JOPLIN, Mo. —
The jack o'lantern is hideously detailed. Its eyes -- squinted, black and empty -- suggest an evil mood and even more evil intent. The corners of its large, toothy smile stretch wide and high, almost up to its gnarled, twisted stem. The canine teeth could have come from a werewolf.
Once the face is finally looked past, its detail begins to reveal itself. The pumpkin shell looks weathered and dirty, like it's been in the patch for a few seasons. The orange is mottled and dull, the surface rough. Inside, however, are otherworldly purples and greens, which suggest an origin not from a kitchen table of happy Halloween celebrants, but from a monstrous hellscape.
It would look great in your living room.
Technically, it's for sale. But it will be hard for its creator to let it --Êor the dozens of other Halloween decorations he's made -- go.
"When I'm making them, I can't believe I'm making them to go somewhere else," said Jay Olson. "I'm reluctant to sell them, because once it's gone, it's gone."
That won't be a problem much longer for Olson and his business partner, Ben Asquith. Together, the two have formed Unhinged Props. And at the first of next year, they expect to go online with a subscription service that will teach people how to make these types of detailed, demonic decorations.
Olson, 37, really gets into the screaming season. Ever since he was a kid, he has been active at Halloween. When he got too old for trick-or-treating, he would decorate the yard of his Baxter Springs home on Sixth Street.
Now married and raising his own family of three children in that same home, Olson kept up his decorating traditions. Back when he first started, the only serious decorations to be found were at novelty shops, such as Spencer's.
"If I wanted anything cool, with any kind of detail, it would cost between $200 and $300 for a prop," Olson said. "I didn't have that kind of money to spend."
So he built his own creations. Only they were made in such a way they would survive only a season, he said.
Using planks of wood, he built skeletons into the ground and dressed them in spooky attire. The process wore on him, because he'd have to rip up his creations every November, and would have to discard all the wood he used.
About four years ago, he discovered a technique using papier-mache, a technique of molding glue-coated paper, for decorations. Inspired by the work of Stolloween Studio, he made a gargoyle and tested it out to the elements.
"It was an absolute failure," he said. "I didn't seal it right. When a storm came, all I had was wire left."
But a more recent discovery led him to solving that problem. Now he has a three-phase process of sealing that uses everything from clay to concrete sealer, from exterior paints to wood glue.
His creations are much more sturdy and weather-resistant today, he said. A test pumpkin lasted about 10 minutes under a running faucet before showing any signs of softening, he said.
"Once I realized that I could do that, I dived into making detailed props," Olson said. "It's a cheap, easy medium. It opens up a whole new window for imagination, where I can create anything, and finally get the things I really wanted."
That discovery changed much, from how he decorates his yard to his future career.
The toothy, evil jack o'lantern, at home in Olson's office, took about 30 hours to make. Though the cost of materials is low, the time investment is significant.
A series of shrunken heads took about eight hours each. A large wolf, that has pushed Olson's papier-mache skill, has taken so many hours that he stopped counting, he said.
Always exploring and experimenting, he tries new techniques, new internal structures, new recipes for glue.
Though his new creations take a large time investment, the cost of supplies reduced dramatically. With a gallon of glue, donated newspaper and 25-pound sack of flour, he can make several creations at a fraction of the cost. Now he keeps his decorations, which means his supply of front-yard frights increases every year.
He partnered with Asquith earlier this year, after teaching him how to make the papier-mache phantoms. The two men share a love of making things with their hands, Olson said.
"We have been friends for the past 10 years," Olson said. "He runs a construction company, and he helps me set up and scare every Halloween. When we talked about avenues we could go, we thought that we could take a real shot at this."
Olson's current job is with Side Cars, Inc., a third-party researching firm. He owns an office at Sixth and Main in Joplin, and opens his space to other entrepreneurial efforts.
The two are aiming to work with other professional haunt operations -- of which there are many, Olson said. They also hope to open their own haunt, although plans for that are down the road.
In the meantime, they plan to build up their educational business by releasing regular tutorials to subscribers. The videos would teach in detail how people could make their own papier-mache decorations.
And Olson said there is a big market of customers, many of whom love Halloween and who contribute positively to a scaring community.
"There's a lot of loyalty in the haunt community," Olson said. "Different haunters are pretty quick to note who has what design and whose work is who's."
Despite the investment in this new venture, he'll still go all out with his home decorations every Halloween. For the first time, he's setting up a path where trick-or-treaters can walk through his yard -- where he and some friends will be hiding, waiting to scream.
"If you come in our yard, we are going to come after you," Olson said. "It doesn't matter the age. We go the whole nine yards."
Want to go?
Jay Olson's custom Halloween decorations can be seen in his front yard, located at 327 E. Sixth St. in Baxter Springs. His full display should be up by the weekend before Halloween.