As anyone who has ever attempted even a church haunted house knows, scaring people effectively is no easy feat. So when the 50,000 square foot haunted attraction “Arx Mortis,” located in Killen, Alabama, manages to return every year, it is a victory. It is a testament to the pride and hard work of everyone involved, from volunteers to employees to the husband and wife owners of the entire establishment.
But in 2016, Arx Mortis nearly fell apart. For a number of reasons, the event had a terrible year. FAMILY OF FEAR is the documentary of the following year 2017 and how the haunters tried to turn it around and to restore the event to its prominent, well-functioning and scary glory.
Starting with a breakdown of what broke down in 2016, FAMILY OF FEAR gives the audience an intimate view of how an independently run haunt is actually put together. From the first auditions and training days forward, we get to see all of the effort and passion that infuses this haunt in every way.
It does not take long before we begin to see why this haunt has lasted as long as it has. Interviews with cast members, designers, managers and the owners all give us fascinating pieces of the mix, ingredients that combine together to make the event work.
Some of these pieces may seem obvious. Lots of creativity. Proper training for new scare actors. Managers taking proper care of their employee, volunteers and audience members. A strong push for safety in all circumstances.
But soon something else begins to emerge—a commonality for most of the people who work here. There are a surprising number of people who mention being bullied or harassed before joining the haunt and finding a far more caring and accepting group within its confines. In interviews that are occasionally touching and occasionally very raw and emotional, we see how many of these people felt like outsiders or losers (or worse) until Arx Mortis’ company gave them a place to fit in finally.
After all, everyone wants to be accepted and to belong. And that’s exactly why this film is called FAMILY OF FEAR, because that’s the community that Arx Mortis is trying to rebuild as we watch. They want their haunt to be a home, a family where people can find mentors or friends or just a voice willing to talk with them on a bad day.
And, of course, they want to scare people. Sometimes for fun, sometimes as a release of their own, sometimes even as a way of turning tables on those who belittled them in the ‘outside world’. The reasons vary quite a bit but the lesson is the same throughout:
It’s okay to let loose and scare here, because behind the scenes there are no more demons. Here the only thing to fear is what you create for others. You, yourself, are safe.
It’s quite refreshing to see a documentary that is as simple and clean as this one. That simplicity comes from director Stephen Lackey and co-producer Zach Martin allowing the people of the haunt to speak with their own voices. Letting the camera simply linger as someone tells her story can often generate a static picture that’s uninteresting. But in this case, the strength of the story comes directly from these tales. As person after person opens up in ways that are clearly not always easy for them, we gain a deep and honest perspective of the haunt that works very well.
FAMILY OF FEAR offers a fantastic look at the people behind the haunt masks and exactly what makes them tick. It offers truth and honest, emotional truth that should make people very glad that a place like Arx Mortis exists. The film also can open eyes to exactly how many people feel isolated and alone—and exactly why places like haunted houses are far more constructive places to deal with such feelings.
Finally, for those of us who work in such events on a constant basis, FAMILY OF FEAR also stands as a strong example of the type of work we like to do. It’s fun, scary and safe for the audience and fun, scary and a completely different type of safe for the actors. This family may be dysfunctional (as they call themselves) but they are also determined to be the best family anyone could ever choose.