When you run haunted theme parks for a living, you don’t scare easily. But these days Michael Accomando is terrified.
The Spooky World co-owner looks around his industry and sees what he considers a disturbing trend: Halloween attractions that go far beyond creepy masks and fake blood, to outright physical confrontation of willing participants, including binding, gagging, and torture tactics such as waterboarding.
“With some of these extreme haunts, somebody is going to die at some point,” said Accomando, whose haunted houses in Litchfield, N.H., and Cranston, R.I., enforce strict no-touching rules. “I guarantee that’s going to happen.”
Americans’ growing love of Halloween, coupled with their increasing desensitization to violence and gore, has created a dilemma for the $500 million haunted theme park industry. People want more than ever to be scared, yet because consumers are exposed to graphic content on a regular basis — in popular horror movies, for example — it is a steep challenge to come up with a novel fright.
The result is a small but expanding subgenre of hard-core haunts that immerse patrons in simulated scenes of cruelty and abuse that seem pulled from some rogue CIA operation. These operations are targeted at mature audiences only, often enforcing age minimums of 16, 18, or even 21.
Some are such low-profile operations that they’re run out of private homes, and many operate with little or no oversight. A few have joined industry trade groups, only to be booted out for being too extreme; others are asked to tone things down by nervous landlords.
Even many mainstream haunts have taken a sharp turn from classic imaginary characters, like vampires and ghosts, and embraced darker, more realistic figures, such as kidnappers and serial killers.
Accomando, for one, has pushed the envelope at Spooky World. At its New Hampshire location, his company last year staged the discovery of fake human remains in nearby woods to hype its latest plotline. And because Spooky World got local police to play along, some residents thought the faux crime scene was legitimate.
Such stunts always spark complaints, yet people come in droves — 60,000 to the Litchfield Spooky World alone, in a good year. That’s merely a sliver of an adult haunted-house market the National Retail Federation estimates at 32.7 million people.
“Haunts are increasingly becoming more of a personal immersive theater experience,” said Christine Scharf, editor-in-chief of the Raven & Black Cat, a website that reviews haunted houses. “In the digital age when everything is virtual, people are looking for that tactile experience. The more extreme haunts make you the star of your own horror movie.”
One of the most intense attractions ever rated by Scharf’s site was at Cranmore Mountain Adventure Park in North Conway, N.H. A small outfit called Death Becomes You Productions transformed part of the family-friendly ski resort into a convincing replica of a torture chamber, where visitors paid $30 to be handcuffed to a bed and have bags pulled over their heads and live cockroaches crawl along their legs and necks.
“What we were trying to do was take total control of that person and make them do things they normally wouldn’t do,” said cocreator Jim Chichwak. “The whole idea was to make them crack.”
The Cult, as the experience was called, lasted only the 2012 Halloween season. Cranmore deemed it over-the-top, and Chichwak acknowledged audiences were too small to make it a viable business. Chichwak has since reverted to producing a tamer production called the Ghoullog.
But he maintains the Cult would be a hit in a major metropolitan area, where crowds would be larger, and said his company was tapping into a real demand among people who want to test their nerves in a controlled environment.
Indeed other extreme haunts have demonstrated staying power. At Blackout Haunted House in New York City, people pay as much as $135 to participate in elaborate scenarios that include staged abductions, forced stripping, and waterboarding. Vortex Productions, the company behind Blackout, has hosted Halloween events in Los Angeles and Chicago and also has productions during the off-season to satisfy patrons whose love of the macabre is not confined to October.
McKamey Manor, the backyard creation of a San Diego couple, is a year-round operation on weekend nights. Sessions run four to seven hours and can include being force fed, stuffed in a coffin, and roughed up to the point of leaving real cuts and bruises. McKamey admits just two people per night; the waiting list exceeds 17,000.
Extreme haunts typically require visitors to sign — and in some cases recite on video — extensive waivers that include accepting the possibility of injury. Most provide guests with a “safe word” they can call out at any time to end the nightmare.
People who get a thrill from hard-core haunts experience the same kind of enjoyment others might take from different extreme activities, such as running a Tough Mudder obstacle course or eating ultrahot peppers, said Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who has conducted research on the haunted-house phenomenon. The attraction, she added, is the sense of accomplishment participants experience after they endure such hardships through mental fortitude.
“Maybe we’re in a weird cultural place,” Marsh said. “People seem to find pleasure at whatever level is right below the one they can’t stand.”
Scharf said she has “only met incredibly kind, wonderful people” behind the scenes of extreme haunts. The San Diego couple, Russ and Carol McKamey, for example, don’t charge admission but instead require a donation of dog food to a greyhound rescue program. Many of the actors are just that — thespians working side gigs. Others include professional wrestlers who have been trained in the stage drama of their trade — performing seemingly dangerous maneuvers without causing serious harm.
Despite such assurances, extreme attractions such as Blackout and the Cult have alarmed officials at America Haunts, a trade association of the country’s biggest haunts, including Spooky World.