The morgue files held plenty of photographs of drowning victims. Lifeless eyes, bloated bodies, rotting flesh.
“One person had been pulled out after eight months,” Brent Armstrong recalled, having looked through the snapshots. “That really inspired me.”
So one man’s tragedy became another man’s Halloween costume. At home in Valencia, Armstrong whipped up latex body parts and an elaborate mask with hair and human teeth he got from a dentist.
Halloween was meant for guys like him. Armstrong is a special-effects artist and his morgue visit was originally intended as research for a movie scene. Such work involves more than its share of blood and guts. Every day brings a new monster or alien.
Yet when October rolls around, many effects designers can’t contain themselves. They toil as excitedly on their own costumes as they would on a Stephen King film.
This is, after all, the one day of the year when everyone else thinks like them.
“When I was a kid, I liked Halloween more than Christmas,” said Norman Cabrera, a Reseda designer who often works with special-effects legend Rick Baker. “That’s why I got into this business.”
Cabrera transformed his back yard into a graveyard this week. At his annual party Saturday, guests walked through a maze equipped with infrared beams that triggered mechanical ghouls.
That was child’s play compared to what Richard Galinson concocted. The mechanical effects designer, who works at Stan Winston Studios in Van Nuys and recently provided effects for “Batman II,” used odds and ends to put together a “futuristic soldier” outfit. Flashing lights adorn the headset and a wrap-around microphone squirts vodka into his mouth. A fake machine gun strapped atop his shoulder automatically swivels when his head turns.
“Oh,” he said, “it also has a revolving cannon that shoots a fireball 15 feet.”
All this may seem a bit excessive for an occasion that traditionally involves small children and costumes that aren’t much more elaborate than a white sheet with a few holes cut in it. But Halloween has become increasingly adult in recent years.
More parties are thrown Oct. 31 than on any other day save New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday, according to a Hallmark Card Co. survey. Some $400 million will be spent preparing for the holiday.
Tonight, an estimated one-third of all American adults will dress up. That’s a total of 50 million people.
Armstrong figures that about half of them are friends and relatives who inevitably call each October asking for help. “People I don’t even know ask me to do things,” he said. Employees at a dozen special-effects companies in the San Fernando Valley said they regularly get requests from people who want to order costumes.
“There’s a big gap between a $20 outfit from J. C. Penney and what we turn out,” said Doug Kelley of All Effects Co. in North Hollywood. “People say, ‘Oh, I love that Edward Scissorhands. Can you make me one?’ We say, ‘Sure, for a couple thousand dollars.’ ”
So for every effects designer who goes all out at Halloween, there is another who cries uncle. “We build creatures for a living,” one said. “To come up with that on our free time, well, there’s not enough time.”
Galinson has had to construct his costume during lunch hours. Kelley’s friends want to dress up as “Star Trek” characters, so he’s helping after work to design such technical gadgets as phaser guns and Lt. Uhura’s earplug.
Many of these costumes originate from work projects.
When Steven James’ wife wanted to be a bridesmaid from Hell, the tattered dress and makeup weren’t quite enough. He resurrected a theatrical effect he’d seen several years before.
James of Cinovation in Glendale took a plaster mold of his wife’s teeth and made an acrylic retainer that was embedded with tiny red light bulbs. A thin wire providing electrical power ran from the retainer out of the corner of her mouth, across her face (hidden by the makeup) and over her ear.
When she parted her lips, a red glow emanated.
Such costumes often are shown off at industry parties. Everyone tries to look his best, or worst.
“One of my friends made a cast of his body and made a dead Siamese twin to hang off himself,” James said. “It’s kind of a friendly, competitive spirit. Everyone tries to outdo each other.”
This year, many effects designers will show up at a union party. Brick Price, who owns Wonderworks in Canoga Park, will lead a contingent of his artists to a historical society gathering in an old mansion near downtown.
Price said the urge to costume can extend beyond Oct. 31. Two of his employees will soon marry each other. She’ll be dressed as a medieval maid and he’ll wear a suit of armor.
“The guests can come to the reception in any formal attire from any time period,” Price said. “That could be from the Napoleonic era or from ‘Star Trek: The New Generation.’ ”
Lest non-professional party-goers fear that they may be outgunned, Cabrera said a good costume need not be high-tech. He recalled a guest from one of his parties who showed up with blood on her face and fake birds hanging from her 1960s dress: She was Tippi Hedren from “The Birds.” Another guest, in the wake of the Tylenol poisonings, came dressed as a pain-relief capsule.
“On Halloween, you can laugh at macabre things,” Cabrera said. “A costume can be so simple and so impressive.”