How to build a steampunk haunted house

Is it possible to create a haunted house without all the clichés — the blood, the suffering, even the haunts — and still be scary?

The gears started turning in artist Zach Morris’ head long before Halloween 2009: Is it possible to create a haunted house without all the clichés – the blood, the suffering, even the haunts – and still be scary?

As co-director of Third Rail Project art collective, Morris had talent and the resources. With turn-of-the-century Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he had the venue. And thanks to the rising popularity of the science fiction subgenre steampunk, he had the aesthetic.

Here, artist Kathleen Green appears as a steampunk doll.

“Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover the color brown,” goes an oft-repeated axiom you can find floating around the Internet. Well, a joke really.

But like Goth, steampunk aficionados follow a Victorian aesthetic. Unlike Goth, this 1800s aesthetic is one inspired not by the time period’s funereal culture, but rather, H.G. Wells and the steam-powered devices and ideas of his fiction. So yes, it can be scary.

Certainly, the Steampunk Haunted House intends to be scary. If you’re under 8 years old, forget about attending. If you’re over 8, expect to be scared by things other than blood and guts. Unlike many actor-enhanced haunted houses, there won't be actors paying homage to the horrors of torture-theme movies such as “Saw” and “Hostel.”

“To create a haunted house without any of the clichés, we thought about what frightens people,” said Morris of the brainstorming he did with his fellow creators.

Being isolated. Being watched. Paranoia. An immersive art installation easily lends itself to conjuring such emotions. Lurking cyborgs straight out of a lost episode of “Wild Wild West” help, too.

Gears, screws, old-timey electronics. Creating the illusion of futuristic technology made in the past is all part of the steampunk aesthetic.

“This is what a haunted house looks like before it’s scary,” Morris said of the haunted house’s workspace located in the basement of the Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center.

Working with the art center not only afforded the Third Rail Project art collective an architecturally unique venue, but the opportunity to work with the Abrons’ Urban Youth Theater ensemble, which helped conceive the blood-free frights and dole them out to the visitors.

A bone chair from one of Zach Morris’ previous art projects awaits its haunting reutilization.

Despite its inauspicious beginning as an umbrella skeleton, the wired-for-movement “Bird Orchid” by Chris Cummings is both lovely and unsettling while “blooming” under the light of a tiny bulb.

This weight- and pully-operated fire door in the basement is a pre-existing piece of steampunk architecture, part of what the Steampunk Haunted House promises to be a “frightening, immersive experience that winds through the theater and catacombs of the Henry Street Settlement playhouse.”

The Steampunk Haunted House “requires walking up and down staircases, and navigating tight spaces and twists and turns in the dark. There will be fog effects, strobe lights, loud noises, lots of dust, soot, dripping pipes, churning gears, rusty metal and other things that will hurt you if you touch them. Visitors who have health conditions are strongly cautioned to check with their doctors before attending the event,” advises Third Rail Projects.

Consider yourself warned!

A fixture by Zach Morris and Jesse Green creates the proper mood lighting for a haunted house.

This spooky site-specific installation by artist Brigid C. Scruggs both invokes and evokes the steampunk aesthetic.

Other-than-human steampunk entities await visitors in the theater.

The illusion of a Victorian-era mechanized forest is created by these plexi flats crafted by Zach Morris and Jesse Green.

That creepy feeling you’re being watched? That would be the other-than-human old-timey cyborgs. In keeping with the aesthetic, the Steampunk Haunted House does not feature ghosts … at least on purpose. The Henry Street Settlement is, after all, more than a 100 years old. Its theater has served the talents of great artists such as John Cage, Dizzy Gillespie, Martha Graham, Jackson Pollock, Denzel Washington and Orson Welles.

“All ghosts are pre-exisiting,” Morris promised.

The Abrons’ Urban Youth Theater ensemble will scare you now.

Third Rail Project’s Steampunk Haunted House runs Oct. 28-31 at the Abrons Arts Center’s Playhouse at 466 Grand St., New York, N.Y.

For more information, see the Third Rail Project's Web site.