APPLETON – Brandon Johnson has 4.3 million followers on TikTok. He doesn’t post dances, cooking tutorials, comedy skits or any of the typically popular types of videos on the social media app. Instead, the 31-year-old Appleton native gained his following by sharing videos of a homemade costume.
Known as Spiritwalker, Johnson’s social media fame started with a viral video he shared to TikTok in 2020. The costume features a white mask, black fur, stick-like antlers and four stilts, giving the appearance of a 9-foot-tall, nightmarish woodland creature.
Since gaining widespread recognition, Johnson has created three more costumes, collaborated with well-known influencers and performed onstage with popular hip hop artist Doja Cat at the Coachella music festival in California in April. He says he has more prominent projects on the way.
But while Johnson has paved his way into the world of superstars and A-listers, Spiritwalker’s roots remain in the Fox Valley.
How a home haunted house and a motorcycle accident led to Spiritwalker
Johnson’s love for the bizarre and unpredictable started with his family’s free haunted house held on their porch each Halloween. He and his dad would try to add increasingly spooky elements each year to scare neighborhood kids.
The haunted house porch pop-up has become so popular among locals, Johnson said some people who grew up stopping by each year have since moved away from Appleton, but return with their own children.
“We set it up in one day. We take it down that night,” Johnson said. “The kids that walk past the next day never know what house it is.”
In high school, Johnson attended Renaissance School of the Arts, a charter school that allows students from Appleton West to spend half their day focused on arts like costume design, figure drawing and dance. After graduating high school, Johnson started his audio company, Fox Valley Audio Visual.
In 2014, Johnson shattered his heel, broke both ankles and broke his collarbone in a motorcycle accident. He was in a wheelchair for four months. Because of his collarbone injury, Johnson wasn’t able to move to crutches. He instead used an alternative mobility device that involved kneeling on a peg. Johnson quickly found he was easily able to balance and maneuver with the device, leading him to learn he had an aptitude for walking on stilts.
In 2016, Johnson got the idea for the costume.
“I can balance on stilts, I’ve taken ballet, I know how to create big things. So everything was a culmination,” he said. “There was no motivation other than creating something that nobody has seen before.”
Johnson enlisted the help of his father, Dean Johnson, who assisted in building the structure of the costume.
“(Brandon) didn’t have any tools at the time,” Dean Johnson said. “I was able to show him the basics, if you will, and he took it from there.”
Johnson said his four-stilt costume took about 100 hours to make in his basement. It was a long process of trial and error. The result requires its wearer to plank while balancing on the stilts. In 2017, he started taking it to Neenah’s Bazaar After Dark, where it caught a lot of attention and earned the nickname “The Spirit of Bazaar” among locals.
It wasn’t until Halloween 2020, though, that a 10-second video clip brought Johnson’s creature to a global online audience.
Overnight fame comes through a video on Halloween 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Johnson’s family wasn’t able to safely host the haunted house. Instead, Johnson dressed in his costume and stood outside his parents’ house to interact with people passing by.
Johnson’s girlfriend took a brief video, and later that night, while sitting around a campfire, Johnson uploaded it to TikTok on a whim. That night, his phone died and he went to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, Johnson checked his phone to see 750,000 TikTok notifications, with millions of views on his video.
Seeing the support, Johnson quickly filmed and posted another video showing and explaining the pieces of his costume. By the end of the day, he had 50,000 TikTok followers.
Johnson had stepped into overnight fame. He began regularly posting videos and interacting with viewers interested in his creature and the costume-making process. His company, which does audio and lighting for live shows, wasn’t doing well in the pandemic, and Johnson said the TikTok gig was a financial lifesaver.
“Quite honestly, TikTok and the money that I made from the viral videos, the first 10 or 15 viral videos, saved me from bankruptcy,” Johnson said.
It almost never happened. Johnson said he nearly threw away the costume, which was collecting dust in his garage attic, about two months before the video went viral.
Johnson’s costume gained the name Spiritwalker, inspired by mystical creatures from folklore. As he continued to post videos, his following grew.
“It just got really big. And I kept getting viral hits,” Johnson said, “I mean, I would hit 30 million, 40 million on videos. I hit a million followers about a month after my first viral video.”
For Halloween 2021, one year after his first viral video, Johnson created another costume — taller and bigger — which he called the Wraithwalker. To create it, Johnson experimented with new building techniques, most of which he learned from watching videos about the making of the dinosaurs in the “Jurassic Park” movies.
The first TikTok video Johnson posted of the new costume became his most viral one yet. It was reposted by popular Instagram accounts, spreading Johnson’s homemade creatures to an even larger audience.
Two days after posting the Wraithwalker video, Johnson packed the costume in his Volkswagon Jetta and took a three-week trip to Los Angeles, where he collaborated with other creators who were contacting him through social media, he said. Along the way, Johnson stopped to film in picturesque locations in places like Colorado and Utah.
The Spiritwalker costumes caught the attention of some big names — including Doja Cat and Italy-based fashion designer Rick Owens.
In January, Owens invited Johnson to fly to Europe and make 10 of his Spiritwalker costumes for Paris Fashion Week. A few days after that, Doja Cat’s creative team asked Johnson to perform with the superstar at the Brit Awards in London.
Johnson had to pass on the Brit Awards invitation after he determined he couldn’t get done everything he’d need to do in time for the performance. He began making plans for Paris Fashion Week with Owens, when Doja Cat’s creative director, Brett Alan Nelson, asked if Johnson would perform at Coachella.
“He contacts me and says, ‘Doja Cat wants you to be with her. She is obsessed with your costume,’ ” Johnson said.
He immediately began building a new, improved version of the Wraithwalker costume.
When Johnson told Owens about his plans to perform with Doja Cat, the fashion designer gave an ultimatum: Paris Fashion Week or Coachella.
“I was in the most insane decision of my life,” Johnson said. “I was pacing my house back and forth for eight hours straight because I had to choose. Do I go work with one of the biggest names in fashion in the world? Or do I go to Coachella at one of the biggest shows in the world with one of the biggest female artists in the world?”
Johnson said Doja Cat then called him and asked him to set up a meeting with Owens in an attempt to work on a collaboration.
“I was like, you want a boy from Appleton, Wisconsin, to set up a meeting between one of the biggest names in music and the biggest names in fashion? Me?” Johnson said.
On the call, Owens declined the collaboration, and Johnson had to make a decision within an hour.
“It was a painful hour. I was calling everyone I knew,” Johnson said.
With the help of friends in the entertainment industry, Johnson chose the Coachella performance.
Wraithwalker performs with Doja Cat at Coachella
For Coachella, Johnson made a new Wraithwalker costume — similar to the one he had already created, but with materials from a much higher budget — and trained friend Vincent Landowski for about two months. The two would perform onstage with Doja Cat April 17. He also built a personalized shipping crate for the costumes, which would be backstage at the music festival.
Johnson and Landowski flew out a few weeks before Coachella to train with Doja Cat and her dancers. Both men had their own choreographer, Johnson said.
“The entire time, me and Vinny were just jaws dropped,” Johnson said. “Kids from Wisconsin, thrown into A-list celebrities everywhere, walking into massive studios where you recognize everybody, but you’ve never been there.
“And I mean, every direction you turn, there was somebody else. I turned right and there’s Tyga. Turn left, there’s Rico Nasty. Turn right again, there’s The Weeknd.”
During the performance, hundreds of thousands of people were in the crowd. Despite nerves beforehand, Johnson said he felt a wave of calm the minute before he went on stage.
“It was perfect. Flawless. The whole performance,” Johnson said. “I remember being in the costume on stage at Coachella, about to walk out and I’m feeling the bass from all their subwoofers, and I’m in stilts, which magnified the bass. I thought it was just going to vibrate off stage. But yeah, we went out and it was absolutely perfect. It was unlike any feeling I could ever explain.”
Johnson and Landowski were on stage for two songs, as well as the last minute of the finale, Johnson said.
The Coachella experience didn’t come entirely without hiccups, however. Johnson said, an hour before the performance, he discovered that his TikTok account was permanently banned.
TikTok bans accounts for a variety of reasons, if videos posted violate the app’s “community guidelines,” which include violence, nudity, bullying and hateful behavior. Other users can report videos and accounts they believe violate the app’s rules, which are then reviewed by TikTok. Sometimes, however, videos may be taken down or accounts may be banned for no apparent reason, either through a mistake or many reports from users.
Johnson, who adhered to the app’s community guidelines, said he was devastated to find that all his videos were no longer online, one hour before the biggest event he had ever been a part of. It was like all his hard work was gone in an instant.
Nonetheless, he felt great about the Coachella performance. Afterwards, he got in contact with TikTok support and friends who had insight about TikTok’s operations, and his account was revived three days later.
After showing his costumes on such a public stage, Johnson’s account continued to grow. Since then, he has built another costume — a small version of Spiritwalker, nicknamed Sprite, which is run by a friend’s son. He has four more costumes planned — including one titled Wind Walker that will be made of thin, holographic-like material, and another that will look like a tree until its wearer moves, revealing four separate legs.
Fans of Spiritwalker can purchase merch on Johnson’s website, some of which feature designs made by Johnson’s sister. He has started venturing into YouTube and now has a manager, photographer, videographer and graphic designer on his team.
The original Spiritwalker, now about six years old, is about to be retired for good, Johnson said. The costume, made from materials Johnson found at thrift stores, is falling apart.
“He’s dying. It’s sad,” Johnson said. “But he’s going to rise from the flames as a much more well-built costume.”
Johnson remains tight-lipped about upcoming projects, but hinted that big things are coming. And despite his newfound stardom and relationships with big names in the entertainment industry, he continues to make all his costumes from scratch in the town where he was born and raised: Appleton.