It's Sunday, bloody Sunday in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and the guy with the gooey prosthetic eyeball dangling from its socket looks right at home. So does the lady clad in a leather tunic and wielding a light-saber. And the dude donning a $1,000 Stormtrooper costume. They're just a few of the 2,000-plus freaks and geeks crowded into the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel for the last day of the Chiller Theatre convention.
Among the star attractions is Ed Douglas, one half of Cleveland's dark orchestral-music duo Midnight Syndicate. The band's creepy soundscapes have become such a massive hit in horror circles that Douglas' popularity rivals that of convention guests Lou Ferrigno, Tonya Harding, and '70s porn star Seka. Around here, Douglas has a rep for being able to scare the pants off the few attendees actually wearing them -- G-strings, capes, and loincloths being the preferred attire.
"I have all your CDs," says a gray-haired guy in a black haunted-house T-shirt. "I have your posters too."
"I appreciate the support," says Douglas, a rangy 33-year-old who has the warm, patient air of a kindergarten teacher. He's in constant motion, shaking hands, signing CDs, taking credit cards. It'll be another six hours before he sits down. Over the course of the weekend, he'll sell more than 600 discs and enough shirts to clothe a small town.
His popularity is underscored by loud greetings from vendors and horror stars. They know him at the Coffee House of Horrors, an Atlanta-based café that sells Zombie Dirt espresso and Gummy Scares candy. And he's acquainted with the husband and wife who tend a pair of live bats dangling upside down in a conference room.
"Midnight Syndicate! Is that Ed?" a man yells. It's underground horror artist Robert Granito, an excitable guy with close-cropped black hair and a booming voice, who's been trying to work with Midnight Syndicate for more than a year now. "Tell me what you want. Tell me what you like. I'll give it to you now," he gushes as he hands Douglas his brightly colored renderings of werewolves and scantily clad babes.
"That's why I don't really walk the shows," Douglas says under his breath, a little embarrassed by his own notoriety. "I can't really go through too many aisles without running into someone. It's nice, but if you're trying to get through real quick, you really can't."
Douglas should be used to the attention by now. Since 1998, he and partner Gavin Goszka have sold over 300,000 copies of their six CDs. Their music has been featured on Monday Night Football, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Today, Barbara Walters' Ten Most Fascinating People of 2002, and the NBA on TNT. Heavy-metal icons King Diamond and Rob Zombie are fans. The band's tunes have been licensed for such video games as Baldur's Gate 2 and Shadowbane. The duo even provided the soundtrack for a Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion.
"For what they're doing, there's no one bigger," says Jody Infurnari, advertising and promotions manager for the Toronto-based horror magazine Rue Morgue, one of the biggest publications of its kind. "I mean, they've become the bible for Halloween horror music."
"I'll stop by their booth and I'll make a loud announcement, 'This is the best horror music in the universe,'" says special-effects legend Tom Savini, who's done the gory makeup work for dozens of horror classics, from Dawn of the Dead to Friday the 13th.
Midnight Syndicate's music is also licensed by every major theme-park company in the country, including Six Flags, Sea World, Cedar Fair (owner of Cedar Point), Universal Studios, and Paramount. If you've been to a haunted house lately, you've probably heard it.
"They're the industry standard. I would say 75 to 90 percent of the attractions in the industry have at least one Midnight Syndicate CD," says Leonard Pickel, founder of Haunted Attraction magazine, the leading trade publication for the haunted-house industry. "Nobody has the impact or the reach that Midnight Syndicate has."
Producing and selling CDs on its own, with no label or distribution support, Midnight Syndicate has quietly become one of this city's most successful acts. Yet its profile in town is lower than the average AC/DC cover band. When it comes to spooky soundtracks, Cleveland dominates the industry and doesn't even know it.
"Does anybody else feel creepy?" Psychic Sonya asks, surrounded by two dozen onlookers drinking beer and watching for ghosts. She's standing in the middle of the Agora Theatre stage, clad in a flowing black gown, a foxhide medicine bag on a cord around her neck. "This place right here onstage is one of the areas where we have a lot of paranormal activity happening."
Maybe so, but right now most of the activity is confined to jittery ladies snapping pictures with their cell phones. They hope to catch a glimpse of a dead maid, a murdered prostitute, or a specter in a yellow raincoat -- all of whom haunt the place, Sonya says.
Douglas stands outside the action, sipping an MGD, dressed in a black tunic with shiny silver buttons that makes him look like Dracula's tax accountant. His partner, Goszka, works the foyer, matching Douglas' goth chic with the ruffled white dress shirt and red-and-black vest of a well-heeled undertaker. Tonight, they're throwing a party to hype the release of Midnight Syndicate's forthcoming seventh album, The 13th Hour, due out June 7.
In the club's diner, a guy in a two-headed-monster costume seven feet high lumbers around fake tombstones and a platter of chicken strips, while Midnight Syndicate's music plays on a small silver boombox. As the band's sonorous, spectral instrumental numbers darken the room's atmosphere, it's easy to hear why this duo has become so beloved among horror diehards.
Before Midnight Syndicate, Halloween music was total camp: crappy sound effects discs teeming with creaky doors, rattling chains, and generic moans suggestive of a ghost with gas pains. There were also the equally lame compilation discs, predictably loaded with played-out novelty tunes like "Monster Mash" and "Purple People Eater" -- songs so moldy, they belong in a petri dish, not a haunted house.
Midnight Syndicate took a more understated approach. While the hammy horror music of the past was ponderous and overbearing, clubbing listeners over the head like a B-movie villain, Midnight Syndicate believed that a whisper was more evocative than a scream. Beginning in the mid-'90s, they created seductive, cinematic scores filled with hissing organ and tense string arrangements. Their albums are thematic, set in haunted mansions, insane asylums, and ancient crypts. Most of the music is created on piano, with the band painstakingly crafting sound effects from field recordings on which they shred carpet and stomp on old wooden floors. Like the best horror flicks, they leave much to the imagination.
"They did something new, something really original," says Adrian LePeltier, entertainment director for Universal Studios Orlando, which has some of the world's largest haunted attractions, most of which feature the music of Midnight Syndicate. "Before them, people treated Halloween music more like trick-or-treat music. The '50s kind of horror-film soundtracks are very orchestrated and very bold in their content, whereas this is subtle. They're not bombastic, and I think the beauty of their music is the subtlety."
Haunted-house proprietors quickly embraced the band, mainly because they no longer had to patch together their own theme music.
"In the past, you would just beg, borrow, and steal everything you could," says Richard Hanf, a central figure in the haunted-attractions industry, having run houses on the East Coast for decades. "Midnight Syndicate took a form of entertainment that is just so highly specialized, identified a gaping hole, and then filled it completely."
In a savvy business move, the band allowed haunted houses to license their songs for free. Normally, any for-profit attraction that plays music has to pay a fee to songwriters' associations like ASCAP and BMI. But Midnight Syndicate agreed to waive its royalty rights, provided that the attraction registered on the band's website and advertised where to buy its CDs.
"It's a great business technique," Hanf says. "It doesn't do you any good to be creative and then make it difficult or expensive for people to use what you've created. You buy the CD, and you can use it anytime you want, anywhere you want. Well, how many people are going to hear that and say, 'Geez, I need that for my show?' Now, every 12 to 18 months we come to expect something from them. It's kind of at the point now where they better not try to leave."
It's a bright spring day in Willoughby, but no daylight penetrates Gavin Goszka's living room. Heavy, ornate curtains smother the windows, sealing the house from unwanted sunshine. It's what you'd expect from a guy who spends his downtime spelunking in the caves of West Virginia and Indiana.
"It's almost like an escape," says Goszka, a caving enthusiast who graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College with a degree in geology. "You lose yourself in the activity; you don't worry about what's going on at home or the problems that you left behind or anything like that."
The interior of Goszka's house looks like his music sounds, styled in a gothic aesthetic rooted in the Old World. Adjacent to a vintage wood-grain organ sits a decades-old Victrola with a record from 1919 on its turntable. A ceramic bust of a shrouded girl complements watercolor portraits of classically beautiful women, and a skull perches on a bookshelf. The place feels like Lestat's bachelor pad.
"I spent like six months just looking up things Victorian on the web, reading books, finding out what colors they had, what kind of furniture; then I'd go out and try and find things that looked the part," Goszka says.
The house's only nod to modernity is the high-tech studio upstairs. While Douglas is often the face of Midnight Syndicate, handling most of the group's business dealings, Goszka supplies much of the band's technical expertise. Classically trained on piano, the Mentor native developed a knack for electronics while working at Sodja's Music store in Richmond Heights.
It was at Sodja's that Goszka met Douglas, who came seeking advice on music gear in the mid-'90s when he was putting together an early, short-lived incarnation of Midnight Syndicate. One day, Douglas gave Goszka a tape of his foreboding instrumentals, and the two soon began collaborating. They bonded over their love of theatrical headbanger King Diamond and quirky composers like Danny Elfman and John Carpenter.
Goszka and Douglas' shared tastes helped offset their differences. While Douglas is effusive and demonstrative, Goszka chooses his words carefully and talks in an even tone. Douglas is a family man with two young daughters; Goszka's single. Douglas has a fondness for Pabst Blue Ribbon, while Goszka prefers microbrews. In short, Douglas is the kind of guy you want to have on your bowling team, while Goszka's the one you want on your debate team.
What unites them is a passion for horror films and literature that dates back to childhood. Born in Chardon, Douglas grew up reading Ian Thorne's adaptations of classic Universal Studios horror flicks like Dracula and The Abominable Snowman. As for Goszka, one of his earliest memories is of a haunted house. "My great-grandmother passed away, and they turned her house into the haunted house for Parma that year," he recalls. "I have these sketchy memories of going through it before they actually did it up and everything. Then they let us through, and it was just like Whoa."
Together, Goszka and Douglas set out to make soundtracks to horror movies that didn't exist.
"The idea was that you pop in a disc and it really gets your imagination going," Douglas says. "It gets you imagining yourself in this movie or this story. There's so many different elements that if you read into one of those elements, the story can take a totally different direction for you. There's no boundaries."
But there was also no way to get their music noticed. After self-financing their first record -- 1998's Born of the Night -- Goszka and Douglas drew little interest from record companies.
"No record label would touch us, no distributor would touch us; they were like, 'What is this? A movie soundtrack for a nonexistent movie?' They wouldn't have it," Douglas recalls. "We realized if we were going to do this, we were going to have to literally build our own distribution network."
That's exactly what they did. With Goszka working at Sodja's and Edwards holding down a day job in the shipping department of parts manufacturer Parker-Hannifin, the two spent weekends hand-delivering CDs to local record stores and costume shops. Still, the music managed to make an impression.
"I was blown away by it," says Kendra Hicks, a buyer at Mr. Fun's costume shop, the first local outlet to stock Midnight Syndicate's discs. "It wasn't just your little chains being drug across the floor and all that. There was obviously real music behind it. It reminded me more of romantic classical music. I think we reordered two or three times that first year, and then it was just like, 'Well, this is a given, you have to have Midnight Syndicate in your store.'"
The band sold out the first pressing of the disc in weeks, recouping its initial investment. From there, Douglas began cold-calling costume shops around the country. In the next two years, he gradually built a client base of more than 600 retailers.
They quit their day jobs after 2000's Realm of Shadows, when they were selling more than 30,000 discs a year, and began making the rounds of horror conventions. Soon, big retailers like Hot Topic and Spencer Gifts were lining up to stock the band's records.
"I think what Midnight Syndicate brings to the table is a feeling of authenticity that isn't apparent with the other horror compilations that are out on the market," says Michael Champion, a spokesman for Spencer's. "It really brings an authentic feel to the haunted attraction, and that's the same type of feel that we try to bring to our consumers."
As Midnight Syndicate's fan base continued to grow with 2001's Gates of Delirium and 2002's Vampyre, Goszka and Douglas noticed that fans of role-playing games were using the group's songs to soundtrack their adventures. Just like the haunted-attraction industry, it was another largely untapped market for Midnight Syndicate's music.
"They're just good for gaming, especially since they don't use words," says Marc Shayed, editor of GamingReport.com, the largest online magazine for the role-playing community. "With soundtracks from movies or sound-effects CDs, you have to pick your tracks. With the CDs that you get from Midnight Syndicate, I've found that I can just play them continuously in the background, and it really enhances the mood of the game."
In 2002, Midnight Syndicate was approached by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons to create the first official soundtrack for the world's most popular role-playing game.
"When we talked to them and they played us some samples of their music, we were impressed not only with how good the music was, but how in touch with the gaming environment they were," says Ed Stark, special-projects manager for role-playing games and miniatures for Wizards of the Coast, the Seattle-based company that produces Dungeons & Dragons. "We sat down with them and talked about having a chase scene and a fight scene and things like that, and they really got that. We were very impressed, because we're in sort of a niche industry, and we're not always used to people getting exactly what we need right away."
By making regular appearances at big gaming conventions like San Diego's Gen Con and Germany's Spiel expo, Midnight Syndicate became almost as popular in the gaming community as it was in horror circles.
"People go to the shows now and actually look for them. They seek them out," says Kerry Breinstein, co-owner of Twilight Creations, a producer of horror role-playing games that reps Midnight Syndicate to the hobby-game industry. "We sell games, and you would think that we're a little more known than they are, but their recognition is fairly significant. I'm really impressed."
With only a minimal presence in record stores, no traditional distributor, and no live show to speak of, Midnight Syndicate now sells an average of 55,000 CDs a year. In the process, it has created a whole new business model for independent artists.
"It's truly an amazing achievement, when you actually sit down and think about it," says Bill Peters, a Cleveland-based sales and marketing rep for Warner Bros. Records, who also runs local metal label Auburn Records. "Midnight Syndicate deserves a lot of credit for seeking out new, creative retail opportunities to sell product to their target audience. It was a brilliant marketing approach."
There's not a cloud in the sky above Douglas' home, though a storm will hit soon. In just under a month, Midnight Syndicate's latest album will be in stores, and the band is girding for the flood of orders it'll have to fill by hand. Spencer Gifts alone gets 20,000 copies.
"Ninety percent of what we do between now and the end of the year is all business," Douglas says. "The creative side is pretty much done, and now it's time to get down to work on the business side. You have to put down your guitar, put down your keyboard, and do things that maybe you don't really like doing."
Nestled in a wooded alcove of Chardon, where the streets are lined with mini-mansions normally reserved for NFL stars, Douglas' sizable brick-and-beige house is home base for the band's Entity Productions. One of his two garages serves as the shipping center, replete with cardboard boxes and CDs. Another garage houses Midnight Syndicate's merch and retail displays, including an eight-foot latex-foam mausoleum.
In the basement of Douglas' house, which he just moved into two months ago, lies the Midnight Syndicate office, where he works with one full-time employee, a friendly gal named Liz St. James. One of the keys to the band's success is how self-sufficient it has become. Douglas and Goszka record, mix, and master their discs themselves in their own home studios. After a substantial initial investment in recording gear, they now produce each album for under $1,000.
"Nowadays, you can spend four, five hundred bucks and get the same quality recording as anybody -- if you have the engineering chops," Goszka explains. "It's no longer restricted to having a lot of money or being connected. The only thing we're not doing is the actual duplication of the discs and the printing of the booklets."
Still, after racking up such big numbers on their own, Midnight Syndicate is now fielding offers from big-time distributors. The band is weighing whether to sacrifice its independence to reach a broader audience.
"I would say that we're at a point now that we definitely have some options available to us, and we just have to really look carefully and use what we've learned to decide if that's the best course of action," Douglas says.
There are other potentially lucrative contracts on the horizon. Midnight Syndicate recently landed a deal with Snapkick Productions, a Warner Bros.-based production company, to score the upcoming horror flick Sin-Jin Smyth, a demonic thriller set to begin production in the next couple of months. The band plans to get even more involved in film projects over the next few years.
This has been a long time coming for Douglas, who studied film and theater at John Carroll University and spent a summer at NYU's film school a decade ago. In the early '90s, he wrote and directed the low-budget horror film Dead Matter, a cheeky chiller that features snarky vampires and deodorant-eating zombies. Filmed for under $1,000, the movie is surprisingly well shot, with some clever camera angles and rapid-fire editing that give it a more professional look than its minuscule budget would suggest. After a six-month rewrite, Douglas recently got the script green-lighted in Hollywood, and he's set to direct a remake of the film.
"Because of where Midnight Syndicate is in the industry now, we were actually able to get the script in the right hands in Hollywood, and it looks like in the next year and a half to two years, Dead Matter will be filmed here in Cleveland," Douglas says proudly. "We're really excited about that. It'll be a low-budget Hollywood film, but a Hollywood film nonetheless, with some big names in horror -- especially classic '80s horror."
And there's always talk of creating a live show and taking it on the road, which Douglas predicts Midnight Syndicate will do within the next five years.
"If we did a live show, it would literally take about seven or eight months to design and build and make an event that's interesting to our fan base," he says. "For us right now, where we're at, we can't just take the time off to explore different things. We're really hitting on all cylinders."
It's always Friday the 13th in Douglas' basement. So says a Pabst page-a-day calendar that permanently reads Friday, December 13, 1985. It hangs above a small bar next to the Entity Productions office.
Douglas and Goszka just mailed off the final version of The 13th Hour to their CD manufacturer last night, a CD-release party is scheduled for June 4 at the Phantasy Theatre, and now they're celebrating with a beer. Douglas excitedly cues up a track that features his two-year-old daughter, Mary Kate, talking in the background. He's a fun dad, eager to share his enthusiasm for scary movies with his kids. "You're gonna be a horror chick," he purrs playfully to Sarah, his two-month-old daughter, bouncing her in his arms before engaging in a few moments of babytalk with the bubbly infant.
"You're supposed to say what they say," he explains, as Goszka looks on with a wide smile. "It helps develop conversation skills."
Because their music is so dark and they dress up like funeral-home directors for photo shoots, it'd be easy to assume that these two are brooding misfits. Not so, says Douglas.
"It's not like I have angst and I need to pour all my aggressions out in the music. That's a bunch of hooey," he snorts. "There's enough bad stuff that happens in the world and enough stresses in everyone's lives, so to be able to create something that'll help people just forget about everything, even for just a little bit, that's the greatest thing in the world to me."