Extreme Haunts and the Boundaries of Horror
Summertown, Tennessee, seems like a nice place to live. Located about an hour southwest of Nashville, it’s a town of less than 1,000 people. Rural two-lane blacktops wind past corn fields and wooded glens. New houses—each on its own acre of green land—can be had for under $250,000. The town has a Buddhist commune (Turtle Hill Sangha), and Wheelin in the Country, an off-road park. Summertown is, in other words, the kind of place that horror writers love to use in their works: a seemingly placid, typical small American town. Even the name is ironic in that context; what writer of dark fiction wouldn’t want to have some eldritch terror descend on a place that so richly contrasts with the nightmares visited upon it?
But that’s just fiction . . . or it was, until July 7, 2017, when a real-life horror plopped right down in idyllic Summertown. The name of that horror is McKamey Manor.
If you’re a fan of Halloween haunts, or if you’ve watched the Netflix docuseries Dark Tourist, you may already be familiar with McKamey Manor. The name suggests something quaint—maybe Phantom Manor, the Paris Disneyland’s version of the Haunted Mansion—but be forewarned that McKamey Manor is definitely not quaint. Currently offering up an experience called “Desolation,” McKamey Manor’s slogan (which they’ve plastered on t-shirts and tote bags) is, “You really don’t want to do this.”
McKamey Manor is at the crest of the “extreme haunts” wave, which also includes The Victim Experience, Hvrting, Catharsis Horror, and The Asylum’s Hellth (sic) Clinic. Blackout, which started in 2006 and features full nudity and simulated (or are they?) sexual situations, claims to be the first of the extreme haunts, although it also refers to itself as “immersive theater” (the word “immersive” turns up a lot in the promo for extreme haunts). The simplest explanation as to what separates these venues from old-fashioned haunts is that the actors can touch you . . . and more than that, they can brutalize you, to the extent that guests leave some of these haunts with minor injuries and bruises.
This level of realism surely begs the question: is this still within the purview of artful horror, which seeks to frighten and disturb but doesn’t typically involve actual physical contact? Are these extreme haunts an extension of the thrills sought by horror fans, or do they represent something else altogether?
To answer these questions, we need to first look back at the history of haunted attractions, which have mirrored the overall history of the horror genre. Although Halloween haunts could be thought of as cousins of the dark ride—those clunky little cars or boats that take riders past rickety, macabre scenes—the real progenitors of the modern haunt can be found in children’s parties of the 1930s and ’40s . . . the same time, in other words, that readers were relishing the delicious, relatively innocent pulp fiction of Weird Tales and moviegoers eagerly sought out each new Universal monster. The first haunts were either found outdoors, where they were usually called “Trails of Terror,” or they resided in dark basements and might involve stunts like having kids thrust their hands into a bowl of peeled grapes that they’d been told were eyeballs (see Ray Bradbury’s classic 1948 story “The October Game”). By the ’70s, horror was on the bestseller lists, movies were becoming more gruesome, and non-profit organizations like the Jaycees found they could add to their coffers by staging walk-through Halloween attractions that were more elaborate and bloodier than mere “Trails of Terror.” By the end of the twentieth century, horror came to be identified with the violent set pieces of movies like Saw and Hostel, and the haunted attractions industry exploded in popularity, becoming a billion-dollar business. While over 3,000 professional haunts dotted the American map every October, new advances in manufacturing and technology also allowed home haunters to terrify trick-or-treaters right in their own front yards.
Haunted attractions all operated on more or less the same premise: patrons made their way through a maze as “monsters” (haunt lingo for the actors) leapt out from carefully-hidden spots. There was an unspoken rule that the monsters could never touch the guests, although that probably had as much to do with legal liability as aesthetics. Still, the traditional haunt, which might run anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes, provided guests with a built-in safety net: they knew they wouldn’t actually be touched.
It was only natural that haunts would evolve in the new millennium, as professional haunters sought new ways to stand apart from the competition. Some haunts explored bigger, more complex storylines; some employed Hollywood special effects technicians (who were losing movie work thanks to the advent of computer graphics); others expanded to operate beyond October.
And some decided to do away with the no-touching rule.
These haunts have gotten past issues of liability by making visitors sign a waiver before entering (McKamey Manor also makes guests undergo hours of pre-experience questioning); potential guests may also be vetted via interviews or questionnaires. In contrast to regular haunts, where groups are the norm, visitors to extreme haunts are frequently required to undergo the experience alone. Once the performance begins, the visitor may be blindfolded, gagged, restrained and shoved around in a simulated kidnapping; have various substances poured onto them or be submerged (if it’s not technically waterboarding, it’s a near cousin); interact with a variety of actors who may whip them, slap them, or cut their hair; be forced to observe unclad actors simulating sex or rape; have live insects, arachnids, and snakes placed on their skin; or be ordered to place an arm in a filthy toilet of vomit and feces.
“For two hours, we own you and you will not have your cellphones,” said Darren Bousman, director of both several films in the Saw series and some extreme haunts. “We will push you the entire time to do things that you consider dangerous, and when you leave, there is that rush of adrenaline that you feel because you have done something that is not every day in your life.”
That “rush of adrenaline” is often cited in reference to extreme haunts, as is a positive sense of accomplishment that some attendees say lasts long after the haunt. There’s even some empirical research to back this up: Margee Kerr is a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has set up a lab at The Basement, the extreme part of the ScareHouse haunted attraction in Pittsburgh. By interviewing guests both before and after they experience The Basement, Kerr has shown that production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are activated. In other words, experiencing an extreme haunt is a natural high.
So, are you ready to rush out right now and book your extreme haunt travel package?
Not so fast.
Because there is another side to this, in case you hadn’t seen that coming.
First, let’s look at the work of a colleague of Kerr’s, another academic who is building a career studying why we’re afraid of scary things: Mathias Clasen is an associate professor in literature and media at Denmark’s Aarhus University who has also done a great deal of study into the processes of fear. Clasen has written papers, a book (Why Horror Seduces, Oxford University Press, 2017), and even given an entertaining, witty TEDx talk on the subject (just search Clasen’s name on YouTube). For his 2018 paper “Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media,” Clasen surveyed over a thousand media consumers. More than half indicated that they enjoyed horror media (thus establishing that horror is most definitely not a niche market), three-quarters preferred moderately-to-highly frightening horror, but only 5.6% reported feeling less scared after viewing or reading horror. “This question was intended to test the catharsis effect hypothesis,” the report notes. “If the catharsis hypothesis had been correct, most respondents would presumably have reported being less scared after horror exposure, but we found the opposite result.” In other words, most of us don’t get a blissful high after finishing either a frightening book or an extreme haunt.
So, how do we reconcile Clasen’s findings that people do not necessarily experience a rush of positive feelings after watching or reading horror with Kerr’s reports that a majority of attendees to extreme haunts report positive responses?
I posed this question to Clasen, along with the central conundrum of extreme haunts: are these actually horror experiences, or do they cross the boundaries of genre and become something else entirely?
Clasen pointed me to a recent study he and two colleagues published in which they surveyed those visiting a haunted attraction. They found that visitors split almost evenly into two categories, which they called “white-knucklers” and “adrenaline junkies”; the former are those who seek to minimize the horror, while the latter maximize. In our correspondence, Clasen theorized that “extreme haunts attract only or mainly adrenaline junkies.”
There also seems to be some cross-over between those who enjoy extreme haunts and athletes who participate in high-risk sports. Michael Bardo, a psychologist who has analyzed the neurochemistry of sensation-seeking, believes that adrenaline junkies are actually getting high off dopamine, a pleasure-giving chemical that their brains may be genetically wired to produce more of. As Mathias Clasen told me, “Extreme haunts do push the boundaries of horror, but in doing so, they inch into a qualitatively different terrain—a terrain that offers not the safe play with fear that regular haunts do, but an experience more akin to base-jumping than to reading Pet Sematary.”
None of this is to imply that extreme haunts are as risky as extreme sports; they can, in fact, even be surprisingly progressive. Margee Kerr isn’t just a sociologist studying haunts, she also designs them, but with specific ethical rules in mind. There is physical contact in Kerr’s haunts, involving actors who are partly unclothed, but she defends this choice against charges of sexual assault. “The closeness and lack of personal space in The Basement is a challenging social phobia,” Kerr noted in one interview. She is strictly opposed to sexual or domestic violence, degradation of women, using insults or shaming, and language that is racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic.
The difference between extreme haunts and regular haunts, then, can perhaps be compared to the difference between the horror and thriller literary genres. Thriller readers want that pleasurable rush, while horror lovers desire to explore hard-wired fears—the ones our more hirsute ancestors felt, like the fear of being eaten, or of what waited on the other side of death. Horror readers don’t expect happy endings.
Where does all this leave the extreme extreme haunts, then, the ones that—unlike Kerr’s The Basement—will leave visitors with genuine bruises and cuts?
McKamey Manor extends past both regular and extreme haunts. Madelon Hoedt, a senior lecturer in drama at the U.K.’s University of Huddersfield who is preparing a monograph on horror in performance, calls Russ McKamey, the proprietor of the Manor, “absolutely an outlier, both within the scare industry, and among extreme scarers.” It seems wrong to call McKamey Manor a “haunt” at all. It eschews many of the standard devices of haunted attractions—it has no complex storyline, no Hollywood-level special effects, no scenes deliberately intended to provide a laugh between all the screams—in favor of torture and humiliation. When Dark Tourist’s David Farrier attempted McKamey Manor, he ended his experiencing by exclaiming, “There’s just nothing in it that’s a slightly good thing . . . I don’t understand people who come here.” Granted, Farrier never even made it into the Manor itself; he balked at being strapped into a straitjacket, blindfolded, and ordered to say, “I’m a little baby,” while his mouth was grotesquely stretched by a dental cheek retractor. McKamey Manor’s own website shows guests finishing their experiences sobbing, shaking, or barely mumbling past what looks like shock. No one seems to be riding a dopamine high. In literary terms, McKamey Manor is neither horror nor thriller; perhaps it can only be compared to unclassifiable avant garde prose.
One element of horror—or at least of the genre’s best—that the psychologists and sociologists seem to leave out of their studies is this: when it’s working, horror gives us that peek behind the curtain into something cosmic. While it frightens us, it also inspires awe and wonder. It assures us that there’s more to life than our everyday mundane existence, even if what we glimpse is dark and terrible. The best haunts understand this, and function like the best horror stories, creating complete, detailed worlds that leave us open-mouthed in astonishment. It’s hard to do that when the haunt actors are busy shoving your head under water or pressing their naked flesh against you.
Ironically, the best understanding of what happens when a haunt goes extreme may have been provided by an author who wrote a century before haunts were born. The great Ann Radcliffe, the finest purveyor of the Gothic novel, wrote in the 1826 piece “On the Supernatural in Poetry”: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
While the word “horror” has come to mean something different in our time, Radcliffe surely would have agreed with McKamey Manor’s neighbors in sleepy Summertown, Tennessee, that something very wicked indeed had their way come.
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