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A lifelong passion for scary movies led Ben Scrivens to start Fright Rags, an online purveyor of original horror-themed T-shirts. The Rochester-based company now has a global fan base, and is getting work from major movie studios.

Night of the living thread 

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Fright Rags is making the world a scarier place, one terrifying T-shirt at a time

The horror bug bit Ben Scrivens early. The 38-year-old's mischievous eyes light up when recalling the exact moment he got hooked on horror films. He was 4 and bored during a Halloween party his parents were attending. Told to occupy himself, he had plopped down in front of a television when John Carpenter's seminal 1978 slasher flick, "Halloween," happened to come on. Scrivens had never seen anything like it.

"I sat transfixed for two hours," he says. "And ever since then I've loved horror movies and watched anything I could get my hands on."

Early indoctrination is a common thread among horror fans. "It's funny, when I go to these horror conventions and talk to friends and people within the community, we all have almost the same exact story," Scrivens says. "The only thing that differs is the age and the movie. I was 4, and it happened to be 'Halloween.' It's almost like Clue: age 4, the movie was 'Halloween,' in my friend's living room. The thing that's the same is we're all young and we all saw a horror movie that we probably weren't supposed to."

A lot of it, Scrivens says, has to do with that "forbidden fruit." Horror is visceral; it will stick with you. "When Michael Myers busts through that closet door ... I think about it now and I still get chills."

That lifelong passion for scary movies led Scrivens to create Fright Rags, a popular Rochester-based online purveyor of original horror movie-themed apparel. With a customer base that spans the globe, film studios have also taken note: Fright Rags created an official line of T-shirts for the horror comedy movie "Krampus" to coincide with the film's release last December, and the company partnered with 20th Century Fox for an "Aliens" T-shirt in celebration of "Alien Day" on April 26.

In fandom, there's a certain importance placed on proudly showing off your obsessions — preferably emblazoned across your chest on a kick-ass T-shirt. It's that sense of self-identification that has pulled horror fans to Fright Rags since 2003, when the company began as a way for Scrivens to use his childhood love of horror as a creative outlet to combat the dull office environment he'd found himself in as a young graphic designer.

click to enlarge Ben Scrivens started Fright Rags in 2003 as a way for him to combine his childhood love of horror with his graphic design talent. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Ben Scrivens started Fright Rags in 2003 as a way for him to combine his childhood love of horror with his graphic design talent.

The company started as a hobby operating out of Scrivens' home, and he partnered with a few friends and business acquaintances. But as time went on, Fright Rags grew into something larger — something Scrivens knew he wanted to do for life. Scrivens devoted himself to the cause, and by 2008 he was able to quit his job and focus solely on his company. Fright Rags now has four full-time and four part-time employees.

Scrivens says he couldn't be more pleased with the company's trajectory, even if he sometimes has to marvel at where he's found himself. "I just emailed with Rob Zombie, and I get to go sign a contract for the 'Predator' movie series that we're gonna be doing. Plus I'm in this cool building with these really great people and we're working. You walk around and you see people doing their job and you're like, 'Shit, this is like a company. This is legit.'"

Headquartered in downtown Rochester's Cascade District, the Fright Rags space looks exactly as you might expect for a company drenched in horror. The office is artfully packed with fright-flick paraphernalia: posters, toys, and figures, including a life-sized, machete-wielding Jason Voorhees just outside the main door.

click to enlarge The Fright Rags office space in downtown Rochester is filled with horror memorabilia, and a library of VHS tapes. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • The Fright Rags office space in downtown Rochester is filled with horror memorabilia, and a library of VHS tapes.

And the building happens to be a former morgue. Walking through the warehouse space just below the offices, Scrivens excitedly points out the drains in the floor which once allowed blood and viscera to escape as autopsies were conducted.

Scattered across the walls are posters and art from several of the company's hundreds of T-shirts. The Fright Rags style features highly-detailed, often painterly designs highlighting a surprising breadth of films, from horror staples to current releases and the obscure gems in between. A recent release for the cult film "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" included scratch-and-sniff stickers (scented with cotton candy, naturally) and microwave popcorn with the face of one of the film's monstrous clowns adorning the bags. Another popular addition are gift sets that include retro, Ben Cooper and Collegeville-style Halloween masks packaged along with a T-shirt.

The company's all-time bestselling shirt is "Kill Destroyers," a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the rock band Kiss with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Chucky, and Leatherface swapped in for the group's members. The slasher movie icons are depicted leaping into the air, weapons ready to strike.

While Fright Rags has been branching out slightly with the subjects featured on its clothing — a line of shirts featuring the General Mills cereal monsters is planned for this coming October — the forefront of the company's focus continues to be movies.

Fright Rags' latest endeavor is Saturday Night Rewind, an ongoing monthly film series screening popular genre movies on 35mm film. The series marks a continuation of the company's longstanding partnership with The Little Theatre, which evolved out of the 2009 "25-Hour Horror Feast," where Fright Rags teamed up with The Little to screen horror movies, marathon-style, from Halloween eve through Halloween night. Last year, the two organizations collaborated on weekly horror movie screenings throughout October.

The Saturday Night Rewind series kicked off in March with John Carpenter's endearingly goofy 1986 adventure film "Big Trouble in Little China." The schlocky "Critters" followed in April, and Sam Raimi's cult-classic "The Evil Dead" was shown in May. Last month's screening of "Aliens" nearly sold out, and nodding to the bloodthirsty horror flick rivalry, "Predator" is scheduled for Saturday, July 30. Saturday Night Rewind will screen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" on Saturday, August 20.

Screening on 35mm film is crucial to the nostalgic vibe of Saturday Night Rewind. It's a way to recapture child-like enthusiasm while also tapping into the pleasure of experiencing a physical media that's too often lost in our digital age.

That tactile sensation sometimes includes the natural wear and tear of time, but those rough edges only add to the appeal, Scrivens says. Even if the print's "a little worn out, it's cool because film's a living thing; it goes through changes. And with these original prints, they've been handed off and handed off to theaters across the country, so they get dings and they get scratches. It's like an antique, or an heirloom, almost."

That experiential quality is emphasized by Chris Hogan-Roy and Eric Maira, projectionists at The Little. Together with Scrivens, they form the brain trust behind Saturday Night Rewind and collaborate on selecting the film lineup, tracking down prints, and organizing each event.

"You're buying a ticket to be thrown back to a time," Hogan-Roy says. "These are prints that are from that era — and not restored prints, either — so they're prints that actually played in the 80's and 90's. It's all about creating that atmosphere."

Attending the screenings, there's something undeniably transportive about being surrounded by an enthusiastic audience and hearing that unmistakable clacking of the projector while watching a film. "Even if you've seen the movie 100 times," Scrivens says, "to see it in its original format is the greatest thing. I know I just want to enjoy a film in the presence of other people and have fun. I feel like it's a big living room and people are just invited over for a party."

A few local filmmakers are also getting in on the action: Saturday Night Rewind has commissioned shorts from local filmmakers John Vincent and Mike Boas to play in front of certain films. Before the shorts, retro horror-centric movie trailers set the tone for the evening as audiences take their seats. "It's nice from start to finish to put on a show," Hogan-Roy says. "There's constantly something happening on screen. It flows from one thing to another and another."

To add another layer, each screening is rounded out with food options. The "Big Trouble" screening included a pop-up Chinese restaurant operated by Swillburger out of the kitchen of The Little's next-door neighbor, Orange Glory. The restaurant served up themed dishes like "Jack Burton's Cold, Punchy, Noodle Salad," "Ancient Recipe Sesame Chicken," and something called "Orange Smoothie Thing." The Le Petit Poutine and Midnight Smokin' BBQ food trucks and ROC Brewing have each made an appearance.

Scrivens, Hogan-Roy, and Maira are working on screening details for October, which has always been Frights Rags' time to shine. For that month, Saturday Night Rewind will be bumped up to a weekly event. Plans include bringing in TNT's "MonsterVision" host Joe Bob Briggs as a guest, and a screening of local favorite "Lady in White," the 1988 thriller from director Frank LaLoggia centering on the Rochester legend of the White Lady. The group also hopes to incorporate Skype or in-person Q&As with directors, cast, or crew members whenever possible.

The series has been bringing an audience to The Little that might not already be acquainted with the independent movie house. The crowd so far tends to skew a bit younger and a little more adventurous, and as Saturday Night Rewind gains popularity, they hope for more wiggle room to get wacky with the programming.

"That's the great thing about working with Ben: he's within that culture, knows a mountain of people, and has such a good reputation; it just makes sense for him to also be part of a film series." Hogan-Roy says. "And Fright Rags deserves that type of clout. The Little and Fright Rags have always been together, and it just makes sense."

Maira agrees and adds, "It's good synergy. It's good to have a lover of film who's not part of a theater, who has that outside perspective."

Each Saturday Night Rewind film screening has coincided with a Fright Rags T-shirt (or line of T-shirts). The shirts are available through the company's website, though ideally, Scrivens says he'd like to move toward having those shirts for sale at screenings.

click to enlarge Ben Scrivens stands in front of his collection of movie memorabilia. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Ben Scrivens stands in front of his collection of movie memorabilia.

"The best thing about Fright Rags is that we've got a huge reach," Scrivens says. "But the bad thing is our reach within Rochester is very limited. We sell all over the world, but when we get an order from Rochester, it's still like, 'Holy shit! It's a local order; that's cool!' There's a horror community here, but they're not necessarily on our page, so a lot of people don't know about us.

"I know these people exist in Rochester, and I know I'm not the only one. For 'Big Trouble,' we had people coming from 30-40 miles away or more. And that's awesome, that's how it should be."

Still, even without the name recognition in his hometown, he doesn't see the company abandoning its Rochester roots. "I had visions of moving to New York City or some other large city, and working for a big studio or ad agency. I've always loved this city, but I felt like I needed to leave it to 'grow up.' Then I started to realize just how much Rochester had going for it, and how little I participated in any of it. How could I experience all the great things a larger city had when I wasn't even taking advantage of the city I grew up in? I love this city, and while I don't always agree with or understand some of the things that go on here, I am proud to call it my home."

Now that Scrivens has children of his own, is he planning to share his love of horror movies? "I don't deliberately introduce them, but I also don't hide it from them either. My home office — and of course my office at work — is full of horror memorabilia and my kids are used to running around with a Michael Myers mask on, or a Freddy glove. They know all the characters, but I haven't shown them the movies.

"My daughter is 9 years old, and I think she's got a good handle on things, and I have shown her movies like 'Beetlejuice.' My son is going to be 7 in a few weeks and while he talks a big game, he's pretty sensitive so I don't show him too much, even though he really wants to watch everything. That said, I do put on the old Universal Monsters movies for them from time to time, so they have seen those types of films. Part of me hopes at least one of them will take to it — if only so I can hang out and watch horror movies with them. But if neither grow up to love the genre, that's totally fine with me, too."

Predator is part of the Saturday Night Rewind series at The Little Theatre. July 30: “Predator” (1987), Directed by John McTiernan - COURTESY FRIGHT RAGS
  • COURTESY FRIGHT RAGS
  • Predator is part of the Saturday Night Rewind series at The Little Theatre. July 30: “Predator” (1987), Directed by John McTiernan

SATURDAY NIGHT REWIND

Upcoming Saturday Night Rewind screenings All screenings are on Saturday night, 9:30 p.m., at The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue) For more, check out facebook.com/SaturdayNightRewind or thelittle.org/series/saturday-night-rewind July 30: “Predator” (1987), Directed by John McTiernan August 20: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), Directed by Steven Spielberg September 17: “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979), Directed by Allan Arkush

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