Halloween is easily my favorite holiday. I grew up in the 70's and 80's, when it was still common for kids to wander their neighborhoods with no concern about their safety. Trick-or-treating was something that you perfected into an art form by the time you were 12. I love horror films, ghost stories, monsters... and Halloween was a celebration of all the above.
One of the Halloween Traditions that I have always enjoyed is the "spook-house". In fact, when I go to carnivals, theme-parks, or festivals, if they have a spook-house, I check it out. When I was a kid in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the best spook-house for years was the one put on by the local Boy Scouts at an old church; the Haunted Castle. They still put it on every October, but the church has since been demolished. Back then, spook-houses were usually put on by a local group trying to raise money for their organizations. Now, franchises have stepped in with a goal of making a profit, for better or for worse.
The House of Torment is one of those franchise spook-houses.
As an adult, my love of things scary has been shared with my daughters. My eldest daughter is 17. Next year, she might be busy with classes, busy with college, or would prefer to go with her friends. I saw this year as possibly being the last year that she and I would be able to share in this tradition. It had been a few years since we last went to a spook-house together (not counting the one at Six Flags and the one last year at the Texas Renaissance Festival), so I made a special point of going this year.
The House of Torment probably has the largest advertising budget in our area. They advertise on billboards, in radio and television spots, and have deals worked out with local businesses to give their customers discounts (I received a coupon from Sonic for $2 off my ticket price). The local House of Torment is in a building that was formerly a movie-theater at Highland Mall. This has been their site for several years, and they have permanent structures in place. This tells me either they are making enough money to cover their rent of the site for the year during the season, or that the property owners also bought into the franchise.
Either way, the House of Torment is the big money-maker among the seasonal spook-houses in Austin.
I was leaning toward going to the House of Torment simply because they are right down the road, they are the most visible, and their advertising suggests that they are the best in the area. One ad claimed that they were rated as the #2 haunted house in the nation, and another placed them in the top 13. Word-of-mouth, though, had not been in their favor. I did some searches on-line, and found both positive and negative reviews, with a few complaining about how the crowd at the site were made up of "thugs and gang-bangers" and that the employees acted disinterested and bored, including the costumed actors.
Still, I decided to give them a shot.
The tickets were about $20 each, and paid for both "shows". My Sonic coupon took $2 off each ticket, but had I planned this out a little more in advance I could have taken advantage of a Groupon purchase of about $15 for the VIP passes (normally $30 each). I purchased my tickets on-line for the second show (7:30) on a Saturday. We arrived early, expecting (correctly) a line, at 7pm. Corrals were in place for each 30 minute showtime, and we were first to arrive for the 7:30 show. Two different kinds of employees greeted us outside; guides in "House of Torment" t-shirts for crowd control and taking tickets, and actors in costume who entertained the crowds while they waited.
The actors were very engaging, making jokes, acting spooky, and posing for pictures. The costumes were impressive. There was a girl (I am assuming it was a girl) dressed as a demented female robot. Her costume had lights and made strange noises, and she would occasionally stop and "spit" a black fluid from the masks "mouth" onto the ground. She walked in a stiff, mechanical manner and creeped people out. Another actor was dressed as a pirate, spoke with kind of an Irish brogue, and cracked jokes as he worked the crowd. The guides were polite and friendly... nothing like the negative reviews I had read. The crowd itself was a diverse mix. Highland Mall is in or near "da hood" and is the "bad mall" in Austin, but that was not reflected by the crowd that night.
The spook-house itself was impressively decorated. The lighting was minimal, foggy, and carried the sounds of creepy music and noises marked often with the shrieks of pre-teen girls either ahead or behind us (while waiting in line, a gaggle of 12-14 year old girls shrieked there heads off every time a costumed actor came near... who they thought they were putting on a show for I have no idea). The costumed actors inside went out of their way to be creepy, and were all convincingly attired. There were several animatronic characters, including a couple of massive demons, a flayed dog, and other strange beasts.
The House of Torment had several obstacles common to other spook-houses. There was a rickety "bridge", an air-jet, a tilted-room, and one walk-way that was lined with air-bags, forcing you to push your way through the tight space. There were no options on the path, you simply walked from area to area, with different spaces having different themes (one show was a burned-out future city, the other a pirate/jungle theme). The lighting was consistent throughout, so no attempt was made to change the ambiance or using the lighting to frighten you.
The actors also only had really one trick in their bag. The floors in most areas were smooth boards, allowing an actor with knee pads to slide suddenly at you after just a short run. This might startle you the first few times, but after the 12th or 13 time you simple expected it. It was the same in both shows. The second show also ended abruptly in the gift shop. I expected to be deposited there at the end, but not in half the time it took to get through the first show.
For an extra $5, you could shoot at pop-up zombie-targets at a paint-ball shooting range. We passed on that.
While the House of Torment was not the scariest spook-house I had been in, it was impressive. As to it being worth $20 a ticket, well, it was worth it to spend the evening with my daughter. Otherwise, probably not. No doubt there are other spook-houses in the area that are less expensive and probably are more exciting.