Last week, we brought you our review of the horrors that lurk beyond the doors of the House of Torment in Austin, Texas. But, mighty Cthulhu demanded more. I got the opportunity to sit down with Jon Love, the Vice President of House of Torment to answer some of the Ancient One’s burning questions.
Let’s go and just start from the beginning. How did you get into the scaring business?
Jon Love: Well, the business itself, House of Torment, was started by Daniel McCullough, and he’s actually the president of our company. He lived in a neighborhood in south Austin and there wasn’t a whole lot going on there for Halloween, and he was a big fan of Halloween, and he was also a super-creative guy. His work background is in construction. So, he decided to build a haunted house to encourage trick-or-treating. It was a really good home haunted house, and he did it for several years. And year after year after year, just more and more people came. And one day, he was coming home from church, and there was like just this crazy line of people waiting to get in to his haunted house. And it had turned into this big deal and the cops had to come and help direct traffic. And it was, whoa! This is too much just to have happen at his house. So, in order to continue to do what he had grown to love doing, he had to do it commercially. And he made the jump from amateur home haunted house guy to a professional, commercial haunted house producer in 2003. And that’s when House of Torment opened. It opened in North Cross Mall on a shoestring budget.
And that’s when I met Dan. My background was in event management and event marketing. I’d done some bookings and some DJ stuff and some band stuff before I’d gone to college. In college, a buddy of mine actually worked for Dan at the House of Torment as one of the scene actors, scaring people. And he convinced me to go. I was timid and apprehensive cause I really hadn’t gone to a haunted house and I thought they were for little kids. But when I went, I was blown away. It was really cool! And the entrepreneurial event, marketing, and management side of me was really intrigued at the idea and concept of a haunted house business. And so, the next year I helped Dan from the beginning. Our sales grew, and we continued to grow and grow and grow the business. And then it just kinda ballooned into the business that it is today.
Now, one of the things I’ve noticed about your guys’ house above every other house I’ve been to is that you put a lot of focus on story. You have these big, complex stories, some that take place over several years. How important is story to you guys and how do you go about creating that kind of story?
Love: I think it’s important to us because everything starts with inspiration. This is a very creative business to be a part of, and we have a creative process that we go through. So, we go out and we get inspired by different things we encounter in popular culture in our day-to-day lives. And a story kind of comes out of that. So I think it’s very important because it kind of serves as a thematic basis for what we do. Whether or not our guests care about the story, I think most people come here to have a fun time and celebrate Halloween and get scared. So, I would say 10-15% of the people actually come here to experience the story, but it certainly provides us a creative jumping off point, and that’s why there’s an emphasis on it.
Love: No, “too scary” is a good thing. (Laughs) We always try to out-do ourselves. So, “too scary” is almost always what we’re aiming for. That being said, I think there’s a difference between scary, and offensive and controversial. We feel like we need to walk that tight rope and our job is to provide a scary, yet thrilling and entertaining, experience. I don’t believe we need to provide a controversial or offensive experience.
That being said, the story, it kind of evolves over time and the evolution of the story isn’t just from the story arc and the characters themselves. It also has to do with actually what are we doing on the ground? What are we producing inside of the show? And I think those two things need to be cohesive, because you can’t tell a story and have visual imagery over here and not fulfill and deliver those things over in the attraction itself. So, sometimes what happens is the attraction is dictated by the theme and the evolution of the story. And sometimes the evolution of the story is dictated by what we’re actually doing in the attraction. But the goal between those two things is to have them meet and be aligned.
And a perfect segway, if there ever was one. Another thing that you guys seem to do really well is atmosphere; environment. What kind of atmosphere do you like to create? What are the elements you look for when creating the atmosphere of Torment?
Love: That’s a tricky question, cause again it kinda goes back to the diversity of differences in our guests. It’s always funny to stand at the back door and people come out, and they’re like, “Oh, my god! That was so awesome! It’s the best haunted house ever! It’s so cool!”
So we ask, “Alright! Great, yeah! What was your favorite part?”
“I don’t know! My eyes were closed the whole time! I didn’t see anything!”
And it’s like, seriously? You didn’t see anything? I put all this energy and effort into like the environment and the sets and detail. But sometimes the thing that scares people most is darkness and pitch-blackness. And people will keep their eyes closed the whole time. Then again, there’s another group of our customers that come here and demand and expect the story, and they look for the details; seek out the Easter eggs. And they are offended and upset if we don’t deliver, if we don’t fire on those cylinders as well.
So to answer your question, I think with our customers there’s a balance. But for us, we want to make sure that the haunted house is as detailed and dynamic, and that atmosphere is created even when the lights are on. And that is, I guess amplified when the overhead lights are off and the set lighting is on. And the fog fills up the sets and we add, of course, the final and maybe most important layer of the performers and actors themselves. So, it’s really important to us to do that, and it’s really important to a certain group of our customers. But then again, there’s this group of people out there, and they’d be happy walking down a black hallway.
Love: Most of all, people that can take direction. They don’t necessarily need to have formal acting experience. They just need to be able to listen to instruction. They need to have a good head on their shoulders and be able to make good judgment calls. And as long as we feel they can take direction, we can give them the direction they need.
It’s a plus if you are in shape because working at a haunted house is literally like doing a cardiovascular exercise for two to four hours depending on the night and how busy it is. So, as long as you can take direction and you have an open mind and a good attitude, we can teach you the rest. We run into challenges when people don’t listen or don’t take our advice or don’t eat healthy nutritious snacks and hydrate enough.
We do our best to provide as much training and on-going coaching as we can. It’s almost like running a sports team. Everybody needs to be physically conditioned. Everybody needs to put the right fuel inside of their body, because input equals output. And if you can do that, I think as a performer you can put on an elongated and intense performance.
Now, tell me a little about like the unsung heroes of Torment. The people behind the scenes. Carpenters and electricians. How many people do you have setting up that sort of thing?
Love: That’s an excellent question. It’s kinda crazy, cause our business is like an accordian. Seasonally, there’s all these employees and all these people here. And then come November, it’s back down to our full-time, year round staff. Depending on the projects for the year, we’ll have two to six full-time, year round employees. Right now, we currently have a metal fabricator and welder, a carpenter and scenic artist that specializes in carving and hard-coating and set-dressing. We have people that sketch our designs. And then there’s, of course, myself and Dan to kinda drive that process.
Love: You’re asking really good questions. I think that going to a haunted house is a group activity. And within the group, there are different individual dynamics and personalities, but they’re kinda universal. There’s always the guy that’s like, “Hey, let’s all get together and go to a haunted house.” There’s a group leader. And then there’s the sacrificial lamb like, “Scare this guy!” or “Scare her!” and then they throw her out there and everybody wants to see the monsters chase that person through the parking lot and through the haunted house. And then, there’s always like the nay-sayer, like, “Man, this ain’t gonna be scary!” And that’s the guy I think is the most challenging to scare, but also the most gratifying to scare.
I can’t tell you how many times you get the nay-sayer or the skeptic or big guy that comes in and they kinda bow up and act tough. Maybe they’re with their girlfriend and halfway through the haunted house, they’re like, “OH! AHH!” and they throw their girlfriend in front of them and run off in the other direction. And you laugh at them because we have cameras everywhere and we watch everything that happens inside the haunted house.
Do you have a particular scare that stands out? Like the funniest one you’ve ever seen?
Love: I would have to say one of the funniest things we consistently do is probably our bush costume. We have a really big planter and this costume. And it’s literally black spandex and it has a bunch of artificial foliage everywhere. And so if you’re in the planter and you kind of crouch down into a ball, you literally look like a shrub. You look like part of the landscape. And on busier nights, we have someone in the bush costume at the exits of the haunted house. And it’s really funny cause as people exit the haunted house, they’re kinda decompressing and they walk by this bush. And this bush like comes to life, and they’re like, “Oh, my god!” and they run. But it’s hilarious because it’s unexpected and it’s like, “You got scared by a bush? Like really?” (Laughs)
It’s really funny, and after people exit they all line up and they get their cell phones out and they videotape everybody else exiting. And we eventually get this really big crowd of people standing at the exits just videotaping. And we get these guests that walk out and they’re like, “Oh, my god! That was—” and they’re looking at all these people videotaping them and this giant bush they didn’t know was there comes to life and scares them! And everybody claps.
Very cool, very cool. Now, I understand this is your guys’ last year at Highland Mall. What are your plans for next year?
Love: Plans for next year are up in the air right now. There are a handful of locations we’re looking at and we’re at the table, but we don’t have a deal down in writing per se. So, until that happens, we’re not necessarily going to announce everything. We’re going to continue to produce the House of Torment. It will be in Austin. But right now, what we’re doing next year, we’re just kinda in limbo.
Well, sounds good. A mystery is always good.
Love: Yeah, a mystery is always good.
Be sure to check out House of Torment at their website right here. And don’t forget, there is still time to visit them. If you think you’re brave enough . . .