Zombies love Telluride Horror Show's killer karaoke. (Courtesy photo)

Numbers can be terrifying. Ted Wilson knows this. As the founder of the annual Telluride Horror Show, Wilson recalls the event’s humble beginnings, including the scant ticket sales.

“One number I’ll never forget. It was the first year; we sold 14 passes to the festival. … 14,” he said.

This weekend is the 10th annual Telluride Horror Show, and it’s safe to say it’s grown a bit in the decade since the inaugural year. As of Monday, 700 individual passes had been sold — and that number doesn’t include six-pack ticket sets, which adds up to a few hundred more visitors.

“To go from 14… and now this year, we’ll have 1,000 people in town for the festival,” Wilson said.

The Telluride Horror Show is both the first of its kind and the longest running such festival in all of Colorado. It’s a testament to Wilson and his dedicated crew of fright-film aficionados.

“I'm proud that we stuck with it — not only myself, but all the staff, family and friends. We all stuck with it and created a fun, slightly crazy, somewhat rebellious festival in Telluride that brings in cool people from all over the country,” said Wilson, who lives here.

The horror genre isn’t for everyone. It can be abrasive, revolting and, well, horrifying, but its fans are dedicated as any. (For those who are not fans: the genre’s appeal is not as much about gore as it is catharsis.)

The late Wes Craven, the man responsible for the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” franchises, may have explained it best.

“Horror films don't create fear,” Craven said. “They release it.”

Similarly, John Carpenter, who released Michael Myers into the world through his “Halloween” films, said, “What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me.”  

Growing up in the small town of Angola, Indiana, Wilson had what he calls a “classic American horror upbringing”: He was compelled by the horror section at the local video store as a pre-teen, and by Stephen King novels. Not much has changed since then, he admits. 

“I still have the same attraction to the genre, in the sense of, should I really be watching this? Can I handle it?” he said. “Horror can be the most challenging cinematic experience, and I still love the challenge.”

Erik Cooper, a Horror Show programmer, explained how he became enamored of the genre.

“I remember watching ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as a kid,” Cooper recalled. “When you first see something that graphically violent and intense, it’s shocking. I’ve never forgotten how it was disturbing in a fun way. … It’s still fun to just be creeped out to see something scary and terrifying. It’s still a thrill. One of our favorite things to do is sit backstage and listen to our audience reacting to (films). I look forward to that all year.”

This year’s lineup isn’t lacking in heavy-hitting scares. While the Horror Show has always championed indie productions made on shoestring budgets, bigger studios are now coming to town. This year, Hulu (“Wounds”), Netflix (“Eli”) and Blumhouse (“Sweetheart”) have entries. There is also a handful of U.S. premieres (“Girl with No Mouth,” “Sator” and “Scare Package”) and several more Colorado premieres.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Wilson, who worked with local festivals prior to starting his own, knew it would be tough to establish the Horror Show as a go-to genre festival.

“Our film lineups have become stronger and better over the years,” he said. “That's the battle: to get the good stuff each year. And we're getting more and more of that good stuff. Having the national horror industry finally joining the party, that's a huge help.”

And how does Horror Show procure the good stuff? Cooper and fellow programmer Brady Richards watch every entry each year; for the past couple of festivals, this has meant viewing nearly 1,000 feature-length and short films.

“I can usually tell within the first, like, 5 seconds if it’s something worth my time,” said Cooper, who has developed quite the discerning eye. The fact that the delivery system has transformed makes viewing easier. “I was watching stuff when we were getting DVDs mailed to us,” he recalled. “Now it’s all on the computer.”

Richards, who worked festivals with Cooper and Wilson for years before the creation of the Horror Show, said, “We still want to give everything a fair shake and there’s definitely been a few surprises.”

One such surprise, he explained, is “Sator,” which is about a malevolent creature that stalks a family in the woods. The official trailer doesn’t reveal much, but there is an image of a ram-skulled deity that’s about as terrifying as anything ever. Richards said “Sator” is one of the films he’s looking forward to most.

The 2019 film lineup has a little bit of everything, including animated shorts. The fest has broadened to include more than cinema. A guest author program started a couple years ago, and for the first time this year, there will be a guest photographer: Joshua Hoffine. Pulitzer Prize finalist Kelly Link (“Get in Trouble”) is the guest author this year. To say the Horror Show crew is excited about featuring such a celebrated writer is an understatement. Wilson previously told the Telluride Daily Planet, The Watch’s sister publication, that Link will “class up the joint for sure.”

“To be honest, we’re nervous that she’s coming because she’s an amazing, amazing talent,” he said.

Like Wilson, Cooper is a fan of Link’s “magical realism,” comparing her to genre titan Neil Gaiman, who has also sung Link’s praises.  

“This is a big-deal author. I don’t think a lot of people realize that we’re really lucky to have her in town this weekend,” Cooper said. “Read one of her stories and I guarantee you’ll be like, ‘Whoa.’”

That’s the thing; everyone involved in the Horror Show are as much fans of this genre as the attendees.  

“We’re amateurs compared to our audience,” Cooper said. “They love this stuff way more than we do. They love their Freddies and Jasons. I love the enthusiasm.”

Richards agreed, “They support the hell out of this.”

Wilson, who opened Gargoyle’s Gift Shop (aka Horror Show HQ) a couple years ago, is quick to compliment staff, volunteers and attendees, who he said have made Horror Show their own.

“After 10 years, the attendees own this festival. They’re participating. They’ve taken ownership,” he said.

Sitting at his desk in the back of the gift shop, Wilson laughs when asked if he envisioned running Horror Show for a decade.

“I had a lot of doubts. I still have doubts, but it’s worth all the boring behind the scenes production work,” he said. “It’s worth it when those theater doors open.”

For the full Horror Show schedule and to buy tickets, visit telluridehorrorshow.com.