Dallas-based photographer Misty Keasler admits she hasn’t always been a fan of haunted houses.
It’s a slightly shocking revelation for someone who just spent the last two years of her life photographing some of America’s scariest haunted houses for a new exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
But it’s true, she says. Haunted houses were (at least until recently) always more of her husband’s hobby.
“My husband drags me to a haunted house every year,” Keasler says. “That’s part of what he’s done for most of his life. Every Halloween, he finds one that he’s interested in going to.”
Over the years, Keasler and her husband, Brian, have frequented many haunted houses together. However, it wasn’t until a visit to Thrillvania in Terrell that she became enthralled with the idea of capturing the haunts with her camera.
“This was the first time I really stepped into a fully immersive, incredible environment that was created for commercial purposes,” Keasler says. “I was pretty taken with Thrillvania, and all I wanted to do was get back there and photograph it and spend time just looking at what was in every nook and corner.”
Born out of her visit to Thrillvania was the idea for “Haunt,” Keasler’s new solo exhibit that opened last weekend at the Modern and features 40 interior and exterior images of American haunted houses.
For the project, Keasler traveled across the country to 13 attractions (including Fort Worth-based Cutting Edge Haunted House) and was given exclusive access to photograph each haunt from the inside out.
Photographing haunted houses proved challenging, Keasler says. Designed to be a fully immersive experience, most haunted houses employ the use of sound systems, smells, live animals, actors and even something called fear frequency (an audio frequency that’s pipped into haunted houses to evoke the feeling of fear).
Things that don’t typically translate in photos.
“There is an idea in photography that you are translating an experience a lot of times. You’re documenting something that exists,” Keasler says. “What I found was not only that photographs could not do a direct translation of the experience, I also realized that these photographs have to work in a really different way than the experience of walking through the haunted houses.”
When she started the project, Keasler focused her lens primarily on the focal point or climax of everyone room. She soon realized that the images worked best when shot just outside of the room’s focus, giving viewers the allusion they are passing through the space. Keasler says this technique also allowed her to convey the perfect combination of implied narrative and mystery, where visitors are given some detail on what they are looking at without having the full back story.
Without elements like fog machines or fear frequency to play off the senses, the haunted houses lose most (if not all) of their fright factor.
However, “Haunt” creates another type of tension that is equally as frightening.
Unlike real-life haunted houses where visitors are ushered through at a hasty pace and darkness obstructs your vision, “Haunt” allows you to linger on each and every detail. Over time, the unpopulated images grow to be even creepier and more unsettling.
In addition to the haunted house images, the exhibit includes a series of formal portraits featuring haunted house actors clad in their elaborately detailed costumes. The images are hauntingly beautiful and, in a way, help humanize these grotesque creatures whose sole purpose is to strike fear into the hearts of haunted house visitors.
Keasler, whose work is also included in the permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, succeeds at pulling back the curtain to offer an inside glimpse at the inner workings of a great haunted house.
Whether you’re a haunted house junkie or someone who prefers to keep their scare level at a minimum, “Haunt” is a frightfully perfect way to celebrate the Halloween season.
“Misty Keasler: Haunt” runs through Nov. 26 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. $4-$10 (children 12 and younger are free). The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday. 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth, 817-738-9215, www.modern.org.
Modern ’til Midnight: ‘Haunt’
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s annual after-hours celebration features live music, dancing, giveaways and food from Café Modern.
When: 6 p.m.-midnight Friday, Oct. 27
Where: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell Street, Fort Worth
Cost: $20 advance, $25 general admission