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The Monster Smash: Distortions' New Pop-Up Museum Pays Tribute To Art Of The Macabre

There’s a lot of scary things in the world today. But at a new museum, the horrors inside are all about the art of distraction, and letting folks get an up close and personal look at the things that go bump in the night.

For more than four decades, Distortions Unlimited co-owner Ed Edmunds has been designing monster masks and animatronic props for haunted houses and theme parks.

He’s considered a leader in the industry and Distortions, renowned by collectors for his detailed artwork, but he’s had some trouble seeing himself the way others do. Edmunds remembers one time he gave a studio tour to an art class from a local high school.

“And I’m talking, kind of sheepishly, like, ‘Well, I actually consider this art,’” he said. “And the teacher interrupted me and goes, ‘It’s absolutely art!’”

That attitude wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, while a student at the University of Northern Colorado, Edmunds entered one of his masks in an art show.

It was called “human error.” One half was a normal human face and the other was minus the skin to show the muscles and skull underneath. The show’s jurors were not impressed.

“They wouldn’t even allow it to be shown,” Edmunds said. “They said, ‘No, it’s a stupid Halloween mask. That’s not art!’”

It’s experiences like that that made Edmunds wonder what the response to his latest project, Distortions Monster World, would be. The Greeley-based company headed south to the Denver Pavilions to create a horror-themed, interactive pop-up exhibit.

“I was really wondering if people would like it,” he said. “I mean, are people really going to want to come in and not be scared and not have that kind of haunted house experience, and just look at these things like they would at an art museum?”

So far, they seem to.

Opening late last year after retrofitting the project for increased safety due to the pandemic, Distortions Monster World features more than 25 previous works from the company. It’s a place where people are encouraged to touch the art as well as take photos interacting with the exhibits — like Nosferatu or the alien queen from the classic horror film, “Aliens.”

But it’s more than just a place for a good selfie. It’s a place to learn about the art’s backstory — like that prop from “Aliens.”

“Distortions (Unlimited) was able to go back in the ‘90s and do basically a molding of the original prop that was used on the film,” said Nate Webb, co-owner of Blazen Illuminations. The Loveland-based production company collaborated with Distortions Unlimited to create the exhibition.

“And to be able to come up and see these things as they were on set, it’s one of a kind,” Webb said. “You don’t get this anywhere.”

Frankenstein close up.jpg
Stacy Nick / KUNC
One of the main goals with the pop-up interactive museum was to allow people to see the sculptures up close so they can take in the detailed work.

Placards tell the stories and the process behind each of the hand-sculpted works. Like the animatronic gargoyle purchased during the company’s fledgling years by actor Dick Van Dyke, who is known for his elaborate Halloween parties.

The piece was originally part animatronic and part human-powered, Webb said. An actor would sit in the suit, lying in wait and ready to jump out and scare people.

But here he stays safely on his pedestal so you can see the detail of his snarling teeth and admire the wingspan.

“A lot of people are afraid of these things more than they are able to appreciate it,” said Nate’s wife, Heidi Webb, who is co-owner of Blazen Illuminations.

Taking these works out of the dark haunted houses where they traditionally live and putting them into a museum-like setting puts a whole new spotlight on them, she says.

“We have a Frankenstein that — normally with Frankenstein you’re tearing off the other direction,” Webb said. “But this guy, if you’re looking at him, you’re seeing the sculpt of his neck and the way that the tendons and all of the muscles are working and how he’s straining and … you can see how the face is pulling back and you wouldn’t normally get that if you were just running away from it.”

It’s the same with the giant zombie head that greets visitors at the door, she says.

“He’s kind of goofy and his brains are sticking out, but you get to appreciate the veins in the side of his head and the fact that you can see where the skull has been shattered, his eyes, the way he looks at you,” Webb said.

It may not be the Mona Lisa, but she’s right. There’s something really beautiful when you look closely at the intricate work of each piece. Like the surprisingly lifelike decapitated head from rocker Alice Cooper’s Brutal Planet tour.

AliceCooper Head.jpg
Stacy Nick / KUNC
Left: Distortions Unlimited has worked several times over the years with shock-rocker Alice Cooper, including creating the severed head for his Brutal Planet Tour. Right: The original guillotine from Alice Cooper’s Brutal Planet Tour. The blade has been replaced with a padded one for the museum.

Monster World features several props commissioned from Distortions for the tour, including the guillotine. It’s the original prop except that the blade has been swapped out for a padded one that stays in a fixed position. Webb says fans have fun putting their heads in the stockade for photos.

“It’s been really rewarding for the whole team to see their stuff out there and in such a great light,” said Distortions co-owner Marsha Taub-Edmunds, who works with her husband and the Distortions artists to make their gruesome creations.

For Ed Edmunds, the fun is in finally getting to see people enjoy his art. It’s something he’s been working towards over the past few years with projects like the Travel Channel series “Making Monsters,” as well as Monster Day, the annual monster-themed festival in Greeley.

“All I did for 30 years was just — we make it, and ship it out and we never saw the people get it, we never saw the people that bought it,” Edmunds said. “And then suddenly with the internet and the TV show — it is really a kick in the pants from an artistic standpoint — to see how people respond.”

It almost didn’t happen though. Monster World was supposed to open in March of 2020. When the pandemic hit, the team had to redesign things for a new world.

“While 2020 (was) a challenge, it also gave us this opportunity to really make it almost pandemic proof, but hopefully also future proof,” Nate Webb said. “And that’s what we really want — to make sure this concept is going to work for a long time. There are so many different entertainment things that are not opening, because they were made years and years and years ago for the way we used to live.”

Stacy Nick / KUNC
Blazen Illuminations owners Heidi and Nate Webb collaborated with their longtime friends at Distortions Unlimited to create Distortions Monster World. It’s the first of several pop-up interactive art sites the couple have in the works.

So while the subjects were originally designed to be scary, the museum itself is made to feel safe, Webb said. Social distancing and masks are required. The 19,000-square-foot site was designed for an open feel to keep patrons from feeling crowded. They also use ultraviolet light to keep things sanitized without harming the art.

It also feels a little safer in other ways, he said. In addition to being well lit, all the animatronic exhibits feature push-button activation, so visitors control whether they want the wolfman to jump up and howl — or not. Each piece is also made using latex over foam for a more tactile experience, allowing kids (and adults) to get up close and actually touch the exhibits.

“We wanted people to come here — escape from the normal reality, the day-to-day, all the bombardment of everything that’s happening,” Webb said. “Escape into this new world that we’ve created that allows people to just check into a different reality and at least spend an hour outside of the horror of the real world.”

Because right now, the real world is scary enough.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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