The New Generation of Haunted Houses Substitutes Actual Torture for Good-Natured Scares

Just sign this waiver, my pretty

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.

The New Generation of Haunted Houses Substitutes Actual Torture for Good-Natured Scares