In 1968, two boys fishing at a Littleton watering hole snagged an old shopping cart. To their pre-teen imaginations, it looked like part of an amusement-park ride.
The cart soon became the foundation of a basement-based haunted house that the boys created out of a plaster skull they got from their older brother, a footlocker for a coffin, bedding hanging from the rafters, string, and other props found around the house.
Customers were invited to sit in the basket and be wheeled through the drapery as young Greg Reinke pulled on ropes to activate various fright-inducing effects. His brother, Chris Reinke, was in charge of a strobe light they connected to the front of the shopping cart. “Climb in and prepare to be scared!” Greg would proclaim.
They called it the “Mansion of Terror,” and charged a penny per ride.
Fast-forward 44 years, and the two brothers have turned their passion for the weird, exotic and creepy into a virtual monster, mayhem and merchandising empire. They have owned the Reinke Brothers store, at 5663 S. Prince St. in downtown Littleton, since 1999.
The former clothing store contains a Halloween and costume retail outlet, a haunted house for the Halloween season, and a warehouse for props and sets.
The store itself is a Halloween hoarder’s paradise, packed with a wild variety of stuffed spiders, witch’s hats, rubber body parts, black roses, monster heads, Star Wars items (including some choice collector pieces), hundreds of skulls, faux gravestones, wigs galore, tights, platform shoes, hats and costumes.
The Reinkes advertise it as the largest magic store in the Denver area.
During Halloween season, (Sept. 28 through Oct. 31) the Reinke Brothers Haunted Mansion offers 30 rooms with something that everybody can find either revolting, tasteless, ghoulish, twisted, objectionable, confining, clever, creative, silly or nostalgic.
It’s not just the scenery that creates anxiety; it’s the slanted floors, the flashing lights, the tunnel that whirls around you, and the objects that keep flinging themselves out of the walls, closets and cupboards until you want to swat them with a racket.
The quarters are tight, which can be disconcerting in itself. And use is made of state-of-the-art technology to create bodies that have shape-shifting heads.
It’s all definitely creepy, but the Haunted Mansion is more fun than it is perverted, because it’s meant to be appropriate for families.
During the day, there are special tours with lights on and a guide for little ones. Adults pay $15 for the daytime tour, which takes about 20 minutes and has live actors as well as animatronic characters.
Greg Reinke doesn’t believe in scaring people to death, offending anyone’s religion or grossing them out. There is a lot of Indiana Jones mixed in with the walking dead.
“Disney is my hero,” said Greg Reinke. “My haunted house has no blood and guts.”
There is no violence or destruction on display, Reinke says.
“I don’t have women with their guts hanging out and don’t put people in the fight-or-flight mode. It’s eye candy, like the back lot at Universal Studios.”
And it’s designed to entertain adults and lure them back year after year with their kids.
Greg Reinke is a family man himself, with two grown children who have graduated from college and are nowhere near interested in a show-business career.
The Reinke brothers’ father was an engineer at Martin Marietta. Every summer they would go to Lakeside Amusement Park for “Lockheed Days.”
“My mom loved the ferris wheels. But my dad would never get on the rides. One year we went to Disney, and he got on the Pirates of the Caribbean and he had a great time,” said Greg Reinke, remembering what sparked his unusual life’s work.
“I always had a fascination with monsters,” Reinke said. He also liked to watch shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.”
The haunted basement led to a paying job designing a haunted house at a church carnival and eventually to work raising funds for Campus Life, the National Honor Society and other nonprofits and radio stations. The boys incorporated as a business as Reinke Brothers Inc. when Greg was 12 years old.
For the holidays this year, Greg is looking forward to creating a Santa Land that, he says, will be a lot more child friendly and fun than the corporate Santa stages at malls.
Meanwhile, Halloween is just three weeks away, and it’s going to get very scary in the store. Perennial costume favorites Princess Leia in chains and Darth Vader are flying off the shelves. Zombie face makeup is also in high demand.
“Everybody always waits until the last minute,” Chris said.
Contact Vicky Gits at Vicky@evergreenco.comor 303-933-2233, ext. 22. Follow her at Twitter.com, newsbyvicky.