Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Dapper Cadaver

Tucked away behind an unassuming warehouse façade at the far eastern end of the San Fernando Valley is one of the most gleefully horrific places in Southern California: Dapper Cadaver. Founded in 2006 by husband and wife team BJ and Eileen Winslow, Dapper Cadaver is a horror prop shop that services the film and television industries, haunted attractions, amusement parks, carnival sideshows, private parties, and even disaster preparedness training courses. In their spacious and attractive facility, clients can visit the “Oddities Room” for sideshow displays, find a complete dead pirate figure or towering werewolf in the “Halloween Room,” examine a selection of skulls, peruse vintage medical equipment, or gape at an actual-size Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. BJ—who, in the heat of summer is already well into his Halloween season—took time out to chat with us about what it’s like to make a living from creating three-dimensional nightmares.

The Halloween Room - photo by Lisa Morton

The Halloween Room

With your wife Eileen, you started Dapper Cadaver in 2006. What were you doing before that?

Immediately before that, I was still working in props. I worked at another shop for a while, and I was freelance for a while. I was doing this out of my garage—as so many people do—so I had a garage full of rubber corpses and Styrofoam headstones and mummified skeletons. People would show up at all hours of the day or night looking to get a gallon of blood or a piece of a cadaver . . . you do that long enough and you think, I should really have my own shop. It’s kind of weird that people show up in the middle of the night looking for half a mummy.

Did you start as a supplier for films, or more just general horror props?

At the prop shop I’d worked at when I first came to Los Angeles, I got familiar with the film and television industry. Before that, I had worked in some haunted houses, which I’ve done my whole life. I was definitely a strange child. I loved working in haunted houses, but before that I’d worked on some carnival stuff—I was building carnival games. I wanted to get transferred into the haunted house department, but the games department didn’t want to let me go.

You’ve been at this long enough, then, that you’ve seen the tremendous explosion in the popularity of haunted houses.

Oh yeah. The first ones I was working on—at this point it was probably fifteen years ago—just didn’t compare to what people are doing now. The pro haunts, the home haunts, even the big amusement parks—you go back twenty years, and they’d have one good haunted house but their special Halloween events were still in their infancy. They’d get some kids, some rubber masks, and they thought they didn’t really need that much more. These days, they’re these whole multimedia productions with people doing research. One of the things I love is when people get into unusual cultural mythology—they get beyond Dracula and Freddy Krueger and the stories we’re familiar with, and they get into other cultures. Universal Studios did a La Llorona maze a couple of years ago that was absolutely beautiful. One of my long-time clients is a Native American group and they do sideshows—parts are like how you might imagine a medicine show back in the day, but a lot of it is also very much like a P.T. Barnum sideshow, with magic as well. They’ll come to me with these stories that pre-date printing, so what few drawings they may have all show radically different creatures, because it wasn’t until printing that people really settled on what a lot of these things should look like.

Werewolf in The Halloween Room - photo by Lisa Morton

Werewolf in The Halloween Room

And they ask you to build these things?

Yeah, they ask me to build these creatures. I did one for them based on a creature called a “daz-du-nedi.” It’s a little man about the height of a squirrel; he’s similar to a leprechaun. He’s a little man, he’s got magical powers, he’s not necessarily good or evil, and he’s usually depicted as having these horns growing out of his head. He’s slightly animalistic, like an animal-man. So they wanted a mummified daz-du-nedi that they could bring out as part of this magic sideshow illusion, like a relic. So I built this little creature—I used a rat skeleton to start with, and then a life-cast of a tiny monkey skull, like a little marmoset. It was like turning their traditional story into a character. I liked using this monkey because it had features that rang as both animal and man. They didn’t want it to look devilish, so for the horns I used a portion of spine and pelvis from a frog. It came out as this sort of crown-shaped array of bone. They loved that guy, and they’ve sent me other stories as well. I love them, because they’re things I’ve never heard before.

So you’re almost illustrating stories like a graphic novel artist.

Right. Whether you’re working on a movie or a sideshow or a haunted house, a lot of times people show up with just a story or a concept. Sometimes they show up with sketches or art, but often it’s just an idea or even a feeling, and it’s up to me and my crew to turn that into a body or a character or a scene.

You also sell art here . . .

We did an art show when we first opened here last Halloween. And then in the new year, we threw a grand re-opening party and we also did an art show, because for the first time we had these halls. At our old shop it was one giant warehouse, so we had no wall space. Since we’ve now got these walls, we’ve gotten into art. And I’ve really gotten into reprints of circus, magic, and sideshow banners. And we still have some of the art from the original show.

Let’s talk about the skulls.

We’ve got about twenty different life-cast skulls we sell here. One of the things I love about these is that every skull is as unique as a human face. If you’re setting up something with multiple skeletons or skulls, it’s very important that each one be a different individual.

BJ and Skulls - Photo by Lisa Morton

BJ and Skulls

What percentage of the things you carry do you make in-house?

When it comes to characters, we make about half. With the bodies and body parts, we make almost all of them. We make some of the animals—the stunt dogs are made by a special animal artist that we call in—but we make some of the animals in-house. The butcher shop pieces and all the big pieces are made in-house.

When does Halloween start for you?

In March. When you’re working on the larger installations, the planning can take all year.

Are more haunted attractions starting to run year-round?

Not yet. Most every theme park has some dark ride that runs year-round—think Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion—but mostly it’s still a seasonal thing. You need the off-season to make it all.

In your Oddities Room, do I see some props from American Horror Story?

Yes—we’ve actually worked on every season of American Horror Story. For the first season, we made some of the pieces for the opening credits. For the Freak Show season, there are a couple of different sideshows and museums that pop up throughout the season, so they basically bought everything we had. Whenever they go to one of the museums or sideshows, the entire background is populated with our skulls and oddities.

Prop from first season of American Horror Story - Photo by Lisa Morton

Prop from first season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY

You’ve done parties with celebrities like Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart . . .

Right! Martha Stewart . . . I never even get to meet the talent because I’m usually working with the art department. Martha Stewart’s production company is usually one of the first ones to show up every year—they show up in November or December, right after Halloween, photographing things and getting catalogs and starting to plan for the next year’s Halloween for the shows she produces and for the magazine. They spend a lot of time preparing! We also did a Halloween production for the White House. That was a very challenging job.

How do you prepare the White House for Halloween?

They hired Legacy Effects as one of their main decorators—that’s the special effects company that did movies like Iron Man and Jurassic Park and Predator. They sub-contracted us. It was a tricky thing because there are just so many rules you have to follow. The last thing they want are images of death and torture, so Legacy did a lot of iconic movie stuff, and another company, Way Too Much Entertainment, did a lot of costumes and dancers and lighting. It was more like large-scale whimsical. We brought more of the Victorian sideshow-sort of thing—animal skulls and sideshow banners and curiosities, like a Bigfoot footprint. We were definitely told, “No dead people.” It turned out well—it was a big party they threw for veterans and their families.

You’ve got an impressive collection of vintage medical pieces here. Where do you find those?

Y’know, it’s a lot of fun to find those, but it can be very time-consuming. Working in the entertainment business, I get a lot of, “I love this piece, I need five more just like it.” So the vintage pieces are fun, but some are one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable.

How many pieces can you turn out in a day here?

We can do a head in about twenty minutes of hands-on time, and two hours of “cure” time. A lot of stuff we sell as just the blank forms—unpainted and untrimmed—to artists who can fix it up the way they want. We do have a paint studio here, though, to turn some of the forms into finished pieces.

Did you make your gigantic T-Rex skeleton in-house?

No, he was built over in China. He’s actually cast off a real specimen they dug up there.

Dapper Cadaver’s Dinosaur Collection - photo by Lisa Morton

Dapper Cadaver’s Dinosaur Collection

What kind of events does he get rented out to?

He’s been in a few T.V. shows, and in one wedding.

A wedding? Is that the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to do?

That’s always a hard question, because so much of the stuff we do is strange, and then the strange becomes ordinary. It’s a daily occurrence here. This week we did a scene where a goat needed to read a magazine. They cast the goat “actor,” then they needed a leg that would match, that could turn the pages. So we built a rubber goat leg with nice white fur that would match their goat. It was a very easy build, but I’ve never worked on a magazine-reading goat before.

I would imagine not many people have. One of the things that struck me about your website was how much humor it contained. I loved things like “Face Lift Fiona,” who is part of the “All American Horror Characters” series.

Oh yeah. She’s this beautiful woman in a robe with all the plastic surgery lines drawn all over her, and she’s holding her own face in her hands, and underneath is all the red muscle and teeth exposed.

She was an in-house creation, right?

Yes.

When you create a character like that, do you ever think about a back story for it?

Yeah . . . that one in particular we definitely had a story in mind before we built the character. It started when we were doing these “all American” characters. We did a cheerleader zombie, and we were going to do a football player zombie, but it never quite gelled as a character because if we really worked on the zombie element, it lost some of the football player, but if you emphasized the football uniform, it covered up so much of the character that you couldn’t really tell it was a zombie any more. With Face Lift Fiona, we wanted to do something that was really Hollywood, but of course medical horror is popular, too, so we came up with this idea of somebody who is so addicted to plastic surgery that her entire face is now removable.

Is humor a really important part of selling some of these things?

Humor can be a really good selling point. But I think even more important than that is that humor is very important thing to have when you’re working in this business day in and day out. Everybody loves a scary story, but it’s a lot harder to like a morbid person or a dreary building.

Because so much of your business is face-to-face . . .

Not just that. Look at Stephen King—I’ve read a lot of interviews with him and he comes across as a friendly guy. I’ve worked with a lot of morticians, a lot of military people, people with dark jobs, and they aren’t so much fun. Everybody who I’ve met who is in some horror-related business has a great love for what they do; I’ve met very few people who do this for a living who are themselves dark and horrible people. In some ways, working on this stuff is in itself a form of exorcism. I also think there’s something inherently funny in horror—a lot of the best horror movies have some level of absurdity. There’s a place where horror and humor come really close together.

How do you feel about horror that’s not fun? For example, there are some new haunted attractions that emphasize things like bullying their visitors, even touching them . . . they almost sound more like Marine boot camp than haunted attractions.

It might be therapeutic for some, traumatizing for others. It might be one of those things that’s similar to—well, you mentioned a boot camp—that raises the question of, “What can I endure?” There are people who want to test their limits, and that can be a very different experience from being shocked, or scared, or startled. Endurance is different from adrenaline.

You’ve provided props for things like disaster preparedness training. Is frightening students in a course like that useful?

They don’t usually do that, although I did work on an animal safety preparedness course up in Canada that was about scaring people. I learned a lot about how bears eat people. These park rangers have to deal with people being eaten by bears, so they wanted to really frighten students and say, “Don’t be stupid—leave bears alone!” That one had an element of scaring people, but that doesn’t mean that anything was exaggerated. Most of the other things we’ve worked on, though, are actually about the opposite—they prepare people so that when they do encounter something terrible, it won’t be shocking or horrible or traumatizing. Like when someone is dealing with emergency medicine, they need to be able to deal with real-life horror in a way that doesn’t leave them unable to do their job.

You’ve also worked with police units and even Scotland Yard—have you ever helped solve a crime?

Not exactly, but there was one project we worked on where there was a particular river that had a nasty undercurrent to it, and they had an issue with people getting swept downstream and drowning. So we provided them with a weighted vinyl dummy that floated in a realistic way so they could toss it into the river and follow it—because you can’t really do that with a person! That way they were able to see where it would end up, they could time it and map it out so that the next time somebody went missing, they could estimate where and when they might wind up so they could send rescue people to the right part of the river.

Do you ever encounter people who are offended by any of your pieces? Any problems with political correctness?

Well, it’s not a part of my daily life! We used to get a lot more when we were on Hollywood Boulevard. That location generated a lot of attention, some of which was great, some of which was bad, some of which was fun . . . Hollywood is full of characters! I loved our location there—it would have made a great reality television show—but in terms of getting business done, it was great to move to Burbank.

Have you ever thought about producing your own movie? It seems like an obvious idea.

Oh, my wife and I have had so many ideas, and we’ve talked about it many times. I’d love to do it someday. A lot of the ideas we get are almost like sketches, like a Saturday Night Live of horror. Can you do a series of five-minute movies, except with murder instead of jokes?

Since you and your wife work together running the business, is it hard to leave the work here? You must take it home with you.

Uh, yeah. I’m sure that’s a double-edged sword—if you’re working in a business you love, you’re going to take it home with you, and if you’re a husband-wife team working in a business, you’re going to take that home with you.

I love what I do. Everybody here loves what they do. It’s such an important part of this job. This job is not for everybody—you either love it or you don’t. There are plenty of jobs where you can not love what you do and still do a good job. With horror, you have to love it. If you don’t, people will notice. I love finding the weird things, I love designing new characters, and new wound bodies. A lot of times a show will come in, and they just tell me how somebody died. They’ll say something like, “This is somebody who got hit in the head by a hammer,” and I’ve got to do the research, and for me that’s fun. Or a good set decorator will come in—set decoration is like storytelling, and a good set decorator will really get into the mind of their character. What would their room be like, or their office? I love when people come to me and they have a character whose world they need to populate with the stuff we’d have. We worked on the television show Extant, and there was a Japanese character whose background obsession was rare and ancient displays of power. So they had things like Samurai armor, and what we provided were things like dinosaur bones—an allosaurus skull, and a raptor skull—and it just kind of played into the background. It was never an element that was discussed—it wasn’t there to be a plot point, it was there just to provide a background element to this character. Another one I loved working on was the first season of Bones. They had a lot of really well-developed characters, like Hodgins, the entomologist—we supplied him with specimen jars and rubber bugs. And for the main character, Doctor “Bones,” we did a lot of skulls and life casts of bones. Other prop shops provided stuff like baskets and pottery, and all of this came together to give her a back story of somebody who’s been in the field of anthropology for her entire career. It seems like a lot of weird little details, but I feel like if you don’t do your work the character doesn’t come across and doesn’t feel rooted.

Do your kids love horror?

They don’t! I have other friends who are also propmakers whose kids are into horror, and they watch The Walking Dead with their kids and say to me, “I’m really surprised your kids aren’t into it. I thought you would have exposed them to it so much they’d be desensitized.” And that just sounds awful. That’s not how it should work! Kids have their own nature. They are not little miniature versions of their parents.

What are you working on now?

We’re working on Alligator Boy. He’s only halfway built right now—still needs his skin.

BJ and Alligator Boy - photo by Lisa Morton

BJ and Alligator Boy

What’s he for?

A sideshow. He’s a classic! Then, of course, there are always orders for bodies.

Is this really the coolest job in the world?

It’s up there. I love what I do . . . but there’s still astronauts.

• • • •

Photos © 2015 by Lisa Morton.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.