Colorado is known for its mile-high elevation, ski-obsessed locals, and embrace of the macabre. That last one may not be our new state motto, but it’s true nonetheless. Horror film festivals litter the landscape. Colorado-born ghost stories keep those with fertile imaginations up at night. Ghoulish events draw thousands of onlookers, some dressed as if they stepped off the set of a Halloween sequel.
October might bring out our inner goblin, but Centennial State types hanker for horror 12 months a year. Here are 13 examples to prove just that.
Telluride Horror Show, Telluride
Colorado horror conventions offer an extended taste of the genre’s best scares. The Stanley Film Festival enjoyed a three-year run before ending in 2017. The Mile High Horror Film Festival also wrapped following its 2015 campaign, despite enthusiastic crowds. The Dickens Horror Film Festival in Longmont isn’t Sundance 2.0, but it’s showing signs of growth in its third year.
So, too, is the Telluride Horror Show, drawing visitors from across the state and beyond. The state’s first and longest running horror festival wrapped its 9th edition Oct. 14. Festival Director Ted Wilson had to add a third venue last year to accommodate the growing fan base. That hasn’t been the annual event’s only change.
“When I first started the festival, there were a lot of dudes with long black hair and heavy metal shirts,” Wilson told EnCompass. Now, the gender demographics are split down the middle, with people “from all walks of life and age groups” sampling the festival’s fare.
What he’s learned about the event’s attendees is their curious reaction to seeing blood, violence, and the very worst of humanity. “People are going to four or five movies a day. What they’re seeing, to say the least, is pretty intense. And everyone is so happy, grinning ear to ear.”
Colorado Springs’ Lon Chaney, horror actor
The next time you marvel at the stars who bring Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees to life, thank Lon Chaney. The actor known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces” was born in 1883 in Colorado Springs. Chaney’s parents were deaf mutes, which meant he spent his formative years communicating with his body and facial expressions. He started in the theater, but eventually found fame in silent movies. He played more the 150 roles on the big screen, primarily villains with complicated back stories.
REELZ Movie Expert Leonard Maltin hails Chaney for his versatility, daring, and willingness to suffer for his art. “He committed to each character 100%. He spared nothing, least of all his own comfort,” Maltin told EnCompass. Chaney bound his legs so effectively to play a handicapped character in The Penalty (1920), he suffered broken blood vessels. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) required him to wear a 50-pound hump and harness of his own creation to convey the film’s tragic figure.
His ghastly character from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) remains his signature role. Once again, he crafted the memorable look. Compare that to today’s actors, Maltin says, who sit in the makeup chair for hours while experts apply layers of makeup.
Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney, Jr., followed in his father’s fiendish footsteps, including memorable turns as The Wolf Man in several Universal horror films.
“There’s no one to compare [Chaney] with in the silent era. So many of those performances are still potent to audiences today,” Maltin said.
Colorado Horror Movies
Colorado is far from a filmmaking Mecca these days, despite its scenic splendor. Blame tax incentives that drive studios to shoot everywhere from Vancouver to New Mexico. The state, however, still hosts more than a few film shoots, including Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 neo-western The Hateful Eight (Telluride).
On the horror front, Colorado has hosted a curious collection of titles. Most recently, the hyper-local shocker Apartment 212, a.k.a. Gnaw, filmed in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood and starred Kyle Gass of Tenacious D fame.
The 1998 sci-fi/horror hybrid Phantoms set up shop in Georgetown and featured an impressive cast, including screen legend Peter O’Toole and rising star Ben Affleck.
The 1980 film The Changeling gave Oscar-winner George C. Scott a cerebral horror tale to call his own. The film, dubbed by Martin Scorsese as one of the scariest movies of all time, was shot mostly in Canada but has a very local inspiration. The events in the film reflect what co-writer Russell Hunter claim happened to him in his house in Denver’s Cheesman Park in the late 1960s.
Frozen Dead Guy Days, Nederland
Combine Night of the Living Dead with Weekend at Bernies and you get this bizarre Nederland institution. Neither snow nor mud stop the participants, who race coffins, toss frozen salmon, and give a long, wet raspberry to the elements. It all traces back to “Grandpa” Bredo Morstoel, who died in 1989, but was quickly frozen in hopes of a second life courtesy of cryogenics. His body eventually found its way to Nederland, which inspired a rather unusual tribute.
The Guardian called it, “Colorado’s weirdest festival,” and the news outlet does have a point. The second weekend in March brings out the state’s proudest oddballs, enjoying live music and events like frozen T-shirt folding competitions. Need more festivities? Try the Grandpa Look-a-Like contest or the battle to be dubbed the Cold as Ice Queen. Unlike the aforementioned coffin races, this event gets a bit naughtier.
Emma Crawford Coffin Races, Manitou Springs
The story behind this creepy, colorful event often gets misconstrued, said Jenna Gallas, Special Event Coordinator with the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. Crawford, suffering from tuberculosis in the late 1800s, had two goals given her grave condition: climb to the top of Red Mountain, and one day, be buried there. She achieved both, the latter requiring 12 men to carry her coffin to the summit. The coffin was later exhumed by Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, which moved it to build an incline. A decade or so later, heavy rains unearthed the coffin, sending it and Crawford’s remains to the canyon below.
Creative Coloradans did the rest, turning the tragic tale into a festive event for young and old. “It is a spectacle; the best people-watching you can get,” Gallas told EnCompass.
Why coffin races? It draws quite a crowd during the off season, Gallas said. The rest is due to the people who show up faithfully each year. “Coloradans like to do things in a different way than I've ever experienced, and I’ve lived in six states,” she said. “There’s a certain demographic of ‘festivarians.’ They’ll do these oddball things, like stand in 10-degree weather. It’s very Colorado in that way.”
‘Blucifer,’ Denver International Airport
A large, cobalt-blue horse has greeted anyone touching down at Denver International Airport since 2008. What began as an ode to the state’s rugged past turned into a real-life horror story. The sculpture’s artist, Luis Jimenez, died in 2006 after a section of the 9,000-pound horse fell on him, severing a leg artery. Mustang debuted two years later all the same, instantly drawing snickers from locals for its bold color and gleaming red eyes.
Standing 32-feet tall, the statue, better known now as “Blucifer,” still won’t win any popularity contests. It’s as unsettling as ever, and it’s not going away despite a Facebook hoax earlier this year suggesting that its days were numbered.
The airport itself had already fueled a gaggle of conspiracy theories tied to unnamed buildings, cost overruns, and murals some suggest depict apocalyptic visions. Blucifer’s arrival only heightened those theories.
Linger Restaurant, Denver
This AAA Three Diamond-rated Denver eatery qualifies as a true hipster destination. It’s got a killer downtown view, a menu spanning the globe, and even its own culinary director, Jeremy Kittelson.
The building itself also has an interesting history, one that hardly cries out, “I’m starving.” It once was home to historic Olinger Mortuary, where Buffalo Bill Cody formerly rested. Team Linger didn’t bury its own past. Instead, they took six of the seven letters for its name, turned “mortuaries” into “eaturaries,” and incorporated elements of its previous life into the restaurant décor, including the church pew host stand. Add some photos from the ultimate black comedy, 1971’s Harold and Maude, and it’s clear Linger relishes both its past and eclectic present.
Colorado Ghost Stories
Scary movies not your style? Too fragile to brave a festival that’s chilly in more ways than one? Open your imagination and consider the following Colorado-based ghost stories.
Glenwood Springs’ Hotel Colorado once served as a World War II hospital, complete with a basement crematorium.
Some say ghosts roam the halls of Aspen’s AAA Four Diamond-rated Hotel Jerome, with visions tied to untimely deaths that occurred within its walls. Folklore, to be certain.
And then there are the streets of Georgetown, a historically rich hamlet, which naturally lends itself to creative repurposing. Take the death of Robert Schamle, a man accused of multiple heinous crimes, but who was hanged swiftly by a vigilante mob. Is that his gaunt visage locals claim they see?
Filmmaker Timothy Schultz says the state’s rich history helps fuel the long line of ghost stories. “It wasn't too long ago that it actually was the Wild West. There are incredible stories of tragedy and triumph as the west was transformed,” Schultz told EnCompass. “It's no surprise that there are plenty of ghost stories that follow.”
Reinke Bros., Littleton
The moment you enter Greg Reinke’s Littleton store, you know it’s unlike any “Halloween” shop for miles around. Authentic recreations of Darth Vader, Han Solo frozen in Carbonite, and obscure horror meanies, like the title creature from Pumpkinhead, stare down at you from their lofty perch. Next a massive skeletal creature, mechanized for maximum impact, assaults your senses.
Inside, the store offers so many costume accoutrements, you could lose yourself for hours. And that doesn’t count the full-sized haunted house (with 36 rooms!) lurking within the store itself, re-opened this year after a three-year hiatus following a nasty hail storm.
Reinke dates the store’s inspiration to 1968, when he transformed his father’s foot locker into his own haunted house attraction. Neighborhood children paid a penny for the honor of young Greg scaring them silly with the footlocker, or rather coffin, and a fake skeleton head.
“We made 27 cents the first year. We called it ‘The Mansion of Terror,’” he said. He still has the China cabinet he used all those years ago in his store, now outfitted with fake skulls for sale.
The horror maven doesn’t have the lust for gore he had as a lad, and it shows in his shop’s restrained approach. He even offers a version of the haunted house tour with the lights on so youngsters can see how it all works. The full-scale version? That's not for the faint of heart.
Haunted Field of Screams, Thornton
Joe Palombo, co-owner of Haunted Field of Screams, has seen it all at his Thornton-based attraction: patrons passing out, losing their lunch, or even burly men pushing their girlfriends aside to get away from actors “threatening” them. “Others will emit no emotions whatsoever and pretend they’re not afraid of anything,” Palombo said. “I’ve learned people really like to be scared. It's an adrenaline rush that you only get from the thrill of being scared.”
Palombo, a former haunted house actor himself, says his cast features roughly 45 returning players, some of whom have professional acting experience. Others are high schoolers with a first job they’ll share with friends for decades.
A recent addition to the park, which features four separate haunted attractions, is a pair of escape rooms. “We try to change it every year as much as we can. We have to rebuild it every year from the ground up,” he said.
The park closes on Halloween day, but opens Nov. 2 and 3 for a special event. Part hayride, part haunted house, this version of his park unfolds in pitch darkness, with only a glow stick to light the way.
The Gorehound’s Playhouse, Fort Collins
Jeff Abbott’s Fort Collins store is more than just a place to buy and rent rare horror films. It’s where horror junkies go for a fix, watch indie shockers in the shop’s theater, or support emerging artists eager to tell their own shock stories.
“The most satisfying part for me is giving independent artists, film makers, and musicians a physical location to sell their creations,” said Abbott, who opened his shop last year. “I really enjoy watching artists improve with each project they do. I also love turning people onto new stuff and hearing the feedback from them as well.”
The store can’t keep merchandise from what Abbott calls Colorado’s favorite horror franchises—Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street—in stock.
That doesn’t mean Colorado horror buffs will accept any ol’ slice and dice flick. “They are loyal and dedicated to the genre, but they are not naive or stupid,” said Abbott, who hosts a weekly Filmmakers’ Networking Group. “They can always tell when a franchise is getting stale, when something falls short of excellent, or when the newest overly hyped project is a money grab.”
Most video stores have gone the way of VHS tapes, but Abbott’s shop offers a personal touch you can’t find on a streaming site. “I will become familiar with each individual customer’s taste by asking questions after they return the title, then make suggestions for them based off of that,” he told EnCompass.
The Denver Zombie Crawl, Denver
Blame director George A. Romero of Night of the Living Dead fame for our obsession with the undead. AMC’s The Walking Dead deserves a shout out, too. Colorado loves zombies, and that’s never more obvious than at this annual event in Downtown Denver’s Skyline Park. This gathering, which just celebrated its 13th year, features amateur zombies that look as authentic as anything TWD’s Daryl might slay on a given week.
Revelers don’t just assemble their zombie outfits the night before. They spend weeks on their costumes, showcasing extraordinary skill and patience. The 16th Street Mall slows to a literal crawl during each gathering, as throngs of would-be zombies crowd the thoroughfare. Some go for our funny bones, tongues planted firmly in rotted cheek. Others? They might give you nightmares.
It all might look gruesome, but more than a few parents bring their young ones, some dressed in torn clothes flecked with fake blood.
The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park
It’s probably the worst-kept horror secret in Colorado. The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, which in turn fueled Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film of the same name, starring Jack “Here’s Johnny” Nicholson.
King and his wife visited the hotel during its off season, meaning most of its corridors were empty. They stayed in room 217, which has “a reputation for being a paranormal hotbed,” according to filmmaker and former Mile High Horror Film Festival director Timothy Schultz.
Is it any wonder King’s devious mind took it from there?
The hotel didn’t get its closeup right away, however. Exteriors for Kubrick’s film were shot in Mt. Hood, OR, with interiors captured on a British film set, says Schultz, whose Chasing the Shadows documentary features footage from The Stanley Hotel.
You may not know that King himself hated Kubrick’s take on his story. King did get his revenge, of sorts, by appearing in the 1997 miniseries version of his story as Gage Creed. (That’s the name of the doomed child character in King’s Pet Sematary.) This time around, The Stanley Hotel served as the TV version’s sound stage. Better late than never.
Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, film critic, and member of both the Denver Film Critics Society and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Christian authored the most popular article ever published at AAA.com: 8 Very Big Screens.