Halloween is Christmas for this Santa Cruz Mask Maker

(With Video) Trick or Treat Studios has grown a $250,000 investment into a $1 million business making creepy masks.

For everyone else it may be Halloween, but for Chris Zephro October 31 is Christmas.

What else would it be for a guy who has turned his passion for collecting creepy masks into a $1 million a year business designing and selling them all over the world?

In just three years Zephro's Trick or Treat Studios has become a formidable designer of original and Hollywood masks. He has the rights to the face of murderer Michael Myers from Halloween 2, works with Rob Zombie and had masks in the latest Planet of the Apes feature.

He's about to release a line of masks from the Disneyland Haunted House and is working with the estates of famous monster actors Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. to manufacture famous monster masks.

"I don't care what we do on Christmas," said Zephro, 42. "We could go away or stay home. But on Halloween, we have to be home. It's my favorite holiday."

He spends the night trick or treating with his wife, Lauren and daughter Sydney, 8, but with his mask collection and passion for the creepy and ghoulish, his house always looks like Halloween.

Zephro's business is run from his Aptos home and a warehouse in Soquel, from which he sold $1 million worth of masks last year, his third in the business. He sells in Halloween and costume shops and online here.

"When we started, no one wanted to talk to us," he said. "Now, they call me."

Zephro set out to be an entrepreneur after spending almost a decade working for the disk drive maker, Seagate, running its supply chain. He grew sick of the corporate world and what he saw as its incompetence and took a big risk as an entrepreneur.

He saw a niche in his own hobby. There were cheap overseas masks that sold for $30 and were flat, colorless and lacking intricate details. Then there were professional custom-made masks for $350.

Zephro took a risk on an in-between niche. Trick or Treat would make expensively detailed masks in the $40-$60 range. He hired local artists to design creepy characters such as the Cyclops, Brain Eater and Gluten Freak.

Because he didn't have the money to pay them, he gave them a share of the profits, something that has turned out better for the artists than for him.

He took the masks to trade shows and their quality stood out. Eventually he got the contract from Universal Studios to sell Michael Myers masks, something that moved him up to the next level and allowed him to hire 19 employees.

(Stump your friends with this bit of trivia: Did you know the original Michael Myers mask for the movie was made from a cut up and painted William Shatner mask? )

It paid off, according to Nancy Cote, whose Halloween Asylum.com is one of the biggest Halloween retailers on the web. She got a cold call from Zephos four years ago and decided to try his masks. They were a hit, particularly the Michael Myers.

"A lot of us in the industry wondered why there was no Michael Myers mask that looked like the one in the movie. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but no one did it." It became a hot seller for her.

"I've seen a lot of companies come and go and masks come and go," said Cote, who has been in the business 17 years. "More and more prodcuction has moved to China and the quality has slipped. It seems more and more like they are only concerned with making money and not the quality of the product.

"I would say from what I know about Chris and his sculptors, the biggest difference is their passion and how much they love what they do. It really comes through in their products."

Making masks is more of an art than a mass production line, far more labor intensive than you might expect. Each mask starts with a sculpture. Next, that is turned into a mold. But a mold only lasts for 20 masks because the latex wears down the subtle details of the wrinkles, moles and protruding teeth.

The latex is then hand-painted in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in a plant that Zephro's daughter describes as "like being in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Zephro uses pure latex, which keeps the smell at a minimum and he doesn't use synthetics for the hair. Instead he uses camel hair for a real-life feel and because it lasts for a relative eternity, compared to cheaper materials.

A lot of the design ideas come from Justin Mabry, the first person Zephro contacted when he knew he wanted to make masks. Mabry's Night Owl Productions, in Jackson, Miss., designed some of his favorite masks in his collection.

A UCSC grad in math and economics, Zephro got his startup money by not buying a house when everyone else did. He saved up while at  Seagate after getting an MBA in supply chain organization from the University of Tennessee.

Zephro is as ambitious as his masks are creepy. After finding companies such as the Dollar Tree stealing his designs, he sued and won settlements. Now, he's going to law school to study intellectual property law.

Even meeting his wife showed he wasn't afraid to make the big reach.

They met at World Gym, where Zephro, 5 feet 4 inches tall, approached Lauren, who is 6 feet three inches. "I told her that if I were taller, I would marry her," he said.

They have been together for 20 years.

His wife also has a somewhat ghoulish profession: who reconstructs dead bodies and crime scenes.

Even at his other hobby Zephro excels. One of his happiest days was getting his black belt in Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. He introduced his brother-in-law Luke Rockhold to the sport.

Rockhold is the Middleweight Strikeforce Champion in Mixed Martial Arts, but given his other accomplisments, you might have to believe Zephro when he says he would win a fight with the champ, who is 28 and 6 feet 3 inches tall.

"He's only a brown belt," said Zephro. "I'm a black belt."

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