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The man behind the masks

A local artist runs a homemade haunted house in his friend’s garage.
Fiona Nolan waits for customers to scare outside of The Butcher Shop: House of Gore in St. Paul on Saturday.
Image by Holly Peterson
Fiona Nolan waits for customers to scare outside of “The Butcher Shop: House of Gore” in St. Paul on Saturday.

Mike Etoll’s fascination with horror and gore began with a traumatizing experience when he was about 5 years old.

His uncle put him onto a haunted house ride by himself. He had no idea what it was or what he was about to see.

“[B]y the time I came out, I was just like, warped, permanently. … I came out, and I was bawling my eyes out.”

A year or two later, Etoll started drawing scary pictures and hanging them up on his walls.

He even created mini haunted houses in his bedroom and made his brother and sisters go through them.

“They hated it,” he said.

As a teenager, he snuck into R-rated horror films.

“I’d watch a movie four times in a row, and I would go home and create the things I saw in the movie out of whatever materials I had,” he said.

Etoll thought about horror films and fantasy on a deep level, even at a young age. He said he cared more about recreating the atmosphere of the films than the mechanics.

These days, he makes a living doing freelance special effects work for B-movies like “The Hagstone Demon” (2011) and “Insectula!” (2013). He also directed the music video for Meat Puppets’ song “Orange” in 2011.

 “I’m not so much a special effects artist. I make special effects and this type of thing out of necessity to realize a vision,” he said.

“The Butcher Shop: House of Gore” is one of the most recent manifestations of Etoll’s fantastic artistic vision.

He created the DIY haunted house in a shabby black garage three years ago with his wife Eva and some friends, one of whom owns the property just outside the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.

The initial construction was tough for the Etolls, who worked on a tight budget with limited help and few hours of sleep.

But the operation runs a little smoother now that the sets are finished and they’ve accumulated a stockpile of props.


Reality sucks

Last Friday, I met with Etoll outside “The Butcher Shop.”

Bloody severed hands and feet dangled in the shop’s doorway. Yellow lights illuminated a mummy torso, and feral rats were displayed in the garage window.

Blood-curdling screams, spine-tingling cackles and hair-raising wolf cries resounding from the garage warned those about to enter of the terror awaiting them.

Etoll walked ahead of me down a dark corridor toward part of the haunted house he needed to set up for the evening.

Fishing wire and black fabric hanging from the ceiling grazed my head and arms as I bumped my way through the blackness.

I caught up to him in a lit hallway, where he wedged his way behind a chicken wire fence to get at the mannequin he wanted to relocate.

The mannequin’s head looked like a bear ripped off a layer of skin and then someone threw acid on its face. A blue eyeball hung from the socket.

Etoll flipped a switch. A snaggle-toothed old woman with piercing gray eyes and long, scraggly, straw-colored hair began to rock back and forth in her chair.

Her witchy cackling provided background noise for Etoll’s commentary on reality, fantasy and social media.

“I kind of like to keep my personal life personal, and when it starts to overlap—” He stopped mid-sentence and handed the mauled mannequin head to me. “Can you hold this for a second?” he asked.

He said he doesn’t understand the fascination with reality and obsession with social media. He prefers to escape to the fantasy world of movies, or of his own creation, because most of reality “sucks.”

“That’s why I don’t like the Soap Factory [Haunted Basement], because they do the opposite. They try to push real life in people’s faces and go, ‘This is frightening.’”*****

Etoll hopes his haunted house will serve as a reminder “that there’s a bigger invisible world that you’re not so aware of, that it has nothing to do with your puny little job or how much you hate your boss or how lousy your sex life is. … That’s not the stuff of reality. The invisible world is more real than the reality you’re confronted with every day.”

The part of reality that sucks the most for Etoll is the inevitability of death. He said the scary element of haunted houses and horrifying fantasy helps people deal with the fact that they’re going to die.

“It isn’t so much the fear of death; it’s the bummer of death,” he said. “It really sucks that you have to die.”

Several minutes later, he broke the conversation to focus on preparation. A few people were already waiting outside, and he was running late.

Once he got everything set and the actors took their hiding places, Etoll stood in front of the garage to welcome us in.

“Don’t touch the monsters and they won’t touch you. Welcome to ‘The Butcher Shop: House of Gore.’ Have fun,” he said.

Low, ominous music and cat shrieks played through the speakers. I heard random, tormented screeching that sounded vaguely like Etoll, but I wasn’t sure.

The two people in front of me buffered most of the shock and scares.

Some of the props were too unconvincing to actually be scary, but the combination of sounds, lighting, actors and labyrinth layout created a truly disorienting experience.

If the Soap Factory is the haunted house version of the “Saw” movie series, then “The Butcher Shop” is the less-elaborate “The Evil Dead” version, minus all the squirting blood.

“I’m not doing this because I make a lot of money,” Etoll said afterward. “I’m not doing this for any reason other than I purely love things like this.”


What: The Butcher Shop: House of Gore
When: 5-11 p.m., Oct. 25-Nov. 2
Where: 1444 Reaney Ave. E, St. Paul
Cost: $5
Age: All


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