‘Monster Inside’ Director Andrew Renzi On The Complicated Nature Of Immersive Horror

Monster Inside

Based on Hulu’s Top 10, it seems like a lot of people want some horror documentaries in their lives. The brand new Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House by filmmaker Andrew Renzi should satiate your desire for some real-life scares. 

The film centers around McKamey Manor, an immersive horror experience that’s been pushing the boundaries of what exactly constitutes immersive horror. The place has been covered on mainstream TV shows and the biggest newspapers in the world and sparked debate from a large constituency of McKamey fans and detractors. But the movie isn’t exactly about McKamey Manor or the person behind it. Instead, it shines a light on three of its participants. 

We spoke with director Andrew Renzi about the making of the film, the differences between a more traditional doc and a found footage assemblage, and what, if anything, he wishes he could have included in the film. 

Dread Central: I was familiar with this subject. I’m assuming a lot of people are familiar with this subject. What drew you to one of the most infamous, if not most infamous, haunted houses that’s not technically a haunted house (it’s immersive horror)? 

Andrew Renzi: It’s funny that that ended up in the title [Monster Inside], I agree, especially having gone through this whole process. It was kind of reverse-engineered, to be honest with you. I went to Hulu and I was talking to them about how I thought that there was kind of a whitespace of horror documentaries. I feel like I’m only seeing true crime out there. 

Actually, I did get in touch with Russ and I’d met him, I spoke to him for a bit. I found it really incredibly fascinating. The idea that there are people out there who want to be the stars of their own horror film and the lengths they’ll go through to kind of make that happen, and whether it’s good or bad, what it says about us and how we deal with traumas. I thought it was an amazing world to explore. 

DC: I’m assuming the haunted house has never been more popular since this came out. I’m also assuming people have contacted you, pro or con, because that’s a large chunk of the story, the cult of personality behind the Russ McKamey.

AR: I’ve been speaking a lot to the people that are in it, and some people that didn’t end up in it. The first thing I heard, actually, which is pretty funny, was supporters of Russ were bombing IMDb with negative reviews. Like you said, this is sort of a community of people that get really, really fired up about whether you support or whether you don’t support him, because it’s become incredibly polarizing on the internet, 

I’m sure hoping that Monster Inside doesn’t make him wildly popular, that would be a bit of a bummer. I think we tried to show what it is and at this point. He’s really just in Tennessee, kind of by himself doing like, effectively what could be like a really hardcore boot camp. And there’s not really any of the pageantry that it had back in the day with Halloween-adjacent ideas. Now it just seems to be a bit of a torture house. I hope that that comes through in the film.

DC: It seems like a lot of people signing up for waterboarding who thought they might have signed up for not waterboarding.

AR: Yes, that’s a great distillation of the whole thing.

DC: One of the survivors…how should I refer to your interview subjects? Survivors?

AR: You know, it’s a great question. I think there are a lot of different ways you could refer to them. They were participants, they were survivors. They are characters in this documentary and people who are telling their stories. Survivor obviously does put at the forefront the things that they went through. I’m sure that would be appreciated by that. And then there’s obviously people that are gonna say, but they were willing participants. So they’re participants in this. What you refer to them as is interesting because it speaks to the kind of controversy and complications of the story. 

DC: You highlighted what I want to ask. The same person who says, “If a felony isn’t taking place, I don’t want to go,” also says that McKamey Manor is essentially a narcissism factory. So as the guy who’s watched the most footage of McKamey Manor, what do you think? Do you think that these people who want felonies to happen should not be going to this narcissism factory? Or is this an odd match made in hell? 

AR: It’s a really great question, a really complicated question. 

There are places like Miasma that we went to at the end of the film and the experience is about the person that’s showing up. It’s like what can we do to make their experience, even if it is extreme, it’s just what can we do for them, this is about them. One thing that seems to be very clear is McKamey Manor is about Russ. The focus of who’s at the forefront, who’s at the center, who’s the most important person, seems to be flipped.

Because of the extreme nature of it, there needs to be an understanding between the two parties. We’re about to do some really extreme things together. We’re both on board with this. But there’s a verbal contract, as well as just an understanding of what they’re getting into. With Russ that seemed to not really exist as the years went by. It seemed as though it became more about getting a very specific type of person, a military man that he can feel powerful over, a young woman he can kind of also feel powerful over. It seemed as though the roles were reversed, and it became about him and less about them. I think that that’s really where the problem was.

DC: The end of Monster Inside becomes a Rorschach test. Would you rather have your immersive horror be like Miasma, Haunted Hill View Manor, or McKamey? And I want to know what you think because I find it way creepier at Miasma, they’re trying to be your friend and therapist at the end of it. That’s more disturbing than some vet that works at Walmart that got you to get waterboarded willingly. 

AR: It’s really interesting. I can tell you that watching the experiences go down, I think what it all boils down to is why do we seek these experiences out? And is it okay to seek out experiences that are borderline extreme, potentially addictive, pushing our limits to a place that might not be healthy, that we’re going there for reasons that traditional therapy might actually be more helpful? I think it really kind of comes down to vulnerable people doing things that make them feel vulnerable. I don’t think that there should be people that exploit that. A place like Miasma is not exploiting, they’re trying to provide experiences for people that are gonna go out there and find it anyway. And those people find McKamey Manor and that vulnerability does get exploited in a place like that.

DC: What scares you? Do you like haunted houses? 

AR: Yeah, I love those houses. You mentioned Haunted Hill View Manor. We spent the night there while we were filming this just to kind of get a sense of the community and that was pretty scary. That felt uncomfortable. 

I’ve done a lot of stuff as a documentarian that has kind of put me in positions that would make me scared. And so I think that I’ve developed a thick skin for that stuff. You do have this sort of layer of protection when you’re there to capture things that you feel a little bit like you’re removed from the situation. And I think that over the years, you kind of develop that muscle where you’re one step removed because you have that camera. 

DC: You just mentioned the camera. You didn’t shoot the McKamey Manor footage and that’s made clear at the start of Monster Inside. Was this like making a found footage film? Was this like making a more traditional doc?

AR: I think that part of the whole reason why I wanted to do Monster Inside was a bit of the genre film in documentaries that I felt was not really getting much shine. And I was hoping that maybe it would kickstart a bit of a genre in the dark space.

I was excited by the prospect of the fact that there was all this footage that existed in the world to create sort of that kind of archetypal found footage, horror film concept, and then infuse it with a documentary with the interviews and with the approach that we did there. And also with the Miasma, fly-on-the-wall sort of approach, we wanted to kind of make it sort of feel cinematic as a culmination of the film. I just love the idea that there could be something that could exist in a very unique space and sort of say, okay, this is a true horror documentary. This is a documentary that is all real, we’re not making things up. All this stuff exists. It’s all out there.

DC: Is there anything that you wish you could have put in Monsters Inside, but just didn’t make sense because of the narrative?

AR: Oh, yeah. You know, that happens. That happens every time for sure. Let me think about this specifically.

DC: While you think, could I posit something? 

AR: Yeah, please.

DC: Like most good documentaries as soon as you’re done, you want to know more about the subject. So of course, I read more about McKamey and a 2019 Washington Post piece says he moonlights as a wedding singer.

AR: There’s just one quick clip of him singing in there, that’s a great point. We actually did have a sequence about him, he sings “Purple Rain” in this one video, that’s so amazing. 

Obviously there the legal concerns about how much of certain things we were allowed to use because he didn’t participate in the film. Obviously, he posted a lot of these things publicly on the internet so it changes the approach. I wanted to make sure every step of the way that I was being sensitive to the people who did this and make sure that people were okay with it. There was just a lot of sensitivity. 

I think that we were approaching the story [in a way] that made it creatively more challenging than something that you’re basically owning the entire story in the entire world. I was stepping into a world that has its sensitivities and has its complications and I wanted to make sure that I was doing that properly. 

DC: Monster Inside ends with a title card, “The filmmakers communicated with Russ on numerous occasions, but he ultimately chose not to participate in the documentary.” Now that it’s done are you glad that this was the case? He clearly couldn’t steer any of the narrative if he’s not part of it.

AR: Yet another really great question. When I first started the process, I really wanted him to be a part of it, probably because I didn’t know quite enough.

Most of the time I’d rather have the opportunity to hear from them than not. You don’t want it to end up feeling like a thin expose or something like that. But as the story progressed, I ended up really feeling the weight of the stories of all the people that went there, and also kind of the like, for me, what ended up becoming more front and center in the story outside of Russ was why. Why do we do this? Why do people seek out these experiences? What does it say about us? What do we need in our society to put measures in place to help people like Brandon cope with his PTSD and survivor’s guilt, so that he doesn’t have to say, “I want to go seek out a felony experience.”

There’s a bigger story here that made me really excited on a human level. I started to care about that a lot more than I cared about Russ. I sort of saw Russ as this vessel for this really interesting human story. Now that it’s over, I am glad that we didn’t go down that road with him, even though we tried. I had plenty of conversations with him. I don’t pretend to know what he would have said or what he wouldn’t and so I think that you just kind of deal with what you have. And I think it probably is the best possible outcome because it makes it more about the people than a promotional piece for him. 

The only regret I have is not being able to put three and a half minutes of him singing “Purple Rain.”

Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House is out now on Hulu.



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