Horror Movie Monsters Keep Austin Weird At The Sfanthor House Of Wax


South Congress is ground zero for all the tensions of gentrification, with beer bars, antique stores, Starbucks and—yep—an American Apparel crowding Austin institutions like the bohemian Magnolia Cafe and venerable rockabilly, punk, and country venue, the Continental Club. It’s the kind of transformation that spawned the “Keep Austin Weird” war cry in the first place.

So when a squat, staid South Congress insurance agency building went up for rent in 2013 it seemed inevitable that a new metal and glass condo block would soon infect the site. The last thing anyone would have expected is a castle, complete with parapets, flanking towers and drawbridge with a barbican overhead.

This is the Sfanthor House of Wax and it’s a remarkable passion project from Austin’s Museum of the Weird co-founders Steve and Veronica Busti. “My favorite part of a wax museum that I would go to was the Chamber of Horrors and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to have a whole museum devoted just to the Chamber of Horrors?” Steve Busti told iDigitalTimes.

Crossing the drawbridge into Sfanthor put you in a gift shop largely given over to a tightly curated collection of black horror t-shirts, the kind you’d see on guys arguing over the relative merits of C.J. Graham, Ken Kirzinger, Derek Mears or Kane Hodder as Jason Voorhees while in line for the remastered Phantasm. There are the expected knick-knacks—fridge magnets, action figures and postcards—but also vintage comics, old issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and masks of Lucio Fulci zombies, They Live aliens and Tobe Hooper murderers lining the wall like game trophies.

The Chamber of Horrors itself is a winding catacomb through horror movie history. Count Orlok hypnotizes you from behind glass, the wall alongside covered in a detailed write-up of 1920s German Expressionist films like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Most remarkable are the environments built up around many of the wax models. Sfanthor founder Steve Busti said, “the Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably the oldest one we have in here. I think that came out of a Madame Tussaud’s in London, that one probably dates back to the 1930s or 40s.”

The Bustis posed Quasimodo—played by “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney in the 1923 adaptation—chained to a stone floor, his tragic condition dramatized in murky half light.

"Children of the night. What music they make." Photo: Sfanthor House of Wax / Photo: Andrew Whalen

Sfanthor’s Dracula, acquired from the defunct Movieland Wax Museum, is posed in a dark alley, looming over a swooning victim. The Mummy menaces an archaeologist on a crypt set.

Moving through the museum is like time traveling through horror movie history. Pass the 1920’s Lon Chaney as Mr. Hyde, the 1930’s Prince Randian from Freaks, and you’ll come face to face with Lon Chaney Jr. from 1941’s The Wolf Man.

The 1950s brings colorful characters and more elaborate costumes like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Metalunan mutant of This Island Earth (now known primarily for being the subject of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie).

"Our knowledge and weapons would make us your superiors, naturally." Photo: Sfanthor House Of Wax / Photo: Andrew Whalen

The modern era of horror movies is anchored by the xenomorph from Alien, posed in a narrow Nostromo corridor, a strobe revealing the facehugger pod at its feet in sporadic flashbulb light, each pulse a new opportunity for the creature to leap at you.

"This thing bled acid. Who knows what it's gonna do when it's dead?" Photo: Sfanthor House of Wax / Photo: Andrew Whalen

While many of the wax models are acquisitions, others were built special for the museum. “One of my old employees was a great sculptor, he did that Swamp Thing up there,” Busti said, gesturing to a bust on the wall that puts Wes Craven’s movie version to shame. “He sculpted the head of our Nosferatu… it’s not wax, it’s silicone, I made the body and the rest of it.”

Holding court inside the entrance to Sfanthor, Busti described the museum’s founding and the origin of its peculiar name. From behind him the sound of creaking doors and ominous organ notes drift in from the Chamber of Horrors.

Once he had secured the location on South Congress, the next step was to make the outside as distinctive as the inside would become. “It was a big, brown, ugly building and I thought we’ve got to do something cool to make the outside look awesome,” Busti said. “That was another dream I always had, to build a castle and this is the closest I’m ever going to get to it probably.”

Busti’s Chamber of Wax was on its way to completion, when the last piece fell into place. 2013’s Fantastic Fest—a genre film festival put on by Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain—was themed “Intergalactic Fantastic” and Busti decided to enter their annual bumper contest, calling for short videos to play before the features.

Busti’s entry was about a sci-fi, fantasy and horror store. “I was trying to come up with a good name and I always thought it was such a long mouthful of words: science fiction, fantasy and horror,” Busti said, “So I wanted to come up with a word for that.”

The result was Sfanthor, who first manifested as a “homicidal, intergalactic, mutant barbarian from outer space,” played by Busti himself. Naturally, he murders everyone.

“Man, this is such a good name, I need to use it,” Busti said. “And that was the origin of where Sfanthor came from.”

Unfortunately, the grand nightmare of a horror house on bustling South Congress may be a short-lived one. “Even though we just opened, we’re going to have to close in a few months,'” Busti said. His landlords sold the property to build a hotel on the site. “It will be open until Halloween, October 31st of this year.”

Busti is hopeful that a Kickstarter and a lot more sweat will help them reopen Sfanthor in another location. If anyone can bring Sfanthor back from its impending doom its Steve and Veronica Busti, who have already built two museums together.

Even with closure looming, Busti continues to make plans for new scenes in his wax fantasmagoria, including tableaus featuring Bub from Day of the Dead and child murderer Freddy Krueger.

Asked what his dream figure would be, Busti answered without hesitation. “Life-size Godzilla,” he said. Just like with his Texas castle, Busti is always looking for a way to make outlandish dreams real. Godzilla was no exception. “I was trying to figure out if there’s some way to get a big inflatable Godzilla, just the top half of him coming over from the back of the building.”

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