If Marcus Koch carried a business card, it undoubtedly would proclaim him a master of terror.
At 17, he is on his way to a career in blood, guts and gore. He frowns upon average teenage pursuits like video games and mall hopping. Every free hour goes into scrounging up materials to sculpt into life-like body parts and other horrifying theatrical props.
With three friends also into darker modes of fun _ Cheryl Gibbins, 15; Sunny Faulhaber, 17; and Mike Becker, 17 _ he has formed Visionary Productions, a theatrical production company specializing in _ what else _ horror.
"We want our art to make people think about their fears," said Koch, a senior at Countryside High School in Clearwater. "If we can scare one person, it's worth all the time we spend thinking this stuff up."
Koch and crew will see how successful they are today when their first creation "Foreboden," a nine-room haunted house at Gateway Mall, opens to the public.
Money from the event will help fund programs for Girls Inc. of Pinellas, which sponsors educational and developmental programs for about 2,000 girls in Pinellas County. During the past two years, the haunted house has raised $15,000 for Girls Inc.
Visionary Productions and nearly a dozen other volunteers spent two weeks transforming a former Italian restaurant into something they call "a mind altering trip through a gallery of fear."
"Most haunted houses are about people jumping out at you and yelling "boo.' Anybody can do that," said Gibbins, a sophomore at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs. "But how many can create something that plays tricks on your mind?"
The group could not afford high-tech scare tactics, but visitors are warned to be on the look out for flying body parts, vanishing rooms, dismembered bodies and a torture chamber.
No matter how many people visit Foreboden, Faulhaber, a senior at PCCA at Gibbs, said she and her friends will count themselves successful.
"We're proving that we have the talent and the focus to make this our career," she said. "And we're going to put Gateway Mall on the minds of people who would probably never come in here."
To help spread the word, Becker has plastered thousands of fliers across Pinellas County.
"This is a good test for us to see how mature our art is. We want it to scare the heck out of everybody that walks through the door," said Becker, a senior at the Pinellas Technical Education Center in St. Petersburg.
Indeed, that is the goal, but Tim Caddell, executive director of Girls Inc., said Foreboden is a testament to teenage determination.
At one point, Caddell was told he would have to cancel the haunted house benefit. After two years of donating space, management officials at another mall said the project had become too much of a liability, he said.
Caddell gave up.
"I was pretty much convinced it wasn't going to happen, but the kids refused to let the idea die," he said. "They called every mall in Pinellas County."
When they persuaded Gateway Mall to donate nearly 3,000 square feet, the teenagers called Caddell with one request: money for insurance. They used their money and donations from local companies to buy supplies such as plywood, tools and art equipment.
They have been hammering and nailing ever since.
"Girls Inc. is about giving kids opportunities to grow and master their own world," Caddell said. "This is exactly what these kids are doing. They have not only turned this event into a showcase for their talents but they are doing something that will benefit hundreds of younger kids throughout Pinellas County."
Koch sums it up another way: "One day I know we're going to get paid to do this, but for now we're just having fun scaring people."
IF YOU GO
Foreboden, the haunted house to benefit Girls Inc., will be open from 6 to 9 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 1 at Gateway Mall, 7885 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 10 and younger.