Reinventing What’s Scary: Inside Distortions Unlimited
If you’ve already visited a haunted house or plan to do so on Halloween, chances are you’ll see something designed to scare you that’s been created by Ed Edmunds.
Our trip starts outside a nondescript warehouse in Greeley. It sits by the train tracks. There is no sign outside of Distortions. Nothing lets you know you’re in the right place except for a very, very squeaky door.
Just inside, in what looks like a front office, you are greeted by five life sized zombies – and Ed Edmunds, the founder of Greeley’s very own monster factory.
“We’ve got bloody zombies, we’ve got fresh zombies, we’ve got old zombies. And you can tell by the color and amount of blood on them what they’ve been up to.”
Edmunds started his business back in 1978 when few things in the industry were mechanized. “It was just masks at the time,” said the founder of Distortions Unlimited. From masks, the company moved to props. “Everyone had cutoff hands. Well, we did cutoff arms. Now that was big innovation back in the day.”
Today the company makes life-size props shipped to haunted houses across the country. These include installations that spring to life. They also shimmy, light up, shake violently. And in the case of this year’s hottest item: Rock in a chair?
“Lullaby is this mother and baby. She’s basically holding her baby and she’s dead. And the baby’s dead. And they’ve been dead quite a while because they’re dusty and shriveled up. And that is the most popular product this year.”
The company has sold 1,300 so far, each one costing about $300.
There’s more where that came from. Stroll around Distortions’ 22,000 square-foot warehouse be careful where you step.
There are three cats on the loose; one of them is a black cat of course. You also meet other characters…
Like The Possessed.
“She shakes and she’s made a mess on herself, she’s thrown up. Of course it’s green,” said Edmunds.
You meet Buford, who spooks from his wheelchair.
“Buford is this kind of mutated hillbilly and he’s got a little stub arm and he spits and you.”
And you see the classics, the one theme that never goes out of style. It’s where Distortions made a real name for itself. “You know, we’ve done so many electric chairs over the years. That it’s really getting tough to come up with names. It’s Jolt, and Bolt and Electric Chair, and Shake and Bake, Hot Seat. We’ve done all these different things the thesaurus is getting thin,” laments Edmunds.
There are rules in horror movies to follow if you want to survive. Never stop at a small town gas station. Stay out of cemeteries. Don’t investigate the sounds coming from the basement. This is where we head to next. Turns out, something creepy does happen down here. It’s where Buford, The Possessed, Lullaby, the zombies and more… in fact almost all of the Distortions characters are born in the basement.
Workers pour latex and foam into molds of all shapes and sizes. Near the ceiling hang foam faces, hands, arms and legs. Surrounding tables are piled with supplies and drying foam shapes. Past the rows of the drying spare monster parts, we take a sharp right to visit a piece of Distortions history.
“This is the actual prop — the one — that changed the industry. At least, so they say,” said Edmunds. “This is the original electric chair. This isn’t only the original. This is the first one that went to the show.”
An emaciated foam character sits strapped into a matte black chair. It’s on top of a table so it’s at eye level. Back in 1996 Edmunds came up with the idea of mounting a one horsepower motor behind the chair, considered high-tech at the time. A pulley system made the chair shake violently.
“It would startle people. They would say, OK it’s going to shake a bit. And they would actually step back. And laugh. For a haunter, if it gets them on an emotional high, whether it’s gross or scary—it doesn’t matter if it’s any emotion, they know it’s going to be hot in their haunt.”
Edmunds has hit lot of homeruns over the years. But for every homerun, there’s a strike out… like Zombie Gunman.
“When he shot there was this air canister. It went boom. Boom. Boom. I thought that will be great. What a flop, I don’t know if we sold one.”
Compare that to a recent pièce de résistance: vomit barrel. I’ll let you experience this one on your own.
“Huge hit! Done at the eleventh hour just as like, OK. And the stuff that we put a lot of time and thought into. Some it went, and some it didn’t. You never know.”
You never do know, that’s why they try a lot of things. Animatronics have become so pervasive in haunted houses that Edmunds and Distortions have gone old school and incorporated humans into the installations. It’s called “shocktronics.”
“We’ve got one, I’m painting him today. The body is upside down. It’s shaking and there’s electricity in the coils. And then when it’s all over of course there’s a big scream and he comes rushing out. Let me tell you, haunters in broad daylight will scream and run and fall.”
That’s something when you can scare a haunter. It gets at the one thing Edmunds has learned throughout three decades of change and rapid growth. You never tell your audience what’s scary.
They tell you.