Haunters: The Art of the Scare Review Barking up the wrong tree

This will easily be the most narcissistic thing I’ve ever written on this website: Sometimes, I love being me.

What I mean by that is, I’ve carved myself such a specific niche in life that when (for example) a documentary about amateur haunted house makers is released, I know that I’ll get several messages telling me about it. So here we are.

Recently released on Netflix, Haunters: The Art of the Scare takes another whack at territory explored by newly minted “alternative Halloween movie” The American Scream, going inside the psyches of a handful of Halloween freaks and the terrors they create with their own blood, sweat, tears, and depleted savings accounts. Like The American Scream, Haunters focuses mainly on three subjects, but there’s more variation in the backgrounds, motives, and arcs of these subjects than American Scream’s somewhat same-y selection. This proves to be both the movie’s blessing and curse.

The three subjects, for the record, are Shar Mayer, prolific haunted house “scare-actor”; Don Julson, dedicated home haunter with a baby on the way; and Russ McKamey, mastermind of the infamous McKamey Manor “extreme haunt” in San Diego. The focus on McKamey is where this doc loses its footing and puts itself notably behind The American Scream, in my opinion.

I’ve made my thoughts about extreme haunts known here. In short, I don’t believe haunted houses that use actual torture, be it physical or psychological, are good for the industry, the hobby, or even the customers who sit on long waiting lists and sign waivers for the chance to experience true fear. It’s a perversion of the mission of haunting, which is to use theater to give people a thrill they might seek from horror movies, but on a higher level. The ethics and, indeed, legality of extreme haunts like McKamey and Blackout (briefly touched upon in the film) is certainly an interesting enough subject for a full documentary, but I don’t think the creators of Haunters were prepared to tackle that fully when they set out to make their movie. I got the sense that the initial idea was to cover a broad spectrum of the amateur haunt scene, but in the process of covering McKamey made a late decision to pivot and center fully half of the doc to his story. This has the effect of both wearing you out on McKamey and not giving you enough, as his story isn’t close to being complete by the time the credits roll.

As for the other subjects, results vary. Shar Mayer seems like a lovely, dedicated person and I’m glad I learned about her, but there isn’t a lot to grab onto with her story. She gets the least amount of screen time out of the main subjects, but it still felt like too much. Julson – for obvious reasons – is the subject I related to the most. He’s what I could see myself becoming in a few years if I’m not careful – a creative Halloween fanatic obsessed with besting himself year over year, until his little DIY neighborhood haunted house is sucking up the budget of a mid-size sedan along with months of hard labor. At one point, the documentary crew asks Julson how long his expensive labor of love is actually open to the public. “Four hours.”, he replies, the absurdity of that revelation evident on his face.

But back to McKamey. Since the movie does spend over half its runtime on him, his slightly reticent wife, and assorted responses to the controversy of his barely-legal house of torment, I felt like I received more than enough information to validate my opinion that McKamey Manor is a blight on the haunt community. To wit, other full contact haunted houses at least utilize a safe word. McKamey doesn’t. Once you sign your life away and walk through those doors, the actors within are essentially free to brutalize you to their hearts’ content for two hours, no matter how much you beg for it to stop. This includes, among other things, actual waterboarding and simulated drowning, forced vomiting, feces and other unsanitary objects being shoved in your mouth, and garden variety physical assault (but without lasting injury, they say).

Why would anyone create and operate this, let alone volunteer to go through it? You can watch the doc for those answers, but I must note that I got a genuinely bad vibe from Russ McKamey. According to him, it’s all about the footage, which ends up as compilations on his YouTube channel. There’s a salivating lust on his face as he films his victims in extreme closeup while they beg for his game to end. The final few minutes of the film tease the appearance of a city inspector who hints that he may try to shut the place down, but this thread maddeningly doesn’t resolve.

Ultimately, I wish Haunters had picked one of two directions: do a broad overview of amateur haunters with equal time devoted to each subject, or make the movie entirely about McKamey Manor and extreme haunts. Personally, I craved more of the wistful positivity portrayed in The American Scream. The feeling you get watching people scream and crack up through the haunt you poured your body and soul into is, after all, why we do it. There’s a bit of that in here, but the taste of it is soured by all the sobbing and pleading inflicted by a sadistic madman with a GoPro.

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