published Saturday, October 29th, 2011

You may bite the bride: Viva Las Vegas chapel offering elaborate horror-themed wedding ceremonies

By Ashley Powers

Los Angeles Times

LAS VEGAS — The groom wore a blood-red tie, the bride a strapless blood-red gown.

The officiant emerged from a coffin.

The vampires skulked in the back of the chapel.

The guests were dumbfounded.

When Jacqueline Seidel and her boyfriend of 25 years decided to get married, she wanted something different. Vegas different. Something more daring than (yawn) dressing as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

A Star Trek-themed ceremony didn’t pan out. Nuptials aboard the Treasure Island hotel pirate ship? At $3,000, no way. So Seidel ended up at the Viva Las Vegas chapel, which has carved out an unusual — and surprisingly popular — niche in the cutthroat Vegas betrothal business: Halloween-themed weddings.

The brainchild of an owner infatuated with stagecraft and the undead, the various spectral ceremonies available to couples feature a Count Dracula, a “Twilight” Edward, a zombie Elvis and a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. (Insert marriage-equals-death joke here. Oh, and fork over $750.)

As outlandish as the ceremonies may be — a zombie groom once pretended to slurp up his bride’s brain — they’ve drummed up business for the chapel as it battles with dozens of others here for a dwindling pool of brides and grooms.

Last year, Clark County, Nev., issued fewer than 92,000 marriage licenses, the lowest number since 1993. (Licenses peaked at more than 128,000 in 2004.) The competition is so ferocious that, a few years back, rival chapels accused each other of slashing tires and shouting death threats.

Other Vegas chapels offer Halloween-inspired nuptials, said Joni Moss, founder of the Nevada Wedding Association, but none with the theatricality of a haunted house. “They’re putting on mini-stage-productions over there,” she said. Take the chapel’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” package: The staff belts out “Time Warp” and a Dr. Frank-N-Furter performs both the ceremony and the song “Sweet Transvestite.”

As Halloween has morphed into a holiday that gives adults an excuse to play dress-up, retailers have responded with pumpkin-infused libations and costumes that hug grown-up curves. So, too, has the wedding industry. Nationwide, it’s now the most popular day in October to get married, according to the editor of wedding website The Knot.

Even Vegas chapels with no ghoulish options expect to see an uptick in business Monday. (When Halloween falls on a weekend, they are even more crammed with Cleopatras and Frankensteins saying “I do.”) At Viva Las Vegas, a downtown chapel near a tattoo parlor and a strip club, about 45 couples are slated to exchange rings this Halloween. More couples will wed in the preceding days.

Seidel, 42, who lives in Perham, Minn., scheduled her vampiric ceremony for Oct. 18. She and her fiance, Dan Lubitz, started dating in high school, and he proposed a short time later. “We’re too young,” Seidel said then. So they waited. And waited.

Finally, when Seidel’s brother got engaged, she and Lubitz decided it was time. “I didn’t want a church wedding,” she said, “maybe because we’ve been together for so long.”

Seidel has been fascinated with creatures of the night since watching “Interview with the Vampire.” A repeat Vegas tourist, she had smiled through a Stratosphere hotel show called “Bite,” in which vampires bare fangs and breasts to a heavy metal soundtrack. Seidel learned that the show’s aerialists also performed in the Viva chapel for a ceremony called “When Vampires Fly.”

Sold.

Viva Las Vegas Weddings, which opened about a decade ago, is the brainchild of Ron Decar. A former singer at the Tropicana hotel, Decar also sang at weddings. In his opinion, couples only had two options in Vegas: a suited celebrant or Elvis. So Decar offered over-the-top weddings that other chapels mostly pooh-poohed, at first.

From the get-go, he sold a “gothic wedding” package, mostly because Decar loves Halloween. As a kid, he’d turn his basement into a haunted space and charge neighbors a nickel to walk through. Now Decar often plays the Grim Reaper, using a vaguely British accent, and demands his employees embrace the scary — not sexy — side of Halloween.

“He says, ’If you want to be Little Red Riding Hood, you better be a dead Red Riding Hood,”’ recalled photographer Millie Loewinsohn, who has worked at the chapel for years.

These days, about half of the ceremonies are traditional, Decar said. But of the themed offerings, the gothic wedding trails only the Elvis-pink Cadillac package in popularity. “06/06/06 was a great day for us. A lot of the other chapels were dead,” said Decar, seemingly unaware of his own pun.

One afternoon this month, Decar checked on the accouterments he’d collected for Halloween weddings, including a 7-foot-tall Frankenstein monster and an animatronic version of “Exorcist” star Linda Blair.

“She talks and shakes, but I’m having problems getting her head to spin,” said Decar, a lean, black-haired, somewhat persnickety man wearing a white Elvis jumpsuit from a wedding earlier that day.

About 1 in 4 weddings nationwide last year was themed, a sort of nuptial that tends to appeal to brides who want little to do with a church and a white dress. Newlyweds are older than in years past, more likely to pay for their own weddings and more desirous of a ceremony that reflects their tastes, said Anja Winikka, editor of The Knot.

Also, Halloween weddings are fun. Mostly. Decar had to say no to one couple who asked to drink actual blood.

Last year, a couple asked to be married at 1 p.m., the so-called “13th hour.” The groom showed up with a large rod and some chicken feathers, photographer Loewinsohn said. Midceremony, he started chanting incoherently.

“The hair on my arms stood up,” Loewinsohn said.

“I’ve never felt so bad after a wedding,” said fellow photographer Kalin Ivanov, who preferred shooting another Halloween couple who were caked in fake blood. The bride’s mother wore ghostly makeup, a sweat shirt that said “Zombie Lover” and a huge smile.

Seidel’s evening ceremony began with a blast of fog and the boom of thunderclaps. Her dark-suited father escorted her down the aisle to a recording of maniacal laughter.

The groom beamed as his bride joined him in front of some tombstones and a propped-up coffin.

Dong! Dong! Dong!

At the sound, the casket creaked open and Dracula stepped out. Played by manager Brian Mills, he wore a black top hat and brandished a chalice of faux blood. The couple’s dozen guests sat wide-eyed as he led Seidel and Lubitz through their “I do’s.”

“The rings you’re about to exchange are like a vampire’s life — eternal,” Dracula said.

Seidel swallowed a laugh.

As she and Lubitz swapped rings and wedding-day promises, however, she started to choke up.

“Keep breathing,” Dracula said. “You’re doing great.”

Together, the couple lighted a white candle. Then Dracula summoned the vampires. The black-sheathed aerialists emerged from the chapel’s shadows and hooked themselves to a rope-and-pulley system. They spun with the flash and speed of a disco ball — to Def Leppard’s “Love Bites.”

The guests applauded. Dracula made Seidel and Lubitz vow to not be “a pain in the neck.” Everyone laughed.

Then the newly married couple walked back down the aisle to the soundtrack from “Halloween.”

———

(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times

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