HOUSE OF TORMENT
By STACI LAYNE WILSON
Everything is big in Texas, and the triple-shot shock shack known as the House of Torment is proof positive of that oft-abused adage. Three haunts jammed into one monstrous attraction in Austin, TX, House of Torment has been freezing the blood of both locals and visitors for over a decade now. FANGORIA had a blast chatting with vice president Jon Austin Love to learn more about the guts of his haunt.
FANGORIA: What’s your first memory of being inspired by the horror genre, and how did this lead to making it a profession?
JON AUSTIN LOVE: I was terrified of scary movies and too frightened to go to a haunted house as a child. I really didn’t fall in love with horror until I saw the Dawn of the Dead remake at the Alamo Drafthouse as a young adult. I instantly fell in love with zombies, followed that up watching Shaun of the Dead and other modern horror movies and grew to love them.
Doing haunted houses really wasn’t a hobby for me. I met Dan McCullough, my business partner, while I was in college at UT Austin. He had started a haunt as a hobby in his backyard, and in 2003 decided to take his passion to a commercial level. Having had a considerable amount of event production and marketing experience, I offered to help. After working one night, I fell in love with haunted houses and decided to invest all my energy into helping Dan turn House of Torment into a big event.
FANG: How did House of Torment come about, and what makes it stand out in the field?
LOVE: Dan’s last year as an amateur ended with thousands of people walking through his backyard and garage, and the police having to be called to direct traffic in his neighborhood. Opening a commercial haunted house was the next logical step. There was another haunted house at that time in Austin, and over the years many others have popped up, but all have paled in comparison to House of Torment and have eventually gone out of business. We made a commitment very early on to create houses with the highest production value possible, featuring stunts, massive movie-style sets, dynamic and incredibly detailed costumes, special effects, etc. This commitment to ongoing excellence, and to always updating and changing the attractions each year, has turned House of Torment into an Austin institution.
FANG: What’s the experience like for a first-time “victim”—is it like one of the major parks, or something more intimate?
LOVE: House of Torment features three haunted houses that each has a unique setting. The names of the houses change each year as major elements inside are redesigned, fresh characters and monsters are added and the storylines customers experience evolve. The main attraction is a post-apocalyptic city, the second is a cursed island and the third is a slaughterhouse.
Each one offers depth of detail in the immersive environments, complexity and realism in its characters and monsters and most importantly, intense action, scares and startles that seem relentless and come in a broad variety of forms. One moment, a group of guests may be getting scared from a platform above when suddenly they’re blasted with a jet of fog from a steam pipe, only to turn a corner to see a monster jump from a window, nearly missing them as it takes off on an aerial rig overhead. Massive crashed subway cars teeter on edge, overhead doors are ripped open by hordes of zombies, pirate ships crashed on rocks sway with the incoming tide and chainsaws galore shriek through the night.
FANG: Who designs your spooky spaces, as well as the makeup and costumes?
LOVE: Design is a collaborative process in the initial stages. Our full-time team of artists, marketers and managers come up with ideas for our attractions all year long. Once the concepts are listed out, we prioritize and turn them over to our art and construction department to flesh them out. From there, projects are given the green light and sent to our production facility, where a team of carpenters, welders, artists and sculptors—many of whom have significant film or theatrical set backgrounds—turn them into haunted rooms, effects and monsters.
FANG: What do you look for in an employee, and what’s the training process like?
LOVE: Depends on the position. In regard to our seasonal cast of performers, we look for people who are passionate about haunted houses or are energetic, open-minded and take direction well. Training is ongoing from two months prior to opening throughout the run of the show. The best way to describe working at the House of Torment was perhaps said best by [former employee] Charles Walker: “It’s like playing fourth-quarter football for five hours a night.”
FANG: Over the years you’ve been in business, what have you found are the universal fear triggers for most of the general population?
LOVE: We believe that all fear is derived from the fear of the unknown. Common phobias are triggers for some people, but at the end of the day, the unknown is what gets us. That said, we believe in doing as many things as we can from scratch to keep them original, never letting our guests assume that something is what it seems—for example, plants that are monsters, massive static building pieces that suddenly move, etc.—and keeping things coming from as many directions as possible.
FANG: What are some of the ambient elements you employ—music, lighting conditions, certain smells, temperature?
LOVE: All of the above, and then some. Music and sound are very important, as is touch. Lighting can make or break a scene or scare, and smells always get to people. What it really comes down to is that the more elements you can add to an attraction or scene, the more senses you can engage, the better it will be. It’s good to have a scary monster jump out of a hidden wall at people, but it’s better when an 8-foot snake is driven forward by a puppeteer and bites the person in front of you.
FANG: What are some of the craziest, scariest or most fun incidents you can share? Any celebrity guests come through your haunt?
LOVE: People faint, empty their bowels out both ends, can’t make it all the way through and end up on our Wall of Shame, have panic attacks, leave their girlfriends or boyfriends behind, get so scared they call the police from inside the haunted house, etc. But the craziest thing I’ve personally seen, which wasn’t a laughing matter, was a soldier hearing a loud popping of metal and suddenly having a flashback to some combat he was in. We stopped the show, got him out of the house and he was OK.
Someone actually proposed in the haunted house. A guy called us up, we put him in costume that night and when his unsuspecting girlfriend came through, he and some of our other monsters locked their group in a room. He approached her as she was screaming, terrified out of her mind because she knew this was not part of the show—and then he took his mask off, got down on one knee and sealed the deal. It was amazing.
Each year, some celebrities will come through. In the past we’ve scared Andy Roddick, [astronaut/video-game developer] Richard Garriott and Pauly Shore, to name a few. My favorite, though, was Jessica Alba. I happened to be in the box office that night, giving my sales manager a break, when she came up to buy a ticket. I smiled and politely sold her one, then realized who she was. She walked back to her group and told them, “That’s the guy from the videos on the website!” I got a kick out of that.
FANG: Do you see the popularity of horror films helping out your haunt?
LOVE: I can’t say that I’ve seen movies impact our business in any way, really. I liked House of 1000 Corpses, but I don’t think it really drove sales or attendance. Those kinds of films tend to have a limited audience, horror fans who probably come anyway if they’re into haunted houses. Movies like Zombieland and TV shows like The Walking Dead and True Blood that have a broader pop-culture appeal and reach a broader audience accomplish that objective better, in my opinion. The more horror becomes a bigger and better part of popular culture, the more our audience broadens and the more people look forward to getting scared.