Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Nonfiction

Interview: Chris Kullstroem

Before her 2017 book Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World, author Chris Kullstroem had written books about Halloween celebrations and how to throw great murder mystery parties, and had blogged about Halloween haunts (and the haunters who stage them). But then she decided to try something completely different: she quit her job, gave up her apartment, stashed her possessions, and traveled the world for a year to see how other cultures celebrate monsters and the art of the playful scare. Drawn to the Dark is an account of her adventures; reading as one part travel memoir, one part folklore record, and one part haunt how-to, the book is really about how fear and monsters play out across the cultural spectrum. Chris is currently at work on Driving Halloween, which will recount her adventures through eleven states to survey Halloween haunted attractions.

The subtitle for Drawn to the Dark is “Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World.” Is “scare tourism” a real thing? When I tried to research it, I only got articles about Americans staying away from Cabo San Lucas because a cooler with human heads was found on the beach.

I love that you researched scare tourism! I dubbed this term because “dark tourism” refers to tourism related to sites of actual death: cemeteries, catacombs, and places where people have been tortured and/or killed. But the kind of tourism I’m fascinated with is much more light-hearted and made for entertainment. In these types of festivals and shows, people often portray the monstrous and menacing so that their visitors can enjoy the fun and thrill of it all. I thought “scare tourism” was the perfect category for it.

Drawn to the Dark begins with something that would terrify most of us: quitting your job and giving up your home to travel the world for a year on a shoestring budget in search of horror. Did you ever have any second thoughts about that, especially after a Kickstarter campaign to fund the adventures failed?

Absolutely not. The travels were planned before I even learned about Kickstarter. I made sure to save enough money so that traveling for a year would be possible before quitting my job and getting rid of the apartment. Anyone can make more money and find a new place to live. Those are the little things. The bigger, more important things are pursuing our goals and dreams.

Throughout the book, you make use of a website called couchsurfing.com that lets you stay in a host’s home for a few nights. How did you first learn about couchsurfing? Was part of the appeal for you that you would get a more direct experience with local culture by staying with those who lived it?

I first learned about couchsurfing three years before setting off on these particular travels. It was discussed during an Adult Education class on solo travel. For the following three years, I stayed with couchsurfing hosts in the U.S., Europe and Australia during vacations. I always had great experiences. I would invite my hosts to join me in the themed attractions I had gone there to see. They were always excited to meet someone who dedicated their travels to looking at scare shows. Those hosts inspired me to make couchsurfing a part of Drawn to the Dark.

In your year of traveling, you visited both folkloric festivals rooted in history (like the Namahage Festival in Japan) and commercialized haunted attractions. What do those two have in common, aside from people in monster costumes? Are the intentions and goals the same?

The allure of the monstrous is definitely inherent in both. Although characters like the Japanese Namahage and Austrian Krampus are there to instill lessons (both serve to keep children on good behavior through scare tactics), I saw people of all ages regard those demons with the same wonder and awe that people regard monsters in haunted attractions. They’re superhuman. They’re stronger and more powerful than we could ever hope to be. That makes them just as admirable and terrifying—despite whether or not they’re pretending to want to tear us to pieces.

When you visited Oaxaca’s Dia de los Muertos festivities, you were struck by how death was rendered as something beautiful, not as “monsters maniacally laughing on late-night TV or crawling out of graves in horror films.” But Mexico also has a history of frightful ghostly figures like La Llorona. How do those two notions of death work together?

Like us, Mexico has all kinds of myths and legends about ghosts and strange creatures of the night. But since Day of the Dead is a sacred holiday that includes welcoming the return of past ancestors, celebrants mostly focus on portraying death with beauty and grace. Though, I did see American traditions creeping in. In some Day of the Dead parades, a few children were dressed as Hollywood horror film characters. Jason Voorhees and vampires bleeding from the mouth really stuck out! So, the customs are starting to blend, but children are taught the history of both Day of the Dead and Halloween in schools so that they understand the difference. I think that’s terrific!

You describe haunted attractions all over the world, but they all seem to feature almost all characters based on American horror movies. Why don’t more haunted attractions include local folkloric characters? Wouldn’t you expect that?

Some shows included local characters. The haunted attraction outside Transylvania’s Bran Castle was themed after Vlad the Impaler, and I went in one Tokyo haunt based around local ghost legends. But I think the majority of attractions use classic Hollywood horror characters because they’re known around the world. The movies might be American, but people abroad are just as familiar with them as we are.

In the introduction to Drawn to the Dark, you suggest that the book might “teach people” (the italics are yours). What would you like readers to learn from the book?

I hope that readers come to see how universal the draw to the monstrous really is. I think learning about our shared interests (or fascinations) across cultures shows just how much we have in common with people we’ve yet to meet. Whether you cross the street or fly across the ocean, you can make a new friend through a fun, shared experience. The United States might have a million-dollar Halloween industry and some of the most famous horror films that hit the screen, but no matter where we go, there are people who get just as excited about those things as we do.

You describe a few encounters with actual death (like seeing a real skeleton in a burial vault below St. Michael’s Church in Limerick), and your reaction is wonder and even joy at being alive, whereas I’m guessing most visitors are probably a little creeped out. Is that love of life something that you think is especially common among haunters?

I have definitely found that to be the case. Haunted attraction workers put so much of their time, money and energy into something they’re passionate about, whether it’s for a commercial show or one they put on right in their own home. That in itself is celebrating life. Sometimes we forget to look at it that way. Being confronted with death can certainly be a jarring realization that every day is a gift, but when you’re actively doing what you love, you’re actively engaging in the gift of simply being alive.

American haunted attractions rarely invite direct audience participation, but you encountered that several times in haunts outside the U.S. (like, for example, the European haunts where you were separated from the rest of your group and locked in a cage). Are non-U.S. haunts just less restrained by a litigious legal system, or are there other reasons for the difference in levels of participation?

Audience participation is a huge gamble here in the United States. I’ve had the honor of speaking at several haunted attraction conferences (events run and attended by those who work and operate attractions) over the years, and I’ve heard many haunters lament about the fear of lawsuits should they try out an interactive show. Many don’t want that risk. It’s a shame, because actor-visitor interaction makes a show so much more personal. I might forget a ten-thousand-dollar scene that I walked through, but I’ll never forget being locked in a simple closet with a psycho killer breathing down my neck.

Some of the haunts you describe focus on psychology or mood, while others emphasize gore. Do gore effects in a haunt aim to produce a different reaction? Or is it all some form of testing one’s fears?

Most gore scenes I’ve come across in haunts serve to break up scarier scenes. They let visitors calm down for a moment after a recent jump-scare (or other tactic) and feel a completely different sensation: usually disgust rather than fear. Changing it up like that lets visitors feel a range of emotions. I always felt it makes for a much better experience, and it prevents people from knowing what to expect next.

Your book Deadly Roles: Interactive Games of Murder and Mystery details intricate horror/mystery murder games to set up in a living room, so it’s almost like a how-to guide on creating miniature haunts. Do you ever daydream about haunt design?

My biggest enjoyment in writing Deadly Roles was writing the characters for people to play out in the games. It was fun coming up with twisted funeral directors, crazed alchemists, desperate doctors trying to cure the plague, and all kinds of macabre oddballs. As much as I loved designing scenes to put people in haunt-like scenarios, I admit that developed characters are my favorite part of any show.

Of course I have something of a personal interest in Halloween, so I have to ask: did your travels give you the sense that our own homegrown fright festival is spreading around the world?

Absolutely, and I had many people admit this was happening. A few haunt owners I met even admitted to coming to the United States to learn how to create their own shows back home. I thought that was terrific! Trick-or-treating is also spreading, as are Halloween parties in public venues like bars and pubs. The more people who get to enjoy the holiday, the better.

Have you heard from any of your couchsurfing hosts who’ve read the book?

Yes, and perhaps not surprisingly, they’ve all been mostly enthusiastic over the same thing: bragging to their family and friends that they’re in a book! Including them made a world of difference in writing it. I loved being able to include their stories and views about what it meant to grow up with different types of monster shows. They were completely different experiences than what I had with Halloween back home.

How do you follow up a book that travels the world looking for scares?

I actually just finished my next book, this time focusing on the haunted attraction industry and the history of Halloween customs over the centuries. Driving Halloween will take readers on a new set of travels right here in the United States. It also describes the impact that Halloween has played on people who run haunted houses of all types, and those who attend them.

Do you have a favorite haunted attraction, or even just a favorite bit from a haunted attraction?

My favorite scenes in any haunt are when characters make it personal. That can be as simple as ad-libbing a few lines to make their visitor laugh. It makes it much more engaging, and I always feel more connected to the show’s story that way. To me, it’s much more effective than elaborate scenes or sets.

If Halloween can spread to Europe, why can’t America have Krampus at Christmas?

Oh, Krampus is alive and well here in the United States! More and more Krampus shows are popping up each December. It’s terrific to finally have a Christmas monster to look forward to . . . especially for so many who feel sad when each Halloween season comes to its end!

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.