Haunt spooks both young, old

There was a buzz of excitement surrounding the sixth-grade class of KIPP Austin College Prep as they waited in line outside an animatronic pumpkin-headed tree monster Tuesday evening. Their chatter was soon broken up, though, when a man wearing the mask of some deformed creature suddenly starts sniffing through their line, wildly swinging a club around. Anyone, young or old, is fair game at House of Torment.

Arguably Austin’s most commercially well-known haunted house, House of Torment looks out of place in the daylight next to Macy’s in the Highland Mall parking lot. The house’s earliest showtime is 7 p.m., but even in the safety of daylight, the students wail and keep away from the man — or creature or monster or thing — and the swing of his club.
Currently, House of Torment boasts an animatronics system, zip lines, night vision cameras and technology fit for a horror movie. It has definitely transformed since its early days as one man’s neighborhood haunted house, said Jon Love, Torment’s vice president.

With a background in construction, Daniel McCullough began crafting his South Texas home into a place of terror in the mid and late 1990s. What started out as just something for his kids grew out of proportion when McCullough came home to a couple hundred people standing outside his house on Halloween.

Unequipped to handle the large turnout but inspired by the popular interest, McCullough expanded his haunted house venture to Austin. The city’s first taste of House of Torment came when it opened in 2003 in the Furr’s Cafeteria of the former Northcross Mall.

Love, who was then studying business at UT, met up with McCullough two weeks before Halloween that year after checking out the haunted house upon a friend’s suggestion. Despite his initial skepticism, he was impressed with the quality of the homemade set and even donned a costume to help spook people.

McCullough was also impressed with Love, who already had a brush with entrepreneurship when he was 18 and used his college money to instead start his own music and event planning business.

Together with their staff, they doubled the size of the haunted house the following year, and then doubled it again the next year when they moved House of Torment to its present location.

“At the time I had a job in life insurance,” Love said. “Man, life insurance sucked. After graduation we thought, ‘What if instead of working on the haunted house three months out of the year, we take a huge risk by quitting our jobs and reducing our quality of living to making ends meet so we can work on the haunted house all 12 months to make it even better.’”
The goal was to build a permanent haunted house the way people build movie sets and their own costumes, Love said. In order to make the house unique, the team brainstorms how to implement ideas — such as the illusion gravity is disappearing, the feeling of suffocation or someone flying from the ceiling — rather than copy scenes straight from the movies or other haunted houses, he added.

“It’s the coolest job ever,” Love said. “When my fiance asks me what I did at work today, I might say some paperwork and e-mails. The next day she asks me, I tell her I got a car from a junkyard, but it was too big so I had to saw it [in] half. The next time she asks me, I say I worked on a media campaign platform. The next day she asks me what I did at work and I say I installed a zip line and got to ride it out.”

The biggest challenge, but also his favorite part, comes every November when the realization hits that there’s no such thing as good enough and next year has to be better, Love said.
McCullough now works in San Antonio where he operates a haunted house called 13th Floor. Built in a historic, 105-year-old building, the haunted house has its own storyline and remains separate from House of Torment.

This year, House of Torment continues with the third part of an apocalyptic storyline that began two years ago, so expect a fair share of zombies. The haunted house also includes Nightmare Mansion, which tells the story of a sick scientist who performed experiments on his family.

“It’s always exciting seeing a big, tough guy come in with his girlfriend and then on the first scare, he’s running out yelling and throwing his girlfriend at the monster,” Love said. “A couple dozen people each year pee or crap themselves.”

UT alumnus Michael Coronado manages the icon actors and plays Sullivan, the man wielding the chainsaw. Donning new makeup for a new character is always a refreshing feeling, he said.

The icon actors play specific roles, have characters with names and are usually hired based on experience. They, along with the general staff of gruesome monsters, make up the team who try their damndest to get a good scare. Some of the best hires have been passionate college students, Coronado said.

“We had a former UT football player work here once,” Coronado said. “He scared people by taking up the whole damn room.”

Coronado admitted nonchalantly that he has made both children and adults cry in the past, but crying kids aren’t something that phase him.

“I’m a bit of a haunted house purist, and if you aren’t here to scare people, then you shouldn’t be here,” Coronado said. “I can’t stop and tell a crying kid everything’s OK and that it’s just an act. I’d ruin the show for everyone. When I’m in costume, I’m supposed to be the bad guy, so I just have to walk off and have people think, ‘Wow, he’s mean.’”

House of Torment runs mid-September to Halloween. Afterward the site turns into Dark Stalkers, where the lights go out and each group going in gets one glow stick that can possibly be stolen.

A rumor has circulated that actors can bag individuals and separate them from the group. When asked if the rumor is true, Love said in a mysterious tone, “I don’t think I can answer that. All I’ll say is you have to sign a waiver before you enter.”