With October upon us, haunted house attractions will begin popping up across this country. These creepy mazes are filled with “blood”-splattered sets, costumed actors eager to scare, and extremely deranged surprises. Some require signed waivers, others involve a safety word. A select few lead to screams, sweat, tears, and post traumatic stress. But you can safely delve into this ghastly world of gruesome ghouls through the wildly entertaining documentary Haunters: The Art of the Scare.
Director Jon Schnitzer has long loved haunts, and was even hired to create 3D illusions for President Barack Obama’s first White House Halloween Party. In Haunters, Schnitzer travels across the country meeting with a range of DIY scare makers to give an idea of how this scene has grown in even the past five years. The 2012 doc American Scream introduced the concept of home haunts to movie audiences, and since then the narrative horror feature The Houses October Built took that concept into found footage terrain, and even spun off a sequel. Schnitzer builds from there, but you don’t need to have seen any of the above to dive right into to Haunters.
This delightful and demented doc is happy to give a 101 on the standard haunt, built by Halloween-obsessed families in their yards, featuring baby dolls painted bloody and a plenty of “boo scares.” Then Schnitzer takes viewers into the scare experiences few would dare step into in real life. There’s Blackout, which plays into psychological dread, employs nudity, and has been described as an “extreme theater event.” There are elaborate spins on haunted hayrides. Then there’s infamous McKamey Manor, which is roundly voted the most insane home haunt for its use of actual torture methods like binding visitors, exposing their faces to live tarantulas, and shoving them repeatedly into a dunk tank while they scream in vain.
At first glance, McKamey Manor founder Russ McKamey seems your average suburbanite with the doting wife, nice house, and enthusiasm for Halloween festivities. He might even seem comically harmless when he confesses his deep fear of snails. But McKamey’s dark side is laid bare as he shares his power-hungry motivations, then showcases the footage he shoots every year and posts on Youtube. There’s clip after clip of visitors howling in abject terror, begging for their lives, and all of it makes him chortle with glee. Unlike Blackout and other “extreme” haunted houses, McKamey Manor has no safety word. According to McKamey and his lawyer wife, visitors surrender consent as soon as they enter the doors of his horrific haunt.
After deftly outlining the history of haunts and where they stand now, Schnitzer allows haunters to discuss what the future of this entertainment form will be. Some argue that the scarier the real world is, the more people crave a release in constructed scare scenarios. So extreme haunts are the clear path forward. But while McKamey sneers at the sexual content of Blackout, Blackout is appalled by McKamey Manor’s refusal to employ a safety word. Both worry the other might spur a backlash that’ll get haunts shut down. Schnitzer presents this battle for the future of haunted houses with an intellectual effervescence. But what grounds Haunters is its attention to character.
You might scoff at the hobbyists spending hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars on these haunts. But their passion for their projects is contagious, and these makers are undeniably charismatic. When Donald Julson, the founder of the small-time Nightmare on Loganberry, was asked if he’d give up his haunt once he had kids, he chuckled, “I’ll be damned if I give up Halloween for a kid,” much to the chagrin of his young wife. Julson’s haunt is a family affair that his parents and brother dedicate themselves to every fall. His struggle to get his partner to understand/accept this passion becomes one of Schnitzer’s most compelling threads, which is cleverly paralleled by McKamey’s, a self-proclaimed King of Halloween who seems destined for a fall. Your heart will pound in terror and empathy during this horror-rich yet humane doc.
Haunters: The Art of the Scare is a poignant, spirited, and fun exploration of this curious corner of macabre entertainment. Like such great hobby docs as King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters and Air Guitar Nation, its sheer zeal for its subject invites audiences in to understand and revel in an eccentric pastime by offering fascinating and funny heroes and villains. But more than that, this doc dares audiences to consider where they draw the line on haunted houses. Schnitzer scores some scares of his own by taking us inside. From there, you can’t help but ask not only if you’d dare to cross the threshold of McKamey Manor, but also if their brand of scare is a nightmare too far.
Following its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, Haunters: The Art of the Scare comes to digital and Blu-ray on Oct 3rd.