The Austin Chronicle

The Rise of the House of Torment

By Richard Whittaker, October 28, 2015, 4:29pm, All Over Creation

Fifteen Halloweens ago, Dan McCullough was just a guy with a home haunt, scaring the kids every October 31st. Now he leads one of the biggest Halloween haunt businesses in the nation. Its hub: Austin's own House of Torment.

Every year, the national business expands, and the Austin location becomes a little more complex. Yet for McCullough, it always comes back to the same mantra: "We want to design something that we're proud of."

It started simply: In 2001, his backyard spookshow was attracting so many people that he either had to stop doing it or go pro. In 2002, he opened the original House of Torment, and now the home haunt that got out of control has become one of the nation's leading providers of seasonal scares and festive frights. Since joining forces with the legendary 13th Floor out of Colorado, the evil empire has grown to eight sites in five cities in four states. There are Houses of Torment in Austin and Chicago; 13th Floor locations in Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, and San Antonio; plus Phoenix has the outdoor event Fear Farm, and Denver gets the Asylum. McCullough's vice president and longtime business partner Jon Love said, "Who knew? Haunted houses, right?"

Back in the mid-2000s, McCullough took a risk by giving up his contracting day job to work full time on the House. Now the business has 30 full-time employees, including marketing, administration, and production, plus hundreds of seasonal scarers, security, and support staff. Love called the growth "a wild ride." It's also seemed exponential. Back in 2007, the Austin House could barely fill the old lazer-tag arcade that is its home and used the inside lobby for tickets and concessions. "Back when we were thinking about how can we build out the lobby, I never thought that seven or eight years later, we'd be doing eight haunted houses. But here I am."

It's not just the national business that's grown. The Austin location has gone from a single scare inside the building to two distinct indoor scares (the Pacific perils of Hex of the Harvest, and the funereal Dead End District) and an outdoor maze (the evil clown-filled Laughterhouse). Before the crowds even get into the haunts proper, there's more than enough bone-chilling diversions. Love said, "We've had a stage and some dancers for a while, but we put a chain link on our roof, and we have zombies meandering around the building. We installed a lot of concert lighting and theatrical lighting on the outside, and Dan and the guys have done an incredible job of building a lot of themed installations that people can take photos in front of." Front of house, the crowd favorite seems to be the lazer swamp. "It's a relatively simple trick," said Love, "but it's actually pretty cool."

It's not just a case of improving last year's haunt. Every season, the art and science of haunts gets more complex and elaborate, and the team have to keep fighting to stay in the top echelons. McCullough said, "There's definitely a varying level of effects and build designs that we try to stay on top of in our industry, but at the end of the day, the dumbest, easiest things that we do, the most elementary things, tend to be what people love the best."

Then there's the out-of-season programming. McCullough said, "We've got a couple of big projects we're working on that will take us into the middle of November."

It's a change to the traditional business model. For years, the House would take out a 52-week rental on the building, but would only be making money for the six weeks leading up to Halloween. Now the season extends into November, including the infamous Blackout, where guests have only a greased-up glow stick for illumination. Add to the calendar seasonal special events, like Zombie Apocalypse, where players use real tactical training equipment to hunt the undead, and a year-round horror-themed room escape. Love said, "We're first and foremost a haunted house company, but we really feel like we have a platform that we can load more events onto, and we're constantly looking for new and different and creative things that we can do at the haunted houses, and with the people that work for us." He called the growth "organic" and put it down in part to having more permanent staff giving them "the bandwidth and capacity to do things in spring and summer."

It's also meant changing duties for the core team. In the early days, McCullough did everything, from signing contracts to welding props, even dressing up as a bush for the ultimate jump scare. As the business becomes more demanding, he said, "We've recognized that we've had to divide to conquer. I'm pretty much focused on design, build, and implementation, where Jon and Chris [13th Floor founder Chris Stafford] are more on the business end and marketing." The downside is that the core team is rarely in the same place at the same time. McCullough said, "One of the reasons that we got in the business is because we liked the people we're doing it with, but now it seems like we get no time to spend with those people, because we're all so equally busy."

It's a similar story for Love, who has gone from scarer to manager to the manager that manages other managers. Yet there's always time, here and there, to get back into the good old haunting swing of things. "When I'm in Austin," he said, "I love sitting in the control room and pressing buttons and scaring people."

House of Torment runs through Nov. 1, with an extra weekend Nov. 6-7, and the annual Blackout event Nov. 13-14. 523 E. Highland Mall Blvd.

For more on the history of the House of Torment, read "It Came From the Back Yard", Oct. 3, 2008.

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