I love movies about haunted houses. To be more specific, I love movies about creating haunted house attractions. Millions of people scream their way through haunts every October. Fictional works of horror like 2014’s The Houses October Built and 2015’s Hell House LLC somehow manage to bring me back to being a scared kid that buried his bawling face into his cousin’s jacket as she ran me through the local Jaycee’s haunt as fast as possible. For the record, the Dracula that popped out of a coffin was what got me.
I absolutely adore documentaries about real-life Halloween attractions. The American Scream has become appointment viewing every Halloween season. My closet friends and I search for updates on Ghoulie Manor reopening. Sadly, it remains closed. There’s something about doing a deep dive into why people choose to be scared, and the fine individuals that make it their life’s mission to terrify their friends, neighbors, and anyone willing to part with their cash that sucks me right into the work.
Jon Schnitzer’s documentary Haunters: The Art of the Scare is another fantastic entry to the genre. TAS examined how home haunts draw families and neighborhoods closer together. Haunters dives mostly into the commercial appeal of haunting. Schnitzer also spotlights a number of the scary folks behind the fright wigs and latex masks. There’s a terrific spotlight on legendary scare performer Shar Meyer. However, the bulk of the documentary examines the rising trend of “extreme” haunts. Here, participants sign on to be kidnapped, jostled, tied up, and put through the wringer of physical and emotional abuse. The film highlights the two most infamous of these attractions, Blackout Haunted House and McKamey Manor.
The exploration of these two attractions and their stark differences is must-see viewing. There’s the appeal of being scared contrasted with exorcising your personal demons. Both Blackout and McKamey Manor offer an experience far more visceral than your run of the mill haunted hayride. Both offer a test of endurance, stamina and mental fortitude. Even the most seasoned horror fans struggle to get through the experience. However, the two attractions sit on opposite sides of an ethical line when it comes to the social contract they make with the people brave (or foolish) enough to give them a whirl.
Blackout & the Search for the Most Extreme Haunt Experience
The Blackout Haunted House might be the world’s first official extreme haunt. The actors use nudity to make their clients uncomfortable. They grab the patrons, restrain them, and shout profanities into their face. It’s all in the quest to provide the most terrifying experience possible.
The founders of Blackout aren’t beneath testing their more extreme measures out on one another. One of the founders describes a night he and a coworker were working after hours. The interviewee describes leaving the workshop, only to return to a pitch black room. He knew he was about to be the test subject for a future scare. Sure enough, moments later his friend and came charging through the blackness. Oh, and he was armed with a loaded staple gun. Ouch.
A little over the top, right? Yet it illustrates the philosophy of the Blackout team. They won’t subject patrons to anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. Blackout is an endurance test for people that love haunted attractions. It’s the difference between people who run a 10k or a half marathon versus an ultra-marathon. Why do people do it? Damn it because they can!
Those who find themselves overwhelmed during Blackout only have to shout their safe word. Then the trauma ends. The lights come up. The actors stop trying to make the customer piss themselves with fear. The head shaving (yep, it’s a thing) stops. There’s no more fear of getting scared to death. There are no second chances. Once you utter the word, it’s over and back to safety.
While Blackout isn’t for everybody the performers and customers are on the same page. It’s the love of getting scared that drives people to Blackout. The customers want that feeling of terror gnawing a hole through their stomach lining. They want the shaking, the sweating and nausea that accompanies fear. The creeping though “Maybe, just maybe, this is all too real. I’m not getting out of this thing alive” creeps in. They also want to know that they still retain control. If it gets to be too much, they can opt out. Ultimately, all parties share that mutual love of fright. The Blackout team is committed-maybe too much so-to delivering that experience.
McKamey Manor: Scary or Sadistic?
McKamey Manor is something altogether different. It’s founder, Russ McKamey, is a hell of an interesting character. He lost his father to suicide after his dad had been exposed to atomic radiation as a member of the armed services. McKamey runs the haunt out of his San Diego backyard. Despite a waiting list of 17,000 people, he charges no monetary admission.
Instead, he asks for a simple donation of four cans of dog food. Russ, in turn, gives them to the local greyhound rescue league. McKamey and his wife estimate he has sunk a half a million dollars into the attraction. When he isn’t building the sets, running the show or editing the hundreds of hours of footage he has filmed of terrified and shell-shocked patrons trying to survive their experience, he is one of the county’s most sought-after wedding singers.
It’s difficult to reconcile the guy in the description above with the man we see run this haunt. The McKamey Manor experience runs anywhere from two to eight hours, and it looks like pure torture. Sure, patrons are screened for potential physical or mental ailments that disqualify them from giving it a go. They also sign waivers stating they know what they’re getting into, and McKamey has posted hundreds of hours of undoctored footage of what the hellacious experience his customers are in for. Let the buyer beware, right?
I believe it’s impossible to truly understand the experience you’ve signed yourself up for until you put yourself through it. You could be the most steely-nerved, horror movie loving thrill seeker and still not comprehend the kind of psychological torment McKamey Manor cooks up. Haunters, doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the sort of torture patrons are put through, and the kind of trauma it inflicts. Patrons watch back footage of their experience, visibly flinching and recoiling as their forced to relive their torment.
Russ is captured on camera telling his crew to pull no punches. He goes so far as to instruct them to scoop up the vomit and stuff it back into the mouths of people whose stomachs give out. Compounding the problem, once you begin the experience there is no backing out. McKamey Manor refuses to employ a safe word.
Russ would have you believe that if he offered his patrons an out, they would use it within 30 seconds of starting the tour. While that might be the case for some, the more time Haunters spent around Russ McKamey, the more he came off like a creep.
For one, Russ did not seem all too concerned about the kind of people he kept in his employ. He talks about two applicants that had felony records that he was considering bringing in, including one person with a history of assault. One customer reveals afterward that she wants to work for McKamey. Why? So she can hurt the people who go through the tour as much as she just got hurt.
McKamey does himself no favors when he attempts to defend his practices. His neighbors complained about the constant screaming and crying that comes from his backyard when the event goes live during October. He laughs them off. His wife laments the fact that instead of a yard where their ten rescue dogs can run free, or where they can entertain friends with a backyard BBQ, Russ has constructed elaborate torture scenarios and scenes. He won’t budge. Russ gets up close and personal with his patrons, filming, their tears, their pleading, and their screaming while he laughs at them and teases them. After promising to let one young woman go while she suffers through what looks like a complete mental breakdown, he then reneges and laughs in her face, telling her she’s in it for as long as he decides she should be in it.
This is sadism. It’s Russ McKamey and his crew getting their kicks by inflicting physical and emotional damage to other people. Russ admits to watching videos of torture at Gitmo for inspiration while blasting “the leftists” for being soft. He admits he would never put himself through his own attraction because he fills it with the things that frighten him the most. McKamey Manor serves up as a form of catharsis for a damaged man that inflicts his trauma on other people in order to heal himself for a short while.
It’s hard, for me at least, to come away from watching Haunters and feeling any sort of empathy for Russ. Unlike Blackout, there’s no regard given to the well-being of the person going through the event. There’s no way out. One burly ex-military member passes out from shock. The McKamey crew wake him up and continue torturing him. It devolves to the point where he can’t remember his name or how he got there. It’s a tough, gross watch.
As a post-script to the film, the audience learns he had to close down in San Diego. One of his neighbors called him to express concern that her three-year-old witnessed his crew “kidnapping” a person. Russ’ with eye rolls and a sarcastic invite to try it for herself. One call to the city building inspector later and Russ was forced to close up shop. He has since relocated to Alabama, where a condition of being open is employing a safe word.
It’s a fitting end. The majority of Haunters paints a wonderful, warm picture of all things scary. There’s a beautiful, twisted and fractured community that springs from these experiences. It’s the guy who pushes it too far at the expense of others that finds himself on the outs.