Haunted Houses & The Birth of a High School Special FX Class

How a haunted Halloween attraction led to a one of a kind art program.

I spoke with art teacher and lifelong artist Chris Screws about the unique Special Effects class he has pioneered in the Visual Art program at Pinson Valley High School. His Special Effects class is one of only five such programs offered at the high school level in the US! In this excerpt from his appearance on ConverSapiens, Chris shares with me the origin story of Pinson’s SFX program, which started in the unlikeliest of places: a haunted house!

One of the most exciting things about the art program you have helped to build at Pinson Valley High School is your very unique Special Effects class. I haven’t ever seen SFX taught in an art program at any other high school. I know that ties into the haunted house attraction you helped create, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. How did that class come to be?

It started because there was a need arising from a previous project that had been going on, as you said. About 12 years ago a coworker and I were talking about horror movies and we got on then subject of Halloween and haunted houses. He told me there used to be a haunted house just a couple miles down the road from the school that he had actually acted in. I was explaining that at that time, in the county, we were not able to charge fees for the classroom at all, so we had a zero dollar budget for our art classes. He brought up the possibility of us reopening a haunt as a way to raise funding for the school, so we made a plan for what a new haunt would look like and we presented to the city council. At first they didn’t want to do it because with the previous haunted house the people who were in charge of it (not my coworker but the old owners) had disrespected the building the city had let them use. They had torn some things up, so the council was a little leery of having another haunted attraction there. The building is really cool. It’s a community center now, but it was an old school house that was built in 1937, so there are already some creepy stories there.

Since we were fundraising for the art department, the city finally approved, and we were able to start it up. We aren’t affiliated with the school — it’s its own separate entity — but we write a check to the school and we donate money every school year. So that’s how the haunted house started, which then led to the Special Effects class. Once the kids began visiting the haunt, they wanted to act in it and be involved. Some wanted to help with some of the makeup as well. I saw that we needed to educate these kids on how to do those things, because they can’t just show up and expect to be able to know how to properly apply makeup prosthetics or how to use an airbrush or the other props correctly, or how to prepare the costumes, etc. So I presented that information to our principal at the time and I asked for permission to create a Special Effects program. He’s all about green lights, so he said yes, and that’s how our program came about.

What’s the name of the haunted house?

It’s the Insanitarium Haunted Attraction. Our website is insanitariumhaunt.com.

So your Special Effects students get an opportunity to learn a unique form of art that… Well I don’t know of another High School in the area that has something like that…

In the area, no. Not even in the state. I think there are now five high schools in the entire US with a SFX program like ours. There’s a couple in California, there’s one in Ohio, and one in Colorado.

Wow! You’re really pioneering in that area, then?

For sure, at this level. There are plenty of makeup arts schools that do things like this at the college level, but as far as high schools go there are only a handful of us nationally.

That’s awesome! Not only are your students given a very rare opportunity to learn special effects art, as you’ve just discussed, but they also have a place to show it at the end of their time in your class, in something like a recurring art show through Insanitarium Haunt.

Yes, they have the option of being involved in the haunted house, but that’s not required of them by the class. Quite a few of them do want to get involved, so they work with me to produce the makeup. We aren’t as involved in the haunt as we used to be because we have such an amazing staff at Insanitarium now that takes care of the majority of costuming. They are just unbelievable, and they’re doing an amazing job, so it’s allowed me to step back and focus on teaching.

What are the dates the haunt runs?

We typically start at the last weekend of September and then run through the weekends of October and all week, the week of Halloween.

Do you have any favorite movies that serve as inspiration for your special effects career?

For special effects, I would say that it was American Werewolf in London. It’s a movie that just kind of blows your mind! If you’re not familiar with the movie you need to go on YouTube and watch a little of the transformation scene of American Werewolf in London. It is unbelievable! It’s all practical. There’s no CG. Particularly the artist Rick Baker is someone who pioneered some of the looks that come from it. He was the lead makeup artist in that movie. I think that was the starting point for SFX for me because it blew my mind! It felt so real, and it still does this day. It’s one of those things that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

I guess you would probably be in favor of practical effects over CG, in general?

Yeah, I think as a physical artist I would have to say so. But I also think that some of the coolest stuff you see in movies and TV shows now happens when they blend both approaches. They’ll start with the practical effects and then add the CG element, because there’s only so much you can do on a human body. You can’t take away, you can only add to it. So if you want to do something that looks like a monster with a hole in its body or if you want to have something that’s caved in, you’re going to achieve that using CG. With practical effects you would be limited to doing a mass of prosthetic build-up to make that happen, to make other areas of the body look reduced. With a blended approach, you can have a zombie with lots of practical on their face, and then if you want a big hole in their head, for example, you break out the green paint and add it with CG.

Is there an aspect of special effects artwork that you enjoy doing outside of preparing for Insanitarium and teaching?

I enjoy sculpting and I love making masks, which is related to special effects, of course. It’s a fun challenge to have to make a 3-dimensional creation. I can then make copies of that creation from the molding. I got to learn how to do that several years ago and that was a big challenge, but once you figure it out, you can start changing your sculptures based on the molding process. Now I can make copies and copies, and I do that on my Etsy shop now, where I sell my masks online

What’s your Etsy Shop?

My store is called CatacombChris on Etsy, or you can visit catacombproductions.com.

Does mask making involve casting, or that sort of thing?

Yes. Once the original is made, I can make multiple copies of it. I’m making latex masks now. I’ve gone away a little bit from natural latex because so many people have a lot of allergies to that. There are several companies and make synthetic latex, so I’ve been using that. You just pour it into your mold and then make a copy. Then you can paint it whatever colors you like. Mask making is cool because it’s wearable art. It’s functional.

Are your masks inspired from the horror scene or have you ventured to other areas?

I learned out of necessity for Insanitarium. All of our characters are original characters at the haunt, so we wanted very particular looks and no one had items like that. I flew to Texas to take a three class on mask making, and went from there. Now I teach the techniques I learned in my Special Effects class.

You can hear the rest of our conversation on the first episode of the ConverSapiens podcast! We go on to discuss other aspects of learning and teaching art. Check it out here, or by searching for ConverSapiens on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever podcasts are played!

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