America’s Haunted House Fantasies Explored in Misty Keasler’s New Book
September 21, 2017
“Verdun Manor, Thrillvania, Terrell, TX.” Thrillvania was the first haunt Misty Keasler photographed. She got access by convincing a magazine to assign her a story about the place.
“Crematorium, Haunted Overload, Lee, NH,” from Misty Keasler’s book Haunt, which goes behind the scenes at high-end commercial haunted houses throughout the U.S.
"The Giant Room, Netherworld, Atlanta, GA." Keasler shot the series using a Hasselblad and analogue film, often exposing the images for minutes at a time in minimal light.
The experience of visiting a haunted house is as much about what you don’t see as it is about what you do. Near-darkness obscures the façade, while the sounds, flashes of light and even the smells manipulate the visitor’s senses. Were the lights turned on, the fantasy would likely crumble, even in the most meticulously created space.
When Misty Keasler first began photographing haunted houses for her new book, Haunt (Archon Projects), she was motivated by a desire to photograph the elaborate sets created to scare paying visitors. “I’m really interested in artifice as a subject,” she says. Her first book, Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan, took viewers into the subculture of hotels constructed to fulfill the sexual fantasies and fetishes of guests. Haunt explores a decidedly different type of artifice, but both projects reflect the societies that created them. “Haunted houses aren’t for everyone, and this is an interesting look at this form of entertainment that is pretty pervasive in our culture,” Keasler notes.
Keasler wasn’t interested in haunted houses, she says, until she married a man who grew up going to them. It became a tradition that they would visit a haunted house around Halloween every year. Most of them “were not well-done”; temporary structures thrown together for the season, she says. Then, a few years ago, she and her husband visited Thrillvania, an “incredibly detailed and over-the-top” permanent structure in Texas. “As we were being shuttled through the space, I kept lingering, trying to look in the corners and see more,” she recalls. She decided she had found the subject of her next project.
At first, she had trouble getting access to photograph the space, so she pitched the story to Dallas’s D Magazine, a longtime client, which gave her an assignment that helped her get permission to photograph. After she shot the story, she was able to approach other high-end haunted houses around the country, and she was introduced to the small network of proprietors.
As she did with Love Hotels, Keasler photographed the haunted houses—mostly interiors but some exteriors—without people in them. We see a house in Baton Rouge that references the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. In other cities she photographed sets made to look like brothels, cheap motels, convenience stores and the witch’s hut from the Hansel and Gretel fable. Some of the images are subtle, depicting almost banal details, while others are more obviously horrific, with dead and dismembered people and animals strewn about.
The effect of showing the unpeopled spaces is twofold: If viewers saw visitors or actors in the images, they would immediately be drawn to them, rather than looking around the room. “The person is instantly the focus” if someone is present, Keasler explains. Viewers are more likely to imagine themselves in an empty space. “You mentally move around the room in a way that’s different,” she adds. The interiors also suggest something about the people who built them and the people who visit them.
One of Keasler’s teachers, Byrd Williams IV, suggested to his students that the spaces people live in can, at times, say more about them than a portrait would. “That idea got ingrained in me and I’ve always found [it] very interesting,” she says.
Keasler used a Hasselblad and analogue film. She was frequently working with minimal light, so her exposures were several minutes long. Rather than trying to expose the artifice by looking at the spaces in the light of day, which would be “too easy,” she says, Keasler was interested in conveying her subjective experience of the spaces. She worked with photographer and retoucher Laura Steele on post-production to alter the exposures, so her final images maintain some of the artifice through moodier lighting. Yet the images can’t relate what it feels like to be a visitor to the haunted house, and this “failure” of photography is another interesting aspect of the project, Keasler says. “I’m really playing with where photography’s limits are in doing this work.”
It’s also interesting to consider how photography can be used to manipulate the experience of the viewer, and how that relates to the artifice of the haunted houses. Keasler is interested in conveying how the spaces felt to her, which she does through light and composition, but she admits the final images hide some of what’s in her negatives. The experience emerges from that tension between seen and unseen.
In addition to the interiors, Keasler made portraits on seamless of the scary clowns and other monsters who inhabit the houses, which she did at first because D Magazine insisted on them for the story, and then continued as she worked at other haunted houses. The portraits are grouped together in the middle of the book, which keeps them from seeming like an afterthought in the book’s design, she says.
The actors who appear in costume came in on their days off to sit for Keasler, and she was frequently working in the houses during the off-season. “I feel incredibly privileged that anyone said yes because I was asking a lot of them,” she says. “A lot of my work hinges on pretty difficult access. I don’t know why people say yes,” she adds, before noting that she works hard to be transparent and genuine in discussing her intentions. “As an assignment photographer, I’ve had a few assignments where I’ve been asked to shoot things [for which] the premise has been a little bit deceptive and I just don’t have interest in making photographs like that on assignment or otherwise.”