cover your eyes

Behind the bloody scenes of Austin's haunted House of Torment


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After keeping Austin scary at the Highland Mall for 10 solid years, the ghastly House of Torment is celebrating a milestone and hosting its last haunt at its current location his Halloween season.

Next year, expect more thrills at a new - and as yet, undisclosed - spot to continue the popular Austin tradition. The mall has sold to Austin Community College, and after a decade of wild popularity, House of Torment is ready to flex its claws and stretch out in a new, top-secret-for-now home. The suspense is killing us!

Meanwhile, though, the three haunts at the House of Torment in the mall parking lot are expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors to its post-Apocalyptic horror story between now and the weekend after Halloween.

“We blew the budget, so to speak,” General Manager Darryl Sanders said. “This is the Apocalypse; we’re going out with a bang.”

Click here for ticket and hours information. Also check out Dark Stalkers, the post-Halloween event in which the House of Torment rearranges its walls and interiors, turns out all the lights, gives group of visitors a glow stick - and lets them spend hours finding their way out.

The three parts are the Awakening, Cursed: The Howling, and The Slaughterhouse. The Awakening is the world in chaos after Commander Nemesis destroyed his own vessel instead of allowing his Soul Reaper Army to be defeated by the undead hordes. The Cursed attraction is a jungle setting with cursed pirates and dark wolves. And the Slaughterhouse, a brand new attraction, is where the Army and the hordes come to feed. 

 

House of Torment founder Dan McCullough joins a group on a trip through his brainchild attraction, something he rarely gets to do.

“I need to see my show,” he says as he eyeballs every detail on the way through the haunts. And there are plenty of details, some of which may be missed entirely due to the darkness and your own unwillingness to spend too much time in one place — what with all the zombies flying in on wires and whoosh-bang type noises and startles around every turn. 

 

 

 

A freakish creep straight out of a B-movie horror flick traps visitors in a room with himself, a bloody partner and a couple of chainsaws just a few steps inside the Slidell Family Slaughterhouse.

The “fresh meat” enter the doors of the chamber and then SLAM!!!! Visitors find themselves in a virtual death trap, the target of cruel deal the Slidell family made with the destructive Commander Nemesis in order that they might live through the end days of Earth.

The deal? Read on... 

 

 

 

Giant animatronic monsters give some star power to the inside of Awakening, the final chapter in the years-long story of Commander Nemesis and his bid to take over the world.

A few are familiar from last year, but several new sections and monsters are brand new. A real Cessna is strewn amid the post-Apocalyptic wreckage this year, which also features a crazy tilted room (complete with freakish creature crawling around on the slanted countertop). 

 

 

 

A stinky and out-of-control urinal adds a touch of charm to this reeking abandoned public bathroom scene, made more realistic with scent cannons that smell like human waste and a surprise lurking when visitors pass the diseased trench.

Is it really a sign of the apocalypse when public bathrooms are dirty and smell like urine? You might not think so — until you pass through this cesspool. 

 

 

 

Devilish details like these missing persons posters give the House of Torment its authentic feel and some delicious chills.

But don’t think there isn’t some dark humor afoot as well in these clever add-ons. Check out the fine print on the posters.

 

 

 

 

This guy may need to cut back on the burgers and fries. Then again, it may be too late to save him.

Visitors to Awakening get to cut through this man’s attic bedroom, where he’s been hanging out a while, and get treated to a few of his horrendous death — alone, suffering, and completely creepy. 

 

 

 

 

Not for the faint of heart, the House of Torment features buckets of blood — buckets — around nearly every corner.

“It gets a little rough sometimes in here,” Sanders said. This window, for example, is awash in the remains of a scientist in a laboratory, where clearly something has gone horribly wrong.

We enter the lab to find overturned file cabinets, sticky and blood-spattered computers and a dead scientist in the corner.

Pretty sure this isn’t how the good doctor intended for his experiment to end — but then again, in this post-apocalyptic nightmare, maybe he had it coming... 

 

 

 

The hanging heads in places like the Awakening and The Slaughterhouse meet you at eye level, with either ice or crusty ickishness seeping from their orifices — bodies dangling below them or, more often, not.

In the darkness, with your skin crawling and your senses heightened, your pulse quickening and your hands itching to cover your eyes, they look real. Seriously. 

 

 

 

 

You never know what ghoulish creatures are overhead in the cursed jungle, site of the House of Torment’s second haunt, Cursed: The Howling.

The story of the Mayan prophecy about the end of the earth on 12-21-2012 is told through this chilling journey, when visitors to the Lost Temple of Tortuguero encounter the dread cursed Narentine pirates and dark wolves. 

 

 

 

 

Rumor has it that the Slidell family agreed to harvest surviving humans, slaughter them and then rip out their entrails and feed them to Commander Nemesis’ Soul Reaper Army that craves human flesh.

Humans aren’t the only victims of the Slidell Family Slaughterhouse, which hardly conforms to health codes and whose inhabitants seem to relish putting the gory remains of tortured animals on display for their visitors.

The slaughterhouse is part of the new reality of the world in the wake of the end of days, when mayhem rules and, according to the House of Torment’s website, life on Earth is all about “survival of the cruelest.”

 

 

 

These gruesome skinned geese are for decoration and show in the Slaughterhouse. Visitors to this, the third attraction in the House of Torment, find a much more visceral experience — think Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Deliverance.

Built on the site of last year’s interactive zombie target shooting range, the Slaughterhouse is brand new and boasts a pathway of wooden walls, ghoulish men with pig faces strapped to their heads and hanging half-torsos covered in blood.

Screams and gurgles fill the air as the Slidells fulfill their deal with Nemesis. 

 

 

 

 

Austin Rouche, 22, is the head make-up artist this year who also gets to perform with the crowds as an icon actor.

He graduates soon from St. Edwards with a degree in costume design and is having a great time turning people into monsters for his fifth year at House of Torment.

“We’re all about bigger, better, putting things out there that haven’t been seen before,” he said. 

 

 

 

 

Organizing dozens of actors and their elaborate costumes is a tough job, made slightly easier this year when the actors could move into their own digs instead of parking lot trailers behind the sets last year.

Occupying a corner of the Highland Mall is the “Morgue,” where the living go to get undead before hauling it over to the House of Torment for a night of scaring the bejeezus out of people. Just another night at the office. 

 

 

 

 

 

Transforming themselves from the happily human to the tortured dead requires lots of makeup, masks, and costumes.

The actors sit patiently while they are turned from pretty young things into horrific uglies, or don hot sweaty masks to top off blood-soaked clothing and chainsaws.

Jaye Barras, a student teacher at Westbook High School who plays a wolf in Cursed, says she loves it.

“How many people get to play dress up and weird people out for their job?” she said.

 

 

Pat Briggs, a 63-year-old business analyst, is in her second year as a House of Torment character.

Last year, she went wherever she was needed; this year, she’s dressed up like a creepy doll in the Awakening.

“It’s something I wanted to do for years and years, and finally got up the nerve to do it,” Briggs said. “It keeps you young.” 

 

 

 

 

The monster costumes and the actors themselves are usually what visitors name as their favorite parts of the House of Torment attractions.

“They do a great job,” said visitor Tom Schoen, who brought his granddaughter and her friends.

 

 

 

 

Pam Rouche, left, runs the Morgue (which she named) like a tight ghost ship. A mother of five and self-proclaimed “monster lover,” Rouche makes most of the costumes, keeps the ghouls dressing and out the door in time for the performances, and frequently yells out things like: “IF YOU’RE GOING TO THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, START LINING UP!” “ANYBODY WHO HAS TO HAVE BLOOD NEEDS TO BE HERE YESTERDAY!!!!”

Here, she’s helping to dress the clown for his scene in the Awakening as a terrifying counter boy at a twisted fast food joint.

While people do get paid to work their roles at HoT, Pam finds herself recruiting them in their off hours to help her in The Morgue, which she helped develop.

“I love my volunteers,” she said. “It’s a personal belief I have that there are a lot of things that can’t be done without volunteers.”

 

 

 

Creator Dan McCullough started doing the House of Torment as a “yard haunt” maze at his house about 15 years ago.

“I wanted to be the creepy guy in the neighborhood,” he said.

With a background in construction, concrete and framing, McCullough had a blast building his ever-more-elaborate sets, which attracted hundreds each night and shut down neighborhoods with traffic.

In 2003 he went legit and in 2011, he and business partner Jon Love went national. They even have a haunted house in Paris -  Le Manoir de Paris.

 

 

 

Ghouls get trucked over from the Morgue to the Awakening across the parking lot. Rather than walk across and get harassed and messed with by passersby — and therefore at risk of getting hurt — they are trucked the couple hundred yards from door to door.

It’s strange but true, House of Torment officials say: People see a ghoul traipsing across an empty parking lot, and something inside them makes them want to challenge them. The House of Torment employs about 100 people, officials said, but not all on the same hours.

 

 

 

 

Brandishing a chainsaw and standing well over six-feet tall, Cole Butler violently greets the “fresh meat” that enters the Slidell Family Slaughterhouse, the last of three haunts in the House of Torment.

Cole, who works as a postal service mailman when he’s not terrorizing Austinites with power tools, is in his second year as a ghoul for the House.

“We start rehearsing in July. At the beginning of September, it gets pretty tough. It’s five hours of screaming at people every day,” Butler said. “It’s hard to do the same thing over and over again.”

But he absolutely loves it — loves scaring people, loves seeing the “true reaction” people have to his characters.

“A lot of people get freaked out, and then as soon as they’re outside, they’re saying, ‘Let’s do it again!’” 

 

 

General Manager Darryl Sanders runs the show at the House of Torment.

The attraction is hosting extended hours this year in celebration of its final haunt inside the mall location. 

 

 

 

 

 

This guy is looking for YOU. CLICK HERE for a super-creepy video that stars ... YOU. (Be sure and sign in with Facebook— SO worth it).

Actors known as “icons” roam the line in search of victims waiting to get inside, creeping up on them, getting their pictures taken with them, and avoiding being trampled — yes, trampled — by unruly crowds who are at once excited to see them and determined to overtake them or defeat them somehow.

Being an icon actor is so much more difficult than being a haunt inside the facility, said Austin Rouche, an icon actor who also does make-up. Mainly because you have to be ready to deal with the unexpected — people who want to touch you and not let you go, people who want to challenge you, who mob you for photos.

Inside, you hide and wait and jump out and scare people as they go by. Sometimes, you chase them. Mainly you don’t interact. But outside, Austin said, “You’re on all the time. You have to be nice, while still being scary.” 

 

 

 

This poor boy hangs at the entrance of the slaughterhouse each day, guarded by his disturbing-looking captor above (not pictured, for your own protection!).

The sight is so realistic and creepy, in fact, that the HoT officials have to cover them up during the daytime business hours kept by the living — they were actually getting complaints.

The grisly display is easily the most visible symbol of what really goes on inside the House of Torment haunts. And if you can’t handle what’s outside, you’ll find it difficult to survive within. 

 

 

 

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