TRICK-OR-TRAUMA: The Complex Ethics of The Haunted House Industry
Updated: 5 days ago
Though they’ve been traced back as far as the early 1900s, it was the opening of Disney’s iconic Haunted Mansion in 1969, and the following slasher-film culture of the 1970s which made haunted houses a staple of American halloween tradition. It’s estimated that there are currently about 5,000 haunted houses operating in the United States, making up a billion dollar industry. After joining the haunt industry myself, I started to wonder about the ethics of the industry and just what is the cost, and value, of catharsis.
My first foray into the world of Spooky Professions was working, not in the attractions themselves, but behind-the-scenes as an artist in one of the United States’ premier haunted house prop manufacturers. In an unassuming industrial park just outside of Seattle was a surrealist horrorscape of disembodied foam limbs, 8ft tall monsters, and a corner filled with half-fabricated animatronic zombies that awkwardly swayed in perpetual motion - all set to the sounds of Ozzy Osbourne, vintage radio plays, or the Brother Bear soundtrack, depending on the day.
We made a lot of things, but our specialty was hyperrealistic cadavers - at that time, available in 4 finishes of Fresh, Frozen, Bloody or Rot. These pieces started at $1,500 for our most standard and basic bodies, and could go up to $3,000 for custom, themed pieces. Perhaps you owned a haunted hay ride - we could dress up the bodies in flannels and overalls, and bind them with coarse jute ropes. Or maybe your haunt was themed after a hospital, and you wanted your characters dressed in hospital gowns and styled with medical instruments exposing their organs; we could do that, too. It took a few months of proving myself to the owner before I was allowed to learn to paint and prep the bodies; eventually I was even allowed to design my own finishes and fake blood formulas.
During peak season, I was painting, prepping and styling up to 8 full-size bodies a day. I worked hard and was proud of my hard work. I’d perfected methods for the most realistic slashed blouses, abraded knees, and ligature marked necks. I remember the day I had a visceral, stomach-turning reaction to smearing my personal recipe of polyurethane “blood” across a prop - both from the richness of the color, and the warmth of the catalyzing plastic in my hands. A new level of realism achieved. I was the person who made the mold, mixed the foam, painted the prop - my brain knew everything about this was fake - and yet, for a moment I even fooled myself.
Mixed in with all of this pride for every new technique and milestone I reached as an artist, was a sort of uneasy tension. Every new order seemed to reinforce a set of patterns and trends.
Growing up, one of the things I shared with my mother was an interest in true crime. I started to recognize that most of the haunted house themes were directly or indirectly based on true events. I started to wonder how that must feel for victims and their families - to know that people spend thousands of dollars to reenact the worst things that ever happened to them or or a loved one. How must it feel that people cosplay in your family’s trauma for fun?
I noticed that we sold at least 3 female bodies for every male body. My boss’ response? A damsel in distress sells, but more importantly: sex sells. I’d never once considered that those bruises, ligature marks, lesions, abrasions - and far worse - I was perfecting were for sex appeal. He told me about the custom order requests he’s received for tortured and traumatized female bodies that he considered too extreme and turned down. I looked down at our most popular prop - made from a life cast of my best friend’s body - my stomach turned again.
I noticed that all of our paint formulas were for white skin, even though some of our life casts were of people of color. When I asked why we were painting black faces with white skin, I was told it was more efficient to have only one paint formula... and besides, the blood doesn’t show up as well against dark skin. I wondered what was worse - erasure or inclusion? Is it actually worse to show black and brown bodies in pretend torture scenes orchestrated and designed by the almost exclusively white male owners of haunted attractions?
I noticed that all of our bodies were thin, and able, and most were young. I was told that big bodies take up too much material; they are just too expensive to make and ship. I was told that “abnormal” bodies are too niche to justify the expense of creating the molds and designs. The year after I left, the company launched a highly successful “Freakshow” line, which included extremely obese bodies, as well as bodies with genetic abnormalities like ectrodactyly, and conjoined fetuses. These bodies weren’t worth their expense until they became the object of fear within the haunted house’s narrative. I never once made an elderly figure who was a victim.
I’m not going to judge a small business owner for making decisions in a highly-competitive and expensive industry based on what will sell and make a profit. At the same time, what do the sales trends in this industry say about how they, and we, view not only bodies but the people who live inside them? Which bodies are worth pity, and which bodies deserve fear? Which bodies are simply too inconvenient?
Josh Randall, owner and designer of BLACKOUT, a haunted house experience, states:
“Our goal is to elicit real fear, and so we do research on real-life situations so we can connect with the most amount of people. Although people tend to have fun and get a kick out of vampires, monsters, etc... generally those kinds of scares do not place people in a state where they believe their life is truly in danger.
Being mugged, raped, tortured, etc... -- these are real life scares that take the "fun" out of being scared, and push people into a place of genuine fear. If we can make someone forget that they paid for this, and that they're just in a safe environment and make them actually question whether or not they will really get hurt, we've done our job.”
Many people cite an experience of catharsis, or an adrenaline rush as a reason to seek out haunted houses. Researchers have found that the effects on the brain are similar to a runners-high, or the endorphins released after the removal of pain. The power, they say, is in the experience of realistic fear in a space where you are ultimately never in danger.
But there is a boundary between realism and reality, and the ability feel safe in these spaces is a matter of privilege. In the US, each year, nearly half-a-million people are raped, over 200,000 are kidnapped, and over 15,000 people are murdered. These crimes are disproportionately inflicted on women, children and minorities. If you’re someone who is already forced to move through the world with hypervigilance, or carrying trauma, can these spaces feel safe to you - let alone, fun? It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that most attendees of haunted houses are predominately young (18-24) and male, and therefore, statistically less likely to have been victims of violent crime. While there aren’t data sets on the racial demographics drawn to haunted houses or horror culture, anecdotally they are perceived as white spaces.
In the last ten years, the hyper-competitive nature of the haunt industry has brought forth “extreme haunts”. One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, of these extreme haunts is McKamey Manor - which operates year-round, and holds sessions which can last up to ten hours. Participants sign a 40-page consent waiver, and are subjected to various forms of physical and psychological torture. The consent waiver gives confusing legality to actions which would normally be considered crimes, and some even war crimes. No participant has finished the experience, some are hospitalized for injuries, and a few have cited PTSD-like symptoms after the experience. It’s important to note that most people within the traditional haunted house industry do not accept McKamey Manor; at the same time, the industry has pushed itself to the point where it is legally acting out the same kinds of heinous crimes from which it originally drew inspiration. Haunts as extreme as McKamey Manor may not be accepted, but they are connected.
Within the haunt industry, there are not only the ethical questions around how we depict and consume others’ trauma, but the ethics of personally giving and receiving trauma. Can all of this ethically exist in the context of profit and entertainment? Are all acts ethical so long as there is consent? How are we as viewers or attendees complicit? Perhaps the solution is greater regulation of the industry, or diversification of ownership and the kinds of stories being told. Perhaps one day we’ll view haunted houses as an archaic and cruel form of entertainment built on outdated systems of oppression and privilege, just as we now view public hangings. Either way, this halloween season, take some time to think about to how you get your tricks, and how that treats your fellow humans. And have a Happy Halloween!