‘To me, this is my art’
Maestro of macabre, J.C. Clements, sheds light on the dark, disturbing corners of Benton’s Torture Chamber.
Whereas most people shun the thought of taking in a scary movie just before lights out, J.C. Clements, mastermind behind the Torture Chamber haunted house in Benton, finds such jumpy flicks just the right thing to put in his head before it hits the pillow at night. It’s a far cry from his youth.
“When I was little, I was one of those kids who jumped from the doorway to the bed, because there was something underneath the bed that was going to get me. But I guess I grew out of it.”
Perhaps that’s why his creation, a design in progress some seven years running and hand-crafted from the ground up in most parts, is so darn terrifying. It’s topped Sync’s survey of scariest central Arkansas haunts in years past. And if you don’t believe us, just ask any of the three people who admitted to Clements they soiled themselves in trips through last year. Yeah, it literally scared the you-know-what out of them.
But how does a guy — a licensed minister at that — who runs a party business of jumpy inflatables for kids by day come up with such scares? What’s the psychology behind keeping even repeat visitors terrified every year? How does one continue to use the same methods — because, let’s face it, haunts are a world of few original concepts — to such great effect every October?
The answer is constant refinement.
“I never quit working on the haunt,” said Clements, a diligent student of the highest rated haunted houses in the country who would run a full-time haunt year-round if he could. “I’m constantly getting new ideas to make this or that better, or things I might do next year.”
Indeed, the casual visitor won’t even realize it, but Clements himself is probably watching them as they go through (notably without any kind of guide, which is all the more terrifying). And he’s always taking notes on when they jump or why they scream. He’s probably also wearing a mask and looking for a chance to freak them out, too. In short, he’s harvesting fear.
“I focus mainly on phobias, those deep-seated fears people don’t even know they have,” said Clements, who grew up watching Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger and all the rest, but feels just jumping out in a familiar mask won’t suffice.
“To continue to do those characters, to me, is pointless,” he said. “They can still be scary and frightening, but they won’t touch deep down in your soul. And that’s what I want to do.”
So when things go dark — and I do mean dark — and the walls of the maze literally start to close in, well, even those who don’t suffer from acute claustrophobia will likely have some sense of disquiet, because that seed is there. Or maybe it’s snakes that set you off. Or maybe clowns. Like an artist dipping his brush across a palette, Clements knows how to mix and match his “colors” to get to people. He’s spent a long time studying how to do just that.
“To me, this is my art,” he said.
Of course, it helps that a construction background makes him a whiz at building the walls and rooms for the haunt itself. Riddled with secret passages and hidden side doors, nearly every room and hall of the looping setup can be accessed in a multitude of ways. Thus, even a repeat visitor coming through several times in the same year, someone familiar with the static sights and scenes of the year’s attraction, won’t necessarily know where the live actors are going to come from. Indeed, Clements will be sure they don’t.
“It’s like playing with Legos,” he said. “And the goal is a constant bombardment of scares.”
There is also a deliberate psychology even to the geometry of Clements’ rooms. A “butcher shop” setup with a multitude of macabre imagery intentionally puts guests uncomfortably close to the live actor madly waving a knife. If, while observing, Clements sees traffic isn’t getting close enough, he’ll add an obstacle to make sure they do the next night. Of course, the only path out leads closer still — and then away, with the “butcher” and heaven only knows what else behind. And, why yes, those walls on the way out are spaced so as to feel disturbingly narrow, especially with the Visqueen-wrapped bodies dangling in the way.
“I force you to interact with my haunt,” Clements said.
Those bodies, which most people won’t pay much attention to in their haste to be through, are immensely detailed, by the way. Every square centimeter of one, for example, is hand-painted black and red to look disturbingly like burned flesh. And that’s just one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of props Clements has at his disposal, a great many of which he put together himself. The same goes for designing the layout and the month or more of setting it up and getting the lighting right. That’s all Clements.
But to say the production is a one-man show is incorrect. In addition to corporate sponsors Arkansas Bone and Joint, Papa John’s and Denton’s Trotline — added to help offset costs like the $8,000 spinning vortex addition this year — a crew of around 30 part-time employees, many of whom come back year to year, are hired to staff the haunt. Some only operate a myriad of switches and triggers to keep the timing of air jets or animatronics just right. Others appear in costume, characters designed for the room they’re in. Sometimes that means wearing a mask off the rack, other times it’s a custom created latex look that’s modified to fit the part. And a select few even sport very high detail, high dollar silicon masks that form-fit to the face and move with it. Those you won’t see at any Halloween store, but the scare they pack is worth the price tag, said Clements, who even puts great thought into which actors go where. Staggering veterans with rookies helps the new folks catch on faster, better able to pick out just who to target in a big group for best effect.
“In any size group, you’ve got to pick someone in that group so the whole group still gets the effect. A lot of that just comes with experience,” he said. “As you do it, you learn what the best thing to do is.”
Here’s a hint, though: target girls. Nothing rude or insulting, but creep and lurk. They freak, and the boyfriends will laugh, which is better than them getting confrontational, Clements said. Not that he hasn’t whittled down a few guys who refused to get scared. Indeed, those sometimes get worked over the hardest. But it takes finesse, not brute force.
And that, in a sense, is the bigger picture, Clements explained. Sure, the Torture Chamber has its disturbing sights. It has its blind corners. It offers some quick frights. But that’s the proverbial short con. The long con is the payoff after the build up. It’s using those sights and sounds to set up a bigger scare just around that next blind corner. It’s playing fear not like a fine-tuned instrument but like an entire orchestra.
And behind it all is a maestro of dread.
FIND THE TORTURE CHAMBER
The Torture Chamber is located at Party Central, 3805 Benton Parkway, and will be open Oct. 25-31 and Nov. 2 beginning at 7 p.m. each night and lasting until 10 p.m. on Thursday and Sunday and midnight on Friday, Saturday and Halloween night. General admission is $15; a speed pass to skip the line is $20.
Double tap that at Zombie Planet
by spencer watson
Zombies are sort of part and parcel of a great many haunted houses, especially these days as they’ve shuffled and shambled their way to the top of the pop culture heap via TV shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and movies like Zombieland. But less common is the haunt in which the visitor gets a chance to do what the people in those productions do: shoot the bad guys.
Want no more, says James Snyder, organizer of Zombie Planet. Located at 4601 S. University just next to Flying DD, the new haunt on the block this year lets survivors of the zombie apocalypse — that is, the visitor — do just that.
“I’ve been stewing on it for years,” said Snyder, a veteran partner of past haunts, on wanting to put on a gig of his own, ideally something interactive. An early draft of the project brought up the idea of using laser tag to let passers-through fire on hordes of the undead, but it just didn’t have the right umph. Somewhere along the line someone said paintball, and the rest, as they say, was history.
“We just started putting things together and it was game on,” said Snyder.
The result is a sort of hybrid haunted house. The front half is a guided run through a series of rooms ranging from the humorously creepy to the oddly chilling. In the back half, visitors get their hands on a paintball gun and a few dozen shots. After a couple rounds to get a sense of aim, they’re let loose through a series of shooting gallery setups as they’re menaced by a mix of mannequins, stationary targets and, yes, live actors who have volunteered to take a paintball in the name of creating a new experience.
“We wanted it to be immersive,” said Snyder. “Like a video game.”
There’s a certain storyline at play, the details of which were left sketchy so as to preserve the surprises. But visitors will get a chance to unleash their marksman skills (or lack thereof) on an encroaching horde in a junkyard, in a creepy room of static TVs, in a headstone-filled graveyard and, given the season, at a political rally of mindless undead seeking higher office (make your own jokes here).
At one time the plan was to pass out firearms from the get go, but the thought got nixed due to the impracticality of having a bunch of jumpy folks waving paintball guns around at close range, Snyder said. Though it might mirror the breakdown of society so often depicted in the zombie genre, “we decided what really didn’t need to happen was people turning on each other.” The current setup requires everyone to don safety masks at the outset, but the paint-filled bullets don’t fly until later, after the trip through a world overrun by zombies.
“It’s more about the fun, but we will make you jump a few times,” said Snyder.
“A Zombieland feel with a little boo scare,” added co-producer Wally Waller of Flying DD. “We want to get your adrenaline going, get you hyped, and then we hand you a gun.”
VISIT ZOMBIE PLANET
Zombie Planet is open Oct. 26-31 at 4601 S. University. Tickets are $15, with discount fliers available at ticket outlets for 100.3 The Edge, Juanita’s and costume shops throughout the metro area.
Haunting around town
Looking to get seriously spooked this Halloween season? Here’s a list of the creepiest haunted houses that Arkansas has to offer.
12th Annual Haunted Hotel
1919 Pratt St., Little Rock, (501) 804-8883 or (501) 804-1782
Open through Oct. 31; 7-10 p.m. weeknights, 7 p.m. to close weekends
Arkansas Night Terrors 13
5204 Crystal Hill Road, North Little Rock, (501) 398-FEAR
Open through Nov. 3, Call for hours of operation
Arkansas Urban Legends Haunted House
7901 Warden Road, Sherwood, (501) 398-3327
Open through Oct. 31; 7-11 p.m. weeknights, 7 p.m. to close weekends
Creepy Works Haunted House of Conway
150 Highway 286 East, Conway, (501) 472-2325
Open through Oct. 31; 7-11 p.m. weeknights, 7 p.m. - 1 a.m. weekends and Halloween night
The Fear Factory & Skullys 3D Playhouse
25120 Hwy 107, Jacksonville, (501) 912-7976 or (501) 305-9069
Open through Oct. 31, 7 p.m. - midnight
The Slaughter House & Hell’s Kitchen
17314 MacArthur Drive, North Little Rock, (501) 563-4074
Open through Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m. to close
Admission: $12 (group rates and VIP passes available)
Emoba’s Haunted Cathedral
1224 Louisiana St., Little Rock, (501) 372-0018
Open through Halloween starting at 7 p.m. each night. Closes at 10 p.m. Open until 11:30 p.m. Halloween night.
Admission: $15 per person weekday nights, and $20 on Halloween.
Trail of Fears
21124 Whippoorwill Lane, Bauxite, (501) 454-0657
Open Oct. 25-31; 8-10 p.m. weekdays, 8 p.m. - close weekends
Conway Zombie Walk
Friday at 7 p.m.
This family-friendly walk begins at the Simon Park pavilion in downtown Conway. There will be a costume contest for both zombies and zombie hunters.
Admission: Free; dry pet food donations accepted to benefit the Conway Animal Welfare Unit. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ConwayArkansasZombieWalk.
Magic Springs Magic Screams Halloween Event
1701 E. Grand Ave., Hot Springs, (501) 624-0100
Open Saturday 4-11 p.m. and Sunday 4-9 p.m.
Features three haunted houses — The Last Laugh, Quarantined! and Paradox — as well as Spooky Springs, a house designed for families and small children. Activities from 4-7 p.m. include a trick-or-treat trail, hay maze and pumpkin painting.
Admission: $29.99, junior, senior and group discounts at $19.99
UALR Haunted Hall
3101 S. Taylor St., Little Rock, UALR East Hall, (501) 681-8210
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Housing Activities Council hosts a Halloween fun house for kids 12 and younger. There will be trick-or-treating, games, food, a movie, prizes, candy, arts and crafts and a haunted floor for those brave enough to enter.