Nielsen ratings for authors. It could make or break us, really."

D'Ann Dagen

When the wild-haired, blood-drenched, distorted-faced freaks are grabbing at you with their zombie arms, and it makes you pee your pants, be sure to send a little thank-you note to D'Ann Dagen.

Two decades before the haunted-house industry became an industry, she started what is now DFW's oldest, longest-existing haunted attraction: Hangman's House of Horrors. If you've ever driven on Interstate 30 near Forest Park, you know it as that building with a massive gorilla looming over the highway (though this year the gorilla got replaced by a green dragon).

And unlike most haunted attractions these days, this one benefits charity; all of Hangman's proceeds go to the American Cancer Society, A Wish With Wings, Cenikor, Rocky Top Therapy Center and SafeHaven of Tarrant County. Since 1989, Hangman's has donated $1.6 million to local charities.

Once upon a time, most haunted houses were charity-run. But once people saw the money that could be made, the charitable operations surrendered like so many slasher victims. Today, Hangman's competes with the likes of such for-profit entities as Cutting Edge, Zombie Manor and The Boneyard, just in Tarrant County.

"We don't try to be the absolute scariest. Our goal is at one point to have you giggling, at one point screaming, sometimes both at the same time," says Dagen, 54, sitting in her office, surrounded by toy skulls, ravens, ghosts and goblins, and a framed photo of her with Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. ("His real name is R.A. Mihailoff," she says. "I met him in March 2000 at the annual haunted attractions convention. We hit it off fabulously!")

Hangman's is Dagen's year-round labor of love, but it's technically just an event within her business, La-De-Da Productions, a company that produces shows, promotions, events and campaigns. She sublets the space from neighbor Derek Kennedy, who owns Magic etc Ft Worth Costume.

"La-De-Da does not provide a huge income to me, but it sustains me," says Dagen.

Although she loved Halloween like any other kid, Dagen's road to Hangman's wasn't paved with scary movies and fright wigs.

In fact, it started with a BB gun.

"When I was a child, I did a big show in my back yard [with one of her two older sisters]. We would do shows and charge people."

When her sister outgrew it, D'Ann was happy to not only shoulder the load herself, but expand it. An entrepreneur was born.

"Instead of just doing a little song-and-dance revue, I did an entire carnival, which was spurred by the purchase of my beloved BB gun. Everybody wanted to shoot target, so I opened it and made a little bit of money. So I guess it was in my blood back then."

So was entertaining. The North Texas native studied theater at Oklahoma Baptist University, and launched her first haunted house in 1977, for a March of Dimes fundraiser. For a while, she worked as a CEO in the private sector and banked enough money to sink $20,000 into a full-blown Hangman's in 1989. (Back then it was housed in what's now the Chateau at Forest Park; it moved to its current location in 1993.) With trepidation, Dagen opened the doors, charged $4 admission and crossed her fingers.

Turns out, people were hungry for thrills: The first Hangman's took in $65,000.

Since then, the haunted-house business has changed dramatically. With the addition of all the for-profit attractions comes bigger budgets, more technology, marketing challenges and an endless cycle of keeping up with the Joneses. To keep it interesting, each year, Hangman's changes 50 to 80 percent of its sets and uses a new theme, Dagen says. This year, it's "Happy Horror Days," so expect some major nightmares before or during Christmas.

Hangman's is volunteer-run, with more than 1,000 volunteers in the stable -- 1,200 or more during the season. Last year, Hangman's raised $76,500. That's down a bit from previous years, but Dagen's optimistic about this year: Attendance numbers are already up.

The longer-term future, however, holds uncertainty. October remains an exhilarating but sleepless month for Dagen, and her round-the-clock schedule has taken its toll. Driving home from work last year, she fell asleep at the wheel and totaled her car. (The very same thing happened 12 years earlier.) The building that houses Hangman's is 35 years old and, though up to code, could use some cosmetic updating.

Still, Dagen is determined to take her haunted baby as far as it can go.

"I can't back off from Hangman's until it's done," she says. "It's gotten too big to take it off site. My goal is to at least take this to Year 25. I would love to find the right person to groom and take over, but so far, I haven't been able to do that."

Fort Worth without Hangman's House of Horrors? Now that's truly scary.

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