We interview Jason Swarr, the horror-obsessed genius behind one of the nation’s premier destinations for fellow horror fans, Terror Trader.
The independent spirit and immersive experience of all things horror, alive, dead, and kicking in the heat of the Southwest desert, resides in Chandler, AZ. We recently sat down with Jason Swarr, owner and visionary of Terror Trader, Arizona’s ONLY year-round horror marketplace where Halloween, culture, and oddities have a permanent place.
More than just a store, Terror Trader is a perfect example of how small business prevails and continuously innovates with much love and scares. Swarr’s vision and enthusiasm for the genre and culture prove that horror and its merchants are here to stay.
MORBIDLY BEAUTIFUL: Welcome to Morbidly Beautiful, Jason!
JASON SWARR: Hello there!
MB: Your store opened on October 1st, 2021, and this is your two-year anniversary. Congratulations. You’ve also broken down walls already, correct?
JS: Yes, we’ve expanded twice and now have a classroom. Terror Trader University recently launched classes ranging from molding headpieces to bloody knives and even building a Zuni Fetish doll.
MB: What inspired you to open Terror Trader?
JS: I’ve always been a monster kid. Growing up in the 80s, that was my jam. The 80s were the golden era of slasher films. I was so lucky to be alive during that time and of the age — a young teen — and to be able to just witness some of the most insane and iconic horror movies ever. I saw Friday 13th, Part Three in 3D in the back of a pickup truck at the drive-in with my little 3D glasses, cold as hell in November, watching that iconic scene when Jason gets his mask. I watched Poltergeist in the theaters.
It seemed like every week there was another blockbuster or future cult classic horror movie coming out, and I was absorbed in it so much.
This is what I love in my life. My room was packed from the gills with Fangoria magazines on my wall. I knew as a kid I wanted to own a horror shop. This is what I want to do.
Coming from West Virginia, there really isn’t much to do besides coal mines or join the military. So, I joined the Marines, and at that point, I liked it. I stayed in. It was just a big group of misfits that I got along with. I ended up doing twenty years and retired from the Marine Corps. I owned a commercial photography studio for a little while and made some good money, but it wasn’t fulfilling. It wasn’t what I really needed in my life.
Then, after eight years, I was at the top of my game. I shut everything down. I quit, which was a shock to my wife Gina, but I told her that I was pushing fifty years old and there was something missing in my life professionally. What I wanted to do was open a horror shop along with my oddities collection.
Another reason there is a store is because of my wife. She would come home, and on the kitchen table, there would be a human torso or a skull. My wife was like, “Stop! You should get a store.” Great idea! I wouldn’t think about opening a brick and mortar myself. The local antique mall had an eight-month waiting period to set up a booth. Then the light bulb hit. There are vendors just like me, so why don’t I open something but with a spooky vibe?
And poof, that’s how Terror Trader was born!
MB: We live in an online horror culture, then we have Spirit serving its purpose for Halloween. But you have refused to sell online. Why is that?
JS: There’s a definite reason behind that. It was obviously the COVID years because — it was a couple of years, right? — we all got comfortable with being introverts and not being around each other. Horror is a community in which we are a bunch of misfits and weirdos. I believe it’s very easy for us to go into our caves and not come out. So, we made the decision that if you want something on Terror Trader, you have to get off the couch, get out of the house, and you can come as protected as you want. Come how you want to look. It doesn’t matter.
We just want you to leave your domicile, experience us, and make this a destination.
MB: I’ve noticed you have had a lot of out-of-state YouTubers coming through.
JS: As a matter of fact, my father-in-law — he’s 80 and diving into the YouTube world — did a search, and we found like 50 videos on Terror Trader. It was amazing. Business decision-wise, would I make a lot more money if I did it online? Absolutely. And maybe one day we’ll get there. But I wasn’t ready for that yet. I want people who make the trip, the journey, regardless.
We had people coming from Rhode Island last week to see us. I want this to be worth walking into or the hours to drive to get down here.
This experience is cool from what you see on Instagram, but pictures don’t do it justice, and it’s nothing like what you experience when you walk in.
People say, “This is way bigger than I saw online!” I hear that every day. I see kids walk in; their eyes light up. So maybe I’m just getting older, and it’s nostalgia. But I want this to be in a child’s brain forever, and you can’t get that by shopping online.
MB: You don’t seem discouraged at all. I’m sure you had naysayers, but you’ve nay-slayed for the past two years.
JS: Definitely, that was the biggest thing. Even our neighbors here in the shopping center were like, “Well, good luck! You know you’re going to last a year, right? There’s no way this would be sustainable.” And you know what? Challenge accepted. When people tell me that, I say, “Okay. What’s going to get people to keep coming back every week?”
This is why we change up the photo ops all the time, why we make this a very visual place. This is why we hold events. I want it to always be fun.
And hats off to these vendors. I have 70-plus vendors right now that change up their booths almost weekly, so every time you walk in, it’s a new shopping experience.
People keep coming back. I think another thing we pride ourselves on is good customer service. We greet everybody who comes in. I want people to feel special because I think we’ve gotten away from that in this world, where it’s too easy to be mean to people. It’s too easy to ignore you.
When you come up and buy something at the counter, and we have a conversation, even if it’s for 30 seconds, that may mean something to somebody.
I’m also learning more about my customers — what they like, what they want, and how to improve the store. I think if we continuously do that, we’ll thrive. I’ve taken that approach day in and day out. When you walk through that door, you’re the highlight of my day. It works both ways, this relationship I have with the customer and vendors.
This community makes me so happy.
MB: What’s the biggest challenge of this whole endeavor?
JS: The biggest challenge is budgeting. I’m a guy that spares no expense to make people happy. I’ll find I spent one to two thousand dollars on a photo op just so you can get a free picture and put that one good photo on Instagram. I’ve got to watch myself because I want this to be a Halloween version of Disneyland, and I tend to go crazy. My wife puts me in check a lot.
Honestly, that is the hardest part, staying on a budget because, at the end of the day, we want to always stay in the black and move on, which we are.
We’ve been in the black since day one. We have not been in debt. I spend about 10 hours a day here, and we’re open eight. And when I come home, I’m not exhausted because this is what I love.
MB: You are also branching out to horror fans outside of Arizona with your YouTube channel. I think the weekly vlogs and podcasts are helping you tremendously. Is The Crypt Cuts a focal point?
JS: Yes, and Creep Cast. Mask Morgue, and another podcast, Drag Us To Hell. 4 Doors of Death is more of a film review segment.
MB: And Terrornormal Activity! Lots of unexplained creepy things keep happening on camera. Now, are you afraid that someday shit’s going to go Evil Dead in here?
JS: Could happen, yes. If you look at our counter, there’s always a box on the wall, and it’s got a crucifix of holy water. I think a rosary is in there, and that’s our breaking glass in case of war. If shit goes south, we got something. But the paranormal activity here has been spotty, to say the least. It’s why I have eight to nine cameras inside, trying to catch anything I can. I probably only post half of what goes down because sometimes it’s a bottle of something flying off the shelf.
MB: Can you tell us about the Ouija boards or some of the oddities you’ve bought and their stories?
JS: We get a lot of people who will come in and surrender items to us. I love being a showman, but I also don’t like being a con man. Anything that comes in, I get investigated by paranormal investigators, sometimes twice with two different people.
There’s been about six items that had some real heat to it. If the investigator or medium is like, “We’re out of here; I ain’t touching this,” that’s the stuff we’ll display inside the Oddities room.
We’ll get the back story because I don’t know if these items caused harm or were negative to their former owners. It doesn’t mean they need to be discarded. I’m a big roadside attraction guy. The curiosity in all of us will always get us to go look behind that, that in that dark alley, or behind the corner. “What is that?” “I’ve got to go see this!”
I’ve always been a big fan of the art of presentation of something odd like the Fiji Mermaid that goes back to the 1800s.
P.T. Barnum was amazing; people would travel miles and days to go see this monkey slash fish thing that was a total fake, which doesn’t matter. It’s the story behind it, whether you believe it or not. When kids come up and say, “Is that Smurf corpse real?” “Absolutely, that’s up to you to determine; go investigate.” They’ll come back, “That’s not real!” and I’m like, “You got me!”
The perfect example, too, is the Džana doll, the Bosnian doll that I got from a dealer in England, which is a really wild story. I’ve known him for years, and he hit me up one day, and he goes, “Hey Jason, I got this doll I have to get rid of. I have a medium that works in my shop, and she won’t come anymore. This thing is screwing my business. I’m going to give this to you for free.” As soon as I opened the box and looked at her, I was like, “Ooh, this doll.” I’m not sensitive to stuff like this, but I can feel some heat out of this.
I put her in a glass with rosaries. Customers have had staring contests with this doll. They come bragging to me about it, and then a week later, they send me a two-page DM that they haven’t slept in days. They hear voices, and I’ve had multiple stories of this.
We respect, have fun, engage, and just enjoy that mysteriousness that we all love. So that’s what I love about this audience, and this is what I love about telling stories about certain objects that either people surrendered or something we acquired ourselves. The showmanship part of it is my favorite thing.
MB: People usually travel to Burbank, CA, for this kind of stuff. There are stores like Dark Delicacies, The Mystic Museum, and Halloween Town Store. I love that we have this one-of-a-kind haven in Arizona.
JS: I agree, and my hat’s off to all the customers because they come in and shop like crazy, and then they spread the word. I can’t thank them enough for that.
MB: Can you expand on the quarterly on