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