A Decade of Aggression at the House of Torment
Austin's top-rated Halloween haunt looks back on 10 years of scares
By Richard Whittaker,
3:00PM, Wed. Oct. 31, 2012
The guard at the door bangs on the metal. "Fresh meat!" Wham. The ingress slams shut at the House of Torment, and you're on your own.
The haunted attraction has come a long way from where it started: A home haunt in Dan McCullough's back yard. In 2002, he went pro for the first year: In 2007, he and his core team went all in, quitting their jobs and making building and running the House their full-time occupation. It was, McCullough said, a gamble.
The gamble paid off. Not only is the House one of America Haunt's top-rated attractions, and number five on the prestigious Hauntworld top 13 for 2012. The team has joined forces with the top-rated 13th Floor in Denver and Phoenix to open a second site in San Antonio, and consulted with Le Manoir de Paris, the French capital's first horror attraction. At the height of the season, across all the attractions they run, they're employing around 450 to 500 people as scarers, ticket sellers, mechanics, and technicians. Would McCullough have really believed he could have achieved this a decade ago? "Honestly? Yes," he said. "If you could have showed me a preview, I'd have believed we could be there, because I've always been pretty ambitious and we've always done a pretty decent job of exceeding our goals."
Jon Love, House vice-president and McCullough's longtime right-hand man, was not so sure. He said, "I believe in myself, and I believe in Dan, and I believe in ourselves, but if you'd have told us 10 years ago that we'd have a nationally recognized house in Austin, and several other locations across the country, and have consulted internationally, I would challenge that to be true."
In that first home haunt, McCullough was pretty much a one-man-show. He said, "When I first started doing it, my goal was to scare trick-or-treaters. I didn't have a home haunt per se. It was just a really well-decorated front yard with a few animations." It was there that he learned the technical tricks, like his first animatronic – a remote-controlled mechanical zombie that popped out of a garbage can. He said, "Half the kids never even ended up ringing the doorbell. They just ran away."
Over time, he added extra rooms, but there was still a big leap when he went pro and rented out the old Furr's Cafeteria at the now-demolished Northcross Mall. He said, "I went from doing a yard haunt to doing a 15,000 square foot space, and built it pretty much by myself." A skeleton crew worked training his handful of volunteer actors. "Sometimes, I look back at that and think that was the scariest, coolest year. I know it's nowhere in comparison, but because it was so new, and I was such a young, dumb, lucky guy, and it just worked."
The next year, he moved across Anderson to what was a post office and is now Office Depot, before finally settling on the former lazer tag arena at Highland Mall. The biggest change was not the location change: It was staking their careers on this being enough to sustain a career. Love said, "That was the biggest risk we ever took. We had to quit working at our other jobs, jump off the cliff, and hope we landed on our feet."
It's quite a jump. Renting the building year-round gave them more time to work on construction, but they were still earning money for only the six weekends leading up to Halloween. McCullough said, "We're planning a world series every October and hoping to win." That meant some tough calculations. "Some months it was a hardship on my family and Jon and everything, just to be able to make the rent, even if it was a month late. Probably for the first two, three years, I paid late payments all summer long because I had no income coming in and we had so many expenses going out during the build.
This year McCullough and Love felt confident enough in the day-to-day operations to fly to Florida, mid-season, to take in the Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights. It's not a vacation. They were there to study one of the biggest haunts on the planet. Even a couple of years ago, that would have seemed impossible: Both would have been effectively locked in the House, running the show, fixing props, and even donning costumes to scare the crowd. This year, Love has been splitting his time between Austin and San Antonio, while McCullough has been in Phoenix for much of the year. The core job hasn't changed – "Building kick-ass haunted houses and marketing them exceptionally well," Love said – but their role in the company has evolved. Love said, "Instead of being the guy on the ground, doing all the work, you try to have good people under you, and we feel we have good people under us. You try to build a creative team of like-minded people, and we feel like we have a creative team of like-minded people. Then you really start to focus on project management and creating system."
The core of the Austin house is the latest distorted form of The Awakening, their ever-(d)evolving tale of human corruption and interstellar invasion. Beyond that, the attraction has changed dramatically. Last year, they pulled out the funhouse-themed Illusion Manor and replaced it with the tropical, piratical The Cursed. The third haunt has always been an experiment. First, it was a 3D ride the team bought and converted. Last year, that was replaced by a paint ball attraction, where visitors have to nail the zombies before they steal the brain. This year, it's the slaughterhouse, where the fresh meat tours a labyrinthine cattle run, splayed with blood and body parts. Talk about old school shocks: It's just chainsaws, wooden barricades, and jump scares. "It's the simplest one, but it's the one that everyone loves the most," said Love.
It's been a rough year, though. Halloween spending is down this year, and houses across the nation are reporting a slow buildup to the season. Still, attendance picked up over the weekend and, with a midweek Halloween, there's still a few days left before the House closes for the season for everything to turn around. "It's always down to the 30 days we're open," McCullough said. "I don't think we've ever made it or we're safe, because every year we're just changing the way it operates, either by adding locations or trying to improve the foundations of what we're doing."
That's where the real risk is, according to McCullough. He said, "If we wanted to, after October, lock the door, turn out the lights, go fishing for the full year like everyone thinks we do, and open up in October next year, we'd probably do pretty well financially." Instead, they'll be back straight after Halloween for their traditional unlit Darkstalkers event, and then they'll spend the whole year tearing the House down, building it back up, changing scares, adding frights, redesigning, rebuilding. McCullough said, "We don't sit still, we don't stop spending money, we don't stop trying to improve our show."
Love agreed. He said, "We've never gotten off the roller coaster. It's just the roller coaster has gotten bigger." So where does the wild ride go next? Even Love and McCullough aren't sure. New locations, other locations, extra locations, evolving scares, simpler frights, more technology, more consulting, more travel. Maybe. Someone needs to rub the crystal ball to find out. Love said, "It's really exciting to think about the next 10 years."
The House of Torment is open Halloween night and Nov. 2-3, then re-opens for Darkstalkers Nov. 9-10. www.thehouseoftorment.com.