As someone dipping his toes into the world of haunted attractions, people are always telling me about so-called “extreme” haunted houses they heard about on the news/social media. The most notorious of these is McKamey Manor in San Diego (and the one I hear about the most often), but there are others. They all have a few things in common: You have to sign a waiver beforehand and reserve your entry time, there’s usually a minimum age limit, and the actors are allowed to touch you and force you to do things against your will. If you look at any of the videos for McKamey Manor or BlackOut Haunted House in New York, they look like a trailer for a found footage movie directed by Rob Zombie. The actors are always screaming in your face, you get fake blood and other fluids thrown all over you, and you’re otherwise forced into close and uncomfortable encounters with strangers, shoved into cages, coffins and the like. Typically there’s a lot of twisted sexual imagery involved.
And if you’ll forgive me for saying so, what about that experience seems fun? Unpleasant, sure, and deeply uncomfortable, but certainly not fun. And by my definition, not all that scary either.
Big disclaimer: I obviously haven’t attended any of these “extreme” haunts. I have no desire to. And it’s not out of fear really – what tiny bit of intrigue I have is mere curiosity, and the desire to speak authoritatively on the matter – but it doesn’t sound like something I’d ever spend money to experience. If you read articles about McKamey, BlackOut, or many of the others of the same vein, you often see boastful claims about how many people fail to make it to the end of experience, calling out the designated safe word to end it all. This is all meant to entice those seeking a truly cutting edge fright experience, but think about it: If you’re willfully cutting the experience short, it’s because you’re not having a good time.
Why do we go to haunted houses in the first place? We want to be entertained. We want to experience a next level, live version of the thrill we get from horror movies. This kind of fear is fun because it triggers our biological responses, but in an environment we consciously know is safe. The best horror movies work not because we fear some kind of immediate threat to US, but because the movie does a good job of drawing us into the fiction, allowing us to empathize with the characters on screen. Good haunted houses work on a similar principle – we know nothing in there will hurt us, but the theatricality of it triggers our fear responses anyway.
These “extreme” haunts, I believe, exist because of a fundamental misunderstanding of that principle. They make no distinction between different types of fear triggers. As adults become more desensitized to the tamer scares of traditional haunted houses, extreme haunts figure the way to counter that is to simply up the intensity. Hence the screaming, the physical contact, and the sexual imagery. In the age of unlimited, instant access to entertainment and distractions, the “seeker of the extreme” personality has become more common. Whether it’s horror movies, spicy foods, pornography, or haunted houses, so many people obsess over finding “the next level”. But extreme never really satisfies. The moment you’ve experienced it, it’s no longer extreme. With your eye on the next thrill, the previous definition of extreme becomes a hollow vestigial shell to be discarded and forgotten.
Controlled physical abuse, safe words, sexual situations… these are the domain of fetish S&M dungeons, not haunted attractions. Of course, I’m ignoring the elephant in the room here. McKamey Manor is evidently VERY successful, with epic waiting lists full of people fighting to secure a reservation in their multi-hour, individual extreme haunt. And I won’t begrudge them their success – I actually really respect that they’re trying something new. But I myself am of the opinion that most of the people who would go to an extreme haunt of this kind do so out of morbid curiosity, and probably wouldn’t want to do it more than once.
So where IS there left to go when it comes to haunted houses in the modern age? To me, it’s all about getting under the skin.
Intuitively, it ought to be much easier to scare people in a live haunted house than it is with a movie. A movie is a passive experience, and not only that, the environment surrounding it is fairly uncontrolled. Whether it’s in a movie theater, a living room, or on a tablet screen, there’s no way to guarantee an audience will be in the proper mindset to enjoy your horror movie. Yet, horror movies have managed to psychologically wound just about everyone I know on some level. I’ll never forget the terror I felt after watching Tales From the Crypt and Nightmare on Elm Street as a kid, or even The Ring and Paranormal Activity as an adult. Those movies affected me, deeply. Haunted houses could have very much to learn from the most successful horror movies that trade in atmosphere, suspense, and a sensation of vague dread.
More to the point, consider horror video games. I’ve argued passionately in the past that video games have higher fear thresholds than even movies do, because of the agency and control you give to the player. Most recently, the sadly doomed Silent Hills “P.T.” conceptual teaser on Playstation 4 shook me up so profoundly on the first playthrough that I refused to play it alone ever since. So masterful was it in its atmosphere, sound design, environment, and timing of scares. That entire game takes place in a single, L-shaped hallway with two rooms attached, and the majority of its scares could absolutely be recreated in real life.
Instead of cranking up the intensity of gore, torture, sexual violation and disgust, what about upping the intensity of actual FEAR? It would take great artistry, care, attention to detail, and experimentation (not to mention resources) to pull off, and it wouldn’t be guaranteed to work on everyone, but that kind of thing would be the true “next level” to me. As I gain more experience in creating haunted houses over the years, that’s the ideal I’ll be reaching for.