Photos by Annie Fichtner
Highland Park Mall is a total shithole. Nestled in the northern stretches of Austin, Texas, it’s practically the dictionary definition of urban decay. It’s huge, but completely empty — most of the storefronts have been boarded up for what seems like forever. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sinks into the ground in the next couple of years. Unsurprisingly, this is House of Torment’s last year doing business in the mall’s parking lot; next Halloween it’ll be moving to a roomier, happier, and more relevant location.
If you couldn’t tell by the name, House of Torment is a haunted house. In fact according to hauntworld.com, it’s a top-tier haunted house. It doesn’t have the performance-art edge of New York’s Blackout; instead, House of Torment specialises in the kitschy, campy, middle-schooler-scaring type of fun. Today, less than two weeks before Halloween, there’s a massive network of waist-high chainlink fences guiding literally thousands of preteens toward the maw of the Awakening, one of HoT's three areas open to exploration this year. These kids have whipped themselves up into such a frenzy that anything — literally anything — can make them scream. I walk past the line into the bowels of the abandoned hallways of the Highland Park Mall and into a makeup room, where they’re going to turn me into a monster.
House of Torment has two different types of characters. You have the regular, run-of-the-mill ghouls who do their work in the haunted house itself, and then you have the “icons”. Icons are the characters that get a lot of care, attention, and accessories, and are paid to entertain the kids milling about in the parking lot and lines. It’s kind of like being an intentionally scary clown and, accordingly, requires about three years of acting experience. The full extent of my acting experience was when I was ten and had the lead role in my church’s Christmas play. My parents were the directors.
I am being turned into a werewolf pirate captain. Or, more specifically, a pirate captain who’s in the process of turning into a werewolf. My makeup artist is a mild-mannered and incredibly nice guy named Justin Cox, who takes one look at my stubble and informs me that there might be a lot of pain in my future. Oops.
My hair gets pinned back and a generous smear of oily goo is rubbed all over my face. The goo, apparently, keeps facial hair flattened down to make paint application a lot easier. (This probably explains why my eyebrows feel fossilized.) The goo also helps with the application of latex prosthetics. If you’re not sure what a prosthetic is in this context, it’s basically a large, rubbery adhesive that covers part (or all) of your face. Since I’m about to be part werewolf, my prosthetic runs from my brow to the top of my lip, and makes me look vaguely dog-like. I hold as still as I can while Justin pushes a giant white sticker over my eyes and nose. Apparently sometimes these things can go on wrong and block vision or airways, a scarier prospect to me than anything House of Torment could dish out.
It’s a curious sensation, having someone massaging goop into your face and attaching giant pieces of rubber to your nose. It almost makes you feel less than human, like you’re just a subject, a work of art. It’s not a bad feeling, it’s just strange. The makeup artists, the PR person who set this up, the photographer I brought along — they’re all staring at me and giggling and guffawing, but I’m instructed not to twitch a single muscle in my face.
Justin blends the edges of the prosthetic with my cheeks and forehead; pretty soon it won’t be clear where the synthetic ends and the organic begins. The painting is easily the most intensive, precarious, and time-consuming part of the transformation. Justin paints my head dark gray, and then blends in a lighter shade of gray and black. I feel the sharp mist of hairspray on my neck. Justin dabs more color on me, pauses, looks intently at my face, and dabs on more color. This goes on for about half an hour.
Keep in mind that I can’t see myself during this process — every mirror around me seems to be angled just out of my vision. So the first moment I come face-to-face with the pirate werewolf version of myself is in the changing room, just before putting on my costume. I’m standing in a little box, looking at my severely modified face through the camera on my phone. Whoa. This is what two hours of painstaking work looks like. When you're the center of attention, when everyone around you has invested a lot of time and resources in how you look, you feel overburdened with importance. No wonder actors are so fucked up. When I step back out, and I’m garbed in a fake pistol, a fake sword, a mossy pirate hat, and a long, velvet pirate coat, something inside me tightened. Why am I doing this again? I’m just some untrained reporter who got offered this gig so House of Torment could have an article written about them, and here I am taking up two hours of a serious make-up artist’s time. I’m actually relieved when Justin’s boss mentions he can clock out after the finishing touches.
Now it’s time to go out to the frontlines so I can get a taste of what it’s like to scare children. The other icons have spent months working on their characters: their voice, their motivation, and their tactics. I’ve been a werewolf pirate for approximately 160 minutes. On the way back outside, one of the other monsters tells me that the adrenaline rush you get from seeing people run away from you in fear is an incomparable feeling. I guess we’ll see.
As it turns out, when you’re a six-foot-two, 220-pound werewolf pirate, it’s pretty easy to frighten small people. One poor kid was staring at his mobile phone when I ran up to him — I think he took a lap around the mall in about two minutes. But scaring children is the easy part; once I complete my run-around-yelling entrance I find myself standing in the middle of an increasing crowd of pre-tweens who were all demanding pictures. I have absolutely no game. I don't have a pirate voice, or a set of pirate catchphrases, or even a good pirate scowl. It probably doesn't help that Justin is watching from a few yards away, which makes me feel like I'm under extra scrutiny. But I try my best. I pose, I bare my teeth, I do the best I can to give the horde of kids what they deserve. One of them tells me that I'm a “nice monster,” which makes me feel like I've really fucked up.
Then I was back in the makeup chair going through the half-hour process of having all my accessories pulled off. The prosthetic actually came off reasonably painlessly, facial hair be damned. As it turns out, a werewolf pirate with half of his makeup off is actually scarier than the full version.
An hour later I head to a party and a few friends ask me why I have residual black paint around my eyes and chin. I tell them how I was turned into a pirate werewolf, and how I scared some kids, and how I’m writing a story about it. I also mention how being dressed up in such an elaborate design made me feel uneasy of my own presence, like I was something of a fraud. Nobody can quite understand this, and I guess that makes sense — on the surface, being turned into a monster and sent out to frighten some kids should be empowering and fun, but there’s a real sense of craft to that kind of work. It requires digging inside yourself and summoning up the same monster you are on the outside; as corny as it sounds, you need to be able to look into your werewolf pirate eyes and see a werewolf pirate looking back. One of the other actors told me he couldn’t do his character unless he was in costume, as if his ability to be scary was unlocked by his makeup. As for me, I don't think those hours in the makeup room unlocked anything. I wasn't a real monster, just a kid in a fancy costume.