Every industry has a few iconic personalities, products, and in the case of amusement parks we think of Disney and Universal. When it comes to the haunted house industry one of the most iconic haunts is The Darkness located in St Louis, Missouri. The Darkness which first opened its door in 1994 is one year shy of 30 years of fear.
The Darkness is one of the longest running haunted houses in the haunt history. The Darkness has been The Ultimate Scream!
When we look back at the history of the Darkness, and how it has evolved we can count many industries first such as: Scream Park for an indoor haunted house with 13 Holes of Mini Golf, magic shows, horror celebrities, horror museum to a Horror Movie theater. The Darkness has also hosted multiple haunted house industry tours while sharing details of how we created this legendary haunted house.
The Darkness story begins in 1994 when creator Larry Kirchner found an abandoned building with faded words painted on the side “SUNSHINE FACTORY’. Every single window of this massive building was bored up, and as Larry Kirchner roamed around, he stated its complete darkness inside. How could the building once be called ‘The Sunshine Factory’ when inside be so completely ‘Darkness’ inside? The lease was signed and when it came time to decide a name, ‘Sunshine Factory’ roamed around in Larry’s head and from that The Darkness was born. The year The Darkness first opened its doors St. Louis had as many as 30 different haunted houses come and go over the years but the Darkness continues to make them scream.
The original Darkness located across the street from the current location featured attractions such as 13 Holes of Horror, Arcade, Movie Theater, Magic Show, Celebrity Autograph Appear-ances and even a carnival at the exit. Some of the Horror Icons who made appearances at The Darkness included Robert England, Elvira, Linda Blair, Bobby Boris Picket, Gunner Hanson, Doug Bradley, and even the stars of Blair Witch Project. Other major celebs have stopped by the Darkness including Miley Ray Cyrus, Boris Karloff’s daughter, Kevin Smith, Scott Bakula, Kurt Warner to even Stormy Daniels. The Darkness has been featured on Shipping Wars, Modern Marvels to National Geo, Travel Channel to Discovery Channel and even the Food Network. The Darkness has become an annual tradition for St Louis to celebrate Halloween downtown. Never in a million years did Larry Kirchner ever imagine building this haunted house would result in so many amazing experiences.
The Darkness has evolved to become an entertainment destination with World class haunted houses, Halloween Gift Stores, Arcade, Mini Golf and Escape Rooms.
The Darkness features over 300 animated fx from sophisticated multi motion animations to simple air cannons. Many of the animations featured inside The Darkness must be cut into multiple pieces moved into their new homes and fabricated back together again. Because the Darkness is so built out from start to finish moving in big animations is impossible! Most people haven’t seen a haunted house quite like The Darkness where every set is built out, and themed like a real Hollywood Horror Movie!
The Darkness popularity grew by word of mouth which brought interesting customers such as amusement park owners and operators. Amusement parks across the World wanted to open haunted houses and after touring The Darkness hired Larry Kirchner to build haunts for Cedar Point, Kennywood, Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Sea World to nearly every theme park across the World. In the early years our team would travel the globe installing haunted houses while at the same time try and operate The Darkness, which was nearly impossible. Eventually the team behind the Darkness found a new line of work creating Dark Rides. The list of Dark Rides created by Halloween Productions included Kennywood Ghostwood Estates, to Haunted Mansions in Brazil to Spider-Man Ultimate Ride in Canada. All of these amazing projects was a result of building the Darkness haunted house. After creating hundreds of haunted houses, dark rides and producing dozens of how to haunt videos, Transworld announced they would create a Haunted House only trade show and host it in the hometown of The Darkness.
Transworld asked Larry Kirchner to open his haunted house ‘The Darkness’ to help attract more buyers to the first-time show. The pressure was on to open for your peers, and no expense was spared including adding onto our existing building which resulted in 18,000 square foot expansion. Inside the new building arose Terror Visions 3D, and the original Horror Museum. The first ever haunted house tour was on the team behind so many dark rides, and attractions across the World spent over 1.5 million between adding the new building, Terror Visions and the renovation. The team worked around the clock stressing out the entire staff to the point that when the day came to open the haunt to the industry, we forgot one small detail… we forget to charge the radios. The first ever haunted house tour and no one could communicate, the haunt opened thirty minutes late, it started to rain then snow, what a disaster. The experience taught Larry Kirchner more thru the failures than any other success. The main take away was the little things matter most, not how many cool sets you build but making sure every small detail is covered. The Darkness opened for the industry with complete success every year thereafter entertaining the haunted house industry up until covid canceled the trade show. The Darkness has been an inspiration to hundreds of haunted house owners and operators thru the tours during the Transworld trade show.
Today The Darkness features, some of the same attractions such as an Arcade, Mini Escape Rooms, Gift Stores, Outdoor Screamzones and next door one of the Worlds best escape room facilities with Blacklight Mini Golf. No matter what additional attractions have been added to The Darkness the soul of the attraction has always been one of the best most iconic haunts. The Darkness features two floors of fright with the downstairs more of a gothic underworld of monsters while the upstairs is a more traditional haunted mansion. After exiting the original building and into the building addition you find yourself in Terror Visions 3D with crazed clowns. Finally, you find yourself in the all-new Horror Arcade featuring a mini 5 minute escape room, horror memorabilia, photo ops and a massive horror gift store.
The Darkness has changed many times and keeps evolving with the times, and like many haunts look to find new revenue streams which also meets the demands of guests. The Darkness removed sections of Terror Visions 3D to expand the gift store and now grosses over $100,000 a season.
The Darkness also uses Fear Ticket which allows us to charge our guests service fees which grossed us another $100,000 dollars. Adding a five-minute escape room nets another $25,000 a season and installing several photo opportunities give our guests places to take photos and share them on their social media. Selling tickets online has made The Darkness more profitable than ever before because guests typically add fast pass or even upgrade to immediate access tickets which doubles the admission price. Speaking of admission price when Darkness first open back in 1994 tickets cost $13 dollars, and the city was littered with coupons. Today the average ticket price is $34 dollars with virtually no coupons. Back in 1994 all we cared about attendance numbers, today attendance doesn’t matter but rather customer satisfaction and net revenue.
If we were to close The Darkness tomorrow the one thing, I can honestly say I know now that I didn’t understand in 1994 is that haunted houses are about community. A haunted house creates a safe community for many people who don’t fit in anywhere else. A great haunted house builds a family of people who care about your venue more than you do … remember to always treat them as the #1 animation, the #1 prop, the #1 new set . the ONLY THING that matters IS to build a haunted legacy. Your staff is the heart and soul of any great haunted house, a place where people find love, get married, they find a HOME to belong.
Many things have changed over 30 years from have totally actor driven haunted house to now The Darkness filled with special fx, animations and ghosts around every corner. The Darkness truly is the haunted house industries ‘Disney World’ with the attention to detail, props simply put the complete package. The Darkness costume room features over 1,000 costumes, 500 masks, and a complete make up department. We remember back to 1994 when we had rubber masks with black robes. Today we have silicone masks which give our actors the appearance of a Hollywood movie monster. Our first Transworld show was 1994 when only a handful of companies sold anything for haunts to today a tradeshow spanning 500,000 square feet with animations, masks, costumes and props even movie studios buy. How times have changed and the Darkness has changed many times being the pioneer for other operators to follow.
A few years ago when we purchased the building next door our first thought was add another haunted house so we did. The new haunt was a zombie themed attraction which only grossed another $100k and netted maybe $25k. We realized operating a successful haunted house isn’t all about the scares its about the ENTERTAINMENT. We ripped out that haunted house, built a blacklight retro golf, 7 escape rooms, added a pinball arcade and now that business grosses well north of ONE MILLION A YEAR! Now many haunt owners are opening escape rooms, axe throwing and other forms to entertainment centers. The future of haunting isn’t screams anymore it’s giving your guests an experience where they can capture memories to share on social media. The Darkness has evolved to become an entertainment destination with World class haunted houses, Halloween Gift Stores, Arcade, Mini Golf and Escape Rooms. The future of haunting is here and you can see it in St Louis during the Transworld Haunted House and Escape Room tradeshow.
The Darkness thanks the entire haunted house community for their support over the years and inspiring us to build, create and do things no one has ever seen before! All good things must sometime come to an end and sadly the years The Darkness has left is limited. Operating haunted houses is HARD and STRESSFUL and mostly a young persons game. If there is anything I’ve learned along the way it’s operate your haunted house as a business FIRST because in the end you need an exit strategy. Yes we have a passion for Halloween and for too many years this passion created one of the World’s if not the World’s best haunted entertainment complex at the expense of building retirement wealth. True not everything is about money, do what you love, share your passion with your fans, your customers but at some point you learn passion doesn’t pay the bills.
Operating a haunted house is a business not a passion. Your guests are counting on you to entertain them but also keep them safe from harm. Operating a haunted house is the single hardest thing to do in the ENTIRE amusement industry and if you’ve survived 35 years of making people scream and live to tell you have knowledge to share! The Darkness has always been a hub for sharing information and will continue to do so until the final SCREAM! All great haunts eventually have their last Scream how many more will Darkness have remains to be seen but the legacy it has left behind with hundreds of hours of how to footage, haunt tours, and more. The Darkness has etched itself into the fabric of the haunted house industry for decades to come! What a ride something that was never expected but thru a lot of ups and downs earned. The Darkness would like to THANK EVERYONE who ever dedicated their time to make The Darkness what it is today… a true legend of the haunted house industry!