Back in 1992, 22-year-olds Ross Karpelman and Jay Gracianette were knocking back a few drinks in the backyard, contemplating all the fun they used to have on Halloween growing up in New Orleans. They were too old for trick-or-treating and not into bar hopping. They recalled the backyard haunted houses they’d enjoyed as kids and decided a little regression was in order.
The House of Shock was born.
“We pooled $800 to build the first one in a local backyard,” Karpelman said. They figured they’d make it back by charging a couple of bucks a head — but then discovered the reality of things such as fire codes and building permits.
“So the next year, we moved to a bigger backyard, and I put up $2,000 of my own money. We built all the walls and created the sets, just like we do now in the big warehouse,” Karpelman said.
The haunted house quickly became one the country’s most spectacular fear-inducing attractions, and media attention and customers followed.
Now, 22 years later, the House of Shock is calling it quits. When the last scream pierces the night on the evening after Halloween, the warehouse doors will shut for good.
The haunted house business is expensive. House of Shock costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. The pyrotechnic show alone, if produced for a concert, would run $100,000 or more, Karpelman said.
The past couple of years, with a tropical storm threatening and rainouts for much of the run, the attraction took some big financial hits.
“Unless it’s a passion, it’s hard to run as a business,” Karpelman said. “It is a passion for us, but we all have day jobs, too.”
Beyond the economic considerations, he adds, are the psychological ones.
“With the onset of the Internet, it has become harder to shock people,” he said. “How do you outshock ISIS?”
Like so many ventures, the House of Shock had a rocky beginning.
Right off the bat, Jefferson Parish officials weren’t pleased with the backyard display. Not because of the permits or the hammering but because the theme of House of Shock always has been things satanic — celebrating all the dark forces of hell.
“We were judged on content and told we couldn’t do it because it was offensive,” said Karpelman, whose own House of Shock character is Lord Belial. “We always were looking to push the boundaries — I mean, it is House of Shock (the name pays homage to the ultimate New Orleans Halloween character, Morgus the Magnificent). People really thought we were satanists. They bought into it, and we sold it. We really were possessed.
“There was nothing else like what we were doing. We were young and intense and filled with the bravado of metal musicians. But we had to move it inside.”
So in its third year, a warehouse was found, and stages and sets and walls and ghoulish, devilish things were created. Personas were invented, storylines spun. Rituals, incantations, mock child beatings, all realistically realized.
Pantera frontman Philip Anselmo got involved, as did Steve Joseph, the pyrotechnician of the group. Heavy metal musicians all, they played up the occult to the hilt.
“Scoot in the Morning on local radio took the subject on, and it got to be quite the conversation,” Karpelman said. “It was the start of our notoriety.”
For the next decade or so, notoriety of the best kind followed the House of Shock, as it established itself as one of the most impressive haunted attractions in the country. Writeups (Rolling Stone, Playboy), awards, TV specials and more followed.
By the end of 2004, House of Shock was having a great run.
“We were at a turning point,” Karpelman said. “Our warehouse lease was up, and we had a decision to make.”
They decided to roll the dice and rented another Jefferson warehouse — an eyeball’s throw from the first one — where they began creating lavish new backdrops, stages, sets and pyrotechnics.
House of Shock’s 13th season would be the biggest and most theatrical ever.
That, of course, was the year of Hurricane Katrina. While the House of Shock property did not sit in the flood zone (unlike Karpelman’s Lakeview house, which got 12 feet of water), wind and water decimated the new digs.
“The wind did some kind of suction thing where the doors and everything got wet,” he said. “The entire graveyard scene was blown away.”
On Halloween night in 2005, with Karpelman in exile in Houston, co-founder Gracianette went to the bedraggled House of Shock and threw open the doors, just to see if anyone would turn up. No one did.
But this is New Orleans. So Karpelman, his wife and their daughter returned, moved into the House of Shock office and parked a FEMA trailer out front. They and the hundreds of volunteers who had, over the years, become a tightly knit House of Shock family worked together to literally resurrect the dead.
“We opened in ’06 and had the best year we’d ever had,” Karpelman said. “People were ready to restart the party.”
House of Shock has weathered ups and downs ever since. Volunteering became so sought-after that Karpelman made a rule: Anyone new had to be nominated by a veteran. “The only exceptions were people with skill sets, like Dr. B Dangerous, who can swallow a screwdriver.”
Nowadays, entire families look forward to annual turns as various macabre characters at the warehouse on Butterworth Street, just under the Huey P. Long Bridge on the east bank. Veterans return year after year to breathe new life into standing demonic personas like Levi the Preacher or the Captain of the Psych Ward. Live music and nightly stage shows are House of Shock hallmarks.
“Having the volunteers get into it worked better than if we’d had paid actors,” Karpelman said of the live productions. “Because if you sell it with your eyes, you can pull off anything. And they do.”
Even though the all-things-haunted industry remains strong, so is the competition for thrill-seekers’ attention.
“Our niche is not such a niche any more,” Karpelman said. “We were ground-breaking when we started this, but not so much anymore.”
But it’s hard to say goodbye. So, while Karpelman confirms that the House of Shock as New Orleanians have known and loved it for 22 years will close come All Saints’ Day, he’s leaving the door to otherworldly pursuits a tiny bit ajar.
“There’s nothing on the drawing board,” he said. “This was not in the plans. It’s a really big decision. I’ve thought about that the past week, when I see all our volunteers all sweaty and working together, and it reminds me of why we did this in the first place.
“The only thing that could change our minds would be to have a really great season and then maybe come back with something new.”
These days, as preparations go into a nightly show that still draws upward of 2,500 people, Karpelman is nostalgic. And sad.
“They always said this day was coming. I never believed it,” he said. “I still love Halloween as much as I did when I was a kid.”