Known for her work examining highly charged spaces absent of the humans that define them, Dallas-based photographer Misty Keasler has previously explored Japanese love hotels and the communities that sustain themselves off of trash piles.
For her latest series, "Haunt," on view through November 26 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, she is drawn to the landscapes of horror present in highly detailed commercial haunted houses. Devoid of the spooks and ghouls that give them their terror, the show's 40 images of interiors and exteriors nonetheless have a powerful, uneasy effect on the viewer. Keasler says she came upon the idea for the series in a roundabout way.
"I enjoy Halloween, but haunted houses were not a part of my annual traditions around this time of year," she explains. "I married someone (Dallas gallerist and art book publisher Brian Gibb) who loves haunted houses, and when we started dating he would take me to one every single year. There are a lot of haunted houses that aren't very good, but one year a group of friends and I went to Thrillvania in Terrell, and I was really drawn to how incredibly well done it was."
Originally built by Disney Imagineers, the haunted house had an element of artifice Keasler couldn't help but compare to art installations, like Ballroom Marfa's 2008 show "Hello Meth Lab in the Sun" and the long-running New York theatrical experience Sleep No More. Although those environments were created for art's sake, the commercially-based Thrillvania fascinated Keasler in a similar fashion.
"The turning point was entering a haunted house that was done so well it became immersive," Keasler says. "The socialist Margee Kerr (who wrote an essay for the show's accompanying catalog) talks about the difference between awareness and attention — with awareness, it's something that happens in the background of any given environment. In these haunted houses, if it's done really well and there's a ton of attention to detail, even if people aren't looking at the detail, they're aware of it.”
As the photographer ignored the spooks and examined the margins of each room, the idea for "Haunt" took shape. Finally gaining access to Thrillvania for a feature she shot for D Magazine in 2015, Keasler expanded the work to include a series of houses run by passionate professionals. Through her Thrillvania connections, she traveled to the creme de la creme of American haunts, capturing unpopulated areas both banal and sinister.
"All of the rooms and paths you are on lead up to a scary climax," she says. "At first I photographed whatever the climax of the room was, but as I was shooting more I had to come to terms with the fact there's no way to translate the immersive experience of being in the space — even video fails that. These guys are so skilled at touching your fear nerves at many different levels, and the visual part is just a small part of it."
Keasler found the quiet corners most intriguing, such as a view of a handcuffed bed topped with missing child posters. Through her work, she realized what frightens us culturally is what makes these spaces scary in a psychological way.
Along with her interiors, one of the most engaging sections of "Haunt" is a wall of the over-the-top characters that populate the houses. Originally referencing the portraits of photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Keasler shot actors both in and out of costume and makeup. Finding that method fell flat, she decided to give them the same serious eye she was using to portray the spaces, and the result is an almost baroquely beautiful installation of 15 of the persona that bring these thrill parks to life.
As compelling as "Haunt" is for the viewer, its creator is still intrigued enough by the subject matter to continue to explore what haunted houses say about us as a culture.
"I like the idea of making work that has open-ended question," Keasler says. "As a portrait of us, it's a pretty interesting thing to think about what it is we fear, and one of the things that’s so fascinating is how good these places are at touching that. Now that the bar's been raised, I need to seek out pretty amazing ones I haven't seen."
To get further into the exhibition's spooky spirit, the annual Modern 'til Midnight on October 27 is themed around "Haunt." From 6 pm to midnight, guests can explore Misty Keasler's photographs; join spotlight tours; enjoy spinning, dancing, and other artful antics from Ronnie Heart in the Grand Lobby; and dine on exceptional cuisine from Café Modern and the Modern Grill. An eclectic array of live music from The Bright Light Social Hour, Israel Nash, Vodeo, and Atlantis Aquarius will be featured outside along the Modern's reflecting pond.
Stop by the Modern Shop and enter to win a goody bag, and don't forget to dress up for the costume and dance contests (sorry, no masks allowed). Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of event and free for Modern members.