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The big daddy of boo, Austin's House of Torment ranked among the best

Patrick Beach
Actress Melissa Jacobs scares House of Torment patrons.

Jon Love doesn't want this to come off as bragging, but a few dozen people accidentally unburden their bladders at his workplace every year. In his racket, there is no higher praise.

Love is vice president of House of Torment, the seasonal spook house in the Highland Mall parking lot that's consistently ranked among the nation's best, with movie-quality sets and special effects and a vibe heavily influenced by video games.

With the company's expansion into San Antonio and Phoenix, founder and President Daniel McCullough said it's possible that his company will have more traffic than any other similar business in the country.

The Austin House of Torment, which actually is two haunted houses in a 20,000-square-foot building, will sell about 50,000 tickets in just a few weeks.

Haunted houses have gone high-tech, and the crowds have responded. Hauntworld.com estimates that ticket sales to haunted houses make up $300 million to $500 million of the $7 billion that Americans spend on Halloween.

The Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau doesn't keep stats on the economic impact of the holiday locally, but in a town bursting with so many who act and decorate every day like it's Halloween, it's fair to say it's a sizable sum.

Customers demand an experience that's like being immersed in a scary movie. Long gone are the days when set design consisted of rolls of black plastic and a spooky character was your dad in a dime-store mask brandishing a chainless chain saw. Every year, House of Torment company honchos figure out new and better ways to scare the jelly beans out of customers, to make the thrills thrillier and the chills chillier.

"In January, we take our core staff and say: 'What are we going to do next? Last year is no longer big enough. Take away constraints,'" Love said. The company employs as many as 125 seasonal workers at each location.

The genesis of the terror goes back to McCullough . In 1998, he bought his first house in South Austin and was excited to give out candy to trick-or-treaters, only to receive a disappointing trickle of visitors.

So he built "Trash Can Trauma," a lidded garbage can from which a zombie head and arm would explode when bag-toting goblins neared. "It was utterly amazing," McCullough said. "Everybody freaked and ran."

McCullough got more ambitious, and by the early 2000s he was spending weeks and up to $15,000 building a one-day attraction. Most of his backyard held haunted rooms, a maze made from old fencing and as many as 20 actors. McCullough estimates about 1,200 people showed up for Halloween 2002 .

In 2003, he went pro, opening a haunted house at what's now the Northcross Walmart, McCullough said, and Love started with him toward the end of that season.

These days at the House of Torment, monsters fly on zip lines. Walls appear to breathe and press on you. Things go bump — more like kaboom — in the dark.

And of course there are zombies. But these aren't your traditional zombies. They're zombies that do parkour. And if you have to stop by the portable toilets, you might get a visit from a menacing clown who finds good sport in whacking your commode with a mallet.

Deep inside the facility in the control room, a bank of seven PC monitors receive video feeds from cameras all over the house. Unlike some haunted houses in which the frights are tripped by automatic sensors, workers in the Torment control room customize the terror.

Monsters are armed with two-way radios; some run ahead or behind of groups to keep an eye on anyone who's seriously freaked out and wants to leave.

The actors have a good deal of fun, too.

"I love it," said Michael Coronado, a show director, production artist and actor who plays a chain saw-wielding maniac named Sullivan. "It's all about the tactics of it — hiding in one place, coming out, making people jump and seeing how many times I can do it to the same group. "

It should be noted that Coronado uses a real chain saw with a blade welded to it. He whips it around at such speed that customers can't really tell it's not moving. "I get within inches of people's faces," Coronado said.

Amid all the terror, there's a touch of altruism in this and many other haunts, which have a history scaring their communities then giving back to them. This year, House of Torment held a canned food drive and will donate $5,000 for fire relief in Central Texas.

Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld Haunted Attractions in Atlanta and a recognized leader in the industry, said House of Torment deserves its ranking at or near the top of haunts nationwide, in large part because of its high production value and an aesthetic that eschews stereotypical pumpkins and witches for a dark, gritty, post-apocalyptic feel.

"They're bringing that new zest to haunting," he said.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

For more information on Halloween events, visit www.austin360.com/events/ halloween.