It takes a lot to scare people these days. We wouldn't have an entire genre of horror movies known as "torture porn" if that wasn't the case. Unsurprisingly, the move toward making horror-based entertainment more like watching a person get murdered for real has extended to haunted houses in recent years. It's also not much of a surprise that, in a lot of cases, they mess it up terribly. We talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Vanessa Gritton and Cracked editor Josh Sargent. It's also what I'm talking about in this column today. Spoooooooky! Here are some of the most common failings of every haunted house experience.
#5. Jump Scares are Easy to See Coming
One of the problems with any haunted house is that, unless you're signing a waiver first, what you're in for is just going to amount to a series of jump scares, maybe accentuated with the occasional pitch-black room for variety. Most family-establishment-type haunted houses rely on the fact that there are some people who will just never be immune to the inherent terror of being caught off-guard ...
My friend Adrienne, for example.
... to set the mood for everyone else. If you're standing outside in line and hearing bloodcurdling screams from inside, rest assured they're coming from the most easily scared among us. However, if you're in the borderline group that knows damn well there isn't a single thing to be afraid of inside that building, but still gets creeped out by the very idea of a haunted house anyway, just hearing those screams will be enough to make the first few moments inside at least a little bit terrifying.
It's when everyone walks through the door that this group splits into two distinct halves: the people who just stay terrified the whole way through, and the people who, after those first couple of scares, realize that this is going to be a bunch of county fair bullshit that they've seen a million times already. Sure, as things progress, different elements (loud noises, strobe lights, a dude wielding a power tool, etc) will be added to intensify the experience, but it all mostly relies on you not being ready for what happens when you turn the next corner.
I'll admit that this was unexpected.
So, you know, to make things easier on yourself, just buckle the hell up whenever you turn a corner. Especially if you're in front. If I'm walking through a garden-variety haunted house (the kind that lets high school kids through with parents and such), two things will happen: 1) someone between the age of 14 and 16 will ask me to pretend to be their dad so they can go in (and I will do it, because kids need to learn to disrespect authority and trust strangers as early as possible), and 2) I will demand to be in front of the group.
Other people's panic (OPP) can be contagious. That's why in a perfect world, every haunted house would make the most clearly terrified person lead the rest of the group. Instead, they usually just let the group decide. If the person in front isn't losing their shit at every turn, that will rub off on the more moderate members of the group, just like panic might.
What I'm getting at is that I'm the asshole who ruins every haunted house for everyone else by going through it with the attitude of the dude in the front row of a comedy show who just sits there with his arms folded, refusing to laugh. Sorry.
I'm fun on April Fools Day, though!
Of course, all this only applies to the more family-friendly haunted houses, where things like touching are off-limits. As mentioned in the intro, there's another class of haunted house that's gained popularity in recent years. The kind that promises an experience more shocking than anything you've ever encountered before. They're so intense that you have to sign a waiver absolving the operators of any liability for what might transpire inside.
It's true that these types of places do a much better job of finding ways to legitimately scare people, but they aren't without their faults. For example ...
#4. There's Too Much Information Available Online
My first dalliance with the more "brutal" variety of haunted houses was back in 2012, when Soren Bowie and I heroically took on the notorious Blackout Haunted House. I wrote about that experience in detail back then, and my overall conclusion was that it wasn't as terrifying as it could have been. A lot of that was my fault.
One huge problem is that with any of the more "shocking" operations out there, word of mouth and online buzz is mandatory for their business to flourish. What that means is lots of scary trailers ...
... and even more articles and blog posts about the horrors that await anyone who dares go inside. Again, this is great for getting the word out and letting people know they truly should expect to be at least a little bit horrified by how these places reward your bravery. Unfortunately, what all of this information also provides is a quick and easy way for a renowned fun hater like myself to over-prepare for what lies ahead and ultimately end up disappointed.
Now, don't take that to mean that you can read an article from previous years and use it as a road map to conquering your local "extreme" haunted house without fear. Any place worth the ticket money will not only change and improve from year to year, but should also change things up a bit from night to night, or even throughout the night, so that people who decide to go through twice are guaranteed a slightly different experience each time.
Still, there's usually enough information available to piece together a rough idea of what the more unexpected moments will be like. For the Blackout Haunted House, my research let me know to expect a lot of being grabbed or otherwise touched unexpectedly in the dark, some mild torture (more on that later), and ample amounts of unsettling sex stuff. Being ready for it all made the experience a lot less of a scare than I imagine it could have been. But I also have my suspicions that even if I'd gone in completely unprepared, it might not have been all it was built up to be. One reason for that ...
#3. Plot Holes Are Always A Problem
I accept that this might have a lot to do with my job at Cracked, or the fact that my dad was obsessed with doing it with every movie he ever watched, but I look for plot holes and inconsistencies in almost everything in life. That's especially true if it involves entertainment that's costing me money. And with a haunted house, no matter the budget and effort that goes into putting it all together, there will be plot holes everywhere.
Continuing to use the Blackout Haunted House as an example, one of the biggest plot holes of all for me came during the sex stuff (ha). The first instance of erotic horror involves a woman dressed as some combination of a doll and zombie who forces you to the floor and straddles you all sex-like. Around this time, you realize that, while she's definitely done up to look scary, she's not completely hideous ... if you know what I mean. Do you know what I mean? I mean the "flesh eating" aspect of being a zombie hasn't reached them ...
"Don't say it!"
... you get it. Anyway, that's the general theme of this part of the experience: unfortunate erections and whatnot. Granted, I think you'd have to be holding on to some semblance of belief that you're actually getting a lap dance from a formerly dead woman for this to genuinely register as uncomfortable, and in that case, it totally should. But before I could get swept up in the pretend necromance of it all, another thought wafted into my head and blew everything up: "She smells like grapes."
That's a winner in a legitimate romantic situation, but when I'm supposed to be grappling with my conscience over the ramifications of potentially fathering a zombie baby, it's the last thing I expect. It completely takes my mind out of the moment and down a rabbit hole of noticing all the glaring inconsistencies between the situation I'm in and a "real" zombie universe. Rotting flesh, even when confined to the head and face, should not smell delightful.
I would date this woman.
In another section, you're tasked with freeing a completely naked woman who's chained to the floor. When I tried the first key and it didn't work, she yelled "Try another key," at which point I promptly tossed the entire key ring aside and started feeling around for different keys. Stupid, I know, but certainly not enough justification for the sass in her tone when she followed my act of panic up by saying, "No, it will be on the same key ring." OK, well, first of all, how am I supposed to know that? Also, I don't know what kind of traditional background you come from, but we are absolutely not married just because you're naked in front of me right now. Let me have one legitimate moment of being flustered, and cut the nagging. I don't see a ring on either of our ...
... holy shit, have your hands been free this whole time?!?!? Why am I dealing with keys at all? What kind of sham is this? Who are you? Who wrote this shit? I have half a mind to use the safe word right now, just to spite everyone who thinks I'll be shocked by whatever stupid ending is headed my way!
Sorry, took myself back there for a minute. It's those moments, in which I realize the nature of my job is to ruin the fun in everything, which terrify me the most, so I tend to relive them more vividly than others. The problems aren't always plot-related, though. Sometimes, the mistakes come in the form of actual holes, as in shoddy construction. I once went to a haunted house on the grounds of the Playboy Mansion. For the most part, it was the lamest version of terror you can imagine.
Who knew herpes was so deadly?
The only moment that provided anything close to discomfort for me was when I found myself truly lost in one of those especially dark sections, which require to feel your way around to get out. As I was doing that, I noticed a crack of light in the corner, and when I moved closer, I realized that instead of a legitimate exit, it was just a gap in the wall that no one was supposed to notice. If they did, they certainly weren't supposed to squeeze through it as an improvised means of escaping that particular section of the haunted house. I did both of those things, and as a result, found myself standing directly behind a completely oblivious worker. I took the opportunity to scare the shit out of that poor woman by doing nothing more than leaning in and whispering, "I think I'm lost."
With that, I defeated Halloween. This was also the precise moment I recognized another huge problem with every haunted house ...