'Monster Man': Fright-show supplier Chuck Johnson adds a touch of yak and a ton of yuck to his legion of ghouls. People pay good money to see his horrible work.

SCARE TACTICS

February 20, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The monster man of South Baltimore likes his corpses nice and fresh, decaying and oozy, attractive to vultures, but scary to people.

Chuck Johnson produces lots of corpses, although he's neither the local hit man nor the neighborhood serial killer. To practically everybody around the Cross Street Market, he is the "The Monster Man."

Mr. Johnson is the Dr. Frankenstein of Monsters Unlimited. In his studio over Movie Time Video on South Charles Street, he makes life-size monsters and weird creatures for horror theme parks, wretchedly ripped bodies for slasher movies, maniacal mutants for haunted attractions, creepy corpses for collectors. And while most of us are mired in the snowdrifts of winter depression, the monster man is gleefully at work thinking up new grotesqueries for next Halloween.

Right now he's inventing horrors for the Haunted Hayride of Haunted Hill Farm, about 65 frightening acres at Copley, Ohio, which is not far from Akron. For Haunted Hill Farm, he's already done a Cryptkeeper-style entrance to a haunted forest, a Michael Myers figure lurking in a cornfield and a skeletal corpse.

"Where the skin was rotting away and falling off, very decayed, fresh-looking," he says.

Mr. Johnson is not really a ghoulish-looking guy. He looks quite healthy, in fact. He's 38, good-looking, tall, rangy and jeans-clad, with long, loose, rock-and-roll hair. He talks about making corpses with the boyish enthusiasm of an Eagle Scout describing his merit badges.

"I have you lay down and pretend like you're dead," he says. "I might have to set your arms certain ways. Then I would mold you from that."

He has created corpses from molds of friends and neighbors. But these days he mostly pays models. His studio over the video store is not heated.

"It's sort of aggravating for the person being molded," he says. "It's cold up there in the winter time. It's pretty hard to ask a person to strip down to his skivvies and be in a position for four hours while you cover him with cold water and plaster, wraps and bandages."

He ends up with something that looks pretty much like a George Segal sculpture. That's his mold for latex when he makes indoor corpses, fiberglass for corpses to be left outside. Then he adds details.

"Wounds," he says. "Wrinkles and shrivels and things that make you look like you're dead. Shotgun blasts."

He adorns his corpses with yak hair, like a hairweaver repairing baldness. "Yak hair is a little expensive," he says, "but it lasts a long time and you can do a lot with it."

He's not quite sure how many corpses he's made: "But quite a few," he says. And no two are exactly alike.

Charities often call up for donations, and he'll lend them a corpse or two if he has any lying around. "Each year gets busier and busier," he says.

Horror is a growth industry in America. Halloween has grown to be the second most popular holiday in the United States, with Americans spending about a billion dollars each year getting scared.

"Haunted attractions are popping up everywhere," Mr. Johnson says. "You wouldn't believe it. Every year there are more and more."

And not only in America. He's got an order for an animatronic 25-foot dragon from an attraction consortium at Meckenheim, Germany, which is a small town near Bonn.

Animatronics master

He's got a rep for being good at animatronics, which means making things move and talk and act really scary. He once animated a 16-foot Alien from the movie series with Sigourney Weaver as the earth mother fighting for the survival of the species with this alien Mom.

So who buys a 16-foot animatronic Alien?

"A guy from Chicago with 20-foot ceilings," Mr. Johnson says.

He's sent the Maryland Science Center a proposal geared toward children: a 180-foot walk-through body. You'd enter through the ear, walk into a 7-foot animated brain, down to a big heart and the digestive system with food shooting by, to an exit orifice. There'd be an 8-foot head on top of the center that would open to expose the brain with colored laser lights shooting out like escaping brain waves.

"But there'd be no horror," he says, a bit glumly. "And that was hard."

His horrible creations are what they love out in Ohio.

"He's a visionary," says Tom Godard, the owner of Haunted Hill. "When I talked to him about a Haunted Forest, he exploded with ideas."

During the Halloween season, Mr. Godard runs 34 wagons at a time through his horror hayride, which costs $10.75 for the hayride and a trip through the Haunted Maze. Last year 100,000 people visited his farm from mid-September to Halloween. Just the traffic control is formidable, he says.

High-tech horror movies make people look for high-tech haunted attractions, Mr. Godard says. You can't just put a gorilla in a room anymore and growl: Boo! You've gotta have animatronics.

"People like Chuck make horror come alive," Mr. Godard says.

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