Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Lord British's 1988 Spook House: I Helped!

November 4, 1988

Dear Friends:

For Halloween 1988 I helped haunt the most spectacular haunted house that Austin, Texas has ever seen -- maybe the most spectacular anywhere in this part of the country.

The mastermind of this "spook house," a professional acquaintance of mine named Richard Garriott, has been staging them every Halloween since he was a kid. He even did them on the Fourth of July. He loves spook houses.

After a long spook-house career in New Hampshire, he moved to Austin a couple of years ago. This year he wanted to throw something big, because he finally built a house that is worthy of his best efforts: Britannia Manor. This titanic house, the product of a young millionaire computer game designer's most mischievous adolescent energies, has to be seen to be believed. I saw it when he threw his first party there, and I wrote about it for the local culture tabloid, the Austin Chronicle. To wit:


Fourth of July, 1988

Reported by Allen Varney

Austin resident Richard Garriott designs computer games. Every computer phreak in the country knows him better as "Lord British." Garriott's bestselling Ultima series made him a millionaire at age 17, and he later started his own company, Origin Systems. How's business? Well, Garriott (now 27) just completed a house -- maybe "mansion" is a better word -- a few miles west of town off 360, and on Independence Day he held a big blowout bash for ten dozen close friends.

This house ... are you sitting down? It has secret passages. Open a trapdoor in the pantry, go down the spiral staircase, and you emerge on the top floor of the study. Or in the closet of the fifth bedroom. Or go on down to the wine cellar, or the "dungeon" (storage area). That secret passage, one of several, is the only way to get the bottom floor of the study. On those shelves Garriott has proudly placed his deluxe edition of The Lord of the Rings and all three dozen of his other books.

You could put four ping-pong tables in the master bedroom side by side, though you'd have to move the waterbed. In the garage is a frame-mounted wooden box called "the Nauseator." People told me it was a medieval torture device; the victim gets put in the box and spun around, in total darkness, along two different axes of rotation. The dining room is glass on three sides, and has a balcony wherefrom you leap into the pool below. The master bath has a pillow. Did I mention the sauna?

And the pool! A waterfall flows over rocks into the enclosed Jacuzzi; you can swim through an underwater arch to the pool outside. Staying underwater, swim to the far side and look through the thick glass window at a beautiful uninterrupted view of the hill country.

The place has its own observatory. Yes, a big dome on the roof. The superstructure of steel girders is separated from the house by half an inch on all sides, so vibrations in the house don't disrupt telescopic observation. I saw a fancy telescope in the dome and complimented Garriott; he said, "Oh, that's just the small one."

In this miraculous home Richard moved with his customary grace. No computer nerd he: The guy is shrewd, polite, smooth-spoken, and handsome. Pretty women clustered around him. A friend pointed out one very lovely lady as Richard's girlfriend. I didn't learn whether that was just the small one.

As night fell he and a few of his employees waded out into the wide and muddy backyard to begin the fireworks show. The home lies just outside city limits, so they could fire rockets, Roman candles, and screamers with abandon. Observing from the three wooden balconies, we cheered brilliant explosions and fizzles alike, giddy with wonder.

Employee Dallas Snell shouted that this was Richard's birthday (true), so we all sang "Happy Birthday." Then Dallas took the words out of my mouth: "This year he turns 14!"

So: the man, the house, and this year, the resolve to create the biggest spook house of his career. Fifteen or 20 "stations" on a half-hour tour, with tours starting every five minutes ... a staff of 40 to 50 volunteers ... open to the public for the weekend evenings and Halloween night itself. And (here was the crux of the matter) entirely FREE, a great big Halloween gift to the people of Austin from Richard Garriott.

His budget was $5,000, and he also used large stacks of stuff accumulated from previous Halloween houses with previous $5,000 budgets. During the three weeks before Halloween, dozens of people helped him every night, from 7:00 until past midnight. I popped in during one of those nights, to tie moss and shrubbery around the swamp, put in the fog generator, and help move the guillotine. Richard's friends toiled everywhere like beavers.

"Be sure to tell everyone you know about this place," Richard asked. "It would be a shame to go to all this trouble and then have no one show up."

So I did. Came the Saturday before Halloween, and I led a bunch of friends in my roleplaying group on the 18-mile journey to Britannia Manor. But they were a dawdling bunch, and we arrived at 11:20 PM. A monk-robed helper turned us away below the house, saying they already had enough people in line to fill the rest of the evening's tours. (The place closed at midnight.)

Well, fair enough, I thought, and resolved to show up early the next night. I went out again on Sunday with a lot of people from my juggling club and arrived at 7:50. Cars everywhere. A uniformed security guard was turning away hundreds of people; the tours had filled up by 7:30, with the people at the end of the line facing a four-hour wait. Seems all three local newscasts had sent cameras out and reported on the house the previous night.

So, with one more night before the whole works closed down, I gritted my teeth and decided to show up real early on Monday, Halloween itself. When I arrived at 4:00 PM, 30 people were already in line. I saw Richard, who looked about five years older than before, and said, "Do you want congratulations or sympathy?"

He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Can you help us?"

It turned out volunteers were bowing out due to the amazing workload. To use an appropriate phrase, he needed new blood. And so for Halloween I became a troll for Richard Garriott.

The theme of the house was "A Trip to the Netherworld." After signing in at the front door, you and your party of five or six stooped and followed a guide past two huge suits of armor (real armor!) through a small wooden tunnel. You emerged in a chamber filled with fog and lined with black plastic (part of about three million square yards of black plastic that wrapped most rooms in the house). There the guide told you that you must seek a way out of the Netherworld, and the only way to do that was to find the noted Dr. Crenshaw, banished there for trifling with the forces of nature.

Out through a black plastic curtain, through the enclosed Jacuzzi pool -- done up as a swamp, with a bridge that tilted unnervingly -- and out to the swimming pool in back, which was even swampier. Amid the moss-laden trees, shrubbery, and black plastic walls, a rowboat sat in water. A lone female traveller said she was stranded, and please help her get to shore! So you pulled the rope, and she was just about to reach shore ... when a monster erupted from the water beneath (scuba gear) and pulled her down into the water! While she screamed, the guide hustled you off the rear porch and down the stairs to the back yard.

Across the yard, and over to the Well of Souls, where the guide asked for Dr. Crenshaw's whereabouts. A voice (microphone) told the party to seek the Bridge of Death and talk to the Angel of Doom. Back across the yard to the bridge.

Now, I don't know what this thing was before Richard built the house -- some kind of thick concrete pillar just sticking out of the down-yard slope. I think the previous landowners had wanted to build a gazebo or something. Richard built a large wooden balcony on it, a kind of crow's-nest, and a swaying wooden bridge leading out to it.

For his spook house, this became the Bridge of Death, and when you approached the balcony, blue floodlights switched on and the Angel of Doom arose. This was a mast and crossbar draped with sheets, and a huge skull with glowing red eyes perched on top. The guide hustled you out onto the bridge -- all of you -- and made you ask where Dr. Crenshaw was.

"Hahahaha!" came the microphone voice. "Foolish mortals, I will not aid you! Go back, go back while you still can!" Then from under a shroud of black plastic leaped a spooky black figure with glowing yellow eyes, and he chased you back down the bridge. And at the same time, troll hands reached up from beneath and grabbed your ankles! This is where people started to scream. I know; I was one of the trolls.

Fleeing back across the yard, you crossed a graveyard area, where headstones said HERE LIES LORD BRITISH and RESERVED FOR FREDDY KRUEGER and so forth. The guide talked to a tall black-robed figure with a scythe. Death, in a hollow voice that gave the graphics artist playing Death a sore throat, sent you over to the rear spiral staircase (shrouded in black plastic). Time out to look into the swimming pool through the window and see the remains of an earlier traveller. Then up through a gigantic two-story spider web. This was pretty neat, black light and ropes and everything. On some tours a black widow spider-woman leapt out at you (Richard's receptionist).

At the top of the stairs, the third-story balcony had been surrounded in black plastic and converted into Dr. Crenshaw's torture room. A pale young man (an Origin Systems programmer) sat in an electric chair, and a real large copper-wrapped coil stood in a corner of the room. "No, don't talk to Crenshaw, get away while you still can!" the man croaked. "My time is almost here -- uhhhhh!" He slumped as the coil erupted with 300,000 volts of electricity, producing Tesla-coil lightning a yard long. Every light in the house dimmed. I could hear the screams all the way out under the troll bridge.

The guide hustled you inside, where the glass-walled dining room had been converted into Dr. Crenshaw's laboratory. They must have lugged a ton -- a ton -- of equipment into that room. Telephone switching relays, I guess, or some damn wall of machinery. It was awesome. A tall white slab, tilted upward, held a Frankenstein monster, huge and square-headed and chained. (This was Origin producer Jeff Hillhouse, who really is built like a Frankenstein monster. Makes Boris Karloff look like a wimp.)

And there, hunched, cackling, white-haired and white-coated, stood Dr. Crenshaw himself, fiddling with an arcane apparatus over the monster's head. "Dr. Crenshaw, help us escape the Netherworld!" "Heeheehee!" said Crenshaw. "Of course, but first I must complete this, my grrrreatest experiment!" More talk, and then, with tension at its height, he pulled a switch! -- and more electricity erupted in a tube over the monster's head! -- and it came to life! -- enraged, it whipped the chain free of the slab and attacked Dr. Crenshaw!

I understand this was where visitors really began to lose it. Richard Garriott had a couple of helpers called "chicken-outs," who wandered the house and escorted people out who had decided they just couldn't go through with any more. The spark coil and Frankenstein's monster were the first points where they found employment.

While Dr. Crenshaw died a hideous death at the hands of his infernal creation and escape from the Netherworld a dwindling hope, you ran down a black plastic hallway. A cat woman howled at you from the balcony, and another from a cage -- routine stuff, but startling in context.

Through a curtain at the end of the passage you entered the lab of Dr. Crenshaw's assistant, who was even more bloodthirsty than his boss. The entire floor was covered with blood-spattered canvas; skulls and bones sat on the shelves; a woman in an evening gown played mournful violin music in a corner; an ugly albino hunchback helped Crenshaw's assistant dismember a poor guy lying on the lab table.

As soon as you got in you saw the assistant cut off the victim's hand, the victim screaming -- I did say the guy was still alive, didn't I? -- and the hand flopping realistically to the floor. On previous nights the wrist had spurted blood, causing some fraternity guys to injure their fellow tourists in their haste to escape. So on Monday Richard ordered the blood stopped (so to speak).

But you still watched the assistant carve through the victim's torso (what a howl that guy let out!) and pull forth some stuff that looked about as much like intestines as it needed to, for my taste. At that point the Frankenstein monster showed up and chased you out.

Down the front staircase, which runs along both sides of the atrium in Gone-With-The-Wind fashion. Fog, impenetrable fog. Dead bodies hanging overhead. Then you looked up, and a guy leaped down right at you. I mean right at you! Just as you thought, This guy is about to land on me!, he swooped by overhead, because he had a rope tied to his back. One of the guys in my juggling club, a championship swimmer at the University of Texas, made it into the tour on Monday night, and that moment in the staircase was the first time he screamed.

All the way back up the stairs on the other side of the atrium, while the guide spoke to the leaper, who turned out to be a demon who would tell you how to escape the Netherworld if you gave it a small child. The children on the tours always had tense moments at this point. But the demon was placated with candy, and told you the directions.

The first stop on the demon's route: a coffin room (the living room, shrouded in black plastic). The guide knew the way out was through this immense wooden sarcophagus. In previous Garriott spook houses this coffin held a mummy-wrapped Mickey Mouse, but this time, the guide opened the coffin, and a vampire woman leaped out at you! More frenzy, and out through the coffin onto the second balcony.

This led by Richard's bedroom, but this was closed off. (The man had to keep somewhere to sleep, after all.) Panther growls issued from within, and striped paws clawed at you as you passed. Down the second spiral staircase, past the swamp, and out into the garage. Into the maze.

The maze. I hardly need to mention that this enormous wooden labyrinth was wrapped entirely in black plastic, and you had to negotiate it in total darkness. At points in its narrow passages, you brushed past hanging tendrils, or wet sludgy stuff, or walked on noisy tin.

One particularly fiendish trap came at what felt like a dead end. It turned out the maze designers had duct-taped a square wooden panel across the passage, just at chest level. So if you were feeling your way along with your hands, as everyone was of course, it felt like another wall. You had to duck down under the panel to go on. That one stopped a lot of people.

So you got a few minutes to get through the maze, and then the guide led you to the workroom, which once held the Nauseator (dismantled for the maze, alas) and now held the Danger Room.

The Danger Room, to me, was the highlight of the whole tour.

It's this little wooden cube about eight feet on a side, okay? The walls are painted in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, big alternating squares of color. And in a corner, a strobe light flashed in one-second bursts. You've seen those strobe lights, that go click-click-click and on each click, just for a moment, you can see? So that everything becomes a series of freeze frames, and movement turns jumpy? It's creepy.

So the guide leads you in, and there you are in the Danger Room. The strobe flashes, but otherwise nothing happens. You start to wonder what's going on. Then you gradually realize --

Someone's in there with you.

A guy whose costume and face are painted to match the black and white checks of the room! The moment you see him, he leaps at you! Click-click-click. Every time the light comes on, he's somewhere else! He's leaping all around you, teleporting from one spot to another! Where is he! Right beside you! Aaaak!

If you weren't there, you can't understand what this does to your nerves. Five seconds, maybe ten, you were ready to leave.

So the guide took you out through the far door, and then came a hallway. A gorilla behind bars (in the sauna, actually). The gorilla broke out and chased you. Routine stuff, kind of a break from the stress so far.

Still four stations left. You had a chance to go to the bathroom (corpse in bathtub, REDRUM on the curtain, blood everywhere) -- nobody ever wanted to go. And then down the hallway to the study.

Now, even on ordinary days this is a spooky part of the house. Richard, a medievalist, has lined this dark passage with electric candles in gold sconces. The oak door at the end opens onto the upper floor of the study. The sconces and the chandelier inside all tilt at the same warped angle.

You looked over the balcony, and there below, the Phantom of the Opera played Bach on a pipe organ. (The organ was real, the pipes painted cardboard.) Then he saw you; the lights went out for a moment while the music continued; the lights returned, and he was gone! As the music finished, he appeared through the door you'd just come through and chased you!

Quick, find a way down! But there was no staircase. Someone finally pushed on a wall panel and found the secret passage. (This passage is electronically locked. You deactivate the lock by placing a statue on a particular spot on the window sill, and touching a little magnet to another spot. This is kind of a secret, so don't tell anyone.)

Down the secret passage's spiral staircase -- not wrapped in black plastic, but the lights were all red and blue and amber. Down to the wine cellar, where a hag-faced witch in top-notch makeup gave you candy. I got orange Starbursts.

The witch told you that, in order to leave the Netherworld, you had to go out through the dungeon. The door indicated opened on a brick-lined passage, narrow but long enough to hold your whole group. Skeletons were chained to the wall, and at the far end there was a little white door.

The guide said to knock to get out. So you figured, fine, it's over, we're winding down. You knocked on the door.

-- And the whole wall fell away! It fell back onto a high concrete ledge, and beyond were monsters who leapt at you! Yaaah! The guide hustled you out through the real door that you didn't see before, just ahead of the monsters, and suddenly you were in the yard at the side of the house and the tour was over.

Everybody gave it rave reviews. One station sent a follow-up crew for more filming. Somebody told me that the house got on nationwide network news. It was a blast and a half.

Sitting under the troll bridge and grabbing ankles every five minutes for five hours, though, was not. In fact, it got tedious beyond description. The yelling made me hoarse, and one rotten little kid kicked me right in the snout. We got a couple of ten-minute breaks and some cold hamburgers.

I knew both fellow trolls, not to mention the Angel of Death, but we couldn't chat for more than two minutes before we had to shut up while the next group approached. In the circumstances, wearing hot rubber masks and stooping under a bridge, they didn't feel too conversational anyway.

But through boredom I maundered on about lots of things. Like my trip to New Orleans for the World Science Fiction Convention this past September [1988], where I had breakfast at Brennans. If you're willing to pay $50 for breakfast for one, you get bragging rights, and I wanted to brag a little. But I also brought up an internal conflict the breakfast had produced, one that I still hadn't resolved.

Brennans is a great restaurant, worldwide reputation, inventor of Bananas Foster, et cetera. Going there, I wanted to feel like a swell, a high roller. But inside, I saw all these fat, sassy rich people; and I looked at the exorbitant prices and thought about all the poor people this money could be feeding instead. Looking out on the courtyard -- a light rain was falling -- I thought about Brennans' early days, the 1920s, when rich white people would dine on Eggs Sardoux while the poor servants probably couldn't get enough money for decent shelter. A kind of proletarian indignation rose in me.

But at the same time, I was dining there myself, and I had this waitress, a short thing with one of those semi-punk short haircuts. She proved friendly, even convivial, even something of a chatterbox. And very informal for a waitress in a classy restaurant; at a couple of points she rested her hand on my shoulder, not flirtatiously but just as a friend.

I had to admit, to my fellow trolls there under the Bridge of Doom, this irritated me. I'm not a touchy-feely person, for one thing, but the point is, I was spending 50 bucks for a meal, and I expected to be treated royally, like (the thought later struck me) one of the rich white people who ordered the poor servants around in the old days. My dilemma arose when I tried to reconcile proletarian indignation with aristocratic snobbery.

Nobody under that particular bridge had a response to this. As I said, they weren't talkative, and as the night wore on they got less so. Midnight finally came. Garriott, who had been out in front charming the crowd in line, led the last tour through himself. We grabbed our last few ankles, peeled off the costumes, and went inside for the closing meeting.

In the crowded upstairs living room, otherwise known as the lab of Crenshaw's assistant, dozens of exhausted people milled around in partial costume. Everyone sounded hoarse except the black-and-white guy from the Danger Room, whose silence was his stock in trade.

Richard, slightly ragged but still courtly, thanked everyone. Then, to great applause, he handed out T-shirts reading I SURVIVED BRITANNIA MANOR 1988. He asked for cleanup help during the coming week, and concluded, "Since there's over 300 pounds of dry ice left over, what do you say we dump it all in the pool?"

To resounding cheers he and some friends went to the garage and pulled huge blocks of dry ice out of a freezer. (The dry ice was used for fog in the swamp, I believe.) We gathered around the pool, counted down from ten, and in went the blocks. They sank and boiled. Soon the entire pool was covered with rolling clouds of white vapor right out of a Stephen Spielberg movie. The air grew heavy, and some of us stepped outside for a fresh breath.

Richard had gotten rid of the outer layer of his costume, a nobleman's black outfit in Elizabethan style. He wore some kind of thin white pajama underneath -- or for all I know, he had really switched into his pajamas, though this sounds unlikely. With the fog billowing off the pool, he dived in. After a long time, when we decided he'd swum through the arch and emerged in the Jacuzzi inside, he surfaced ... wearing the monster mask from the hapless traveller at the bottom of the pool.

With the impromptu party winding down, we made our goodbyes. Richard, who is tall, blond, pale, and wore a drenched white pajama, looked like a waterlogged angel. He snuck up on his girlfriend, who is short, black, and wore a black leotard (she was a panther woman), and he embraced her. She howled, then giggled. Together they looked like a yin-yang symbol.

I've been thinking more about the conflict I mentioned under the bridge, about a yearning for equality vs. honestly paid-for snobbery. Seeing Garriott, I realize the issue is pointless and neurotic. He's a millionaire, but no trace of snobbery mars his character. I should learn to be more easygoing with waitresses.

And it's easy to get righteously angry at disparities between rich and poor, as long as most rich people are jerks and slimes (as, in my experience, they are). But Richard is fair, well-liked, and generous with his time and creativity. I haven't figured out exactly why he does these spook houses, but personal aggrandizement doesn't seem to be the motive. He just likes to scare people, and let them have fun while he does it. If he stays the way he is, I hope he makes another hundred million bucks, and there should be more rich people like him.

"Be sure to tell everyone you know about this place," Richard had asked. "It would be a shame to go to all this trouble and then have no one show up." Over the three evenings Britannia Manor was open to the public, 700 people went on the tour. Rough estimates place the number turned away at over 4000.

Next year? Richard isn't certain of anything except that he won't do it again at his own house. [1999 note: Hah!] He probably won't try anything so elaborate. [1999 note: Double hah!] It looks like the Halloween spook house at Britannia Manor, which for a moment looked like a newborn Austin tradition, may have instead been a brief moment of glory that will continue only in stories and letters. Like this one. It's not often something happens to me that's strange and wonderful enough to warrant nine pages. When it did, I wanted to tell you about it.


Allen Varney

[Postscript: For several years afterward, Richard Garriott did indeed stage several more spook houses at Britannia Manor, each more elaborate and expensive than its predecessors. Eventually he started getting $50K sponsorships from Nintendo and national TV coverage. And, oh yeah, later he became an astronaut. -- AV]