The Disturbing Reality of New York’s Premiere “Haunted House”

"Blackout" is more torture chamber than scare-fest

A promotional still from Blackout Haunted House

What comes to mind when you think of a haunted house? Is it being handcuffed, water-boarded, and physically assaulted by a bunch of burly men screaming obscenities at you? Would you pay $50 for the experience?

Congratulations, you are part of the elite group of thrill-seekers that have kept New York’s most infamous Halloween spectacle, Blackout Haunted House, up and running for the past five years.

Reading through the waiver we were contractually obligated to sign before entering and waiting giddily on line with a bunch of other pre-Halloween patrons, we skimmed through the text quickly and signed. Without giving too much away, if we had paid a little more attention to those first couple lines, we might have had a better shot at understanding exactly what goes on after you are shoved through the door and the lights go off.

The key words that would jump out at most people would be “bound,” “physical contact,” and “exposure to water.” Though there is a safe word that can be called out at any time, we found it remarkably hard to do when you are handcuffed, head tilted backwards, and the sensation of water filling up our lungs. We were instructed to “Scream louder, bitch!” but it was all we could do to breathe through the cheesecloth hood over our heads. 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 press charges? We signed up for this:

By voluntarily entering the House, I confirm and acknowledge that:

1) 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. I have been advised that I should not and am not permitted to enter or participate in the House if I am impaired by drugs or alcohol.

2) The House does not allow admittance to anyone under the age of 18.

I affirm that I am not under 18 years of age.

3) I knowingly and freely acknowledge and assume any and all risks of personal injury or property damage associated with walking through or otherwise taking part in the program and activities at the House, whether or not arising from the negligence of the House, its employees, contractors, directors, officers, parents, or subsidiary companies, shareholders, successors, and/or assigns.

4) I will stay on the marked path and will follow instructions as I walk through the House.

What’s crazy is that we weren’t the only ones who willingly put themselves through this literal chamber of horrors –  though the creators of Blackout wouldn’t give us an exact count of how many patrons come each year, the fact that there were twenty people in line on a Monday night two weeks before Halloween gives you a good sense of how popular the place is.

And who are these people, exactly?  “Some of the press couldn’t make it through the first time,” a PR rep for the experience (Event? Ride?) told us. “But then they sign up again to see if they can do it.” Blackout’s Facebook page is full of breathless reviews, all talking how creator Josh Randall has “outdone” himself this year.

Only one woman came close to summarizing my experience:

Dude kept pouring water on my face when the bag was on my head, I couldn’t breathe, much less “bark like a real dog!” I was sucking wind and wet bag was clogging my mouth and nose, and I was hyperventilating.

It used to be that haunted houses were fun, right? You went in with your friends and low-paid non-SAG actors would pop out of the walls and yell “boo!” If you were at a really high-class joint maybe there would be a smoke machine or two.

But as this is New York, nothing is done on a small scale. And in an attempt to scare patrons, the terrors have become rooted in reality.

To call Blackout a haunted house even, is a misnomer.  There is nothing supernatural about it: nothing that couldn’t happen to you in real life. (Or an episode of Law & Order: SVU.) What immediately sets it apart from a normal haunted house is that you must walk through it alone…which sort of takes the fun out of screaming with your friends, but also raises the terror notch up quite a bit, something that appeals to what was described to us as the “horror fetishist crowds.” This was a place, now five years in the running, that has been designed specifically to “test your limits.” Just maybe not in the way you were expecting.

The New York Times has called it (according to Blackout’s website)  “the extreme theater event of the year.” Notice that the words “ghosts,” “ghouls” or “supernatural” appear nowhere in the text.

Flavorpill had it more on the nose:

Sexual violation? Abuse? Torture? Nothing is off limits for the insane carnival of Blackout, the only haunted house we know of where the only way to make it through is to allow physical contact with the actors themselves.

If this is sounding more like a BDSM version of Gitmo, you are getting warmer. Blackout, located in an unassuming storefront in West 39th street, definitely offers an “extreme” experience, not for the faint of heart (or anyone not in great physical or mental health).  The waiver that you sign before entering Blackout, we thought, was for pure William Castle-y effect: to freak out its guests. Because damn, this waiver basically signs away your rights not to get killed.

This is not “interactive theater,” the way Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is, with different options and characters to follow. This is more in line with a new disturbing trend in Halloween haunted houses: like Eli Roth‘s new Hostel maze in Universal Studios, which promises to “re-imagine the film’s dehumanizing torture chambers.” Really? Really?

We’re as much for torture porn as a film genre as the next sicko (okay, we’re not), but “dehumanizing” is not a real ticket-seller. It’s fun to be scared. It’s not fun…or even that scary (as soon as people start touching you, you are reminded of those old reviews of The Blair Witch Project, which was so revolutionary precisely because of our worst fears are non-corporeal), and if anything, we left Blackout feeling angry. Pissed off. A little triumphant that we made it through and experienced the “extreme” elements of human debasement in a (relatively) controlled environment? Yes, maybe a little.

But mostly we felt bad for the guy we met before the “show,” waiting in line with his kids. He had just had knee surgery and was partially deaf. He was wrapping his hearing aid up in a plastic bag to avoid it getting wet, and putting on protective knee-pads. As we picked up our bags, we felt like warning this guy that those measures might not be enough. That he might actually get hurt.

Or maybe for these extreme thrill-seekers, that possibility is half the fun.

The Disturbing Reality of New York’s Premiere “Haunted House”