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.
A portion of the Blackout waiver:
“I have been advised and acknowledge that graphic scenes of simulated extreme horror, adult sexual content, tight spaces, darkness, fog, strobe light effects, exposure to water, physical contact, and crawling are an integral part of the experience of the House. My participation is with full knowledge thereof. I have no physical or emotional condition or impairment that would be impacted by my participation in the House, and I hereby consent thereto.”
The key phrases that would jump out at most people would be “physical contact” and “exposure to water.”
Theoretically, a predetermined safe word could be called out at any time, but we found it remarkably hard to do so when we were handcuffed, forced on the floor with our heads tilted backward and had water poured onto our face, Alberto Gonzalez-style. We were instructed to “Bark louder, bitch!” But it was all we could do to breathe through the cheesecloth hood over our head. By the time that rapey-Abu Ghraib portion of the Blackout was over, it felt pointless to scream out our safe word. What was done had already been done. What were we going to do, press charges? We signed up for this.
Blackout definitely offers an “extreme” experience, not for the faint of heart (or anyone not in great physical or mental health). It’s not even fun. Though that may be the point. Mr. Randall was interviewed this month in Psychology Today, where he described the core concept behind the show:
“Being mugged, raped, tortured, etc … these are real life scares that take the ‘fun’ out of being scared, and push people into a place of genuine fear. If we can make someone forget that they paid for this and that they’re just in a safe environment, and make them actually question whether or not they will really get hurt, we’ve done our job.”
Taking the “fun” out of being scared? Making people question whether or not they will actually be hurt? You’d think that barring a few extreme horror fetishist types, this would not be a huge crowd-pleaser. Yet, Blackout is already sold out until Halloween, and has extended its performances into November.
Jim Faro, the raspy-voiced owner and co-creator of New York’s “premier” haunted house, Blood Manor, is not a fan. “I could bring you into a room and hold a gun to your head, sure,” Mr. Faro told us while taking tickets on a Friday night in mid-October, the line for his show already around the block. “You’d be scared. But that’s easy, and it’s not fun for you, or for us.”
Mr. Faro’s Blood Manor is more traditional in its approach—if you can call a Rob Zombie-esque carnival of chainsaws, midgets, 3-D glasses, and horror movie villains chasing you from room to room “traditional.” None of the actors are allowed to touch you (though they get close), and you go in with a group with whom you quickly form a bond as you scream and laugh your way through the event. Tickets range from $25-45, making it the cheapest of the three houses we visited.
Blood Manor has been compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, something the creators clearly encourage: waiting in line outside in New York’s Hudson Square, we were approached by everyone from Freddy Krueger to an Edward Scissorhands/Joker-type character. Even the guests dress up, we were told. Blood Manor was scary, weird, and fun. It’s also a very expensive production to put on. Compared to the bare rooms with one hanging light-bulb that Blackout uses for scenery, Blood Manor employed a “diesel truck’s” worth of fake blood for its showcase.
We happened to go to Blood Manor same night as our editor. When we caught up with him outside the house, he gave us a shrug. “Not that scary,” was his final verdict.
So maybe people do want to be terrified, physically threatened even. As that bar for terror becomes increasingly higher, not even a truck’s worth of fake blood can get your adrenaline pumping the way being waterboarded does.
By far, the least scary haunted house in New York’s trio of infamous attractions would be Nightmare. Co-creator Timothy Haskell picks a theme every year (this year’s is “Fairy Tales”) and then constructs a more traditional haunted house around it. It’s not that scary, but it does have a couple things going for it (you can bring your kids there, for starters). The designer of the show, Paul Smythyman, works at Lincoln Center and was most recently the production manager for Warhorse, a fact that definitely shows in the carefully constructed tableau of each room. It costs approximately $500,000-$600,000 a year to stage Nightmare, and $100,000 of that goes into advertising on subway platforms, billboards and subways.
Mr. Haskell’s production charges $30 for regular admission, but can go up to $100 for VIP experience (which includes a free drink and T-shirt). A source who worked with the company last year said the show raked in “around six million,” and though that number seems extremely high, last year’s attendance saw 35,000. Assuming each paid the regular admission price, Nightmare would still end up garnering somewhere in the low seven figures in ticket sales in less than 45 days. Subtract the cost of putting on the show, and you’re still left with a nice pile of Halloween loot.
Yet even Nightmare seems to be following this new torture-happy trend. A second “portion” of the show we saw involved an upper-level “research facility,” where audience members are told that will be subjected to tests as part of an experiment on fear. The whole sterile lab atmosphere and the “this is not part of the show but actually a real experiment” conceit is a little played out, especially when the actors portraying the doctors didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to be doing. At one point, they brought a woman on stage and tried to force her hand into a terrarium of hissing cockroaches, telling her she’d have to leave if she couldn’t perform the task. Needless to say, she was almost brought to tears. Another young girl had a live rat dangled directly in front of her face.
We were jarred and disappointed by the second portion of Nightmare; the scare-tactics were not “fun,” but cheap.
Perhaps, though the future of haunted houses does lay in Mr. Faro’s vision: people lining up to pay $100 a pop to enter a dark room and get mugged at gunpoint. Then again prices being what they are for these extreme attractions, the robbery might actually be happening before you even enter.