Who doesn't love a good scare? Photographer Misty Keasler spent a long time in the country's darkest haunted attractions and chronicled her adventures in a new book called HAUNT. This beautifully produced 212-page full-color book arrives at booksellers on September 1 from Archon Projects and is available for pre-order today. I interviewed Ms. Keasler about how this book came to be, her artistic process, and what things scared her.
Señor Scary: What drew you to the topic of haunted attractions? Why document this?
Misty Keasler: Haunted houses weren't a part of my youth but I married someone who went to one every year from the time he was young and absolutely loved them. Once we started dating he'd drag me to one every year and we started taking friends. I loved going with him - he screamed louder than anyone else and was so scared he'd refuse to go first. I was never really impressed with the places until we went to Thrillvania in Terrell, Texas. Verdin Manor is their mansion and the place was unlike anything I'd seen. It was dripping with details, corners of rooms that piqued my interest and space full of implied scenarios. As soon as I went through there I knew I wanted to return to photograph it.
Proprietors closely guard their trade secrets. Was it easy to convince them to let you photograph the interiors?
I first gained access to Thrillvania by convincing our city magazine to commission me to photograph it for a feature in October. I was intrigued with that place and how intricate the tableaux were, so much so that I'd obsessed on how to get in. The magazine piece ran and after that I was even more curious. I made a sort of wish list and started reaching out. Fortunately I had one under my belt so I could show them what I was doing and I was in touch with the editor of my previous book. He was interested (though I went a different direction) so I knew the images would be a book. And some key proprietors got behind the project and helped open some doors for me. I found everyone pretty fantastic to work with.
These places are built to scare you on a deeper level. Did you personally feel scared at any point?
Of course! So first off let me say that I'm incredibly thankful that no one in any of the haunts took the opportunity to scare me out of my skin! There were many opportunities and I was pretty easy to scare, particularly in the beginning. But everyone acted with total professionalism.
There were several points I got pretty spooked. I made the photographs by shooting very long time exposures in the dark, with show lights on and sometimes full sound for hours at a time. Most of the time I could listen to headphones but when I was at Netherworld I was so unnerved. I just couldn't calm down while working. On my second day there I asked if I could have a pair of ear plugs I'd seen in the costume shop and they mentioned that the fear frequencies may have been getting to me. And at Reindeer Manor I got so scared I cut one of my evenings short. That haunt is sitting on a fairly big piece of land and the attractions are in different buildings. Alex, the proprietor, was working at one end of the property and I was shooting on the opposite end. Keep in mind this was very late at night. I was already on edge - dark, creepy place where I'm completely alone. I heard a woman screaming in the distance and then a huge door creaking. I just knew they were messing with me. I kept hearing those sounds and the more it happened the more I figured I just had to leave. I packed up my cameras, found Alex and tried to play it cool (but was really anxious to get to the safety of my car). I mentioned the screaming woman (who turned out to be coyotes) and the creaking door (actually screws in new wood). Alex is a kind, open guy and he explained the sounds but I figured I'd have to come back another time when I wasn't so scared!
Looking at your photographs, you’ve beautifully captured the rich, dark atmosphere as well as some stunning character portraits. Is there beauty to the mayhem?
I think all artists are drawn to beauty and I think some of the most compelling photographs in this work have both beauty and horror.
Many people dismiss these kinds of attractions as a trifle, but they can be highly theatrical and brilliantly orchestrated installations. What would you say to someone who might see these as low-brow?
I can only speak to the haunts in the book but they're huge productions who employ hundreds during season and keep a smaller crew that works year round. There are incredibly creative folks always working on new story lines, sets, and costumes. I've been surprised by how many people have told me they've never been to a haunted house. I think most of them would be shocked to know how much year round work goes into the short seasons they're open to the public.
Unfortunately the photographs don't even get close to portraying an immersive environment as rich as the places in the book - any documentation of a haunted house (photos, video, audio) won't do the subject justice. The visual is simply one element of the experience but to your point, these are indeed ornate, theatrical and orchestrated installations. Some of them feel like you've fallen into a film set only without the unfinished area for the camera. They're completely immersive in a way that can only be experienced and often involve light effects (like the entire storyline at 13th Gate lit almost entirely by lightning), extreme darkness, meticulous soundtracks, smells, and of course actors waiting to startle you. Photography actually operates in a different way and as I got deeper into this work I realized the most interesting images were pregnant with expectation. Often I found myself photographing what was on the edges of a scene as opposed to the focus of what might scare you as a customer.
Long projects often start one way and end another. Did you go into this project with certain expectations? Were they met, or did the outcome change two years later?
I am drawn to this idea of making bodies of work that act as a portrait of culture. I did this in Japan with Love Hotels and again with my family in East Texas. I wanted to make a portrait of American culture through haunted houses and looking at the intersection of fear and entertainment and I'm pretty happy with the book serving as that portrait. But as I progressed on the project and began to focus more on this idea about the edges of scenes I also began to edit images differently and cut photographs that were originally included in the final series. The portraits went through some big changes. Originally the idea was to do side by side portraits of actors in their street clothes and then in their costumes and makeup but in the exact same pose. I stole this idea from the photographer Timothy Greenfeld Sanders and his work about porn actors. But it didn't work - they just ended up looking really corny. So I started thinking about how to treat the actors in the same way I was treating the spaces and wound up with the fairly serious portraits in the book. I'd ask actors to think about the very still portraits made at the beginning of photography when they stood for me and I think these images ended up better representing what is frightening about their characters.
Every project adds to the tapestry of an artist’s perspective. What is the most surprising thing you learned throughout this project?
I did not realize the extent of the work that goes into these absolutely incredible places. And yet most people never get to really even see how rich the spaces are because they're literally running scared. Much of my work is about looking at what most people would never see.
Low-light photography is incredibly tricky. Were there any unexpected challenges in this particular environment?
All the square images were shot on film. I needed the negatives to contain detail in the darkest parts of an image and that required me to make extremely long exposures. No light meter would give me reading in a place as dark as a haunted house. It took a fair amount of experimentation but most of the exposures were half an hour long. But those types of exposures do strange things to colors, often making them too vibrant. I worked with Laura Steele, a pretty incredible photographer on her own, on extensive retouch. I was really attempting to get the images closer to my memory of the spaces as opposed to what the film recorded.
What do you hope an audience will get from this book?
There's something really fantastic about the spectacle of these places. This is a portrait of our culture and I think the more you spend time looking the more you get out of the body as a whole.
Without having access to a crystal ball, do think this is a topic that you might want to revisit in the future?
I don't know. There's a tremendous amount of work and resources that go into the book creation and normally that signals the culmination of the work. But I did have an adventure of a lifetime visiting all the places and getting to spend as much time as I needed just looking. I wouldn't mind making more photographs but I guess we'll see how things go with the book.
Photo credit: All images courtesy of the artist and Archon Projects.