Birmingham’s reputation for the quality of its haunted houses has lured the coordinators of an annual haunted house convention to town this week.
HauntCon will be held at the Birmingham Sheraton Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, incidentally celebrating its 13th year in the Magic City. The “education-heavy” event is for people in — or those who want to be in — the haunted house industry or a related business like special effects makeup, prop building, set design or even website design.
Leonard Pickel, HauntCon’s event coordinator, said the convention includes more than 58 hours of industry education. “We also have a huge costume party,” Pickel said. “It gives these people the opportunity to dress up in a costume and celebrate Halloween later in the year and remind people why they got into this business in the first place.”
Throughout the weekend attendees will be treated to teaching workshops along with tours of Birmingham’s “haunted” landmarks. “We move to a different city each year,” Pickel said. “So it gives people in our industry the opportunity to tour haunted houses…they wouldn’t have the chance to see in October because they’re too tied to their own shows.”
Pickel said education adds to the event’s popularity. The con offers four workshop divisions: business — marketing, actor training, code compliance and other topics; creativity — new concepts in haunted house design and prop building; demonstration, what Pickel called “the messy classes;” and technique classes for small projects.
HauntCon workshops have as many as 20 guides. About 20 percent of attendees are people showing their own work. This year’s panel includes Alabama native special effects makeup artist Roy Wooley and local artist Renee Keene.
Wooley, an industry pro for nearly 20 years, became a household name after making it to the finals of the Syfy hit Face Off, a reality show competition focused on special effects makeup. “When I first moved to Atlanta I got involved in a haunted house called Netherworld and I’ve been there for 18 years now,” he said. “At the time it was a growing industry but now it’s just gotten huge.”
Although he is frequently asked to do conventions, he stays busy with professional film shoots. His recent credits include working on The Hunger Games films and the television series Constantine. He also worked on the upcoming Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War.
Wooley also makes time to sketch, which helps him in his work, he said. “I’m always sketching,” Wooley said. “I’m always coming up with different ideas for different things. So when someone hires me for a project I go back through my sketches to see if something pops up at me. People will ask me you know, ‘How did you come up with that idea so quickly?’ and the truth is those ideas might be things I’ve had for around 10 or 15 years or so.”
Renee Keene is new to HauntCon but not the Birmingham art scene. Birmingham Zoo visitors may have seen her work there. She will be a speaker at TEDXBirmingham March 12 and has an exhibition coming up at Little Savannah March 17. Keene works in upcycled items ranging from old furniture to reclaimed wood. Keene even upcycles her own pieces into new work.
For Keene, HauntCon is a dream come true. “Halloween is just fun,” she said. “There are people everywhere that they live for it and they decorate their houses really cool and it is mind-blowing. I mean, when I do Boo at the Zoo I have to keep it, like, cute and family friendly. But when I get to do something like HauntCon it’s so awesome because I get to do the really creepy, scary stuff.”
This year Wooley and Keene will provide demonstrations at the con’s workshops. “I’ll be teaching one on how to make your own latex masks, how to make your own eyeballs and how to make your own monster teeth: kind of like fake dentures and I’ll teach how to turn those into monster teeth,” Wooley said. Wooley’s workshop will be Saturday morning at 11:30.
About three hours earlier Keene will give an “educational demonstration talk,” focusing on “bringing new life to dead props,” she said. “My whole talk will be how to take things they would otherwise throw out and twist it and morph it into something new. I’ll just be up there showing people how to do fun, cool things, but since what I do is really messy, I’m just going to be talking and showing.”
Wooley and Keene both have an opinion on why haunted house conventions have become so popular in recent years. “I believe people like to be scared,” Wooley said. “That’s what it comes down to. That people like to be frightened, but in a safe environment. Like being chased in the dark, but knowing they aren’t really going to be harmed. They like the thrill.”
Keene countered, “I think people do genuinely like being scared, but mostly I think it’s because there are so many people that are just really into that genre. … It’s becoming more popular because these people are no longer feeling isolated. They’re being vindicated and not feeling like freaks anymore.”
Wooley advised people interested in the industry to keep practicing. “Just keep sketching and practicing because that’s how you learn, from doing things hands on and with mistakes,” he said. “I didn’t go to school to learn what I did and I found personally I learned better by buying latex and paint and learning as I went. Of course, now you have the Internet and all of these resources at your hands.”
Keene believes it comes down to having fun. “When it stops being fun it stops being something you care about and it shows,” she said. “Just do what makes you happy and just have fun with it.”
For more information about HauntCon, visit hauntpay.com/venues/221.