Great Escapes

10.25.13

The House of Shock Is Terrifying Its Guests and Causing Controversy—and the Zombies Who Run the Show Are Loving It

Children-turned-monsters, anti-Christs, zombies, and mad priests. Meet the diabolical family-like group who runs one of the biggest—and most frightening—haunted houses in America.

Her long, purple dress floated over the muddy path as she moved closer to the group. Three teenage girls, already scared, hugged each other in a sort of terrified conga line. They were Jen Vasquez’s next targets. The House of Shock cast member, better known as Momma Jen, hissed. She sniffed. Then, through two different colored contact lenses, Vasquez looked in the face of the young blonde girl, who shrieked like she might drop dead.

“I like to find the scaredy cats,” said Vasquez. “When their shoulders shrink, I know I got them.”  

Founded in 1992 by Pantera lead singer Phil Anselmo and his friends Ross Karpelman and Jay Gracinette, the House of Shock started off as a backyard party in New Orleans. Twenty-one years later, it has a permanent home, a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on grounds that look like an industrial wasteland just outside of the Crescent City in Jefferson Parish. Now one of the largest—and scariest—haunted houses in the country, House of Shock thrives on pushing the boundaries of the terrifying and the extreme, welcoming the controversy that inevitably follows.

The House of Shock usually opens the first weekend of October and receives between 700 to 2,000-plus guests on Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes including big names like Will Smith, who visited the haunted house earlier this October. On Halloween night alone, an estimated 4,000 people will buy tickets—$25 for regular admittance, $50 for VIP. This year Top Haunts Magazine placed the House of Shock in the top five on their Best Haunt List.   

Unlike commercial haunted houses, the House of Shock is run completely by volunteers, nearly 400 of them, who make up the roster of cast members, tech people, ticket booth operators, and set designers. Their dedication and creativity have gained them a reputation for being very intense. In 2007 the Travel Channel named it the Most Extreme Haunted Attraction.

In the past, the house has planted cast members or friends in with regular groups of visitors and then pretended to rough them up a bit, leading guests to question their own safety. Because of its use of occult symbolism and the blurred lines between performers and spectators, they have also been protested by numerous religious groups over the years, some under the belief that live babies were sacrificed inside a particularly intense area of the house known as the Church of Satan. In the late 1990s, a group of protestors even went so far as to break into the haunted attraction and sprinkle holy water throughout the “church.”

Holley Coleman, a cast-member for 20 years, said the protestors were right, and once upon a time the act did feature a live baby, her then six-month old son, Devin Fleming.

But they never sacrificed him.  

“We just pinched him a little,” said Coleman.  

“There are weddings and babies being born here,” said Karpelman. “We’re one big, satanic family.”

Karpelman and his friends decided to deal with the protestors in a very House-of-Shock way.   

“We put our own protestors out there,” said Karpelman. “We’d bring up our people, then we blew them up. It was all part of the show.”

Protests eventually died down and Karpelman said the house became part of the New Orleans Halloween tradition.

“All right, ya’ll,” a priest with a half-burnt face said to his minions inside the Church of Satan. “Let’s put on a good show tonight.”

About ten minutes later, he stood at an altar in front of a nearly five-foot, lit-up pentagram. Near him, a woman on her back shrieked, “I am a whore mother,” as a man with his face melted off reached between her legs. A crucified skeleton watched over them.

“Hail Satan,” the priest screamed. “There is only darkness.”

Music that sounded like it was made by a loud electric organ mixed with the sound of flames. The priest’s tallest and most dominant minion grabbed a woman in a tattered-dress by the hair and flung her to the ground. As guests clung to each other, some crossing their chests in the sign of the cross, a baby boy was born. The priest shouted he would castrate the child.

“We create our own characters,” said co-founder Ross Karpelman. “We give our members the freedom to create their own identities. This is how we see horror and how we portray it.”

As much as this haunted house is about scaring people, it is also a family affair. Performing in the same area as “Momma Jen” Vasquez are her daughter and husband, whose bruised face frames his whited-out zombie eyes, the stuff of nightmares. They consider the other cast members family, a sentiment shared throughout the House of Shock.

“We all really care about each other,” said Vasquez. “One of the other characters just had bypass surgery, and we cooked food to send him.”

Fleming, the protested baby, is now 17. He is a House of Shock renaissance almost-man. In the makeup trailer, he keeps a bottle of fake blood next to a can of pizza Pringles as he applies a neck scar to a cast member in the meat processing room. Instead of playing the young anti-Christ, he now wears a tattered robe and helps deliver the baby, who is no longer real.

But child actors still roam the haunted house like it’s a daycare center. Ten-year-old Heaven Wilt gained the cast’s respect by making a man pee himself on her first night.  

“I’m locked in a cage, and I’m screaming ‘I’m the anti-Christ,” Wilt said. “It’s funny.” 

Wilt’s cage is positioned next to Kayla Thornton, who at six-years-old is the youngest girl in the house. During the entire night, an adult is hidden near the girls and watches to make sure they are safe.  

“I made a grown man cry tonight,” said Thornton. “If I can do that, I can do anything.”

When the last guest exited the house around 12:20 a.m., cast members and crew gathered to exchange scare stories in a lot lined with port-o-potties and make-up stations, just as guests were recounting their own nights of horror at the expert volunteers’ hands. 

Quwina Grimes, 28, said somewhere in the house her heart stopped. “I peed my pants,” said Gina Cavello, 40. A man cried as he ran out of the house, past the food trailer, selling Pentagram Pizza (two slices, $3) and zombie funnel cakes ($5), and up to the road where the Jefferson Parish SPCA keeps a folding table because, as Karpelman said, “we’re big animal lovers here.” A security guard comforted a 12-year-old girl who wept in line. She never made it into the house. Angel Westberry, 43, watched the pyrotechnic stage show that entertained visitors while they waited. Westberry has visited the House once a season “probably since it started,” but fear has prevented her from ever stepping foot inside.

“A lot of people have said we shouldn’t do some things we do,” said Karpelman. “They would probably be right, if we were doing this for money.” 

A flashing House of Shock billboard looked down on volunteers taking off their make-up. Most of the actors were exhausted, having been in character for about three hours. But the two young girls, Thornton and Wilt, never seemed to lose energy. They danced together, calling each other “blood buddies.”

The cemetery’s sniffing zombie “Momma Jen” sat in a blue folding chair, and said her family would eventually find her. The satanic priest was shirtless in camouflage cargo shorts. A majority of the actors waited in line for food.  

“There are weddings and babies being born here,” said Karpelman. “We’re one big, satanic family.”