New Orleans haunted house comes of age at 21

The sun is setting over a desolate, industrial section of Jefferson as Larry Breaux cracks a Budweiser among friends. The occasion is the opening night of the House of Shock, a 25,000-square-foot haunted house that’s been terrifying New Orleanians for 21 years.

Breaux is telling the story of his path to becoming General Abaddon, a demonic preacher who splits time between trying to wrest control of Lucifer’s army and proselytizing in a satanic church.

As he talks, a blood-drenched woman swings around him for a hug and a zombie in combat boots stops to shake his hand.

“I was a big fan of the House of Shock back then,” Breaux reminisces about the late 1990s. “I’d go four and five times a year, and eventually somebody said, ‘Hey, you again? Why don’t you just work here?’”

So, he did.

Breaux wormed his way into the cast and eventually showed off his preaching skills. He’s stayed with the gig for the last 13 years.

This year, he’ll help kick off each evening with a theatrical bit involving the birth of the anti-Christ and a pyrotechnic display with 70-foot flames that make a KISS concert look tame.

But at the moment, he’s just catching up with old friends as his 18-year-old son, Gage, also a House of Shock veteran, stands by his side.

“We’re all family here,” says Breaux. “My son is here, my daughter is here, my wife is here. I’ll be on one of these guys’ couches for every Saints game.”

“And Halloween is when all of us come together. It is our Mardi Gras.”

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Over two decades after it was conceived in New Orleans by four heavy-metal playing, horror-loving friends, the House of Shock is not only an awe-inspiring menagerie of chainsaw-lugging demons, deranged preachers and jaw-dropping gore; it’s also a thriving community for its 400 volunteer cast members.

“It’s kind of like the Mob,” jokes co-founder Jay Gracianette. “To get in, you have to know somebody.”

Gracianette and Ross Karpelman, Steve Joseph and ex-Pantera frontman Phillip Anselmo started House of Shock in the Metairie backyard of Gracianette’s grandparents before eventually moving to their current location.

The installation grew piece by piece and currently contains a dizzying number of rooms, including a few with a distinctly New Orleans feel; there is a haunted St. Louis Cemetery and a Bourbon Street tableau complete with a rotting stripper.

New features in the 2013 season are a chainsaw cage maze and a psychotic meat processing plant. Additionally, a number of popular cover bands such as the Top Cats and the Chee Weez will entertain those waiting in line, and a bar is manned out front to provide liquid courage for those who need it.

But according to Bobby Boucher, who works at the venue as a pyrotechnic assistant, it is those who prowl the haunted mine shaft, scream from cages inside torture chambers and lunge out of every shadowy nook who make the House of Shock so appealing.

“It’s all about our cast,” Boucher says. “There are 400 of them, and they are all extreme.”

Gracianette says volunteers come from as far as Nebraska, but the majority of House of Shock brethren are New Orleanians who have grown close to their ghoulish family over the years.

Heidi Coleman, who began volunteering 20 years ago, is one of the longest-serving cast members and the epitome of a House of Shock lifer.

When it came time for her to get married, she decided to tie the knot in the haunted house’s famous satanic church, three days before Halloween.

Coleman says her kids have grown up with a love for the haunted house and are part of the cast.

They’re not alone.

The House of Shock cast is sprinkled with young people. Before the show, they playfully cake on macabre make-up, but inside you’ll find them dripping with blood and cawing hysterically — sometimes in cages.

One girl, no more than 12, boasts of her exploits during the last season.

“I scared someone so badly he peed his pants,” she says.

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It is the allure of transforming into someone else -- an alter ego or perhaps a dark fantasy — that drives many of the cast members to the House of Shock each year.

Jimmy Cormier, 23, describes his costume as he prepped for his sixth season at the venue.

“I’m going to wear a military jacket and a custom mask that has the tongue hanging out and a bullet hole in the side,” he says.

Cormier says he gets pumped up from scaring people and has made a lot of great friends along the way.

Abigail Griffin, 17, who was pulling her first stint in the haunted house’s graveyard, says it was the thrill of scaring others that beckoned her.

“I like hearing the screams and I like getting bloodied up,” she says.

It takes approximately 25 minutes to traverse the House of Shock, and it is not only the visuals that rattle the mind. Blood-curdling screams unfurl in the darkness; distorted moans hover and are spliced by animal squeals.

“Help me,” a woman hisses. A strobe light pulses and she comes to life sprawled on the ground, her midsection being devoured by a giant, ravenous bug called the Crawler.

Some cast members have characters whose horror is not only visceral, but deeply psychological as well.

Levi Clark, who plays the Reverend Leviticus, described his alter ego as a Baptist preacher with a dark side, whose intention is to “gain the trust of a person and then turn on him.”

Clark says he will typically spend a few months before the Halloween season slowly transitioning into the Reverend. Other cast members have similar rituals that have grown over time.

“It’s not just about Freddy Krueger, the Wolfman or Dracula. We want to take our worst nightmare and project it onto you,” he says, adding a bit of advice for those who may find horror an appealing hobby.

“We’re a tight-knit bunch, but the door is always open to those of our kind.”