Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Blackout Haunted House’s creator as Josh Haskell. The creators are Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor. The New York Observer apologizes for the error.
What comes to mind when you think of a haunted house? Is it being handcuffed, waterboarded and physically assaulted by a bunch of burly men screaming obscenities? Would you pay good money for the experience of walking through a re-imagining of a “dehumanizing” “torture chamber”? If so, congratulations: one of the basic staples of Halloween culture is now catering exactly to your needs.
Let’s backtrack a bit: haunted houses, in the most basic sense of the phrase, are operating under a false premise. Unless you are unlucky enough to have stumbled into a Stephen King novel or an episode of American Horror Story, these pop-up “haunted houses”—which rake in (according to the Los Angeles Times’s math) approximately $150 million to $200 million every year—are of course not haunted. It is doubtful that anyone has even died on-site, let alone that vengeful spirits are presiding over the premises. In fact, if you were to attend a Halloween haunted house and find yourself actually dealing with a ghost, monster or other-worldly being, you would most likely demand a refund, if not pursue an outright lawsuit for psychological distress.
Yet every Halloween, millions of American do not become outraged over false advertising after paying for entry into a haunted house or “haunted attraction” (defined here as a spooky show that does not take place in a traditional setting, but rather a corn maze, a basement, a hotel, the woods or some such). In fact, that’s what we pay our money for: to be scared by a bunch of off-season actors dressed up in ghoulish makeup, popping up at us from around corners or—if we’re dealing with a high-class joint here—enveloped in smoke from a fog machine. This is the way it’s always been.
But as gross-out torture-porn movies become more mainstream and our country clamors for more “thrill-seeking” opportunities, some haunted houses have given up all pretenses of being “haunted.” Instead, they charge higher prices, strip down to the bare minimums in props and design, and rake in the profits while garnering praise for offering up the exact opposite of “haunted.” Like New York’s Blackout’s attraction or this year’s Universal Studio’s Scare Zones’ seasonal attraction based on Eli Roth’s Hostel films (for which the P.R. sheet used “dehumanizing” as a tantalizer for horror buffs), entertainment which might be better described as “hunted houses.” In an attempt to scare patrons, the terrors of these attractions have become rooted in reality. But who in their right minds would want to pay $50 (which is what Blackout costs) to experience what’s it like to be chased around a Slovakian dungeon by rich men who want to snap your Achilles tendon for sport?
Apparently, a lot of people.
According to The New York Times, Fangoria and many other experts of horror, there is nothing in the state scarier than Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor’s Blackout Haunted House, now three years in the running. There is nothing supernatural about it: nothing that couldn’t happen to you in real life. (Or an episode of Law & Order: SVU.) This is an attraction designed to “test your limits.”
Blackout’s exterior was not much to look at: a storefront in midtown, with dark paint obscuring the windows. We were obligated to sign a waiver before entering on a Monday night two weeks ago. Lining up with us were a couple of teenagers in a group, shepherded by their father. (Though he had a hearing aid and had just come out of knee surgery, we learned, he would be allowed to go through the house.) A couple of older, bigger men had scared girlfriends in tow. They had good reason: Blackout is definitely oriented as a “guy’s-guy” kind of freak-fest, an endurance game of sorts.
In retrospect, if we had paid a little more attention to the first couple lines of the waiver, instead of scoping out our fellow patrons, we might have had a better understanding of exactly what would happen after we were shoved through a curtain and the lights went off.