Haunted houses are no longer just the thing your kid does in the neighbor’s garage as part of trick-or-treating. Haunts, as they’re now called, have evolved into elaborate productions that take scares to a new — and sometimes disturbing — level. Forget glow-in-the-dark skeletons. The new trend includes naked attackers who try to torture you. And you pay for that.
Jon Schnitzer has been looking at the extreme haunt world for his upcoming documentary, "Haunters The Movie." Schnitzer is a super-fan of these attractions and has celebrated his birthday at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights almost every year since its launch. In the documentary, he talks with haunt creators from Universal Studios to the local torture-porn haunt "Blackout" to the epic, intense experience of "McKamey Manor" in San Diego.
On the difference between theme park haunts and home haunts
Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights is like entering into your favorite TV show or movie. It's massive, it's epic — no one can afford to do the scale that they do. It's incredible. Knott's Scary Farm started theme park haunts, and now they're kind of like the summer camp of haunting. But with home haunts, there's such a variety of them. There's even a home haunt that's so extreme that I'm too afraid to go through it. I filmed it, but I can't go through it.
McKamey Manor in San Diego
That's the most extreme home haunt in the world and it's one of the most extreme haunted houses of all time. They'll touch you, you might even get tackled, and they might even hold you down so they can force you to eat something you don't want to eat.
"Blackout" in Los Angeles and New York
"Blackout" became real popular after word came out that naked people were waterboarding you in a haunted house. And once that happened, everyone wanted to go [laughs].
Is "Delusion" worth $65 as a stand-alone attraction?
You're walking into an interactive haunted house play and you become a character. I remember when I went there ... and we had to look for a key. They said, "Split up," and I thought, This is like the perfect horror film moment. I walk into this bathroom, I see an old lady bathing in a bathtub of blood, and I said, "I need a key." She turns around and looks at me with this really scary face, the door behind me slams shut, and someone grabs me and puts a knife to my throat and says, "You're going nowhere." And my friends are screaming and running away. I was held hostage for 15 minutes. At the end of the haunt I got together with my friends and I told them what happened to me. When they told me what happened to them, I started getting the chills. It was like we lived out our own horror film and were sitting around a campfire and sharing it. It was incredible!
That's why you need these independent haunts. People go there to see what they can take. They want to see if they can go through it without saying the safe word. What do you do when you're in the dark and some scary naked person's running after you that's about to do something to you?
What reactions did Schnitzer capture on film?
When a monster pops out, I've seen someone punch the monster right in the face. I was at Knotts Scary Farm's Scare School, where they train their monsters, and they warn [the trainees], "If you scare someone like that, you're going to get punched in the face." There's a right way and a wrong way to jump out at somebody. I've seen people crying. With one family I just filmed, the mother started speaking in Spanish and her daughter grabbed onto my shirt and wouldn't let go. Afterwards I asked what she was saying, and she said she had no idea that she was speaking in Spanish [laughs]. She just went right into Spanish, she got so scared.
Have extreme haunts gone too far?
I keep wondering, Is this a bubble that's one controversy away from bursting? Are we going to look back years from now and [say], Wow, 2014, that was the Wild West of haunting. If you get someone to sign a waiver, you can get away with murder [laughs]. But you know what? People online are demanding it, so as long as there's an audience that's demanding to be scared by the most extreme situations, there's going to be someone there to deliver.
Jon Schnitzer is currently funding his documentary on Kickstarter and plans to release the film next October.