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Thrill-seekers, beware: This isn't your neighborhood-variety haunted house

Ian Dille
Some staff members at the House of Torment have been scaring folks for years. But vice president Jon Love says about 30 percent of the business' employees quit within the first six weeks.

The doors to the House of Torment's renewed attraction, the theatrically themed Nightmare Mansion, burst open. Out slides a bespectacled, blood-splattered butler.

"Good evening!" He says in a low spooky voice. "The Doctor will see you now."

We step into a long dark hallway. The mutants of Dr. Incubus lurk behind trap doors and within crawl spaces. These cast-offs of experiments gone horribly wrong, including members of the Doctor's own family, babble incoherently and repeat the telling details of their horrific travails with wide-eyed lunacy.

"Such beautiful young things," a bonnet-wearing, bewitched woman tells me and my fiancée, Lindy, while ushering us onward. "The Doctor will be very pleased."

Upon entering a room where the floor tilts up at 30 degrees, which is like walking into a real-life gyroscope, a man with a melted face and Victorian-era suit lunges from the wall.

"Are you going to see Father?" he asks, forewarning us of the dangers ahead. Then, motioning to a chalkboard, which contains the scribbles of a mad man attempting to reverse his medical misfortune, he shouts, "I've almost finished the formula!"

Though we've no idea what other atrocities await us, our sense of fear urges us out of this room — and deeper into Nightmare Mansion.

Jon Love, 28, the vice president of the House of Torment, certainly loves his job. But "it's always hard explaining to people exactly what we do," he says.

Love clarifies: When people think of haunted houses, they imagine sticking their hand into a bowl of noodles pretending to be brains or grapes acting as eyeballs. Though that might work at the neighborhood spookfest, the House of Torment aspires to cause nightmares (or at least create memories) for people of all ages.

"Our primary market is teenagers and young adults," says Love. "But more and more we're drawing older people who appreciate the details and value the production of our attractions." The adults might not scare as easily, but they're certainly entertained.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot building on the north side of Highland Mall, the House of Torment has grass-roots origins that date back nearly a decade. Founder and current president Dan McCullough started the attraction as a Halloween trick in his Southwest Austin neighborhood. After just a few years, hundreds of visitors flocked to McCullough's home haunted house (and wreaked havoc on his lawn).

In 2002 McCullough went pro, turning his haunted house hobby into a business. At the time, Love, who'd previously dabbled in event promotion, was finishing a degree at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. He started as an intern with the House of Torment (struggling to justify its legitimacy to his professors) and officially partnered with McCullough soon after.

Love realized Halloween was a big-business holiday, second only to Christmas in terms of revenue, and strived to provide a top-notch customer experience. In his first year overseeing operations and marketing, says Love, sales and attendance doubled.

In 2008, McCullough, Love and a small crew of essential employees went full time. Today, they work year-round preparing the House of Torment for just the six weeks it's open, starting in mid-September and ending at midnight on Halloween.

This year, McCullough's overseeing the development of a new haunted house, the 13th Floor, at a historic 40,000-square-foot building in downtown San Antonio.

"Every year, we strive to outdo ourselves," says Love.

In 2010, utilizing every last inch of the building, the staff expanded and redesigned 70 percent of the previous year's attractions. In addition to the creation of Nightmare Mansion, they added a 4D Haunted Theater that's akin to a virtual version of a horror roller coaster.

Referring to the closet-sized main office we're talking in, Love says, "This is the only room that isn't haunted."

During a brief wait in line to enter the second of the House of Torment's two main haunted attractions, the namesake House of Torment: Revenge of the Immortals, Lindy surreptitiously points out a pre-teen girl in front of us and whispers, "She's crying."

The mere thought of entering the ghostly maze ahead has sent the skinny youngster into near hysteria. Her cluster of friends rallies around, propping her up and protecting her vision from the hordes of ghouls roaming the building's grounds.

Lady Incubus, the evil doctor's wife (who, she tells us in a spot-on British accent, incubated many of his most horrific creations inside her womb), sidles toward the juvenile group. She has spotted prey. The grotesquely disfigured missus cranes her neck; her large black eyeballs stare intently at the gaggle of girls. Saliva drips from her lower lip. She slowly sucks it back up and bares her yellow teeth.

The horrified little girl's knees buckle. The group surrounding her belts out a collective, high-pitched shriek — acknowledging that getting scared is really, really fun.

Soon after, the ticket taker opens the door to the attraction and yells, "Fresh meat." Inside, as the Revenge of the Immortals backstory states, is the "apocalyptic wreckage of a war-torn city where infected, abominations and immortals prey on each other." A loud, ominous soundtrack accompanies us as we navigate our way past a church placard laid to waste, shattered storefronts and bedrooms seemingly struck by nuclear annihilation.

We duck through doorways and wander down narrow alleys. The zombies, mutations afflicted with the Contagium virus, linger around every corner. They screech and wail wildly. Lindy clings tightly to the back of my shirt.

The monsters breathe down our necks.

A car bursts through a brick wall as we pass, its horn blaring. A zombie soars over our heads on a zip line. Towering, animatronic monsters growl and lurch.

It's almost as if the evil mutants know we're coming.

When Jon Love takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the House of Torment after our trip through each attraction, we learn many of the scares are like a laser-guided missile. In the central control room, rows of linked computer monitors display feeds from night-vision cameras strategically placed throughout the haunted houses.

As groups of people move through the attractions, the control room technicians watch them on the monitors and trigger the various props for maximum scaring capacity. Each tech aims to activate the prop at the center of the group, where Love says the most fearful guests usually position themselves.

"This is the best job here," Love says of the control room technicians, who watch the fruits of their labor unfold in panicked screams. All of the House of Torment employees take immense pleasure in scaring people.

When I tell Love about the little girl who was shivering before even entering the attraction, he reacts with an excited fist pump. "Yes," he says. "We're doing a good job."

Hiring for the House of Torment starts roughly three months before the event opens. Theater-style casting calls help Love sift through the roughly 700 applications he gets every year. "We'll bring people in and ask them five questions," says Love. "Then we'll tell them to try and scare us."

Behind the latex masks of House of Torment monsters are professional actors, actresses and stunt men, as well as plumbers and accountants who just get a kick out of scaring people . The person behind the Lady Incubus personality, Fiona Rene, has garnered accolades for lead roles in Austin-area plays. "I'm really not sure why she keeps working here," admits Love.

Another zombie, Sullivan (aka Michael Coronado), has a bachelor's degree in studio arts from the University of Texas and teaches art classes for the city of Austin. After telling me he's worked at the House of Torment for six years, Sullivan (er, Coronado) cuts our chat short. He fires up his chainsaw and charges toward a cluster of kids eyeing him suspiciously. They scatter with excited screams.

Coronado says the hours are late, as he typically gets home around 3 a.m. And scaring people for five hours straight can be grueling — roughly 30 percent of the staff quits within the first six weeks. But the pay-off is worth the work if creating panic is your passion.

Those who can't make it through the House of Torment are quickly escorted out of the attraction, but not before having their picture taken. The "Wall of Shame," on the House of Torment website, displays some of Austin's biggest scaredy cats, a few of whom have had, um, as the site says, "digestive system accidents."

House of Torment

When: 7 p.m. to midnight through Oct. 31

Where: 523 Highland Mall Blvd.

Cost: $19.99 for the two haunted attractions, $24.99 including 4-D haunted theater.

Information: (512) 407-9449, thehouseoftorment.com