Haunters: The Art of the Scare
I should have realized that there were so many documentaries about haunt actors and haunted attractions–I should have sought them out sooner, watched them all, laughed at all the things that aren’t true, and scoffed at the other stuff that I couldn’t believe happened in professional, as well as backwoods, haunts. Needless to say, I pulled some discussion points from this feature, and ask a few hard questions that people need to be made aware of. Halloween is at the heart of the Fall season, and at the heart of Halloween, there are countless haunted attractions across the nation, existing for visitors to have fun, and escape from reality for a little bit, until next year when fans of the holiday head out at night to do it all over again.
But, something has changed within the culture itself; a rapid graduation from jump scares to kidnap simulation and borderline assault at modern “extreme” haunts.
This brings me to the first point of discussion.
It was put eloquently, a sound byte pulled from an interview: a woman who had been a haunt actor for decades. She had started her career in the 70s, giving an example of what was then scary enough to make guests flee from her scene. She stated that she would hold grapes up to guests, squeezing them until they burst, while telling the guests they were eyeballs. That was enough to make them scream in fear. But today, she continued, it takes a guest getting thrown in a truck, blindfolded, and kidnapped to get them “there”.
Soon, viewers of the doc see that it turns into a singular profile on McKamey Manor, currently dubbed the most extreme haunt in America. It starts to focus on how the haunt came to fruition in the early years, the owners, and how it has rapidly evolved from an at-home spook to a 5-hour simulation of your worst fears, being physically assaulted, and signing a waiver to cover the owners asses while they upload your terrified face to YouTube. So, what happened? How did we get here in under 10 years? Is it about control, and having the freedom to relinquish it? Is it a response to society? And my big question: is this even a haunt anymore?
It is known that McKamey Manor is open year-round, but that wasn’t always the case. This attraction was strictly open for the Halloween season, catering to those who wanted something more than what an average haunt could bring to the table. Each year, however, they wanted to do more, to see how far they could push the envelope, and instead of scaring people, they were scarring them; another eloquent statement taken from the Soska Sisters who were also interviewed for the doc.
There are haunted attractions that require guests to sign waivers, spelling out that they will be “touched” and profanity will be used, but, even the most extreme “touch” haunt has a safe word. McKamey Manor prides itself on having no safe word, lying to the customers, and keeping them there against their will. So, is McKamey Manor a haunt?
Waiver-based attractions aren’t for everyone. These haunts, or a portion of a larger haunted attraction, require guests to sign a slip of paper, simply stating that if they get hurt, the haunt is not liable for damages. A useful tool to keep the lawsuits at bay. These attractions may seem harsh, but they are particularly mild, and only feature some touching and grabbing, and even more often, profanity. None of this is of a sexual nature (but always do your research, and read reviews if you’re unsure about trying a new place so you aren’t in over your head.) Just because you’re uncomfortable with something said or done to you doesn’t mean you will get special treatment from the actors. If there is something you know you don’t like, don’t put yourself in the situation in the first place. It’s as easy as that.
I remember when haunted attractions started using waivers to give portions of the haunt more of an edge, and I thought it was thrilling. Spending most of my youth as a haunt actor, I immediately wanted my haunt to put it to use and develop a waiver based activity as part of the attraction as a whole. Of course, it’s not that easy, and to this day, my old haunt still hasn’t utilized a waiver based system for one if it’s attractions.
There are tons and tons of backwoods haunts if you know where to look, probably not too far from where you sit now. Bot why are these places, popular to locals, practically unknown in the grand scheme of things? Well, they’re amateur haunts, that’s why. They haven’t gone pro, meaning, simply, paying the big bucks for updates, and putting their name out there as a professional haunt in America. For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, The Scarehouse and Hundred Acres Manor is our claim to fame. These haunts have been on TV, featured seasonally locally and nationally in the press, and the owner of The Scarehouse was interviewed on Haunters.
These haunts are a ton of fun, and can feature several different activities, like mazes and escape rooms. However, they can be a bit more pricey, with lines long enough to warrant “floaters” (actors who scare people waiting in line) and an option for a “fast-pass” ticket to get to the front of the line for an additional fee.
But in between these huge haunts, there are the small, backwoods ones that cost less, are twice as long, and sometimes, even more creepy! The haunt I was a part of never went pro, and probably never will, but, despite being unknown nationally, as long as you have all the ingredients for a spooky environment, everyone should have a good time!
Until you get punched in the face.
Assaults on Haunters
It’s deeply unfortunate that this is a point of discussion, but it happens more often than you think. Perhaps those reading can recall a time when you were so afraid that the only thing you could do was throw a punch, or lash out and accidentally hurt an actor while in “the moment.”
Something illustrated within the film is older haunters who have dealt with getting “hurt on the job” and being in pain, or needing to wear protective gear under their clothes or on their faces for seasons following the incident.
I haven’t experienced this personally, but other members of my haunt family have. Sadly, I’ve dealt with a different type of assault on the trails, so actors are truly vulnerable to anything, and we can’t avoid a situation when assholes come through the gates with no respect for the actors. What we can do is raise awareness that this happens, and have much tighter policies for alcohol permissions on the grounds of a haunt. (Honestly, a haunted attraction is no place for a drunk).
Did you catch my mention of my “haunt family” earlier? It’s similar to a work family, only it’s not filled with relationships hindered by professional boundaries. This can be seen as a good, and bad thing, within haunt families. Having a haunt family is a necessity when you work in the cover of night–they are people who can be seen as protectors, from all walks of life. But they are special, as you all share a common goal, a similarity that others cannot understand.
An attraction of the darkness, of course.
I can imagine why this is such an issue. People get together and one person loves Halloween while the other despises it. First, I can’t imagine why people hate Halloween so much, honestly, get over yourself. Second, I can’t imagine being with someone willingly who hates the haunting culture, while it is such a huge part of your life. Why be together, why even be married, if it creates such a rift?
This issue was prevalent in almost all the interviews of haunt actors and their spouses. These problems even lead up to a couple breaking up because of this seasonal job. Find someone who loves what you love, or at least someone who understands your passion and supports you. I got lucky, and my spouse was not only supportive of my love for the season and the acting, but he joined me.
So, after all this, why do we keep returning, year after year, to haunted houses and walking trails, hayrides and corn mazes? It is a form of escapism…an escape we all so desperately need, some more than others.
We all love to feel that rush of adrenaline, a simulation of pure fear, but in a controlled environment. We have a need to be in control of what frightens us, and understand it. We are constantly seeking answers, and logic, from our emotions. With haunted attractions, we can get just that, we can live out our fears, knowing deep down, we are safe.
Or maybe that’s only what us haunt actors want you to think…