Our annual road trip to the Haunted Association and Attractions Show this year yielded some very unique finds, not the least of which being the photo-journal / coffee table book Haunt, created by photographer Misty Keasler.
Ms. Keasler toured and photographed professional haunted attractions across American and her work was recently the subject of an entire exhibit at the Modern Museum in Fort Worth, TX. Haunt includes 104 photographs many of which are unpopulated “scenes” from some of the season’s most famous attractions. Who would put these rooms together this way? Who makes up the market for such places, paying to be scared? And what does this say about American culture?
As you can imagine, we were just dying to find out so Misty, meet everyone – everyone, meet photo journalist extraordinaire, Misty Keasler.
[Click the images for bigger versions.]
1) GC: What got you interested in photography to start?
MK: I’ve always loved photography. My earliest memory of being taken with photographs is of my grandfather and his polaroid camera. He’d take photos of us, normally at the end of a trip to visit him and my grandmother, and they were not great – we’d often have our heads chopped off and they were framed very oddly – but he’d give them to us as we loaded in the car. I found the photograph and the way it appeared on the polaroid to be completely magical. Later I stumbled onto a book of Richard Avedon’s defining work In The American West at a book store and spent several years deeply moved by those portraits, trying to find the words to articulate what was so captivating about them.
4 Sins Casino
2) What is the “premise” of Haunt?
Haunt is a portrait of American culture through the lens of haunted houses. And while the haunted house industry is a niche, these businesses are a venture created for the general public and widely attended by millions of people every year. When putting together the list of the 13 haunted houses in the book I was looking to some of the most immersive and incredible places open today as well as a nice range.
Previously I did a book about Love Hotels, themed rooms rented by the hour in Japan. They paint a portrait of Japanese culture through the very heterosexual male fantasies created in the rooms. For this work I wanted to look at our own culture.
3) What first gave you the idea for photographing haunted attractions? Were you always a fan?
I married someone who loves haunted houses and was taken to his first one at six years old. He’s gone to them ever since and when we started dating he took me to a different one every year. They weren’t my thing but he’s the PERFECT person to go with – he gets worked up in line and scares super easy and screams loud. It made them really fun. But we visited lots of bad, poorly put together haunted houses. It wasn’t until about three years ago that we visited Thrillvania in Terrell, Texas. I’d never seen anything like it – several acres you wander around on that feel like you’ve been dropped on a movie set, complete with a creepy old mansion with fire shooting out of the top. It was so immersive and detailed that as we were being scared forward on the path I was lingering behind to see the rich detail in the rooms. All I wanted to do was go back and photograph that place.
Honestly most photographers are voyeurs and there is a part of me that just wanted to look and be there for as long as possible. I called them the following week but couldn’t get anyone to entertain the idea of allowing me many hours to photograph the haunt when they weren’t open with the work lights off and show lights on. But I couldn’t let go of the idea so I pitched a feature of the place to D Magazine (a local city magazine) and once they got on board I spent the summer visiting and figuring out how to shoot such a difficult subject in a way that would make for interesting photographs. Once it was finished and the piece ran I figured this would make for an interesting larger body of work.
4) Quite a lot of preparation must go into each photographic session. Can you give us an idea of how you chose the locations / subject matter?
First off I must say the owners I worked with were all very generous and gracious hosts. I asked a lot of them as I needed, on average, a couple of days to be in the haunt with show lights and without people walking though. So I was looking at them opening up for me when they weren’t open for business. And I brought a full studio setup with me for the character portraits. Most of the portraits required actors coming in and getting in makeup and costume when they otherwise wouldn’t be there so that required them as well as costume and makeup crew. So there was a lot of coordination required from the moment we booked the dates (I flew to all but the three haunts in Texas). If I were in a different life stage I would’ve taken a few months and made the work a long cross-country road trip.
In regards to how I chose locations – I spent time talking to owners and doing my own research. I knew I wanted the list to be fairly representative of the best and most incredible haunted houses for the entire country. But I also needed visual variety. So the larger haunts in more industrial spaces were balanced out with the more intimate but well detailed haunts such as Terror on the Fox. And I wanted Pennhurst Asylum in the mix because of the very real horror in her history as well as the controversy of that location as a haunted house. And I loved the balance of the outdoor hay ride elements as well as the sheer spectacle of Haunted Overload in Lee, New Hampshire.
5) The “haunt subculture” can be a guarded group. Did you run into any difficulties getting cooperation from your chosen subjects?
I have heard this critique a few times but it wasn’t my experience. But the way this work unfolded was fairly serendipitous. By the time I knew I wanted this to be larger project I already had one haunt photographed with a nice magazine feature so they could see what I was trying to do when I talked about the larger vision of a coffee table art book. I think it was evident that I was taking their work very seriously and giving it treatment that no one had before. And I was incredibly fortunate to have the support of Todd James, owner of Cutting Edge and Thrillvania, who introduced me to other haunt owners who were on my wish list. It seems like common sense now but I was surprised to realize they all seemed to know one another.
6) Your work is the subject of a museum exhibit in Fort Worth. What has been the public reaction?
It was incredible! The media in Texas was enthusiastic and it was so widely covered! It was a pretty monumental exhibition – sixty photographs – and the installation was authoritative in a way that only a beautiful art museum like the Modern can be. The opening drew a much larger crowd than normally attends. Some of the folks from ScareHouse came in for the opening and one of them commented “you see what we do the way we see it.”
7) Have you received feedback from the haunt industry as a whole and if so, what has it been?
It has been very positive. Some of the haunts came to see the museum show in Ft Worth and I think it was gratifying to see their work presented in that setting. There is a permanence to an art book like this and I think it’s nice for them to see the work they do receive this level of attention from outside the industry.
8) Any chance this exhibit will tour to other cities – like Chicago maybe?
Fingers crossed! I would LOVE to see it travel!
9) The photos made me think about what scares us and why people pay to be scared. What did you learn about fear as it pertains to haunted attractions?
Margee Kerr’s writing keyed me into the fact that our fears are culturally specific, which by extension means that haunted houses are culturally specific. As the work went on I became fascinated with the influences that shaped stories in the haunts. We are afraid of monsters, both fictional and real. So the sci-fi fantasy horror of HP Lovecraft as well as the real tale of serial killers Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy have all shaped story lines in these haunts. I do think we require a certain distance from the horror before we are ok with it as a form of scary fun. This is the reason no haunted house has an airplane hijacker or suicide bomber storyline. And fear is really only fun if deep down you know you’re safe.
10) What insights did you discover about professional haunters?
It’s an incredibly resourceful and talented group of people. In order to pull off a successful immersive haunt you have to address so many senses – sight, sound, anticipation, smells, storyline and of course well placed startles. Most of the places I visited are creating their spaces from the ground up (instead of purchasing prefabricated goods though these are definitely there and spread through out). But they have unbelievable talented teams that create incredible from raw, inexpensive materials or source them from unexpected places. And on top of it you need good business sense. It’s a fascinating industry.
Cutting Edge – The Morgue
11) Did you have any frightening experiences while creating the content for Haunt?
YES! I was fortunate that everyone had mercy on me and no one tried to scare me. But I did research on every place before I went and sometimes the histories got in my head. I was extremely unnerved in certain parts of ScareHouse –– something was just off about parts of that building. And in another haunt I found I was unable to calm down while shooting. The soundtrack was on but I should have been relaxed and found myself on edge. I found out later they had an element in the soundtrack that effects you on a biological level. It is typically referred to as fear frequency. A pair of ear plugs soothed my nerves. And at Reindeer Manor I was convinced they were playing a trick on me – loud creaking doors, a woman screaming in the distance. But everyone else was on the far end of the property, a few buildings away. Once I got scared enough I was pretty rattle and packed up. I touched base to let them know I was leaving and asked about the sounds I was sure they’d make to scare me. Turns out the creaking was screws going into new wood. And the woman screaming? Coyotes howling.
12) What scares you most?
The scariest photo in the book for me is the image of the missing child posters above the bed with chains coming out of the wall. I’m a mom and the notion of a kidnapped child is so horrific I can’t linger on the thought too long. It’s funny how your fears are so directly related to where you are in your life. The funny thing about that photo is it’s a pretty sophisticated glimpse into commercial haunted houses as the posters are full of funny things that would only be read by people working there. There’s no way you could read them when you run through as a patron and you’d never notice that one of the images in a popular meme or there a funny word plays or puns in what is otherwise a terrifying set. So that photograph is a nod to the subculture and how the houses are not created for anything other than running through them. The image allows you to really look at something you otherwise wouldn’t see.
13) Professionally, what is next for you?
I have been working on a project about communities that live at the edge of garbage dumps and will travel to Cairo, Egypt to finish the work. It’s completely different but still a portrait of humanity.
Having scored my own copy of Haunt, I can tell you it is a must have for anyone intrigued by what scares us or devotees of haunted attractions. You can pick up your very own copy from Amazon and keep up with Misty’s latest work via her website.
A special “thank you” to Misty Keasler for sharing her experience and art. Have a question or comment? Post it here or drop a line to email@example.com.