Making the House of Torment a Home
After a shuttered year, Austin’s oldest haunted attraction reunites the family
If you smell waffles, be afraid. Be afraid, very afraid.
Normally, the warm scent of batter and thick syrup is the smell of home. But not in the House of Torment, Austin's oldest and most beloved haunted Halloween attraction. That's the smell of the experimental gas that will send you into a psychedelic nightmare of bogeymen, creatures, and clowns (shudder). General manager Michael Faust grinned. After a year and a half of the pandemic, he said, "Austin wants to be scared in a fun way."
This year is a homecoming for Faust. He's one of the original Tormenters. His blood and sweat is in the walls, having built props, trained scarers, and even haunted the shadows himself. He's helped move it through multiple locations, was part of the merger with Denver's award-winning The 13th Floor, and been part of the company as it expanded into other cities. Outside of the House, he competed on the Syfy channel's horror FX reality show Face Off; and with his brother, Face Off season 13 winner Matt Valentine, founded Global Fear Enterprises, designing and manufacturing props and costumes for the haunt industry. But his heart has always beaten, black and true, at Austin's House of Torment, and now he's overseeing the scares as the location's general manager.
For two decades, the House has been Austin's top destination for scareseekers: but there's a missing chapter. In 2020, the Austin House of Torment stayed shuttered, but not for lack of effort by the team. They took the pandemic seriously, and worked for months to come up with a safe haunt. "We were ready to open," Faust said. Rather than run the normal three haunts, they cut back "to a house and a half, with every employee behind Plexi[glas] with a mask on. The customer would go through, get scared, and go out. They'd never come in contact." The city of Austin blanched at that idea, so Faust and the team came up with alternate plans, like a chain-link outdoor maze, a drive-through haunt, even a drive-in theatre. Yet all that work was for naught as city staff made the blanket decision to stop issuing mass event permits. Other locations around the nation, which implemented their Scary Safe protocols, were able to open, which meant the Austin location could keep paying rent. As for Faust, "I led an army down to San Antonio to work over there."
Coming into the 2021 season, Faust said his team had learned a lot about pandemic response, as had the whole industry (the most professional ones, he said, "are trying to get that stigma off that a haunted house is just some boo house that's shitty and don't care"). More than that, they'd learned about their own resiliency and creativity. Those months of canceled plans were not wasted effort, but proved that "there was no shortage of ideas. So let's keep coming up with ideas."
That's part of why he's become GM, to make the House a home again. This year sees the biggest revamp since it moved to its current location in 2016, loaded with all those new shocks and chills that his team has been working on. Best of all, he's seen familiar faces from years past come back, eager to get under the masks – both the kind that stops you spreading COVID, and the kind that makes the unsuspecting run shrieking. Faust said, "What I've told everybody, with me being GM, there's a little bit of trust. ... We're not only building the house, but building the family back."
That family has reunited to build their most thematically ambitious haunt to date. Each of the three attractions is unique, but they're all bound together by the LMFA gas, a mind-altering experimental compound that makes the world weirder the deeper you go. Faust said that, if guests look for the hints, they'll realize "it's a whole big story that you're walking through."
At the end of the day, as the corners get gloomier and the monsters come out to play, it all comes down to the scares. Faust pledged that, when the doors of the House creak open, it's still the most fun you can have screaming. "This year, I need to prove a point. I'm here to remind Austin why we're afraid of the dark."
House of Torment, Oct. 7-11, 13-31, Nov. 5-6, 12-13. Tickets, info, and COVID protocol details at houseoftorment.com.
See more photos from our behind-the-scenes tour of House of Torment at austinchronicle.com/photos