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For whatever reason, Texas is a major Haunted House state. Next to Ohio, Pennsylvania & Michigan it was just one of those places full of attractions that people were always talking about. In the late 90’s when we were just getting rolling, names like Dr. Blood’s Screamscapes (The brainchild of Drew Hunter, now with Sally Corp.), Hangman’s Haunted House (D'Ann Dagen’s place), Verdun Manor (masterpiece of the late great Lance Pope), Cutting Edge (owned by Todd James) and Elm Street Haunterpreneurs (Leonard Pickel and Beau Baumann) all called Texas home. Other Texas names often surfaced at Transworld and on the message boards of the time, folks like the late JB Corn of Castle Dragon, Patrick Matthews with Nightmare in the House of Wax and the legendary Dr. John Anderson.
I like to joke that in Ohio it was the proximity to Lake Erie that contributed to the local creep factor, but I still don’t know what it is about Texas. But one thing is for certain, all over that great state they love scaring people! In 2008 an Austin, Texas haunt, a mere youngster by Texas standards (at just 6 years old) emerged on the national stage and dropped jaws, a new attraction with a powerful visual presentation that would do the long tradition of Texas Haunts proud….The House Of Torment!
The House of Torment?
It started with a video posted on the Hauntworld forums, a black and white nightmarish presentation featuring a pig-headed man and some truly twisted imagery. Then came the photos, stunning shots of two or three story construction, a toppled steeple, a blasted city filled with rubble and filth, and some crazy custom creatures. Then came the website, featuring a 2008 theme trailer that looked and sounded like a Hollywood movie! Other parts of the site resembled a video game with creature power ranking graphics and pop out monsters and then there was the infamous “Creep” call, a feature that would allow you to get a phone message from their icon “Mr. Creep”. Cool stuff that so impressed Larry Kirchner and the Hauntworld message boards that the HoT ended up on the Hauntworld Top 13 list! But who were these guys and where did they come from? I was about to find out!
One Dark Night…
It was a weeknight in early October 2008 at NETHERWORLD when the House of Torment came to call. All four of the core team members had made the trek from Texas just to see us. In attendance were Daniel McCullough, the Owner / President of HoT; Jon Love, the Vice President and marketing whiz; Matt Garcia, the Art Director, creature creator and alter ego of “Mr. Creep”; and Mike Garcia, the General Operations Manager, actor coordinator and slider also known as “Sgt. Graves“. It is always fun to have fellow haunters come to visit, but we were in for a special treat! After going through our haunt, Matt Garcia and Mike Garcia transformed into their alter egos and spent the rest of the evening scaring and entertaining our customers with the rest of our lot actors. What a blast to see Mr. Creep comparing top hats with the Collector (our top hat wearing skeletal guy) and Sgt. Graves doing power slides with our slider goblin Caliban and downhill spins with Baron Samedi!
After NETHERWORLD wrapped for the night we spent several hours comparing notes on haunting at the local Denny’s and heard some of the background on this emerging haunt. It was clear HoT was on the fast track with their event, and growing at a huge rate. What were the secrets of their success? Don’t touch that dial!
The 2008 season now behind us I saw The House of Torment yet again, this time on America’s Scariest Haunted Houses 3 playing back on my DVR. The season at last over it was time to relax for a moment and catch up on all of the Haunt Shows that had aired in October. There they were, greeting and terrifying patrons on their own home turf, flying from zip lines, and generally rocking the joint. The sets and costumes really looked different from most haunted houses, and I started to get the bug to check ‘em out first hand. Of course, Larry called within the week and asked if I wanted to write a story for Hauntworld about them. Before I knew it, it was late January and I was on a plane to Texas!
The Trip to Torment…
Now I couldn’t go all the way to Texas and just see one haunt… So I stopped by Ft. Worth and saw the infamous Cutting Edge Haunted House! Owner Todd James played a classic joke on me… After driving me to the haunt in his monster truck hearse, we started walking through the show with the lights on and BLAM one of those propane machine guns goes off making me jump out of my skin, the lights go out, Todd disappears and the music turns on. I start walking and actors are leaping out! They gave me a full performance, actors and all, including covering me with 8 feet deep of bubbles in their infamous foam room! It was a massive haunt and a very cool show but that story is a tale for another day…I highly recommend checking it out if you are in that part of the world next October!
A Tour of Torment…
I finally arrived at HoT. They have a very interesting building, a former movie theatre that had been converted to a Laser Tag arena. When they got in the place, the floors were level and all sorts of interesting multi-story ramps were in place. Guests approaching the building are first greeted by the huge Scarefactory Slayer that sits outside, affectionately known as Goggath. Then they must run the gauntlet of marauding characters that stalk the parking lot including Mr. Creep and Sgt Graves. When you enter the main Haunt (called Contagiom in 2008) you are greeted with a massive façade of buildings complete with fire escapes and business signage. The theme was an invasion of strange creatures and some sort of infection of the population stemming from a secret research base. Unlike many haunts they stayed totally on theme through the entire event, and it sort of visually played out just like a video game.
You enter the main haunt through some sort of police station where some creatures are held in cells and then comes the Arena! This striking set is the heart of the attraction. It is a large scene, surrounded on all sides by towering building facades. Directly in front of you is a toppled church steeple, and strewn around are massive piles of rubble. The paint scheme of the entire place drips with dirty washes, almost as if the world has slipped into another realm a la Silent Hill.
In the dead center of the room is an upside down car that guests must wind around to escape the area and that is when some of HoT’s wild stunts come into play. In 2008 they used acrobatic Parkour trained actors to leap OVER the heads of guests, and climb about in the rubble. In one spot covered by wreckage is a stage designed for that very purpose, a platform built to allow a leap to the overturned car! Also in the Arena is a long zip line maybe 80-100 feet. Actors in extremely expensive professional harnesses fly over the crowds landing on the second floor of a building on the other side of the Arena only to rotate around and fly right back!
Leaving the Arena you head into a decayed building with several rooms including a bedroom and a living room. One cool thing here is the low ceiling with drop sprinkler heads. Few haunts can afford to do this, and the claustrophobia feeling after the massive Arena is a great effect. Also in this room you come across the first of their remotely controlled scares. From a hidden control room, operators can watch night vision cameras, and decide exactly when to trigger certain gags, in this case a powerful air cannon concealed under the bed. The detail is top notch, webs, drippy paint washes, old magazines and dead flowers are in abundance along with several hidden actor doors.
Back out in the street you have a view of the Arena, passing by police barricades and piles of skeletons near an old newsstand. Then it is into the butcher shop for a surreal experience. After the meat display case scene (where a corpse animation drops down behind the counter) it is into the back room of the shop. Here a nasty stringy meat beast, reminiscent of the THING in the 80’s remake dangles from the ceiling. In the meat locker guests bounce between hanging pigs to encounter a twisted sight, a massively muscled bare-chested actor waits in the back of the freezer, his head that of a horse!
Leaving the shop, guests find themselves on the back part of the toppled steeple with more views of the Arena. Here awaits the second zip line, another chance to be buzzed by crazy stunt actors. It is in this area along the back wall of the building that a funny thing began to happen with the HoT guests. When the alley scene was built they added a fake door to the exterior wall for set dressing. Freaked out guests have repeatedly tried to escape out that particular door, repeatedly ripping it off the hinges to reveal a blank wall!
At this point you enter a collapsed building choked with rubble. A faux wreaked elevator confronts guests, along with a room filled with tons of flickering candles. Now a series of sharp ramps must be hiked up, leading them ultimately to the upper level of the building. The final zip line is found here as a strange creature zooms overhead in a hall of pictures. Reaching the top you wind through a series of rooms including an attic (with a weird animatronic creature hidden among the boxes), an office and other mundane settings all rotted out by the effects of the strange invasion. A long catwalk between sections is actually concealed inside of the clock tower, and now guests are very near to the final section, the Secret Lab!
A busted out wall just past a strobing mass of electrical wires reveals the tunnel to the secret lab. All the walls are corrugated metal, a favorite place for indoor sliding! The Lab sequence begins with an autopsy/morgue area featuring several posed creatures and a thrashing chained body. In a corner is a huge rack full of 55 gallon drums, a favorite percussion area for the actors. Then patrons pass a series of cool custom body chambers, made totally in house. Curved plexiglass walls show strange experiments within the tanks and one has a door for a hidden actor.
Now you descend down a series of ramps past odd displays of alien/creature tissues, deeper into the source of the contagium. The final area is a sewer sequence featuring a semi submerged monster leaping up from the water along with a powerful water/air cannon blast! A quick turn and guests run screaming into the parking lot, glad to be alive!
The second attraction at the House of Torment was Illusion Manor, a show that had many of the gothic trappings absent from the more modern Contagium. Guests enter an old mansion façade with a siding wall gag designed to move the last person in the group to the front. Of primary importance were the effects, wild illusions and other visual tricks designed to freak you out! They included a vortex tunnel, 2 squeeze tunnels, a haunted singing bust, Illusionator animated painting, upside down room, mirror maze, curtain hall and gypsy séance room among others. Also nice was a very ornate library sequence, and a custom made rotating wall. My favorite scene was the tilted anti-gravity room, a mind warping set where the athletic Parkour actors could literally run up the walls around the amazed guests! The final scare was a clever gag featuring a hanging TV, but I cannot tell you EVERY thing can I?
Behind The Scenes
We spent hours touring the haunts that day…myself, Daniel McCullough, the owner; Jon Love, the vice president; Matt Garcia, the art director, aka “Mr. Creep”; and Mike Garcia, the general operations manager, aka “Sgt. Graves“. Other interesting areas were the tricked out boardroom they had for meetings, the aforementioned control room (see control room article) and most of all Matt’s creature creation room. This is where all the creatures were sculpted and molded, and the amazing custom costumes were fabricated. The room was brimming with creepy goodies including a vast collection of scary toys for inspiration. Over it all a life sized figure of Mr. Creep stood watch from the corner.
It was time for dinner after a long day of driving and haunt exploration. I was treated to a Texas tradition, The Salt Lick, an all you can eat meat feast that would be with me for DAYS! After that we had a considerable amount of tasty adult beverages, returning to the haunt in the wee hours to do a bit of flying on the zip lines! Yes, there was a designated driver/zip line instructor so we were never in any real danger….I think! A huge thank you goes out from me to the HoT crew for being gracious hosts and allowing me such a close look into their nightmarish world.
Torment and Beyond!
Overall the impression of The House of Torment was that of a very tightly themed, very realistic and very SCARY haunt, one that that totally had the vibe of a survival horror video game. The costuming and custom creatures had that twisted, almost S&M look sure to disturb as well as terrify with some of the wildest imagery in the haunt industry.
The environments were initially extremely realistic then covered by a layer of grime and rot that was evocative of the transformation sequences in Silent Hill as a point of reference, a style reminiscent of the paint washes and facading techniques of Universal Studios Horror Nights. For those of you who have been around awhile, it also had a strong feel of BRUTAL PLANET, the Distortions Unlimited/John Burton haunted house from so many years ago that pioneered the central room format and the decayed city look.
I don’t think I have seen many haunts that held so close to an actual theme as this one, as the progression of scenes really seemed to follow a clear story. Yet another aspect that totally rocked about this place in addition to the custom art and the crazy stunts was the vast set of the Arena leading into the tight drop ceiling rooms - a juxtaposition that created an extremely claustrophobic feeling. All this in only their 6th year really shows an astounding potential…I know I as well as their “tormented” fans in the city of Austin will be eagerly looking forward to the new horrors they will unleash in years to come!
Name of Haunt: House of Torment
Location: Austin, Texas
Daniel McCullough - Owner / President
Jon Love - Vice President
Matt Garcia - Art Director
Mike Garcia - General Operations Manager
2008 Attendance: 40,000
Size of Attraction: 17,000sq ft.
Amount of Actors: 75
Total Operation Staff: 110
Ticket Price: 14.99-19.99
Marketing Budget: classified
Operation Days: 32
13 Questions for The House Of Torment!
1) Not many haunters outside of Texas had heard of your event before last year… Tell us what your haunt was like in the early years.
Early on from an industry point of view or attraction was pretty standard. Our walkthrough was very maze like, our attraction was built out of 4x8 wall panels, and our set decorations were par for the course. We used prosthetics on our actors, we had outside characters, and used an ok amount of animations inside. We hired brainstorms to do our imagery, bought a bunch of radio, and passed out flyers at other local events during the season. In the first years everything we did was pretty run of the mill but there were a few things about our operation that really made us stand out in our market.
While we had props and were using a control room (see control room article) we placed a HUGE emphasis on being an actor driven attraction. We encouraged intense in your face acting, we used a ton of sliding inside and outside the haunt, and we really placed a lot of focus and attention on our icon characters. We also spent a lot of time training our actors on the use of misdirection and making sure timing was on point. In those first years we weren’t the prettiest haunted house, or the most well known haunted house but we were the scariest and most entertaining haunted house which fortunately ended up being the two most important factors to customers in our market.
2) You use zip lines, sliders and actors trained in parkour, the art of wild urban acrobatics. Can you tell us more about your stunt program?
Our stunt program is designed to implement sequences in our event that create the ILLUSION our actors are doing something outside the confines of what’s physically possible or safe. The highest priority of our stunt program is safety and all the stunts we utilize are extensively researched and methodically practiced before they are ever used in the presence of customers. They are only performed by individuals who possess the physical capacity to carry out the action the stunt requires and who have spent countless hours in training.
A basic example of our program’s principles can be seen in our use of sliding. We have sliders, as most haunted houses do, that wear knee pads and spark gloves. When they rush towards a customer sliding on the ground creating a trail of sparks customers get scared because a) they don’t expect the monster to have the physical ability to slide quickly and b) the flying sparks make things SEEM very unsafe. Not everyone possesses the physical ability to slide and sliding without proper training is potentially unsafe for the actor and the customer.
A further example of our program’s principles can be seen in our use of zip lines. We attach harnesses designed for extended use to zip lines and have actors shoot out over customer’s heads creating the illusion of flight (physical impossibility). These zip lines are installed at the customer’s peripheral creating the illusion that the actor is very close to the customer when moving overhead. This often causes customers to duck down out of fear of being hit but in actuality the actor is suspended at a height making contact literally impossible (perceived lack of safety). It takes a degree of strength and stamina to operate a zip line all night long (physical capability) and in order to work a zip line at our attraction you must apply several months before we open and attend a host of zip line classes prior to working (extensive training).
We also have a few select actors who are part of a local parkour group. They have incredible athletic and acrobatic ability and are capable of doing some pretty wild things (search parkour or freerunning on youtube). While on their own time they run around town and engage in life threatening displays of urban gymnastics at our haunted house we tone down their tricks, make settings safe, and use their abilities in controlled environments. We design hidden ramp systems and platforms for them to use making their leaps and attacking jumps safe while appearing dangerous and daring to customers.
Overall, we use stunts in our haunt in an attempt to scare and amaze our customers but do so only if the stunt is reliable, safe, and can be performed in a controlled setting without exposure to variables. We don’t recommend using stunts in your haunt without first consulting with a professional stunt company and your insurance provider.
3) Themeing is obviously very important to your event. How often do you change your themes and what were some of your storylines the last couple of years?
We typically run with a theme around for 1 -3 years, kill it, and then start over with something fresh. We have done werewolf themes, zombie themes, clown themes, gothic mansion themes etc. and now a post apocalyptic city them in an endless pursuit to present a new show to our customers and keep them coming back. This year we will be redoing the themeing for Illusion Manor as it has been around for a while. The expense that goes along with theme changing may seem excessive but our logic is taken from the movie industry.
If a movie is good enough the first time there may be a sequel. If a sequel is made it’s typically an over the top extension of the first movie. If the sequel is good enough there may be a trilogy but not too much happens after that, so we follow that model. This means every so often a big budget goes towards remodeling and change but to us keeping things fresh and new keeps our customers happy making the investment worth while.
4) The way your event is constructed is very unusual, with tall realistic buildings constructed by permanent techniques rather than in a temporary fashion like most haunts. How long have you built this way and how does it enhance your event?
We have been using more permanent techniques for a few years now. In moving from temporary modular construction to a more permanent style we have been able to create sets that are so different they are classified as “over the top”. When customers come to our event they are amazed at how different our attraction is than other haunted houses in our area which has led to increases in our attendance. People want to come to see the realism and experience our walk through in addition to coming to get scared and entertained because they hear about how meticulously detailed everything and over the top everything is. Being able to have customers experience huge buildings and tight indoor spaces with ceilings adds a dynamic layer to our event that wouldn’t be possible using modular construction.
The flip side though is taking on the cost of redoing everything once we decide to change our theme. As we mentioned, for us the benefit far out weights the cost. Continually wowing customers with our sets brings on a sizeable expense every 2 – 3 years but having people keep coming back and bringing more friends again, makes the investments well worth while.
5) The videos, the website and the graphics of your event are very strong. Tell us how important marketing is to your success and some of the ways you get the message out to the people of Austin.
Marketing is hands down, without a doubt, no questions asked, THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT function of our business. Marketing has been and always will be the center of our operation and we take it VERY seriously. Our marketing team is huge and composed of a diverse group of people from various departments and industries. Our artists, web developers, media representatives, printers, public relations team, promotions group, and agency are all in constant communication with one another to ensure the message we deliver is clear and impacting. We work hard with our team to unify our message, increase our frequency, and deliver our campaign on varying levels across multiple demographics.
We utilize every form of media we can to reach our market. Whether its radio, billboards, TV, email, websites, grass root campaigns, viral videos, handbills, text messages, print ads, news stories, PR, good will, charitable contributions, cardboard cutouts, SEO, invitations, or telephone calls (and the list goes on) we do it. No marketing idea goes unheard in our office.
We are also big believers in our website. We think people come to our website to decide whether or not to come to our event. Therefore having a really slick professionally done site with plenty of eye candy and cool stuff to look through communicates to the customer that our attraction is awesome and needs to be checked out. Our website is so important to us that each year we put a large budget towards updating it with new content and features to keep it resembling our attraction. We make our website scary, entertaining, impressive, and over the top because that’s what our attraction is and our website needs to communicate that message. Our website isn’t just a yellow pages listing it’s a destination that people visit and experience. In fact more unique visitors frequent our website than attend our event. That fact alone is enough to make us market our site it and build it out with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail as our attraction.
6) The costumes and some of the props you use are clearly custom made for your event. Who does the work and what are their inspirations? Do you ever plan to become a haunt industry vendor?
Our custom work is done by House of Torment Art Director Matt Garcia. He has a team of production artists he leads to create and stylize as many props, costumes, and sets as he can. Matt is first and foremost an artist who is heavily influenced by Joel Peter Witkin, Dr. Seuss, Francis Bacon and, Hieronymus Bosch. His point of view is incredible and he has elevated our attraction to new artistic heights with his set dressing, sculpting, and video production skills as well as his artistic influence in how all of our rooms and costumes are finished out.
Matt and his team are currently developing some products that we will be using in 2009 and may be possible candidates for Transworld 2010 or 2011 but we will have to wait and see. Who knows what may be coming out of the Team Torment Laboratories in the coming years!
7) Many of the readers are familiar with Sgt.Graves and Mr. Creep. What are some of the other characters and monsters that guests encountered at The House of Torment in 2008 and what did they look like?
We have a few dozen characters but here are a few of our favorites:
MEAT – A walking pile of blood, muscle, and tendons strewn across a skeletal frame. He is a cross between Tarman (Return of The Living Dead) and the scare crow from The Wizard of Oz
HETHAN – A 6 foot 300 pound glutton S&M transsexual man hunter. He wears a gimp mask, baby bib, and diaper and drags around a blowup doll asking customers to “kiss it”. He was inspired by Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Snuff Film genre
THE FIEND – A chainsaw wielding corpse that somewhat resembles Jerry Only from the Misfits complete with a devil lock. He was inspired by the movie Mad Max and the Punk Rock genre.
SULLIVAN – A serial killer chainsaw wielding zombie who wears a hood to mask a bloody mandible face. At dark the hood comes off revealing his true self. He is a cross between Sweeny Todd and Leatherface.
HORSEHEAD – A 6’3 pale skinned horse head wearing abomination that drags a naked corpse behind him accessorized by bondage gloves and an apron of flesh.
8) Who are some of the key staff members who pull this event together?
We have a core group composed of 4 key team members: Daniel McCullough - Owner/President and builder by trade, Jon Love - Vice President who comes from a background in concert promotion and event production, Matt Garcia - Art Director an artist by trade, and Mike Garcia - General Operations Manager who comes from a background in logistics and management. We are a diverse group of people with different backgrounds that seemingly don’t fit together but when we work together our team makes magic happen!
9) For most of your history you have remained somewhat isolated from the Haunted House industry. How has that affected the choices you have made with your event? Are you now planning to play an active part of the industry?
Drawing on the wisdom of our core team to develop our attraction instead of established haunted house professionals resulted in us doing some things that are really unique and different but at the same time left us alone to fall on our faces and make hard mistakes learning first hand the trials and tribulations that go along with running a big haunted house. Over the years keeping our heads down helped us develop in the direction we wanted to go without distraction but also prevented us from taking advantage of the many benefits our industry has to offer.
Luckily this past year we were able to show everyone what we had been up to all this time which was scary at first. Putting yourself out there for everyone to judge especially when you do something that isn’t quite the norm is gut wrenching but fortunately the response from our peers has been good and becoming a part of the haunted house industry has made our business even better. Now that we are a part of this industry we think it is our responsibility to contribute to it offering our wisdom and skill sets whenever and wherever needed to advance the awareness of haunted houses nationwide. We look forward to being an active member of this industry for years to come.
10) Illusion Manor has some amazing scenes. Tell us about the background of this event and some of the more popular effects in it.
Our second attraction, Illusion Manor was built two years ago so we could have a 2 haunt event, increase our average ticket price and present a plethora of bells and whistles to our audience that didn’t fit in our main attraction. We took the theme of a gothic mansion and filled it with effects including a vortex tunnel, a mirror maze, ghostly effects, a couple of claustrophobia tubes, some Scooby Doo rotating walls, a ball pit you had to crawl through, and the crowd favorite, an anti-gravity tilted room. This year we will be redesigning Illusion Manor updating it, re-engineering several effects, tearing down most of the attraction and turning it into a brand new haunt that will be unveiled in late 2009.
11) In 2008 you literally burst onto the scene, appearing on Hauntworld’s Top 13 Haunts list and on America’s Scariest Haunted Houses 3. How did all the coverage effect your 2008 season?
The coverage was great and 2008 was a wonderful year. It is a great feeling to be respected by so many of your peers and to be in the company of some great nationally renowned attractions. We are thankful for Hauntworld as it brings our community closer together and provides a place for haunted houses world wide to showcase their products and events. The effect of all the exposure on our season was great and we are just happy to be recognized for our work. We are looking forward to seeing what everyone has in store for 2009.
12) What new horrors do you plan to unleash in 2009? Any new effects or themes you can tell us about?
House of Torment will undergo some major changes this year. We have already begun working on increasing the size of our event by about 30%. We are adding new stunts and some major animations as well as completely redoing Illusion Manor. We think the projects we have on the board for 09 will raise eyebrows and turn heads but they are stories for another time. Stay tuned to www.houseoftorment.com and www.hauntworld.com for updates and details on our 2009 projects!
13) In your opinion, what does the future hold for the House of Torment and the Haunted House industry?
The haunted house industry is growing at an incredible rate. Every year we see more advancement, more ingenuity, and more opportunity at every corner. Each season haunted houses gain more national exposure, attract millions of new customers nation wide, and further solidify themselves as must see events during the Halloween season. We see attraction oriented entertainment becoming more regionalized and haunted houses all across the country capitalizing on this opportunity by upping their game and producing top notch high quality big bang for your buck events.
As our industry grows we also see customer’s expectations rising and people no longer being impressed by old tricks and rehashed ideas. We think in the future that customers will expect bigger shocks and surprises, demand more elaborate production and action, and be willing to pay for nothing less. This higher expectation will provide opportunity for some and defeat for others. As our industry grows we see new challenges on the horizon that will require us to cast away our small differences and unite as powerful association. We will have to move beyond our disagreements in order to capitalize on opportunity that lies for us in wait and overcome the challenges that are surely ahead.
As for us specifically we will continue to move forward working on our event evolving it as the years go on. We tend to be people that are always hungry and never satisfied so as each year comes we will try to challenge ourselves to out do what we have previously done. Over all our future will hold the expectations we place on ourselves now and we believe like Sam Walton once did that “High expectations are the key to everything.”
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