A disembodied voice appeared over the loudspeaker: “I need everybody to go to the backyard at seven-forty for blood,” it said. “Seven. Forty.” The source of such instructions was Deja Leavins, the “acting coordinator” for Purgatory Scream Park, a haunted house in Kingwood, roughly a half hour from downtown Houston. As the individual tasked with herding dozens of teenage actors night after night, her tone was commanding but nowhere near as terrifying as the outfit she had on. She wore a straitjacket that had been adorned with a tutu, and there was blood running down her legs and into her taupe ankle booties. As soon as the doors opened at 8 p.m., Leavins would turn into a murderous asylum patient she called Francine. But for now, she just needed to make sure all of Purgatory’s doctors, nurses, patients, clowns, vampires, mechanics, zombies, and dentists were appropriately bloodied before the fun began.
Purgatory Scream Park sits just off a busy thoroughfare. Tucked behind a fireworks stand and a food truck called Swamp Donkey’s Seafood, the seasonal attraction is hard to spot from the road, which is great, because every decent haunted house visit should begin with the question “Where the hell is this place?” The facility looks like a decrepit country home, but it’s actually an industrial metal warehouse that has been meticulously turned into a maze of terror by owners Shane and Ryan Glasgow and their dedicated team of horror enthusiasts. “We’re here just about every Saturday throughout the year,” says Stephen Rogers, who handles social media for Purgatory when he isn’t haunting guests as a homicidal clown. Different areas have different themes. There’s an asylum, a maternity ward, a voodoo hut, a circus, a dentist’s office, a school, and a plain ol’ regular house, with a dining room, a bedroom, and a bookshelf full of clown dolls that swivel their heads on command.
For most of the employees at Purgatory, this is just a side gig. Shane Glasgow works for the railroad and Ryan is a nurse. Rogers sells industrial supplies. Christopher White works in the IT department at oil behemoth Baker Hughes when he isn’t wandering around as an escaped mental patient known only by the name “Twitchy.” Many of the haunters are still in high school or college, and some are just seasonal employees who show up out of love for the game. What they all have in common, however, is an encyclopedic knowledge of horror films and a passion for the grotesque and macabre. “I’m a gore whore, through and through,” Jessica Johnson told me as she was getting into costume as the Torturess. “I come from the bowels of hell, and I am forever trapped in purgatory to roam the halls and torture all the souls I see,” she said of her character. “Pretty simple.”
“I always tell people, ‘You can’t be in the haunt business; it has to be in you,’ ” says White, who is something of an elder statesman in the community, having haunted since the late 1990s, when he started at Astroworld’s Fright Nights. White does a lot at Purgatory Scream Park. His madman, Twitchy, terrorizes guests queuing up out front and is popular enough to be used in the venue’s promotional materials. Sometimes he switches it up with a character he likens to a mix between the titular character of Hellraiser and the vampires from 30 Days of Night. “It just depends on the weather, really, because the Hellraiser is a leather outfit,” he says. In the hours before the doors open, White works as one of the makeup artists. Using airbrush guns and latex paint, he turns teens into zombies and blackens the eye creases of anyone who will be wearing a silicone mask (because God forbid a demon from hell have humanlike eyes). Another artist, Joseph Delgado, does the more imaginative faces, like those of Francine and the Torturess, which both involve seemingly scabbed skin. Elizabeth Glasgow, Shane’s fourteen-year-old daughter, hangs out to help when the others get backed up.
The makeup room was a flurry of activity and noise starting at about 5 p.m., when employees began showing up in waves. The steady hum of the air compressor was interrupted by abrasive pffts from air guns scattered around the maze for jump scares. Rock music blasted from the stereo, but it didn’t quite drown out the spine-chilling harpsichord that played throughout the rest of the haunted house. There were a dozen conversations happening at once, though some sentences rose above the noise. “Are you sandblasting my face?” “I’m gonna put you in the Swamp Shack.” “I should have worn my intestines.” “If I never do a clown again, it’ll be too soon.” “Do you want some gumbo?”
It is a familiar atmosphere for anyone who has spent time in a workplace full of people who really love what they do. “If you’re looking for a job, it’s like, ‘Well, this probably isn’t the right fit,’ ” says Rogers. “If you’re looking to have some fun and make some money, then this is for you.” The crew is tight. Several actors worked together at other haunted houses before following one another to Purgatory. The Glasgow family was well represented during my visit. Not only was Elizabeth there but her grandparents walked though at one point to say hi to the team. There were other families too: I spoke with more than one actor who had been brought into the Purgatory fold by an older sibling who still worked there. I heard the Torturess, who wore red contact lenses, had blackened teeth, and carried around a rusted metal torture device, tell one actor “I love you!” as she moved past them down the hall.
As the hour grew closer to eight, the actors began practicing their scaring techniques on one another and—unfortunately—on me (they had much success on this front). Though I had spoken with many of them already and knew they were normal human beings, not monsters or demons, I struggled to maintain eye contact with these faces, which looked so much like that of the Babadook. I had to jog around a bit to shake the murderous gas-station attendants, who terrified me even though I’d seen one of them walk into work with a six-pack of Mountain Dew and a half gallon of strawberry milk. I avoided Fuschia Fury completely, uncomfortable with her yellow fangs and that one milky white eye, even though I knew it was just a white contact lens that she’d had to move to the side so she could see when putting on her makeup.
When the actors noticed my discomfort, it only made them more committed. After all, they were professional haunters. They had taken acting classes to learn the craft, and some even spent their free time studying the nature of fear and phobias (“If you’re close to somebody, it’s a different scare than if you’re at a distance,” Chris White told me). A scream is to a haunter what a laugh can be for a stand-up comedian, and a lot of actors have come back to Purgatory year after year to chase that high. When the blood-application meeting was over, the actors dispersed to their respective stations, and Francine, Twitchy, and the Torturess headed over to the queue. I, however, got out of that place as fast as I could.