Fear, Inc.: Beyond the Shadows of the American Haunt Industry

Haunted houses. Extreme haunts. Big scares. Big money. Maybe even big health benefits (when used with caution, of course). Step inside, if you dare.

The night is filled with horror.

It’s as if the tunnel of terror ride has somehow spilled its paper mache and chicken wire guts across the carnival grounds. Backlit in the haze of hyper-colored neon, everything takes on a menacing character. Acrid smoke from burning canvas tarps, angry men shouting as they stormed the camp, the crack of gunfire from both sides.

Amidst this chaos, the Cummings family — mom, dad, two young boys — attempt to flee. They are carny folk, American gypsies, and they are desperate to escape. Orange licks of flame refract on peals of smoke, like gelled lamps pulsing behind a dry ice-induced cloud. Torch wielding, gun toting town folk — an angry mob out of central casting — clash with the campers as revenge for being cheated in a sideshow ruse.

A friendly voice, one of the Cummings’ staff, calls out to usher the family toward safety. Moments later, he’s hit in the face with a hammer.

The Cummings barely escape the madness of that night. Later, they establish a middle class suburban existence as far removed from that life as possible, but for the Cummings boys, the events haunt the fringes of their new lives for years to come. Indeed, it’s a haunting that will leave an indelible impression, for better or worse, influencing the whole of the horror genre…

About 25 miles outside Chicago, just under an hour drive, I’m seeking the metaphoric significance of the haunted house attraction in America. Once just a seasonal novelty — the domain of JayCees, local park districts, and community organizations — haunted house attractions have become the focal point of the Halloween experience.

In the past several years, the haunted house experience has mainstreamed into a full blown industry. According to America Haunts, a trade group for the industry, there are currently over 1,200 professional haunted houses, 300 theme park operated horror events, and over 3,000 charity-run spook shows. The typical haunted attraction averages around 8,000 paying guests, with mega-haunted houses bringing out between 40,000 to 80,000. There’s an estimated total of 32 million visitors to such places per year, bringing in $300-$500 million in ticket sales annually.

At one point in my research, I review a trends analysis that reads like a stock in scares report, frights as commodities: post-apocalyptic themes tick higher, with expected futures in dystopian landscapes and YA themed motifs (i.e., Hunger Games, Maze Runner); vampires are posting at a loss, but still holding steady for the season; frighteningly, interests in movie icons is waning.

Beyond the stats, an even more telling sign that the haunted house has arrived as a force unto itself is the cultural embrace of the horror industry. The symbiosis between film and haunt experience has existed for decades, but where the former historically fed more heartily on the latter — a contrast and counterbalance to the “waning interest in icons” — a reversal has taken place.

Last year, Fangoria, the premiere splatter film fanzine, which has been as much a showcase of special effects artistry as it has the horror genre itself, devoted an entire issue to “a celebration of the scariest, most elaborate seasonal haunted attractions in America” with its America Haunts issue. This year, the limited release of the indy flick The Houses October Built, another found-footage thriller in the Blair Witch / Paranormal Activity tradition, blends interviews with performers at the real-life attractions (a dozen or so thanked at the end of the film) to add authenticity to the based-on-real-events motif that centers on five filmmaking friends on an “extreme haunt road trip” that brings them into real danger.

My focal point is Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare in the suburb of Villa Park. It’s the third location to operate the celebrity-branded attraction this year after a successful 2013 premiere in Pomona, California. Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare, co-produced by industry pro Steve Kopelman, who in the past 30 years has produced more haunted attractions in more cities than anyone else in the world, provides a mega-haunt triple feature modeled on Zombie’s cinematic work. As a result, it acts as a sort of node for considering this reversal in the balance of film and event.

The only Midwest location (announced simultaneously with a second site in Scottsdale, Arizona) the attraction at first blush seems an inconspicuous direction for a career that has already had a significant stamp on the horror scene. In other words, after successfully parlaying a decades-long career from shock-rocker to filmmaker with a consistent oeuvre that is at once a send up to horror classics and a cult caliber output of his own vision of the genre, a seasonal haunt like this seems like a half step back.

Rob Zombie grew up Robert Cummings. The family business on his mother’s side was the traditional circus, though by the ’70s, when Zombie was on the circuit, it had devolved into something more like a carnival. His work has always been as much about bombast as it is music and film. Cinematically, he is part of the post-postmodern rise of the fanboys. The wave of video clerk filmmakers, along with perhaps more recognizable (or at least bigger budget) names like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and Edgar Wright, who revel in overt homage and staggering self-reflectiveness.

His first film House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) is an MTV-stylized montage to the midnight horror of decades past. It may have been frustratingly loose on plot and cohesion to critics (it ranks at 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but it delivered an almost dream-like, multi-layered pastiche to the latchkey kids of the drive-in splatter era. Since House of 1,000 Corpses, his films: Devil’s Rejects (2005), the reboots of Halloween I (2007) and II (2009) and The Lords of Salem (2012) have improved on technique and storytelling, but maintained the authentic fanboy quality that initially earned his following.

Devil’s Rejects, a throwback to the ’70s grindhouse films, which begs comparison to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), was truer to that legacy than the 2003 franchise reboot. Even Zombie’s handling of the Halloween franchise, which had bifurcated multiple times from its source material, sought to incorporate elements from each of its disparate parts.

Great American Nightmare, then, extends his work into a realm beyond what film alone can achieve, creating a physical space that offers fans the opportunity to be the protagonists in his movies. Zombie isn’t alone in the crossover to haunts, Eli Roth, horror-movie director, fellow fanboy and Tarantino pal, created Goretorium, a year-round haunted house in Las Vegas with a movie-size $10 million budget. Goretorium is modeled on his cult hits Hostel and Cabin Fever. Jason Blum, the horror producer behind the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister movies, opened Blumhouse of Horrors in downtown Los Angeles.

“Celebrity-haunts really emerged a couple years ago initially as a marketing tie-in with horror movie franchises,” Rebekah McKendry, marketing director of Fangoria Entertainment explains. McKendry has been with Fangoria for a decade, and is partially responsible for the publication’s embrace of its sibling industry. She has been posting a list of the “top 10 haunts” in America for the past three years and influenced the publication of the America Haunts issue.

Others had been conceived with a similar marketing aim, McKendry elaborates, Universal Pictures The Purge: Anarchy (2014), for example, spawned an interactive haunt / alternate reality gaming hybrid to hype the sequel to the Purge (2013), which envisions a society where civilization takes a 12-hour reprieve from the legal system and chaos ensues. “But what we keep seeing with a lot of these efforts is that they become enterprises themselves. They become successful, even independent of the film campaign,” she says.

Her first foray into the industry was six years ago, when she went to a haunted house convention on a whim. “I had no idea what to expect,” she says enthusiastically. “It wasn’t just a whole other industry, it was a whole new world with its own culture, conventions, trends. I had no idea it even existed.”

As with most cultural phenomena, the history of that industry in the United States is a little muddy. Various origins are subject to debate. Midnight Spooks that ran from the ’30s to the early ’60s, combined seances, magicians, and live acts with horror movie screenings, is often dismissed as a part of the heritage; dappling a timeline that reaches back to the mid-1800s. Navigating these influences is something like a maze in itself, like an old fairground “pretzel ride” running a herky-jerky course through disparate connections. Urban legend gets tangled with fact like mannequin monster displays that pop up behind wooden stick frames.

Dr. Margee Kerr, sociologist, fear-expert, and author of the upcoming book Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear helps us orient fact and fiction: “The modern history of the haunted attraction can trace roots to sideshows, ‘Freak Shows,’ Museums and Houses of ‘Oddities.’ The best and most successful example is Barnum’s Museum operated by P.T. Barnum from 1841 to 1865. His museum contained things like monkey torsos with fish tails attached and other characters meant to frighten and startle. Much like modern haunts, customers would line up to challenge themselves and their resilience and dare each other to enter the freak shows and face the scary scenes and abnormalities.”

Kerr loans her expertise to ScareHouse, a Pittsburgh-based immersive haunt, where she draws from her professional experience to add a terrifying dimension of her own: statistics. Since 2008, Kerr has worked with ScareHouse collecting data on the things that most unsettle. Going beyond traditional customer surveys, Kerr was able to determine what scared participants most, and tailored the attraction to those fears. The experience led her into the research that informs her book, and helped garner serious acclaim for ScareHouse.

Larry Kirchner, editor of Hauntworld.com, notes in his overview of the industry that “cheap attractions in small family owned and operated amusement parks, amusement piers” were the first incarnation of haunts as we know them. Proto-haunts, like the “dark ride” or “ghost train” attractions situated guests in a cart that moved through various frights and special effects along a roller coaster track.

“Dark and scary themes began to become incorporated into the growing number of amusement park rides. These dark rides took passengers through tunnels featuring scary images and haunted characters,” Dr. Kerr elaborates, they served as a cheap alternative for those who couldn’t afford rollercoasters. It was among the gears and cogs of this kind of mechanized attraction, the advent of animatronics, where Zombie grew up playing behind the scenes at his family owned carnival long after its heyday. An attraction that he would later work into House of 1,000 Corpses as Captain Spaulding’s Murder Ride.

Captain Spaulding narrates from the front of the ride as the cart moves through a jump cut montage of video crime scenes, mythical creatures side-by-side with serial killers. In the film, this can almost be read as a critique on the blurring fandom that conflates the onscreen slasher with the real life killer, not unlike true crime child killer Albert Fish alongside fictional counterparts of Freddy Kruger and Buffalo Bill, Ed Gein in hunting cap flanked by chainsaw wielding Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter in the iconic face mask. In the House of 1,000 Corpses exhibit, John Wayne Gacy in Pogo the Clown garb makes any such interpretation impossible. Only ten miles from the location where Gacy actually claimed his victims, the reality of the display is all too striking.

Steve Kopelman stirred similar controversy in 2012 when he partnered with Timothy Haskell to transform the long running Nightmare New York theme park into a serial killer centric theme. They used crime photos to create authentic displays, recreated sets that resembled real life house of horrors and showcased drawings and assorted artifacts from Manson and Gacy.

In its current incarnation, the industry began sometime in the ’80s, when the horror genre was at a high and ‘backyard’ haunts were proving they could turn profit. In the ’90s, the internet amplified the word-of-mouth urban legends that were essential advertising to draw crowds of thrill-seekers, while simultaneously a CGI-saturated special effects industry displaced the artistry and craftsmanship that found a home on screen.

“The big trend now is with the extreme haunts. The experiential, immersive ones, like Alone or Blackout,” McKendry tells me, with an audible faux shudder. “They are pretty intense, sometimes full contact. They boss you around, even push you.”

This new wave of extreme haunts preys upon intimate fears: they know you. In Chandler, Arizona, The Nest, another Kopelman creation that first caught Haskell’s eye in creating the Nightmare New York design, creates a personalized experience for its serial-killer-themed house. Collecting information and personal details from Facebook, The Nest tailors the terror to its guests.

Modeled after the “torture porn” sub-genre — the Saw franchise (2004-2010), Hostel (2005), The Girl Next Door (2007), The Human Centipede (2010) –extreme haunts seek to humiliate, debase, and psychologically torture. They incorporate sensory deprivation techniques: blindfolds, tight spaces (stuffing guests in splatter filled coolers, applying head cages), and full contact assault. McKamey Manor in San Diego, provides a “four to seven hour extreme haunt experience” that engages guests one at a time (only five a day) in a full contact experience that seems a surreal combination of the reality game show Fear Factor and footage from Abu Ghraib.

“There are also emerging trends in survival or adventure haunts, where you have to solve a riddle before you can move forward, sort of like a live action video game,” McKendry adds, before conceding that she is old school. “I am still partial to the traditional maze horror environment. Things jumping out at you, fumbling around dark corners, that kind of thing.”

Whether it is serial killers, extreme haunts, traditional mazes, or even hayrides, the appeal is the same: fear. “The nature of many people’s work lives today (sitting at a desk for eight hours) leaves them wanting something thrilling and exciting to change up the pace and spice up their routine lives,” notes Dr Kerr.

“If we start with physiological elements—thrilling and scary activities are activating our fight or flight response,” Dr. Kerr elaborates. “Our arousal system is activated and it’s creating a whole soup of chemicals that influence our brains and our bodies. The physical response results in things like increase in heart rate and breathing, pupils dilate to let in more light, enabling one to see better; metabolism of fat and glucose in the liver increase to provide the energy that might be needed to escape; production and release of endorphins is stepped-up. But that’s only part of the story, the next part is where we really find the enjoyment—and that’s in the meaning making.”

In a sense, haunt attractions are a grand “Pepper’s Ghost Illusion” for our societal fears. In 1862, chemist, inventor and scientist John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London created an illusion still in practice today. He put a sheet of plate glass upright on an angle, and behind the glass, a “blue room”, with a mirror image of the scene on the main stage. When the lights were dimmed in a certain way, an actor could walk behind the glass appearing almost translucent, like a ghost. In the same fashion, our everyday anxieties are projected onto the amped up realism of latex masks, stage props and spooky effects, that scare in a self-contained manner. The perceived real threat is merely a translucent projection, but after coming through the scare, the sense of resilience and accomplishment is genuine.

“It’s up to our brains to interpret this response as enjoyable and not actually threatening. And that can happen very quickly. As soon as we realize that we’re not in fact going to die we can enjoy the arousal response. There are other reasons we enjoy these activities too—they make us feel confident, they can make us feel strong and powerful.”

“This ability to tolerate and even enjoy a degree of distress can help us become more resilient when we encounter challenges and fears that are not our choice. Asking for a promotion, asking someone on a date, these interactions can produce a stress response and if we have experience in being able to tolerate that, we’ll be able to work through and overcome.”

So apparently, scaring the hell out of you can be an endorphin-inducing, healthy thing. Hence, the ‘happy’ in Happy Halloween.

Splash image: From Captain Spaulding’s Murder Ride IN House of 1,000 Corpses