Eric Austen – The High Guru of Monster Mask Collecting

Eric Austen – The High Guru of Monster Mask Collecting

Editors note – This is a reprint of an interview that I did with Eric back in 2019.

The Haunted Cinema (THC) – Eric, thanks for agreeing to spend some time in The Haunted Cinema. Before we get into the main questions, tell us a little about yourself. When did you realize that you were a Monster Kid? What horror films, magazines, and other things influenced you growing up?

Eric Austen (EA) I suppose I was born a Monster Kid / Halloween fanatic. As a child, I loved nothing more than the Halloween season and all of its trappings.

I remember begging my parents to drive me by the costume shops downtown to look at the wonderful window displays filled with life-size Dracula’s, Frankenstein’s, etc..

As far as films go, I remember always sneaking halfway down the downstairs steps, when my brother and his friends would watch the most movies (almost always horror). Whether it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead, Silent Night Deadly Night, etc., I was terrified and electrified at the same time. I’d listen, then scooch down a few stairs, take a peek, scare the hell out of myself, then scooch back up and listen some more.

Also, I was a kid during the wonderful days of The USA Network and HBO, so as my courage built up, I took in anything that was on tv, as long as my parents weren’t looking.

In terms of magazines at the time, well, only one existed in my head and that was Fangoria. I don’t recall what the age limit on Fangoria was when I was a kid, but I quite vividly remember stealthily flipping through issues on the newsstand, while the cashier wasn’t looking. They probably saw me and thought I was checking out Playboy, but whatever.

THC – What was your favorite monster as a kid? Has that changed over time?

EA – As a kid? I suppose my favorite character had to be the Frankenstein Monster. Of course I was extremely interested in the slashers of the day, but Frankenstein was where it was at for me. Being an odd kid, I was infatuated with wax museums, and one thing I knew about wax museums is that they all had a Frankenstein monster.

As an adult? I’m being very trendy and going with Pennywise for now, as he’s one of the few, interesting “monsters” of the day. Come on, he’s a shapeshifting, otherworldly monster disguised as a clown! What’s not to love?!

THC – What is your opinion on the state of Horror today? Are there any modern films that have you excited?

EA – It’s easy for me to be down on the state of horror today, as I’m not a big fan of the latest trend of haunting / possession films being cranked out. With age however, I understand there’s always a trend cycle with Horror. If a new film with a somewhat original idea does gangbusters at the theater, I have to prepare myself for at least 3 more years of regurgitation, until the next big thing comes along.

THC – You are a mask collector. Tell us about your collection. Some collectors focus on vintage masks, particular studios such as Don Post, or perhaps a certain artist. Does your collection have a focus?

EA – Me, a mask collector? Oh man. I think my collection is somewhat nuts, but it was really insane about 5 years or so ago. Back then, I did a somewhat official count and it was above 500 masks and busts. After the count was made, I did a little soul searching, because I’ll be damned if I’m ever on one of those hoarding shows. Suffice it to say, I’ve pared down quite a bit in the last few years.

My focus has always been whatever looks cool to me and makes me happy. I have Don Post, Distortions, Be Something Studios, American Mask & Novelty, Topstone, Ben Cooper, many independents, etc., etc., within my collection. I’ve never bought a piece for any other reason than fun. Here’s a lesson to collectors – If you don’t love it, don’t buy it. If you want to invest money, look at real estate.

THC – When did you start collecting masks? What were some of your earliest pieces? What mask are you most proud of owning? What is your “Holy Grail” mask?

EA – It wasn’t collecting as we know it today, but when I was a kid, I saved up money to buy masks for my Halloween yard display. The masks I saved up for would be utilized for life-size figures and such, but once Halloween was over, I took care of my monsters and considered them a collection of sorts.

As far as my earliest masks are concerned, I’ll never forget my first Don Post Studios piece. Again, I used to beg my parents to drive me past the costume shops downtown, just so I could take in all of the awesomeness of their window displays. A part of one display always had my eye, as it was the customary Dracula in coffin. The mask used for the Dracula display was a Don Post “Dracula” based on the great Christopher Lee take on the character.

Coveting doesn’t come close to how I felt about that piece of rubber in the window. For at least 2 years, I hinted and hinted to my parents on how much I needed that mask in my life. On one leaf raking Saturday in September, my father drove me to the store, after my work was done, and (semi begrudgingly) bought Dracula for me. I still can’t believe that my father shelled out $60.00 for a mask, in the ‘80s! 

As far as what my “Holy Grail” mask would be, the answer is fairly cliche’ as it’s the 1975 Don Post Captain Kirk mask. I’ve come close to obtaining him a time or two, but the search continues.

THC – How do you display your collection? Do you take any precautions against damage?

EA – My old basement used to be my collection room. Everything was always properly stuffed and mounted on stands. Not to boast, but walking into my basement was tantamount to entering the coolest costume shop known to man. Hundreds of awesome monster heads on shelves just staring at you – what more could one ask for?

When I moved states a few years back, the majority of my collection was placed in climate-controlled storage and remains there to this day. Truth be told, I’ve been preoccupied for years and haven’t had the time to recreate THE ROOM, but it’s coming.

As far a precaution, I always made sure that wherever my pieces are displayed or stored, is climate and humidity controlled, as well as away from any sunlight or fluorescent lighting. It’s also very important to do a monthly dusting of your pieces, as well as making sure they’re properly stuffed.

THC – Who are some of the modern mask artists that you admire today?

EA – I’ve been doing this whole thing for 20 years or so, with the HMA and Mask-Fest, so I gravitate towards the guys who were there when I began, and our still going strong. We’re talking the nitty gritty independent artists like Pete Infelise, Justin Mabry, Jeff Keim, Paul Daniels, etc.. If you can consistently put out product from your garage, for 20-30 years, you’re obviously doing something right.

There are many more guys and gals I could name, but we’d be here all day. As far as mass production goes, I’m super impressed with what Trick ‘R Treat Studios has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. I’m also amazed that Distortions Unlimited and Zagone Studios are still cranking out amazing masks and creatures (in the U.S.) after so many years. I’m not really sure I answered your question correctly? If you meant new young gun artists, it’s INSANE how many people are entering the craft. Look up artist Noah Rivers, before he’s famous.

THC – Is there any monster, creature, alien, or otherwise that you feel is underrepresented in latex, and needs to be immortalized as a mask?

EA – I always feel there’s a lack of Joy Behar representation within the hobby.

I don’t want to pinpoint any certain character, because my tastes in monsters may differ from everyone else’s. There are many fantastic monsters of film that have never been cast in latex, due to lack of mainstream popularity. Both independent artists and mass production companies have to go with what puts food on the table, whether they like the characters or not. I’ll say that it’s been refreshing, for me at least, to see more collectors and artists gravitating towards original creations, over the past few years.

THC – Do you collect anything else besides masks? If so, tell us about it?

EA – Are aliens real? The answer is yes. Collecting is in my DNA, for better or worse.

My second collecting love has always been action figures and toys. Whether it’s Masters of The Universe, Turtles, Madballs, Transformers, superheroes, horror characters, sofubi (Japanese vinyl), etc., I’m into it.

The toy aisle has always been my second home and I’m fine with that. We live in a crazy world filled with nonsense and negativity, so if toys put a smile on my face, I’m fine with owning my nerdom.

HOT TAKE – I also collect toenails of celebrity chefs. Didn’t think you’d get that exclusive, did you?

THC – You are the founder/creator/evil genius behind The Halloween Mask Association. In its heyday, this was the preeminent site on the internet for collectors, artists, and other fiends to gather, share knowledge, sell, and trade masks, and basically to hang in a community of passionate friends. Tell us about how the site came to be. Give us a flavor of the forum in its Golden Age and talk a bit about its end.

EA – I’ll try to keep this short, if that’s possible. Back in ’95 I was in my first year of college, where I was exposed to this new-fangled thing called THE WORLD WIDE WEB, created by Al Gore.

I remember being fascinated by having the ability to type anything I had interest in and finding groups of likeminded individuals I could interact with on the subject. One thing I loved, and still do, was John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, so I typed it in, found a bulletin board called “Back Talk” (yes kids, this was way before Facebook and Instagram), waited an hour or so for the site to load, then I began talking to people all over the U.S. about “Halloween”.

I met a fellow on the board that shared my interest in collecting Halloween masks, especially anything Don Post Studios, and we really hit it off. We would spend hours in the chat room shooting the poop on our favorite masks, masks that need to be made, and masks that need to be made better. One day I got a call from my buddy saying he found a book that was all about collecting masks, and told me I would be amazed at he was seeing in its pages. Well, I got on the horn toot sweet with the store he purchased it from and placed an order for my very own copy of Dr. Lady’s Guide to TV & Monster Masks!

When I finally received the book, my jaw dropped to the ground! I found out that mask collecting had been going on for years and not only were people collecting masks that had been in costume shops, but masks and busts that were being commissioned by fans who wanted characters that were never produced! My friend and I got the idea to have a Michael Myers mask commissioned, seeing we couldn’t find a decent one to save our lives. We found members on the forum who were interested in investing in the commission, we found our artist, then we decided it was time to set up our own forum for our commission group. One day I asked our group what should we call ourselves, and one guy replied with “The Halloween Mask Association”. I thought the name spelled it out fairly nice, but it didn’t seem sharp enough to me, so I said we’ll keep it, but shorten it to “The HMA”.

After that first commission, things really took off from there. We had the best artists doing HMA exclusive pieces, for years! I’m talking Lee Romaire, Harry Inman, Tom Spina, Casey Love, Jon Fuller, Justin Mabry, etc., etc.. It’s quite something to see where some of these guys are now and know that many started out on our humble little forum. During its heyday, The HMA was the place to be, whether you were a mask collector, mask artist, spfx artist, monster enthusiast, whatever! Everyone was aware of the group, as I had interactions with Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Don Post Jr., Ed Edmunds, Steve Wang, Greg Nicotero, and the list goes on and on. People would really be surprised at who once lurked on The HMA. We really had a special place with The HMA, but just like anything else, everything runs its course and must come to an end. With the rise of Facebook and Instagram, bulletin boards had become unnecessary, so with a heavy heart, The HMA came to its end, this past year.

THC – Regarding The HMA, is there anything that you are most proud of?

EA – I’m most proud of taking the torch from those collectors and artists that came before me and introducing a new generation to mask collecting and mask making. Many artists, businesses, shows, etc., sprang from The HMA, and I’ve very proud of that.

THC – What advice would you give to a new collector of masks? What resources should they reference? Where can they find masks?

EA – This is going to sound like an awful plug, but I think going to a show like Mask-Fest is the best thing a new collector can do for themselves. You learn so much by meeting artists and collectors, in person, rather than trying to fill in the gaps with various Facebook pages. Unfortunately, one must take a leap of faith when ordering a mask or bust from someone they know nothing about, online. By going to shows, you get to meet the artist and see the finished product in person, as well as getting advice from fellow collectors. Other than that, there’s always Ebay and social media.

THC – You can only choose one, which would you choose…vintage Topstone or vintage Don Post, and why?

EA – I love them both dearly, but I have to go with Don Post Studios. I certainly owned Topstones, but I always coveted the Don Post classics that I would see being used in “wax museums”, haunted houses, movies & tv. Don Post was where it was at for ages! Sorry Shock Monster, DP is for me!

THC – One of the best things that came from The HMA, was the creation of MaskFest. For those reading this who are unaware, tell us what MaskFest is, how it came to be, why do we need it, and how important it has become in the Mask community.

EA – Mask-Fest is a yearly convention that consists of the country’s top mask and monster makers. Think of it as a monster art show in which you can purchase everything you see, but there’s no stuffy vibe at all.

Basically, during the early years of The HMA, a small group of our members met up at the old Transworld show in Chicago. We all wanted to see what was coming out from our favorite companies. At our first gathering of maybe 8 guys, someone said we should all go out to dinner after the show, and that’s what we did.

Well, that small dinner of 8 or so guys grew bigger and bigger every year, to the point where I was having to make very large restaurant reservations within the city. It’s funny, because during one of our last dinners, I remember a limo picking a large chunk of our group up to take us to dinner. There, squeezed in the stretched limo, was me, Ed & Marsha Edmunds, Bob Short, Justin Mabry, Jordu Schell, and so many other industry names that I don’t recall even inviting. The Mask-Fest dinner became almost a status event for after hours at Transworld. I think we had between 50-60 people at our last dinner in Chicago, and at that moment I thought to myself, why aren’t we doing a show for mask enthusiasts? If this many people were so excited to just have dinner with one another, wouldn’t it be better to have our own convention? Long story short, the stars aligned and I was approached by HorrorHound to throw a show alongside their HorrorHound Weekend, and the rest is history. It’s kind of cool, because I really only advertise Mask-Fest, but when mask folks get to the show, they realize that they’re also getting HorrorHound Weekend, and vice versa. It’s not every day you get 2 shows for the price of one!

THC – 2019 will be the 10th Anniversary of MaskFest. What can we expect from this milestone year? Tell us about the first MaskFest and how has grown and evolved over time.

EA – You can expect a bigger and better Mask-Fest this year, even though that’s the case every year. We must be doing something right, because I personally think our artist lineup is nothing short of amazing for any mask or monster making enthusiast.

We’ve certainly grown over the years and our beginnings were more than humble. Don’t get me wrong, our first show had the likes of Jordu Schell, Justin Mabry, Casey Love, Daniel Horne, Pete Infelise, etc., but we maybe had a group of 15 artists, relegated to the back of HorrorHound Weekend’s main ballroom. At that time however, I’m not sure the Midwest region didn’t know what to make of artisanal monsters. Sure the attendees loved what they saw, but I don’t think they understood the hobby and price tags at that time. Mask-Fest has certainly educated the area over the years, but now we have attendees who fly in from all over the world to come to the show and pick up one of a kind masks and monsters. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. THC – What advice can you give for someone attending for the first time?

EA – Bring your credit cards and worry about the bill when you get home. That sounds like a joke, but it’s true. If you see something you really dig, you need to pick it up when you see it, as many of our artist’s pieces sell out within the first day of the show. Also, Mask-Fest is cash and carry, meaning you don’t place orders – you buy it and carry it back home. After the show floor closes at night, be sure to take in any after-hours events that Mask-Fest or HorrorHound Weekend has to offer. Wear comfortable shoes, bring water, snacks, Aleve, vitamin C, and hand sanitizer. I want you to have the time of your life, but I also want you to go home without being sick. If your on the fence about going, get off that fence and order a weekend pass while you still have time. Once you go to Mask-Fest, it becomes a yearly vacation.

THC – Are there any first time guests that you are excited to see this year?  What will make this year a success in your mind?

EA – I’m uber excited that we have Norman Cabrera making his first Mask-Fest appearance, as his film credits alongside his incredible personal project are insane! Norman is actually debuting his new wearable mask line at this year’s show. How cool is that?! I’m also excited to have the famous Michael Burnett and James Groman making their Mask-Fest debut’s. If you’re unfamiliar with the names, do yourself a favor and google those guys, as they’re responsible for so much cool stuff that you love, but just aren’t aware of.

This year will be a success if I see smiling faces, both artist and collector alike. I never started Mask-Fest with the intention of making any sort of living with it, but I continue on with the show, because I know how much it means to so many people. Every year when the weekend is over, I’m completely wiped and I kiddingly ask myself if this was the last one. Then, after a week or so goes by, people are posting on social media about their post Mask-Fest blues and emailing me about next year’s show. How can I say no to putting a smile on someone’s face? So yea, as long as I see happy attendees, I know I have a success on my hands.

THC – How can people find information about MaskFest, whether it be location, tickets, guests, etc…?

EA – I love this question, because it’s so darn easy! For all pertinent information, please go to www.maskfest.com . Also, be sure to follow us on Instagram at @maskfest and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/maskfestofficial .

A cartoon drawing of a zombie in cinema staff attire