Haunted attractions are big business, raking in an estimated $8.4 billion in 2016 alone. Haunters: The Art Of The Scare, a wonderful little documentary from newcomer Jon Schnitzer, takes an inside look at what makes so-called “haunts” so popular, and at the people working behind the scenes, sometimes year-round, to make them as scary and delightful (or, in certain cases, downright traumatising) as possible. With fascinating results.
Schnitzer kicks things off with a fun little vignette showcasing a variety of different attractions, both professional and amateur, before shacking up with the charismatic Donald Julson, a Halloween enthusiast who works on turning his parents’ front yard into the coolest haunt on the block from August onward (he takes vacation days from work to do so – a theme with a lot of Schnitzer’s interview subjects here).
His wife doesn’t get it (another theme), and has banned Donald from even mentioning the holiday before his birthday at the end of the summer. Why bother putting so much time, effort and money into something that’s only going to be open for four hours, one night out of the year she wonders? But his whole family are haunters, from his parents to his brother, who Donald happily roughhouses with after celebrating yet another successful Halloween season.
Elsewhere, we meet legendary scare actor Shar Mayer, who’s performed in virtually every haunt in America but feels her time may be coming to an end as age and drunk, violent patrons (who physically assault actors on a regular basis) take their toll. Like Donald, Shar’s husband doesn’t quite understand her line of work, even worrying that she’s going to end up badly injured as a result of it. If you’re sensing a pattern here, well, that’s Schnitzer’s intention.
Although the writer-director visits a whole host of haunts across the US, taking in interviews from actors, patrons and well-known horror faces including Jason Blum and, er, Jessica Cameron, much of Haunters is focused on the by now infamous case of McKamey Manor. A non-profit “extreme” haunt, run by Russ McKamey (an army vet who moonlights as a wedding singer – no, really) that seeks to outdo basically every other attraction on the market.
McKamey Manor has been in the news lately for, essentially, traumatising its visitors (our own April Bennett wrote about the controversy at length here). Although there’s a waiting list numbering in the thousands and Russ Skypes with each wannabe participant beforehand, to ensure he/she is up for the experience, it’s safe to assume nobody is really prepared for this endurance test masquerading as a haunted house.
McKamey Manor (and less intense bedfellows like Blackout) is not held in high regard by the old guard. For one thing, it’s the only extreme haunt without a safe word. For another, as pointed out by basically everyone Schnitzer speaks to, the experience of going through it is degrading at best, abusive at worst. Where’s the fun in being yelled at? Or, as McKamey himself gleefully tells prospective actors, throwing up and being force-fed your own vomit?
Clearly there’s a market for this kind of thing, but it’s difficult, even from a horror fan’s perspective, to understand the appeal. McKamey shoots footage of his victims and then puts it on YouTube to scare others off, but it’s clear from his appearances in the doc that he fancies himself as a bit of a filmmaker in his own right. It’s a shame, then, that he has no idea how to frame a shot without giving away that his “haunt” takes place primarily in his own shed.
Haunters presents a plot strand whereby poor ol’ Russ tries to find a home for his growing “Manor” elsewhere, only to be stopped at every turn by worried neighbours (he even pops up during the end credits, at which point if you’re not sick of the sight of him, I applaud you). Clearly, the audience is supposed to feel bad for Russ, but it’s difficult to empathise with someone who proudly tells the camera he wouldn’t go through his own haunt himself.
Russ seems like a delusional Trump voter, let’s put it that way. But the real issue with McKamey Manor is that, if someone does get seriously injured or die while on the tour (patrons are dunked in water and fake-drowned, among other things) then legislation will be introduced that could possibly shut other haunts down, which isn’t remotely fair. Not to play into McKamey’s hands (or quote The Simpsons) here, but he’s ruining it for the rest of us.
Schnitzer understandably devotes a lot of time to McKamey Manor but he also delves into the history of haunts, looking into how they’ve endured and why (for example, the surge in attendance following 9/11). The results are fascinating, with Blum making the point that, in our screen-saturated society, there’s a huge difference between watching something on our phones/laptops and actually experiencing it in real life, jumping out of the shadows to spook us.
Horror movies will surely take their cue from real-life haunts too, with the dreadful The Funhouse Massacre already taking the premise and doing absolutely nothing with it, while Anthony DiBlasi’s upcoming Extremity seems to have a better angle on the craze. There’s definitely material to mine here, from extreme haunts going wrong to actors being replaced by serial killers. The possibilities are endless.
Watching these things get built from the ground up to being fully operational is astonishing, and every haunter Schnitzer speaks to showcases how the process is all-consuming, how it takes its toll both physically and emotionally, not to mention on their personal relationships. He also includes an interview with Craig, labelled as “not a haunt fan” to provide balance with his “why would anyone do this?” perspective.
For the most part, those who take part on either side are normal people with normal jobs who just happen to be really into Halloween. Horror fans will certainly empathise with the struggle to explain their weird obsession to skeptical family members. In one scene, Schnitzer cleverly shoots a neighbour discussing McKamey Manor with cute Christmas decorations laid out on the lawn behind her, visually highlighting the difference her and Russ.
Haunters is similar to The American Nightmare, a lively doc from a few years back which focused on regular, mom-and-pop haunters. It would actually make a fine companion piece, the flick playing almost as a follow-up, a return to this little underworld that’s grown exponentially in the interim – so much so that it’s almost considered mainstream (I kept looking for the haunt I visited in Florida, though a quick glance at the end credits confirmed it wasn’t featured).
As it stands, this is a compelling, involving, hugely informative and surprisingly moving documentary, a must-watch any time of year, the only problem with which is that you’re really going to want to visit a haunt immediately after it’s done.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Jon Schnitzer
Writer(s): Jon Schnitzer
Stars: Jason Blum, Shar Mayer, Donald Julson, Russ McKamey
Release: October 3, 2017 (Digital and Blu-ray)
Studio/ Production Co: Brain Factory
Length: 88 minutes