This Old Haunted House
The House of Torment grows darker and across the nation
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00PM, Fri. Sep. 13, 2013
Daniel McCullough prowls the House of Torment as both its its master and guardian. With the start of the haunting season imminent, he pokes at walls, notes the location of sprinklers, asks his engineering staff what's next on the to-do list.
Outside in the parking lot, the metal fences to mark the lines for Slaughterhouse (one of three lairs within the haunt) are being unloaded from the truck. That night, security will arrive for the season, and McCullough's crew will be able to start hanging bodies within the rat's nest maze of the wooden structure. Inside the main house, there are still props to be arrayed, gimmicks to be perfected, blood to be sprayed, and lights to be rigged. Old friends like the tilt room – a classic Halloween scare, built to disorient and unnerve – has been completely redesigned. Five years ago, McCullough would have been in there himself with a welding torch and a saw, but now he's busy overseeing multiple teams of engineers doing the job at multiple houses. "I miss it," he says. "I still do it when I can, because that's one of the things that I love about Halloween: being the creative hand behind something that scares the pants off this person. That's what got me into it. Now it's more about making sure all of these visions and projects are getting executed, and monitoring work flow."
He grins. "Every once in a while I get to play. That's my weekends. I go to San Antonio and go build with them. I try to do it here, and everyone goes, 'Get outta the way, we're busy.'"
It's not just mechanical demands. In the back office, House business manager and vice-president Jon Love is running through the haunt's new trailer. Every few seconds the audio is interrupted by the distinctive bee-doop of another email. Next door, there are empty shelves in the store, waiting to be stacked with House merchandise before opening night. He's also working on a new project with Chris Stafford, their business partner from the 13th Floor haunt in Denver: an anti-bullying initiative. "Our organization has grown to the point where we're ready to give back to the community," Love says.
Like McCullough, Love has seen his job change from the early days: "Before, it was like, 'Oh, I've got to count the tickets and get the box office set up and work on a marketing plan.' Now the dynamic is different, because you try to put really talented, passionate people in those places so you can open the next chapter in the business."
The doomsday clock is ticking. Come Friday the 13th – a perfectly apt night – the House will open for Halloween 2013. McCullough says, "This is the first year we're ready for the season to get underway so we can get on to getting on."
The House started off as just a home haunt in McCullough's back yard 18 years ago. In 2007, it was finally big enough and established enough that he and his original partners in crime could go full time professional (see It Came From the Back Yard, Oct. 3, 2008.) Now the Austin scare is a national concern. Along with the 13th Floor folks, he's opened new houses in San Antonio and Phoenix. This year, for the first time, the team starts waking the dead down in McAllen. "We're ramping up to grow and open more haunted houses," Love says.
The first step was to rent warehouse and manufacturing space out by the airport. Love says, "We brought on a lot of full time production guys, recruiting them from the top levels of the haunted house industry, and also from television and film. One of our guys used to work on sound stages in New York and has a crazy list of credits to his name. Another guy who's working here right now used to work for Rocky Point in Utah, which was a crazy high-production value haunted house, back in the day."
In this inaugural year, the fabricating facility has concentrated on revamping the Austin site, but Love says it has already built and shipped major pieces out around the country. "On the business side, it's pretty interesting to go from building stuff in Dan's garage to having a permanent facility that's just focused on building haunted house stuff 365 days a year."
For Love, that brand extension only strengthens the core product. "The haunted houses that we open on a national level are better because of the lessons and the methodology that we have here, and we can expand that out nationwide," he says. "But I also think that House of Torment gets better because we've learned all those experiences and methodologies from those businesses, and we've taken those strengths and bought them back here."
And soon it will be time to put the latex and make-up on, and unleash the beasts in the lair. That's where the new dressing room comes in (part of a major behind-the-scenes overhaul), which will spawn the work of veterans of SyFy's Face Off special effects makeup reality series. Two key members of the team, longtime Artistic Director Matt Valentine and his brother/actor wrangler Michael Faust, both appeared on the show. But it's also provided a fetid and bottomless talent pool for the the business. Another local talent, season three contestant Eric Zapata, has been working with the House. Season four runner-up Wayne Anderson designed a new iconic character, the Hellion, for the Austin site, while season four contestant Katie Machaiek has been working out in Phoenix. Love called the show "great for the haunted house industry. As TV and film goes more digital, there's all these practical effects people who are dying for work, and Face Off has given them a conduit to showcase that in ways that breathe new live into the public's respect for them."
And through all the changes to the business and the industry, there's always been the House of Torment. For the last nine years, it's been based just outside of Highland Mall. Two years ago, when Austin Community College bought out the mall to become office space, and it looked like they might lose their lease, the team were a little bit excited by the opportunity. McCullough says, "Every year for the last five years, we've been wanting the opportunity to have a blank slate." As he explained last year, the House at Highland has been an evolving project that has grown with them. When they opened their San Antonio haunt, it was a blank slate for them to blacken in any way they saw fit, with years of experience to draw upon. A new home in Austin would be a new opportunity, but one that means contending with the fresh hell of Austin real estate. McCullough says, "We had a very small handful of choices, and none of them were great, and all of them were so expensive."
After a hard search, the team was on the verge of signing a lease at a new site. But when ACC offered them a new long-term deal for their longtime home, it was an opportunity they couldn't miss. "Basically, they were just really persuasive," says McCullough. "They wanted to keep us here, and they gave us a three-year deal, which we've never been able to do."
Love adds, "This is a haunted house in the center of town at the intersection of three of the major roads in Austin. It's really the home of House of Torment. So rather than transplanting something that's grown and become an institution in this place, it's actually better to keep it here, and then if we grow something else elsewhere, we'll cross that bridge."
But just because they decided not to re-inter the House in a new tomb, that doesn't mean this is the same old gruesome experience. "You know House of Torment, it changes all the time," says Love. "Well, we went to the drawing board, and with our main haunted house, we made a commitment to change it more than we have ever."
That doesn't mean there won't be a new opportunity for them to spread their dark wings in Austin. The team still discusses a second location – though, according to McCullough, it would not be another House. McCullough says, "Hopefully, in 2014, we'll have another 13th Floor or some new brand that we'll create here."
But whatever second evil the team spawns, there will always be the House of Torment. "It's something that's unique to Austin," says Love. "It has a special place in our hearts because Dan and I are both native Austinites. Born here, raised here, went to school here. It's just this left-field, crazy, creative thing that serves Austin well, and we're very proud of that."
The House of Torment opens for the Halloween season Friday, Sept 13, and is open Friday-Sunday until Oct. 6, then every night Oct. 11 to Nov. 2. For more info, visit www.thehouseoftorment.com.