How Columbus became one of the scariest cities in the country
As I take a seat in a sleek leather office chair in front of the desk of Bo Bruns, founder of Unit 70 Studios—one of the largest exporters of horror props and animatronics in the country—I am greeted by the whizzing sounds of a 3D printer sitting on a side table. The machine is working hard busting out a replica R2D2 foot. He chuckles at my bemusement and says he is just experimenting—for now.
Bruns’ office sits at the top of a massive warehouse, and in the classic foreman style, a square window overlooks the entirety of the factory—hoards of polyurethane and latex goop and colossal monster creations line the floor; the bustle of crafters, welders, fabricators, and painters echo off of the storeroom ceiling. It is just about a month before Halloween, so the staff is diligently finishing the last of their macabre creations for the 2016 season—from a seven foot tall Krampus swinging a screaming toddler by the ankle, to a googly-eyed circus clown showing off his foot-long razor sharp teeth.
This place is what nightmares are made of.
“It is pretty much Halloween year round here,” Bruns said with an accomplished smile. “Our slowest month is actually October, because everyone has everything they need. Then, come November, the phone starts ringing again.”
At the other end of the line are clients from all around the globe—from New Orleans and St. Louis to Columbia, China, England, and Spain. Even Rob Zombie put in a request for Bruns and his team to recreate famous murder scenes for his haunted house in LA, including the Manson murders and the spine-chilling murder victims of the late serial killer, Ed Gein.
“The whole haunted house thing is being exported to tons of countries—countries that don’t even have a Halloween. Most of our clients are out of state. I know it may sound strange, but many people don’t know about us here. We kind of like to be under the radar.”
It’s true—they don’t even have a sign. Unit 70 Studios sits in a large, unassuming all-black warehouse near the airport. It wasn’t until I pulled around back and saw a life-size skeleton creeping out of the factory doorway that I knew I was in the right place.
“Everything is made to order. We take it as far as we can. Our products are completely customized—from the costume to the amount of blood they want on something. We can tailor make products for the client. They don’t mind waiting a little longer to get that customization.”
One alarming example of complete customization is an order Bruns and his team just filled for the House of Shock in New Orleans earlier this season.
“They requested this 2,000-pound fat lady with six large breasts who is hooked up to a milking machine. Apparently, they hired a little person actor to wear a diaper who will be drinking the milk. Then they are going to be selling White Russians at the bar outside.”
Ewwww. But hey, that’s the point.
Unit 70 was also home to special effects artist Kelly Harris, who made a deep run in the popular Syfy series Face Off a few seasons ago. Harris is visiting her Columbus home after working in New Orleans the past few years. She’s discovered she was able to find more work here than in the past (even applying monster makeup to Ms. Nina West for this month’s (614) Magazine cover). Talk about a full circle of spook.
The crazy thing is, Unit 70 isn’t the only business of its kind in Columbus. Just over a mile away is the Scare Factory—another full service fabrication studio that specializes in haunted attractions—the place where Bruns got his start before branching out in 2003. Both companies boast a huge catalog of animated characters, furniture, fixtures, and props, servicing over 500 haunted attractions worldwide.
This is no coincidence.
Much of this has to do with the late, great mystical monster-man, Mark Hazelrig, who taught 3-D Design at CCAD for four decades. According to Bruns, without Hazelrig, neither of these macabre powerhouses would exist.
“Half my people have had a big impact from Hazelrig. He was known as the go-to monster guy in town.”
Sadly, Hazelrig lost a battle with cancer earlier this year. Through the hands of his students, and the thousands of scares he has provoked worldwide, his legacy lives on.
But really, the business of scare has been embedded in the zeitgeist of Ohio for decades.
“A lot of people who do this stuff in Hollywood are from Ohio.”
Most notable is Cleveland native Wes Craven, creator of one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history, Freddy Krueger, and Crestline-born Robert Kurtzman, who got his start on the set of cult classics Evil Dead 2 and Night of the Creeps, who now has nearly 100 films under his belt and is currently spearheading the yearly haunted house in the notorious Mansfield Reformatory.
Columbus is also home to the Midwest Haunters Convention, the largest horror convention of its kind—boasting how-to monster creation seminars and housing vendors from all over the country who sell their gruesome creations to the crowded masses. Hell, we even have more haunted houses in Ohio (a whopping 120 and counting) than any other state in the country (suck it, Indiana).
Why? Maybe it’s a mixture of good old-fashioned Midwestern boredom and a yearning for fantasy outside the heartland hum-drum, said Bruns, who admitted that as a child he was known to sculpt ghoulish figures out of clay in his free time.
“There is a lot of talent here. I think it’s because the winter here makes people have a lot of weird hobbies,” he laughed. It’s just a thing we do best.”Rules of the road: Comments that are off topic or can be seen as personal attacks are subject to removal.