Jon Love frightens people for a living. He’s the vice president of House of Torment, an Austin, Texas-based haunted house that’s been thrilling and terrifying visitors for nearly a decade. Recently, Love and business partner Dan McCullough joined forces with Colorado-based haunted house operators Chris Stafford and Warren Conard to open new attractions in Denver, Phoenix, and San Antonio under the brand 13th Floor.
Love took time out of his terrifyingly busy schedule to talk to the Intuit Small Business Blog about the business of being scary.
ISSB: How did House of Torment get started?
Love: My partner, Dan, started the haunted house around 1997, hosting it in his backyard. In 2003, he got to the point where he had hundreds of people lined up in his yard every night and he decided to go from amateur to professional. That’s when I met him: I was attempting to work as a concert promoter at that point, but I thought what he was doing was really neat and decided to partner with him.
When we first launched as a business, we spent around $50,000 or $60,000 on startup expenses. For several years, we kept it as a seasonal business and did other jobs throughout the rest of the year. But as sales grew, we decided to only pay ourselves what we needed and invest the rest into improving the attraction, which increased House of Torment’s popularity dramatically. Now we have six year-round, full-time employees in Austin working on the business, and we hire more than 100 seasonal staff to work at House of Torment. With our joint venture, we have 10 or 12 full-time employees working on our haunted house attractions.
Tell us about the process of operating a seasonal attraction. What do you do during the rest of the year?
Even though we’re only open 30 days of the year, we work on the attraction year-round. August is crunch time for hiring, marketing, and getting the attraction ready, and we operate the event from the end of September through the end of October. In November, we reconcile all of our data, then in December, we’re finally able to decompress and take some time off. In January, we start brainstorming for the coming year: What we did last year is no longer good enough; it’s got to be bigger and better. For instance, one year, we decided we wanted to have monsters flying over people’s heads. We began researching how to pull that off, and we put a plan in place by February. Then we bought the aerial harnesses and steel cables we needed and started to execute the plan.
Five days a week, we’re building haunted houses, tearing down old stuff, and working on costumes and effects. We’re always looking to expand into the next market.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I love entertaining people. When you see people coming out of the back door of a haunted house crying, screaming, laughing, and cheering, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a haunted house owner.
Haunted houses aren’t about putting your hands in spaghetti anymore: We’re creating immersive, enthralling, cinematic experiences. In today’s world, you need to go big or go home.