How Trick or Treat Studios Saved Halloween for Metalheads

If you’d shown the Trick or Treat Studios catalog to a metal fan in the 1980s, they would’ve gasped with joy. With masks and costumes including the Motörhead War Pig, the Misfits’ Crimson Ghost, Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie’s whole cinematic universe, Ghost’s various Papas and Nameless Ghouls, and every incarnation of Iron Maiden’s Eddie, the Santa Cruz-based company has gone all-in on the heavy metal costume market. Not only do they produce high-quality get-ups of metal’s various monsters and mascots, they also sell top-notch licensed products from all your favorite horror franchises, from the ghouls off of the cover of Tales from the Crypt to Bob’s glasses-ghost outfit from John Carpenter’s original Halloween.

“Sometimes we get hammered by people in social media — What, you’re coming out with a sheet with glasses?” laughs Chris Zephro, founder and president of Trick or Treat Studios. “Yeah, why not! No one else has! And I’ll tell you what’s cool with that thing: to get it to drape the way it did in the movie, that took a lot of design and materials. How to get it to stay in the slide, how to make sure the eye cuts don’t run…we had to get the original glasses! There’s actually a lot of work in that. It’s hard to find new stuff to do for a property that’s been around for 40 years.And hey, it sells really well. Maybe one day we’ll come out with the clothes hanger!”

The mark of Trick or Treat Studios is undoubtedly the quality of its products. Every costume company on earth has made a terrible Michael Myers mask, but Chris and art director Justin Mabry are dedicated to giving fans products that they’ll love forever, and for reasonable prices (“I would never ship something that Justin or I wouldn’t have in our personal collections,” says Chris). This is spawned from a lifelong love of horror, rock music, and most of all Halloween, which has been the company’s driving force since its inception. And for fans of horror and heavy metal, who are so used to being offered the same trash over and over by companies that don’t really understand them, having a place like Trick or Treat Studios offer them something cool and lasting is deeply fulfilling.

Even during our interview, Chris’ dedication comes out unexpectedly when Mabry texts him an article: Los Angeles County cancels Halloween trick-or-treating.

That’s outrageous,” says Chris with a dismissive shake of his head. “I don’t know about LA county or anything like that, but my house will be going on Halloween night.” He smiles. “Most people wear masks on Halloween, so I think you’re okay!”

In your words, how did Trick or Treat Studios come about?

I’ve been a fan of Halloween and monster masks ever since I was a kid, and I’m 50. I was a huge fan of Famous Monsters of Filmland, collected all of Fangoria, was a huge comic book guy. I loved monsters and collected masks. Don Post Studios was the king at the time. So I’ve always been a huge Halloween buff. I was always jealous of my older brother because he was born on Halloween and he doesn’t even like it, he thinks it’s a kids holiday. He hates scary movies, too, but I love them. I actually went to [Disneyland’s] Haunted Mansion the day it opened — my mom was pregnant with me, and she took my older brother. I’m sure I could hear it, but I couldn’t see it. It was apparently hotter’n hell that day, and when they got up to the door, my brother flipped and tried to leave — and she said, I’m going! We’re going! So maybe that influenced me — not to mention that I saw The Exorcist in the theater, Jaws in the theater, Alien in the theater.

After college and graduate school, I was working in corporate America, and doing really, really well financially, but…miserable. When you’re looking at the clock every day, wondering, ‘When can I leave without someone noticing?’ In my opinion it’s time to leave — which was funny, because I was married and just had a baby. I was driving this horrific drive I did every day as my commute, and I just thought, I’m losing myself here. I’ve got to do something that’s soul-satisfying. I’d been an independent mask collector for some time, and I’d bought a lot of stuff from Justin. I really liked Night Owl, his company, and we’d become friends over the years because I was probably one of his best customers. So I called him on this drive, and said, ‘Listen, man, I’m about to quit my corporate job, and I want to start a Halloween company.’ I knew there was a huge market for people like me who would pay hundreds of dollars for something cool — I thought, What if we could do something cool that would be affordable? So I asked him, ‘Are you interested in being my art director? I don’t know what the compensation’s going to be like at this point, but if you say yes, I’m going to go home and tell my wife I’m quitting and going to put all my effort into it.’ He said yes, and I told my wife I was quitting — in the middle of the recession.

Yikes. So once you’d had the idea, what were the next steps to actually creating the company and the masks?

Our first step was finding a factory, which we did — the best mask factory in the world. They’re now our biggest customers. But it was interesting too, because Justin and I always knew that we’d start with masks, get people to understand that — we were a new company in an industry that was kind of tight — and then we wanted to be a costumes company, and then we’d move into collectibles, which is absolutely where we’re really going now.

The first year was pretty interesting. The first trade show we did was Transworld in Chicago, and it was a miserable show — just awful. It made me wonder, did we do the right thing? We originally started with a handful of Justin’s masks, and we brought in Eric Lubatti, so a handful of his masks. Our catalog was only two pages with twelve masks. Someone there told me to do Transworld’s Haunted Attractions show, so I thought, ‘Shit, we’ll give it a try, right?’ So we went to St. Louis, and the first day people would walk by the stuff and they thought it was amazing, but I got the impression that they thought the masks were hundreds of dollars apiece. So the next day, I put signs with the prices on there, and it was like an hour wait to get in our booth. It wrapped around the convention center. That’s when I knew we had it.

Was there a moment where you knew the company was taking off?

Once we got the license for Halloween II, that kind of changed everything. I think it was assumed for a very long time that the only person who owned the license to Michael Myers was Trancas, who own the rights to Halloween I, IV, and V. I have a long history with that movie, because my grandfather was president of distribution at Paramount and WB, and my dad was VP there for many years, so I knew Yrwin Yablans, who produced that movie — he created Halloween. I knew that the licensing was scattered on some of those pictures, but I knew I could get Halloween II from Universal if I could get them to call me back. So I called virtually every day for six months to the head of licensing. She finally picked up the phone and said, ‘Okay, I’ll meet you tomorrow in Las Vegas at a licensing show if you promise to stop calling. I’ll give you 15 minutes.’ I got on a plane the next day, I went to this licensing expo I’d never seen before in my life, I met with her, and we came out with six licenses, one of which was Halloween II. One by one, we acquired the other ones, and then a couple of years ago we hooked up with Trancas, and got Halloween I, IV, and V.

The fact that you focused on Michael Myers is interesting. The first mask I noticed from Trick or Treat was your King Pumpkin mask, and I really admired that the name of the company is a reference to Halloween. Was it always your goal to center the company around the holiday, rather than just horror or disguises?

Always. Always. Justin and I are huge fans of old-school Halloween, all of that old, old retro style. That’s what I love, and it’s faded away significantly, though it’s coming back. I love Halloween music from the ‘50s. I listen to it constantly. Both Justin and I are huge fans of that retro classic era. That mask is a product of that — that’s one Justin sculpted, with the rotting back. I don’t know if he molded and actual pumpkin for it. We’ve always been a feel of that retro style, the ‘60s and ‘70s Don Post look — Don’s part of our company now, he’s on my advisory board. That was really important to us — to connect with him. 

When did you guys decide to include metal mascots and musicians into your line-up?

Well, I was a huge metalhead as well when I was a kid. I loved Iron Maiden — I mean, I remember waiting in line in front of Tower Records when I was in 8th or 9th Grade to get tickets to one of the four Long Beach shows on the Powerslave World Slavery tour. I was a huge fan of Ozzy, and Black Sabbath, and I love The Misfits. It’s really interesting now to be working with those people. Jerry Only’s one of my best friends on the planet. We work with Iron Maiden and all of those old bands who I just loved. So that’s been really fun too, and has also influenced the company. 

Before we go any further: how were Maiden?

They were fucking awesome! Blew my mind. And they recorded it for Live After Death!

Was doing heavy metal costumes something that just happened, or was it an idea you always had in the back of your mind?

God no, it was always in the back of our mind. We just…licensing isn’t rocket science, anyone can do it, but a lot of these places won’t go with you over your competitors unless you have some established licenses. So it takes a little longer. And initially, a lot of these licenses require initial guarantees and pre-payments, and we just didn’t have a lot of upfront capital because the company is and has been self-funded since day one. So you get limited by your budget, at least initially. Now, we’re good. Now, people come to us. I was commenting at the last licensing expo — prior to COVID, that is — that our whole calendar, every thirty minutes for three straight days, from eight to five, was booked. It’s funny, because back in the day, we could get nobody to meet with us. Now we have a full schedule!

Was there a rock star moment for you? Like, did you get a specific property and think, This is it, I’ve made it?

The original Halloween. Because that’s something we wanted for so long. For what various reasons, in terms of other companies getting it, we had to wait for a long time. And then when we got it, our goal was really just prove it out. And we keep doing new things with it that no one’s ever done before. 

The coolest Halloween costume you’ve ever owned is available for purchase at Trick or Treat Studios right now.

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Words by Chris Krovatin