HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE, from director Jon Schnitzer, is a documentary that dives into the life of those who create haunted attractions and how their passion and obsession can impact the lives of those around them. The film includes excerpts from well known haunters in the industry such as John Murdy (Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood), Jon Braver (Delusion) and Josh Randall (Blackout) as well as celebrity interviews that include Jason Blum (Blumhouse) and Jen and Sylvia Soska (Hellevator), who love the thrill of experiencing and being part of haunted attractions.
Before I dive into my review I think it’s important to give you readers some background information. I am a haunt fanatic. I’ve been attending haunted attractions of all sorts for the past 20+ years and still have fond memories of going to Spooky World with my family as a child. To say that a documentary about haunts fascinated me would be an understatement. Since moving to California my world has been opened to immersive experiences and extreme haunts, which has become a passion that I have thrown myself into these last two years. My world, and my website, has a huge focus on haunts and the community surrounding them and it’s something that I pride myself on. With that said, I’m sure you can understand why I would be excited to see a film about haunters and how they create these amazing experiences.
Let’s start off with the positive. The production value on HAUNTERS is superb as well as the array of talent that was showcased throughout the film. Everything from home haunt owners to haunted attraction within theme parks was touched upon. I also enjoyed how Schnitzer’s went into the history of how haunts came to be and why people find themselves drawn to them as well as showcasing haunts throughout the country and not just focusing solely on the ones in California. Also, having a portion of the film focus on small haunt owners was really a terrific move because it shows you the sacrifice, time, and dedication that these haunt owners put themselves through as well as the rift it can cause between loved ones. I also liked learning about the careers of well seasoned scare actors. Being a scare actor is no easy feat and HAUNTERS does a great job of giving the audience insight into what these actors put themselves through for the thrill of scaring others and believe me when I say it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
Now it’s time to dive into what bothered me about this film – Russ McKamey and McKamey Manor. Now, if McKamey Manor had only been a small portion of this film I could understand why that would be. McKamey Manor is known for being the most extreme haunt and with a film that delves into all facets of haunted attractions I can completely understand why the inclusion of McKamey Manor would be in it. However, having Russ McKamey be the main focal point of the film was hugely problematic and detrimental to not only the haunt community but for extreme haunts in general. This is a man who doesn’t believe in the safe word and who goes to great lengths to “legally” torture people. I get it, people sign waivers, but to not even allow someone the opportunity to leave when they are begging for it to end is a grotesque and highly unsafe abuse of power.
What really bothered me was there were moments in the film where I felt like director Jon Schnitzer wanted the audience to feel sympathy for Russ McKamey as his haunt continuously got shut down by city officials. This would then be accompanied by footage of what McKamey would put guests through and it resulted in giving off a conflicted feeling. Sure, no one wants to see a haunt get shut down but at the same time why should we feel sorry for someone who clearly gets off on the idea of psychologically and physically torturing people. There was even a moment when it was revealed that guests going through McKamey Manor have had their face shoved in dog shit and vomit (their own vomit) shoved back in their mouths. I’m sorry, but there’s no reason for that whatsoever. Oh, and let’s not forget, someone once had a heart attack going through McKamey Manor. When you get to a point that people’s lives hang in the balance, I think that’s the time that you need to reassess what you are doing. I also found it fascinating that Russ threw shade at Blackout because McKamey Manor doesn’t include sexuality or bad language in its experience. Um, okay? I’ll take the sexuality and bad language over the possible heart attack thank you very much.
Because so much of the focus of this film is dedicated to Russ McKamey I feel it’s only right to clear the air on certain aspects. Please, don’t assume that all extreme haunts are similar to McKamey Manor – they are not. Josh Randall, co-owner of Blackout, is theatrically trained and doesn’t put anything in his experience that he himself wouldn’t do. He also has a safe word and guests can leave whenever the experience becomes too much. Same goes with Delusion and many other extreme haunts and immersive experiences. If a haunt is telling you that they won’t let you leave that is a huge red flag, if there are safety issues that is also a huge red flag. I think that if Schnitzer was going to focus so much on McKamey Manor he needed to focus more on why this experience can be potentially dangerous both physically, mentally, and emotionally. Instead, it focuses on Russ who laughs about lying to people to get them to do go into the haunt as well as his voyeuristic nature to record everyone’s experience. There was a scene in particular that made my skin crawl as we see Russ videotaping someone’s agony over what they were going through. On Russ’ face you can see his mouth open in the form of an O and a twinkle in his eye. He loves this, he loves what he’s doing to people, and it’s really quite alarming and terrifying. There are some people that I know, good people, who have experienced this haunt and have been left traumatized. It’s important to know you can go through a mom and pop haunt or a theme park haunt and have tons fun and be scared or you can go through an extreme haunt as a way to push your boundaries and what you can handle knowing you can leave if it becomes too much. That’s why I have massive amounts of respect for Blackout, Delusion, Freakling Bros., etc because they are forthcoming, honest, and concerned for the safety of their guests.
In the end, my final thoughts on HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE is divided. Though I feel like it had a lot of potential, it was eventually weighed down by the “Russ McKamey Show” and the negative portrayal of what McKamey Manor can bring about for the haunt community. I’m glad that Schnitzer included a few snippets of people who expressed their concern about extreme experience, whether that be fellow haunt owners or those who went through the Manor, but the overall taste it left in my mouth was bad. There were so many missed opportunities to really showcase the haunt industry in such a positive light that it’s truly upsetting how far that fell with the focal inclusion of Russ McKamey. All in all, I had high hopes for this documentary and though I’m left feeling angered by Russ McKamey, I hope those interested in haunts or those wanting to become more involved with them know that McKamey Manor is an exception and not the rule for extreme haunts or any haunts in general. Though the film on a technical level is done well, and there are some interesting facts to be learned, I can’t help but feel disheartened by the overall execution. For those interested in checking out HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE it is now available to own on Blu-ray and Digital.
P.S. One other thing, I think it’s important to note that the incorrect creator of ScareLA was mentioned in this film which is a shame because it was co-created and the real one(s) have gone on to create such an incredible community for haunters. Since they were left out of the film I would like to thank David Markland (co-creator of ScareLA) along with Rick West, Johanna Atilano, and Claire Dunlap as well as the hundreds of volunteers who made ScareLA great in the past and have gone on to create Midsummer Scream. If you are someone looking to become more involved in the community, I suggest visiting www.midsummerscream.org.