Without any exaggeration I get easily 20 messages a week about "Extreme Haunted Houses." People seem to want to know what I think of them. A lot.
If you aren't familiar with the concept, "Extreme Haunted Houses" are buildings that you enter and are treated like an assault victim. You might be locked in a cage, you might see a fake rape and then the fake rapist may put his exposed penis next to your face, or someone may fake puke on your back. Basically different bad things happen to you in each room.
These things easily go viral because everyone loves a controversy. Controversy equals page views and ad revenue.
I don't care what other people do as long as no one is actually getting hurt, but this is not the kind of thing that I personally enjoy so it's not the kind of thing that I cover. This concept is so far off from what an actual haunted house is that I don't believe that they should even be called "haunted houses." They should be called Jackass (As in the MTV show Jackass) Escape Rooms. Sure, I totally watched that show but I have no desire to personally participate in crazy and extreme stunts.
The primary differentiator between Haunted Houses and Jackass Escape Rooms is the goal. Haunted Houses are here to entertain you and the goal is for everyone to get through and to laugh and scream while they are doing it. It's like friends watching a horror film together. The rooms are usually built up with lavish sets and staging so that you can experience a fantasy world.
Jackass Escape Rooms have a different goal. They appear to hope that a significant number of their customers are made so uncomfortable that they cannot complete the attraction. It's a frat boy hazing challenge as opposed to good-natured fun. There is usually very little creativity or effort involved in the sets because the world around you isn't important to these attractions.
There is a continuum of genres within haunted attractions that looks something like this:
Visual & Auditory: Comprehensive set design, startle scares, can have improv acting, no touching clearly indicated before you enter.
Interactive & Theatrical: Comprehensive set design, startle scares, improv acting, theatrical vignettes performed by the actors, can have light touching but this is clearly indicated before you enter. There may be an option to opt out of the touching in many cases. You may be asked to participate in a scene or push a button.
Jackass Escape Houses: Physical and sexual assault simulations with little to no story or world-building. These are off the continuum. The only commonality they share with haunted houses is the fact that there are actors inside a room.
Jackass Escape Houses have nothing to do with what I enjoy about the genre. I go to haunted houses because I want to see crazy, funny, and awesome scenes. I like to laugh. I enjoy the work of the artisans who create these worlds. I respect the dedication the scare actors display when they perform because it is a skill that they risk being punched in the face for multiple times a night.
I believe that Jackass Escape Houses have the potential to hurt the industry if we continue to group them in with haunted houses because it gives the general public an incorrect idea about what "all haunted houses" are. All haunted house owners should take a stand and make it clear that this is not the same genre. Why? Because when someone escalates a Jackass Escape House to its highest possible conclusion and someone actually gets hurt the entire industry will take the blame.
The haunted house industry is still today feeling the heat (no pun intended) from the fatal Great Adventure haunted house fire in 1984. This resulted in tighter regulations making it harder for people to start their businesses. It turned off the public at the same rate that the government made it harder to open haunted houses.
There is no intelligence test that you have to pass when setting up one of these experiences. On a haunter group I witnessed firsthand someone articulating their planning for their "Extreme Haunted House" next year. He seemed to think that a waiver would protect him from doing whatever he wanted in his attraction and some of what he was proposing did not seem very safe. I explained to him that you can't sign away your right to sue in America and he just kept repeating that he would have a stupid piece of paper that people sign and referenced "the guy down the street" does it for his haunt.
Because we know the best way to research something is to copy what "the guy down the street" does.
No. Just no. This trend of escalating "monkey see, monkey do" is going to just become stupider and (I believe) more dangerous.
There's very little art and theatrical world-building involved with Jackass Escape Rooms and that doesn't appear to even be desired. There is no other vector that these experiences can go toward. I think the industry really needs to embrace uniform genre designations like I listed above for their attractions and make it clear that Jackass Escape Rooms are a different genre that appeals to an entirely different demographic than a standard haunted house does.
I already get lots of questions from people who haven't yet gone to haunted attractions and genuinely don't know the difference between these experiences and haunted attractions. This sensationalism had put them off from trying. The industry will suffer from any bad PR that happens with them because it will turn off regular folks who may be considering trying their first haunted attraction.
A fandom that is perceived as inaccessible for most people gets press but can only shrink. This is bad news for everyone.
However it could be an opportunity for the guys who did the Jackass show to co-opt to have some fun with their fans. Seriously. That's what I'd do if I were them. But that still wouldn't be a haunted house. You can call it a "Jackass Escape Room," "Extreme Interactive Theater," or anything else – I just don't see it as a haunted house.
Originally published at Onezumiverse.
Image: Screengrab from McKamey Manor promotional video.