Scared happy: Eli Roth’s Goretorium, glorious entrails and the psychology of fake danger
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A month ago, I’d never heard of sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, though I could’ve guessed the string of words equated to cancer. When you look it up online, all the sites call it “rare.” Like you’ve won something by getting it. SNUC starts with papilloma in the nasal cavity which, in most cases, turns malignant, producing tumors that cozy up to the brain and arteries. Most cases involve woodworkers and people who worked with metals, things that produced airborne particulates that lodge in your nasal cavity. Other cases involve cocaine. It starts with symptoms that sound like a bad head cold: Runny nose, infections, nasal obstruction. Sometimes an eye starts to bulge. And then the doctor says you have a 10 percent chance of living another two years.
That’s why I met Billy Owen. At least, that’s why he was positioned to meet me. Straight on, he looks relatively normal. Shaved head, stocky, dressed like a housepainter, sitting upright in a cushioned swivel chair, beneath the florescent lights of a small, windowless office. He talks about his life as a motorcycle mechanic, before he was diagnosed. But something’s off. The skin around his right eye is offset, marked by peaks and valleys in places it should be flatter than Nebraskan corn country. The eye itself doesn’t move. It doesn’t blink, it doesn’t scan the press clippings of DJ Hollywood framed on the walls. It just stares forward, like he’s half trying to solve a Magic Eye stereogram. Only, he’s not. His right eye isn’t real. The skin around it, the eyelid, the top of the cheek, isn’t real, either. Then, just as I began to figure out why he wasn’t a bike mechanic anymore, Owen took out the prosthetic, stuck his finger through the roof of his mouth, out the gaping hole of his right eye socket, and waved.
“When someone tells you you’re gonna die,” he says, “that’s when you know fear.”
He has a slight drawl, not from the cancer but from growing up in Oklahoma, giving him a sort of Forrest Gump amiability, augmented by a wet-sounding lisp, as if the right side of his mouth never completely closes. Three years ago, he was told he had two years to live: “The tumor in my sinuses was the size of a kiwi and it was inoperable.” He did chemotherapy for 30 days, the technicians bolting his head down, massive amounts of radiation stabbing his face over and over. Eventually, they cut out his eye and the right side of his sinus and palate. You could fill an ice cream bowl with Billy byproducts. By the end they cut out so much of his head that, if you were to throw an M&M through his right eye socket, it would land on his tongue.
In 2010 he got his first post-cancer job: working Fright Dome as a one-eyed butcher. He started going to other auditions, showing up in videos. (He was in the hyper-gory video for DJ Swamp’s “Feast of Flesh.” He’s hard to miss.) “The only person who didn’t look at me any differently was my son,” Owen says. “Everyone else was scared. They didn’t want to talk or they’d shy away.”
But one guy didn’t shy away.
“ATTENTION! Have you ever gotten high on bath salts and eaten someone’s face? Do people scream just from the sight of you? Do children cry and hide behind their parents when they see you at the mall? If so … WE WANT YOU!” And below that, an “apply” button. That was the first sign of life on the website for the haunted-house-like attraction The Goretorium, brainchild of Hostel director Eli Roth and PURE nightclub partner Robert Frey, opening Sept. 27 above the Strip at Harmon and the Boulevard. And it was Owen’s new calling.
“Are you ready?” Frey asks the group, a mix of PR girls and me, pulling back a huge black curtain to reveal the Goretorium lobby. It’s just shy of breathtaking: a huge chandelier, time-stamped to appear as though it’s from the mid-20th century, hanging in a mock hotel lobby. A giant martini glass with clear tubes spilling from it sits behind a bar to the left. There’s blood everywhere. Yet it’s somehow too clean, too regimented. It looks less like a serial murder-pocked gift shop and more like the inventory shelves for the merchants of Haunted Attraction Magazine. Buy three exorcised toddler corpses, get one free.
The entrance into the attraction itself is perfect. Understated. Just a door, painted to look aged, but so well done that it could’ve been salvaged from a recent hotel implosion. Frey turns around again. Are you ready?
The Goretorium scenario plays out like this: The Delmont is a fictional hotel-casino run by a serial-killer family that fancied mass slaughter of patrons by really goddamn gory means. Picture the outdated interior of the El Cortez, but after a custodian slit a cow’s throat and dragged it down the hall. In the lobby there’s a bar called Bloody Mary’s, in which a woman in a martini glass pours drinks from what looks like her intestines. There’s a lounge called Babydolls that has zombie go-go dancers with scheduled “feedings.” Between actors, bartenders and behind-the-scenes staff, Goretorium employs at least 400 people, with 30 to 40 actors in the space per shift. Frey estimates the cost is around $10 million.
“Right now most haunts are pop-ups,” Roth tells me in August, during his first visit to the in-progress Goretorium. He means they pop up for a few weeks around Halloween. “We’re building much closer to Disneyland for horror.”
And hundreds of people want to participate. The day I met Owen, Goretorium’s HQ on Sunset Road looked like the American Idol green room as interpreted by Stephen King. The walls spattered with blood, it was jammed with giddy applicants complimenting each other on their disembowelments and showing off their best Janet Leigh screams. One by one, they’d be taken into a beige crate of an office and assessed. “Have you worked a haunt before?” “Do you have any experience with makeup?” “Do you have any latex allergies?” One by one, they’d talk about their love of Eli Roth movies, how Hostel made them never want to visit Europe, how they loved creeping people out. And a smiley guy named Ginger would take notes, and speak in inside Goretorium jokes with the chief makeup artist: “He’d be great for ‘fondue’.”
Hanging on a wall of the HQ conference room is a giant map, more detailed than the preliminary sketches of the Death Star. Each zone is marked with colored dots. Female. Male. Killer. “Special.” Dwarf. Nothing says “fondue.” Nothing says sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma.
Frey pushes open the door to the Goretorium’s guts. Immediately, the sounds of women screaming and chains dragging burrow into our ears, the seemingly universal indicators of being in a place where you oughtn’t. The walls look overtaken by mildew and neglect. A man in a suit casually hangs from a noose the way his suit might hang from a coat hanger. The girls in the group, volunteering their squeamishness when it comes to all things spooky, gory or otherwise bathed in entrails, show less terror and more a look that implies probable violent puking. We walk into a bathroom, which is covered in feces, where a bloody chair sits like a centerpiece, arms and legs strapped to the armrests and foot rests, as if a hungry bear came and took all the good parts, but couldn’t be bothered with the limbs fastened in place.
Side-stepping the chair, and seeing a vicious — currently inanimate — dog on a chain, we’re met with a wall of scalps. It’s off-putting. I don’t mean it’s the grossest part, though it’s definitely up there. I mean that it doesn’t make linear sense. Scalping, I think, was rooted in ancient Greek culture before making its way overseas with the English settlers when they began their massacres of Native American tribes, which then retaliated in kind. But so far, all the murders have been more along the lines of serial killers. Why would the Delmont owners all of a sudden start taking on historical warrior themes? Did the youngest son of the family take the same history class that I did and pitch the idea at a family dinner over stewed gall bladders? Or, when they ate the bodies of their victims (this is speculation — I have no idea if the family liked to eat their prey), was hair too much of a nuisance to digest? And more important than all of that, why in the blue fuck is this the only thing I can think about?
Somewhere between Cabin Fever and Hostel II, Eli Roth became the ringleader for disgusting and perverse horror, joining the same orbit as James Wan (Saw) and Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses). Ghosts aren’t his bag. In Cabin Fever, a bunch of collegiate pretty people end up in a cabin in the woods, where they catch a flesh-eating virus whose ground zero is a dead dog and his crazy hermit owner, and finds the protagonists horny, skinless and homicidal. The gore and the extreme perversion of the assaults (Hostel is about a youth hostel in Amsterdam where customers pay to torture and kill involuntary participants) have gotten more intense, more torture-pornographic with each venture. Goretorium follows that sensibility. “It’s got my name on it, and people will feel like they’re in one of my movies,” Roth says, standing in front of a toilet positively annihilated by fake poo, a few feet away from the scalps. “It’s going to be terrifying.” He sounds like a little kid getting ready to go on a roller coaster. This is GONNA BE AWESOME.
Shortly after the scalps, we’re stopped by a different kind of scary. It was the back of a woman. Not like it was severed from her body and hung on a wall like the scalps, but a woman fully intact, just facing away from her audience, framed at the end of a hallway, like a mannequin in a store window. And she’s not doing anything. She’s just lit up, completely pristine, with long blond hair. She’s even sort of hidden. But it’s oddly terrifying. It doesn’t take special effects. It was just the unknowing, the anticipation of the unknown — which is the basis of so much horror. “It’s like a picture in a museum,” says Rob Spadoni, horror film studies professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “If something’s gonna be off center, say, a character down to the left, you know up and to the right there’s going to be a stairwell or a lamp to balance things. In horror movies, it tends to be a corpse swinging from a rope, like in Halloween. So on one hand you knew it was going to happen, and you jump out of your skin. But on the other, you think, “Ah, it’s balanced.” But the girl wasn’t balanced. And that made it the most uncomfortable part of the tour.
After leaving the ominous girl’s hallway, we’re met with our balance, our sickening relief: A chapel, wide open, pews, a pulpit and a bushel of murdered groomsmen and bridal partiers strung to the ceiling like a chandelier designed by Ted Bundy. A fan, presumably to help circulate the air, thick with paint and synthetic blood, makes a groomsman in the middle sway just slightly, and I think this is it. This body is going to fall from the rafters and it’ll be some guy named Steve or John and it will be his job to scare the journalists and I’m totally going to scream like Drew Barrymore and I’ll never be able to live it down and why isn’t he falling yet he’s taking forever and oh god oh man oh god oh man oh god. But nothing happens.
Frey walks us through a giant cylinder, pausing briefly at the mouth before walking onto a bridge running through its center and stopping, letting us get a good look at our surroundings and gain full appreciation for the amount of darkness beneath the bridge. It’s not so dark that we can’t see a very logical timeline of carnage all around us: At the beginning — large body parts, torsos, full legs chopped at the ball joint of the hip, heads; in the middle — forearms, calves, an odd upper thigh or two; at the end — a mulch of reds and chunky purples, like a Campbell’s Chunky soup with feet substituted for potatoes. Frey stands close, closer than he’s stood in the last month of times I’ve met him. I glance under the bridge. If I were thinking rationally, I would be able to confirm to myself that there isn’t anyone in the haunt besides us and the construction crew. And even though this is the kind of haunt where you walk through and actors jump from the shadows to scream and they might touch you or graze an ankle, all I’m thinking is OK, this is where the guy’s going to pop out. It’s perfect. He’ll grab my leg and Frey will laugh and the girls will be in on it and I’ll be the only one screaming and why hasn’t it happened yet and oh no oh jeez. Again, nothing.
A week before opening, the Goretorium still isn’t finished. Frey says the crew has been putting in 20-hour days getting it wrapped up. A bowl of baby dolls in I guess what you could call the Body Buffet still have price tags on them. Lynched mannequins don’t have faces yet. And the crew blasts away with saws. “I’m going to go crazy if I stay here,” one says jokingly, referring to the screams and dragging chain sounds from the omnipresent sound track. It’s been running all day in order to test sound levels. The lights are up and, without their full treatment, a lot of the bodies are very clearly just pieces of plastic. Even the emergency track lights on the floor are lit up thanks to a visit from the fire marshal to test their emergency systems.
That sticks out when Frey mentions it. Even though we’ve been walking by construction crews and buckets of props and building supplies, it’s this detail that pulls me out of the magic: This gore, this danger, this fear, is regulated; it follows public safety codes.
“Nobody would want to walk through a crime scene,” Roth said days earlier. “But you’d want to walk through a theatrical creation of a crime scene. Because it’s safe, and allows you to deal with things in a safe way.”
But why? In a world already full of suicide bombers, movie theater shooters and Mexican drug cartels, why do we need piles of fictional body parts? Is there something in our genetic makeup that tells us the missing space in our consciousness is supposed to be filled with possessed girls from Georgetown (The Exorcist) and the suggestion of mutants raping animal liberation activists (28 Weeks Later)?
Look at some of the highest-grossing horror movies in the last 30 years. What Lies Beneath. The Ring. Gremlins. Think of their plots: The wife of a scientist is haunted by a woman he had an affair with. A home movie that melts faces. A kid gives a monster food and water and it creates an army of killer Furbies. Think about the messages here. Affairs give you ghosts. Don’t watch too much TV. Er, don’t overfeed your pets. What does that say about us as people? We’re constantly inundated with these totally ludicrous concepts, and even crazier still is that they will continue to make money hand over fist.
Maybe it’s because fear is useful. It stokes dopamine creation and enables that fight-or-flight mechanism we’ve had since we needed it to kill a mastodon or run from a sabertooth tiger. “We’re all ready to go back to those primitive beliefs — they’re kind of the foundation of our consciousness,” Spadoni says. “Primitive humans who we descended from … [they’re] still in there underneath all our rational thinking and our championing of science.” But we don’t need those prehistoric fears anymore. We’re the top of the food chain and we’ve tamed the world. These days fear is, to some degree, domesticated. It used to be a three-headed wolf with laser eyes and a collar made of world-leader spleens. Now it’s a Labrador with a limp and irritable bowel syndrome. That primal fear is so distant and abstract in most of our lives that we’ve created horror films and now a Goretorium so that we can touch it again, but in a safe way.
“If you’re in a house where a radioactive slime that was sentient because it’s from outer space is creeping toward your foot and the second it touches your foot it’s gonna absorb you in a painful acidic miasma and take over your consciousness, you wouldn’t want to be scared like that,” Spadoni says. “But if you’re watching it as a movie, it’s something pleasurable. It’s this level of vicarious thrill when it’s in a context where you know there is no real threat.”
Ours is a society filled less with pure fear than with rampant anxieties, many of them manufactured by people or entities attempting to use that low-level fear to sell us something, a product or an idea. In that context, a horror film or haunted house blots out those worries with the sudden, but safe, eruptions of real scariness. Real scariness that we try to hamper or dilute by thinking rationally, going so far as to debunk the scare — the way I did with the historic accuracy of the scalps on the wall. It makes me think about my own anticipation as I move through the haunt. I’m aware that, even if a body fell from the rafters in the chapel, it’s not like it’s going to chop me into pieces. And under the bridge, the worst it could possibly get is some guy whose resume just says “acrobat” could climb up the wall and scream in my ear. It’s not really fear. It’s anticipation. It’s knowing that, at some point, something will happen that’s supposed to spike my heart rate, and the only reason my heart rate continues to rise is because I’m aware of that — the anticipation is the point. In those terms, Roth and his ilk are practically the only ones being honest about their intentions.
Frey walks us by two men, their arms covered to the elbows in pink goop, painting what looks either like a violent explosion at the Big League Chew factory or a giant’s colonoscopy. “I’m not even telling anyone what that is,” he says. He walks us through the exit, onto a deck overlooking the Strip. The girls are relieved, muttering about getting out of there. Frey’s discussing the orientation and how cool it was to see everyone meeting everyone else. I imagine bloated corpses and scalpless women doing freshman orientation exercises. “Some of them are really demented,” Frey says. He tells me this against a backdrop of baby heads severed on top of circular saw blades. In a week, everything will be finished. The actors will be in place. Owen will have a defined role. The Big League colonoscopy will be actualized. And it will be, by Roth’s estimation, the scariest place in the galaxy — for fake fear.
I think back to when I met Owen. How I thought he was just coming in to be part of construction. Until he turned around, and did one of the most uncomfortable party tricks I’ve ever seen. But is the glorified, Disneyland-of-horror version of this nearly as terrifying as why he looks this way in the first place?
During our second conversation, it dawns on me that Roth, for who he is and what he champions, is kind of boring. He doesn’t even like real blood. He’s so desensitized to the sheer violence of a project that he doesn’t believe he’s supposed to consider the reasoning behind the fear. “It’s my job to create the most fun and exciting and entertaining experience possible,” he says. “Not so much to think about what the deep psychological reasons there are for people going there. Because really everybody has different reasons for being there. I think for the most part people just want to have fun with their friends or go on a date.”
And maybe “why” doesn’t matter. After all, when I saw a pile of bodies as I turned one of Goretorium’s many corners, I didn’t think, “How does this affect me compared to hearing about a suicide bomber in Afghanistan?” I thought something more along the lines of Oh, crap, a pile of bodies. The emotion wasn’t contemplative. It was closer to the feeling of driving too fast. “In times of terror, people want to be terrified,” Roth says. “When terrible things happen in society, people flock to scary movies because it gives them an outlet to scream — whether it’s about the subject matter or not.” For $40, we can forget how much of reality is royally screwed.
And maybe he has a point. Maybe we need controllable terror to distract from global terror. Maybe we need to see a guy’s scalp torn off to distract from Yemeni Al Queda sects. When I’m confronted by an angry bloated corpse, I’m not somberly recalling the life’s work of Mother Theresa. And when Billy jumps out at me, I’m not thinking about his sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. I’m thinking of the gruesome carnage around me. I’m thinking about the pristine back of the girl in the hallway. And I’m scared happy.