Starring Jason Blum, McKenzie Westmore, Slash, Jen Soska, Jessica Cameron
Directed by Jon Schnitzer
Haunters: The Art of the Scare isn’t really about the joy of crafting haunted houses and embracing the spirit of Halloween; it’s main focus is to ask if some of these attractions are now too extreme. Seeing the film at Fantastic Fest which is filled to the brim with passionate, good-natured horror fans, some of the subjects in Jon Schnitzer’s documentary don’t reflect that love of horror and don’t appear to care whom they harm in the process. Although there are some positive examples documented in Haunters, don’t expect a film that delves into what scares us on a fundamental level. This is more of an exploration into how some haunts can bring out the darker side of human nature.
How far is too far? The more established companies and personalities like John Murdy from Universal’s incredible Halloween Horror Nights know where the line is. They’re responsible and work within a budget with professionals that know how to scare the hell out of you in a safe environment. Their expertise is to make it appear that you’re in a dangerous situation without actually putting you in harm’s way.
When Haunters focus is on these men and women and people in the industry like Jason Blum and the Soska sisters, there’s a real sense of fun that should be associated with this time of year. It’s when its eye shifts to the homegrown suburban haunts leaning more towards the extreme that things turn sinister. But there is a middle ground between the family friendly boo-scare experience and the “we’re going to mentally and physically scar you for life” variation.
Josh Randall’s Blackout is probably the most infamous interactive horror experience currently, mainly because of its premise of sending patrons, one at a time, through an intense maze in pitch black darkness. (I’ve done Blackout twice in New York City, and don’t plan on doing it again). Randall speaks about Blackout during the film and shows how you can walk right up to the edge but still respect your audience. The point where Haunters began to get under my skin, personally, was due to one man and his neverending quest to be the most despicable person in the haunt game.
Russ McKarney runs an extreme attraction out of his house where he hand selects applicants to be physically abused while he videotapes them for his YouTube channel. Most of the people shown here realize they are in way over their heads but the abuse only increases when they start to beg for them to stop. McKamey spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to create this inhumane hellmouth and the construction is usually not up to code, as seen multiple times throughout the movie. He’s a sick individual and thanks to this documentary everyone can see for themselves what a complete maniacal douchebag he is.
Haunters doesn’t answer the question of what is too extreme, that’s ultimately up for you to decide. Highlighting someone like Donald Julson who creates a more traditional haunted house every year shows how an amature, DIY approach can be rewarding and positive for everyone involved (even if it does hit your wallet and test your relationship at times).
The real question asked is why the line is continuing to move towards the extreme? In any case, it’s less imaginative just to up the intensity level instead of building new practical effects that help create a more immersive form of escapism. Surprisingly, you may come out with a lot of mixed emotions after seeing this as well as asking yourself where does the love of horror stop and the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others begin. Haunters probably won’t make you want to visit a haunted house this October; in fact, it might even make you a little angry.