5 Minor Details That Ruin Every Haunted House Experience
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.
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 ...
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 ...
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 ...
Everyone Is An Actor
On the way into the office this morning, I listened to some morning radio dipshit, after reading an ad for some local haunted house attraction, question what kind of person would "want to do such a horrible thing for their job????" I'm no criminal profiler, but seeing as how I'm in the Los Angeles area, my instinct tells me that the answer is something along the lines of "any out-of-work actor who understands that they're one minor skirting of insurance laws away from being replaced with transients hired through a day labor service."
When I made that "sexy mummy" at the Playboy Mansion briefly question whether a night of free booze was worth putting up with working in a haunted house for a few hours, I realized that at the end of the day, these people are just actors.
Nice stage name, weirdo.
I mean, I always knew that. But it wasn't until that moment that I realized these are just normal people with fears and insecurities of their own. On top of that, they're working under the ever-present threat of being reflex-punched in the face by an overly-startled patron.
Does this make me more sympathetic to their plight? No way. Don't work in an oil field if you don't want to run the risk of occasionally getting smashed in the face by an out-of-control piece of refinery equipment, as the old adage goes. I'm not saying that I encourage punches, or take pleasure in knowing they happen. I'm just saying that remembering that you're just dealing with a building full of humans goes a long way toward helping you keep your calm under "extreme" haunted house situations. It ultimately benefits everyone, especially the people you aren't punching in the face.
A good example of that happened recently, when I went to a haunted house somewhere near Indianapolis. In keeping with tradition and having just moments earlier sworn to protect the 16-year-old girl I'd become the proud father of while waiting in line ...
Even though she's an ungrateful jerk, just like her mother!!!
... I opted to be at the head of the group. Seeing as how this particular section was prison-themed, I shouldn't have been too surprised when the first scare came in the form of a dude who got right in my face and said something like, "You know what happens to pretty boys like you in prison?"
Tosh.woah! Is that a rape bit? In front of my daughter, no less? I assure you, I do not come to haunted houses for that shit. Simulated sexual assaults among two consenting, waiver-signing adults? Sure. But not this. I decided to play along by telling him I assumed he was quite pretty under that mask, but that he should move anyway. When he raised the mask and asked what would happen if he didn't move, I mustered up all the seriousness inside me and said, "I'll kiss you right on the mouth." With that, he backed away. Phasmophobia may rule Halloween, but at the end of the day, homophobia still rules Middle America.
Like I said, they're just people. You can beat them. Especially when you remember that ...
There Are Still Laws In This Country
The same thing that keeps filmmakers from just straight-up killing people on camera for entertainment should ultimately keep you safe in most haunted house situations as well. Don't ever lose sight of that, no matter how much that trailer tries to convince you otherwise. What happens to you might be visually horrifying or psychologically disturbing, but what it won't be is you actually getting maimed or murdered. That waiver you sign might give them free reign to touch you, verbally abuse you, and fuck with your head a bit, but it's not like they can just throw you in a dark room and beat the shit out of you with a lead pipe or something.
"Sorry, ma'am. The waiver you signed says we can hit your crazy plastic dog with this huge chain."
They can make you wear a hood like a Gitmo detainee, but I can 100 percent promise you that no waiver on the planet will let them attach wires to a car battery, and then attach those wires to your genitals.
With all that said, I learned about McKamey Manor too late to try it for the purposes of this article, so I don't know if that "everyone is just acting" mantra is enough to carry you through every experience. If you're not familiar, McKamey Manor is a "haunted house" that's operated out of San Diego for years. What sets it apart from the competition? Well, the short version of the tour lasts anywhere from four to eight hours, and apparently, not a single person has been able to get through it without quitting.
I talked to the owner on the phone (whom you can also see in the introduction to the above video, which is essentially a 45-minute highlight reel of one girl's six hours inside McKamey Manor). He assured me that this is a thing I do not want to do. Everything about that video, in conjunction with that phone call, made me feel like maybe he was right. The place was closed for the year before I even started writing this column, though, so I guess I'll never find out. Darn.
In the name of a consolation prize, I will be taking a shot at a different "shocking" haunted house this year. It's called The 17th Door ...
... and, as always, that trailer makes it seem pretty damn intense. But like I said before, the trailers always do. There's no way of knowing for sure without actually going through it, so me and a few friends are doing that very thing. Check back on Halloween Day, and I'll tell you how it went.
Adam ain't scared of shit -- except you not following him on Twitter. Do that now at @adamtodbrown.
To get the inside spook on haunted houses, check out 4 Horrifying Realities Of Working At A Haunted House and 6 Things I Learned Owning A Haunted House On Reality TV.
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