To call Jon Schnitzer an expert on haunted houses would be an understatement. Born in the month of October, he spent his birthdays dragging his friends to every fright night he could find. Now, scares are his life. As a member of the Magic Castle’s Boo Crew, he helps curate 3D illusions for Halloween parties in Hollywood. As the co-owner of The Brain Factory, he was hired by Tim Burton to produce effects for then-President Obama’s first Halloween party at the White House back in 2009. Today, Schnitzer launched a new documentary, Haunters: The Art Of The Scare , which premiered at Fantastic Fest this year. The movie takes viewers through a tour of some of today’s most extreme haunted houses, as well as examines their history and why they still resonate with audiences.
“When you look at a kid at a restaurant screaming their head off on the ground, these days I look at that kid and I go, ‘I want to do that, too,’” Schnitzer says, when talking about why haunted houses still maintain their appeal in an era when reality seems to have become a scare tactic in itself. “Watching all the news, I freak out. In a haunted house, what do you get to do? You get to confront your worst fears, you can scream your head off. You can laugh, you can cry, you can run away, and no one’s going to judge you. All the social norms go out the window.”
To Schnitzer, haunted houses have always been a form of therapy. “I call it ‘scareapy,’ and it really is that ability to vent and go crazy and run, and scream and then laugh. It’s catharsis. When you get to escape the haunted house, you’ve gone through something and you survived it.”
Schnitzer’s film looks at the humble beginnings of haunted houses, which came about during America’s great depression, when people were looking for escapism on a budget. It’s a trend that’s continued well into the modern era.
“Halloween was the most successful in 2001,” Schnitzer explains. “Then, the financial meltdown beat 2001, [and] more people spent money to go to haunted houses in 2008. Now, 2017 is on track to be the most successful Halloween of all time. The haunts have started earlier. A lot of haunts start in August. Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights opens September 15th, and they’re going through November.”
As the demand continues to grow, haunted houses themselves have had to evolve through the years, not only to keep pushing the envelope, but to reflect the world we’re living in.
“Look at what George Romero used to do,” Schnitzer explains. “All his movies were always holding up the mirror to society. Every single one of them had social commentary, and it wasn’t depressing because it wasn’t a drama. It was horror, suspense, drama, and comedy, and by the time it was over, you went through all those emotions and your head kept spinning. Look at Get Out, It, The Walking Dead. You can always tell when times are tough, because horror is thriving. We need it.”
To help meet that perpetual need comes interactive events like Delusion, where participants become key players in an interactive play. “You become an actor playing the part. You’re on your own choose your own adventure. You’ll get separated from me at one point, you’ll go on a different adventure, and at the end we’ll share stories about what we went through, and that’s when it gets scary,” explains Schnitzer. “It feels like you’re telling ghost stories by a campfire again.”
Granted, the rather intense approach of these events to scaring their patrons inevitably leaves some to question their appeal. “We finally have haunted houses that represent every single kind of sub-genre category of horror — from horror comedy to torture porn — and the question just becomes what happens when you really blur that line between simulation and torture, and how far is too far? When does this stop being cathartic and start just being escaping the horror of life just to have a terrifying experience?”
One experience that is beyond the pale for Schnitzer is Blackout — an immersive haunt that was first created in 2009. It creates a grounded horror event, tailored to participants’ worst fears, but only after you sign a waiver.
“I can’t do that,” says Schnitzer, who hasn’t experienced it for himself. “I know I can’t do that. I was bullied when I was a kid. I can’t handle that right now. I didn’t join a frat. I didn’t want to be hazed.”
While Blackout provides an unrelenting experience, which can (and often does) include naked scare actors waterboarding you, you’re given a safe word, which allows participants the ultimate control over what their threshold for terror is.
As extreme as experiences like Blackout are, perhaps the haunt best-known for its extreme approach is San Diego’s McKamey Manor, a non-profit run out of the backyard of creator Russ McKamey. Schnitzer was midway through production when he ran across McKamey Manor via its YouTube channel. “I saw his videos, and I just couldn’t believe them. I thought, ‘There’s no way this is real,’ and the more I watched, the more it was really affecting me. It was really disturbing and really shocking. I knew I had to have him in the movie, because this is the most controversial, full contact, extreme haunt of all time. You either love it, or you want to burn it to the ground.”
“But that’s an interesting thing too is when showing [the documentary] to people, half want to go through McKamey Manor, and half want to shut it down. I think that says a lot about human nature right there.”
One of the famous McKamey Manor YouTube clips.
The documentary comes close to portraying McKamey as a villain: he pushes his attendees to their limit through questionable means, and he doesn’t provide a safe word for an early exit. McKamey even confesses partway through that he’s never gone through it himself, believing that he couldn’t handle what he’s created. Then, you learn that he hasn’t made any revenue through all the years of running it. Admission to attend is four cans of dog food, which are donated to Operation Greyhound, a rescue outfit who rehome retired racing dogs.
“You get to actually know Russ and learn something about him,” says Schnitzer, who spent the weekend at McKamey’s house while filming. While there, he shared the space with 12 greyhounds he was fostering, some of them requiring to be spoonfed. “What’s really bizarre is that while he’s got these dogs, he’s taking care of in the house. There’s people screaming for help in the backyard. Sometimes the dogs would walk by and people are blindfolded, and they’d rub against them and people would start screaming. They [didn’t] realize it’s just some dog walking by wagging its tail.”
“I would have thought this movie would’ve been a giant failure if I didn’t feel like I have at least one moment with every person in the movie where you could empathize with them and at least see things from their point of view,” says Schnitzer. “You can disagree later, but I want you to at least look at everyone as a human being because I am not here to objectify anyone or exploit anybody. They’re trusting me, and I want to capture who they are and what they stand for, what they’re trying to do, and that way people can just judge for themselves.”
Despite being mired in controversy, McKamey Manor is one of the most successful self-run haunts operating today, and currently has a waitlist of about 24,000 people.
“I want your friends that don’t quite get it to get it after this, and now we’re finding a lot of people who’ve never gone to a haunted house before, after watching this, they get into an argument about Russ, about this one, that one,” says Schnitzer. “They actually get to see all these other traditional haunted house people are really sweet. They never looked at them that way before. I want to open up the world, and the best way to open up a world is to bring in the controversy as well, that way people can have an argument, because I show this to people who don’t get haunted houses and don’t get Halloween.”
When asked about what, exactly, makes haunted houses so appealing year after year, Schnitzer’s explains that “you get to laugh, scream, and feel like a kid again. That’s all I want. When I go to a haunted house, I want that magic. When I get to go to Delusion, I get to have magic. The first year, you got to have magical powers. You’re casting spells and people are fly backwards. I left feeling like I was Neo in The Matrix. It was the coolest feeling ever. I was just at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, and I went through Ash Versus the Evil Dead. I’m screaming, I’m laughing out loud, I start crying I’m laughing so hard. I want an immersive, emotional, visceral roller coaster where you know that the person behind the mask is so excited to scare you, and they’re there because they want you to scream and they want you to laugh. That’s what I look for, and I love it.”
While Schnitzer believes there will always be a place for the more conventional approaches to haunts, with the darkened hallways littered with jump scares and campy costumes, he believes that the medium will continue to evolve. “We always want to have the traditional haunted houses because it just makes us feel like Halloween, but I think [it’s] going to be a lot more interactive,” he explains. “People are going to look at it more as experimental theater. It’s about having an experience, and you look at these escape rooms, and they’re getting more theatrical. There’s a billion great experiences. It’s like what Jason Blum said, ‘People are on screens and on social media all the time now, and horror attractions and haunted houses give you the opportunity to get off the screen, get off the computer, go and have a real experience, and then go right back on social media and talk about the great thing that you just went through.’”
As far as his movie, Schnitzer wants the experience to run parallel to a haunted house itself. “[We want] to give you all the feelings. You will be shocked, you’re going to be disturbed, you’re going to laugh, you’re going to feel emotional, and you’ll feel strangely inspired at the end. That was my goal.”