Like any holiday, ways in which Halloween may be observed vary greatly. One of the ways in which merchants rake in the holiday cash is by setting up professional haunted houses. These are not the haunted houses some of recall from youth, though. Today, a professional haunted house might include physical assault, being verbally berated, or submerged in water, all occurring under the legal umbrella of a waiver signed by the participant to indemnify the organizers in case of injury or accident.
I don’t mind a good horror movie jump cue and I see the entertainment value in staged fear, but I don’t seek those things out as a flesh-and-blood participant. When working as an actor, I’ve certainly had to portray fear, but that is not at all like buying a ticket to experience genuine terror. Yet people are lining up to visit “Extreme” haunted houses that mimic torture porn scenarios from movies and are finding new ways to push the envelope every year.
Last year, someone I know excitedly called me after having visited one such establishment. He had gone alone, as was required, having been urged to keep the location a secret. Um, red flags much? Listen, I’m all for the full experience when you’ve paid a decent amount of money to go somewhere, but safety first! He was calling me from his car, parked on the side of the road, where he was sitting, soaking wet. He told me in excited and also shivering tones that he had gone to the remote downtown location after buying a ticket online for this place he had heard about through the grapevine of people who like that sort of thing.
They brought him into a tiny dark room where he had to sign extensive paperwork and answer basic questions about his heart and physical health. In addition to the paperwork, it was mandatory to shout his answers orally, which probably added to the energy of the moment, being shouted at by a drill sergeant, but which set off another red flag for me–perhaps they were recording the encounter and needed spoken, enthusiastic consent on the record just in case the worst happened.
They took my friend’s shoes and socks and he had to run, tiptoe, and crawl through an indoor maze marinating in mud and water. In the dark, naturally. He was shoved into a room where an apparent domestic dispute was in progress. A man and a woman at varying levels of nudity were in a bedroom setup, screaming at each other and being physically violent, when my friend was thrust into the middle of it. A young, handsome man, he suddenly became the one who had cuckolded the scary haunted house dude, who was violent toward him and then brandished a gun. A GUN.
I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the story because I had all sorts of medical, legal, and psychological concerns on my friend’s behalf, but it was clear that he was okay now so I let it go on the basis that visiting such a place was simply something we would never have in common.
It’s a cliché that someone could tell a joke or an amusing story about [X] and someone will inevitably chime in with That’s not funny, [X] ruined my life! But in this instance, I see a direct correlation between life experiences and the desire to experience these extreme scenarios voluntarily. Domestic violence is a serious issue that claims lives every day. Personally, I grew up with extreme violent episodes and abuse at home, and I cannot even fathom paying for the experience as an adult. What a luxury it must be to view that as leisure.
People sign up to be bound and gagged, physically hit and shoved, locked in cages, stripped of their clothes, and sometimes left by the side of the road. They seek to provide a “full immersion” “victim experience.” They’re sometimes hours-long experiences with waterboarding and sexual content. Participants may emerge with cuts and bruises, and the extreme locations have a low “success” rate, meaning that very few people are able to make it all the way through the attraction.
This is separate from BDSM or psychosexual role play, or safely revisiting childhood trauma with a trained professional for therapeutic reasons. I’m all for consenting adults exploring those areas if they so choose, but that is not specific to Halloween. If that’s your thing, you can do it all year round and you don’t have to up the ante to make a fun holiday a near-death experience.
Two years ago, I was invited to the opening night of a Halloween maze attraction in a building in Times Square. We also had to walk through alone, and it was mostly a series of disorienting room setups where performers were enacting grisly, semi-nude scenarios. That’s all well and good, but the amount of physical contact was absolutely not okay with me. In the dark of the hallways, unseeable employees dressed all in black would shove me from door to door. Not lead, not nudge, but shove. There were also hidden folks laying on the floor, sticking out their arms to graze and grab your feet and ankles.
After being pushed roughly into the wall too many times for my taste, I cried “Uncle.” I very loudly and firmly said “I don’t want to do this anymore! Please help me to exit! I’m not joking and I’m not playing along!” Another hand reached out and grabbed me, roughly again, but pulling instead of pushing. The person, who I still couldn’t see, led me quickly to another door that turned out to be an elevator. I didn’t remember having taking an elevator to begin with, but when the doors opened I was on the ground floor again in relative light and safety.
There was media there and it was more of a party atmosphere than full-on Fright Night, so I almost feel like I got off lucky in being escorted out so swiftly, but I’d rather not be cynical and just hope that they paid close attention to every visitor.
At least in my case, I was an invited guest and didn’t have to pay. I was told tickets went for $100 a pop, and I don’t even know what my friend’s muddy descent into a domestic dispute cost; he was ashamed to tell me. He’s someone who likes to be terrified. Incidentally, he grew up in a stable, two-parent household. On both counts, I can’t even imagine.