The Lure of Haunted Houses

Why was I dying to go inside?

Posted Oct 20, 2011

I've been going to haunted houses ever since I was a little kid. Growing up in Michigan, these Halloween destinations were usually much more bark than bite - the most fun of it all usually was driving somewhere new at night with my family.

When I was a teenager, the way I tested my own personal Fear Factor was with horror movies. In the theater or via the VCR (yes, this was pre-TIVO), flicks like The Shining and Prince of Darkness left me sleeping with the lights on, while cult classics like Evil Dead II were as much exhilarating as they were terrifying - a mental roller coaster ride that left me wanting more.

So when I got invited last week to check out the BLACKOUT Haunted House currently running here in New York City, I jumped on the chance. But I'm not a kid anymore, and as I started to read the rules of this high-level attraction - which stands as one of the most intensive haunted house experiences in a city of discerning thrill-seekers - I started to get a little nervous:


"There is absolutely no speaking allowed inside. You can, however, scream as loud as you'd like."

"You must wear a protective mask and carry a flashlight at all times."

What was I getting myself into? And -- my post-analysis self started asking with growing interest -- why? After four years of anlaysis, and two years of writing this column, deeper and deeper questions about haunted houses - these annual facts of our lives -- started to blow through my nervous brain.

The day of the visit to BLACKOUT, I went from anxious to excited, trepidatious to triumphant (in advance). To make a long story short - I came, I survived, and I had my mind and body appropriately scrambled in between.

There were no ghosts and goblins in this house, however - part of the trip is that you're on the run from real people, and not a suggestion of the paranormal. Along the way, I realized that suspense in an FX-laden film is one thing - subjecting all six senses (let's not forget propreoception) to excruciating tension is quite another.

If you can't visit an alternate dimension anytime soon, I highly recommend seeking out a short-term transporting experience like this, in NYC or your neck of the woods. It felt strangely liberating to leave the comfort zone, controlled as the conditions were.

Afterwards, I set out to get my questions about the psychology of haunted houses answered, so I went straight to the source: BLACKOUT creator Josh Randall, an "extreme theater" veteran with a decidedly unique outlook on entertainment.

What kind of person puts one of these extra-curricular experiences together? And who in their right mind obliges them with a visit? Read my interview with Randall to find out.

Josh, why do you think people are attracted to experiences like BLACKOUT, and haunted houses in general?

Audiences want to know if they can make it all the way through BLACKOUT without calling safety. The fear they experience in that time give them a rush, and makes you feel more alive.

On the other side, what drives you and your partners to create a haunted house?

Haunted houses are satisfying for us to create because we are very clearly able to see the effect we have on people. When you work on a traditional theater piece, most of the time the responses comes long after the audiences have left the theater -- maybe they discuss it at dinner afterwards, or before going to bed.

With the haunted house, the audience members come out of the house sweating, panting, and looking like they've just been put through the ringer. It's an immediate response that is very gratifying for (BLACKOUT cofounder) Kristjan Thorgeirsson and I to watch. We know immediately what works and what doesn't. Our goal is to elicit any kind of response, and in this extreme event, the results are very clear.

When I met him at the site, Kris told me that a great deal of the planning for BLACKOUT, and your other immersive theater experiences, is psychological. Can you explain more about that?

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.

As I'm sure you know, the majority of the decisions we make in life are made to keep us safe and keep us out of harm's way - trying to bypass that and push people into genuinely frightening situations is our aim. For that to happen, we need to understand the psychology of fear and how to manipulate it to our advantage.

Is there a psychological profile of someone who enjoys their experience at BLACKOUT?

It's an adrenaline rush and our House tends to draw out audience members that seek extreme experiences. No different than jumping out of a plane - our audience is looking for a thrill to release endorphins and make them feel alive.

On that note, I would describe some of the situations within BLACKOUT as "psychosexual". What's the particular charge -- and challenge -- of mixing sex and danger in an experience like this?

The only challenge is making the actors feel safe. Other than that we take the same amount of care in the sexual situations as we do with everything else.

It's a carefully calibrated performance and series of actions that drive the person from one room to the next. Using sex only helps to heighten the intensity of the experience and reinforce the notion that we are not afraid to "go there".

It also strips -- quite literally -- the artifice from the scene, as it's very apparent that there are no prosthetics, make-up, or fake blood to hide the reality of the situation. When someone is naked and coming at you, it's an incredibly visceral thrill that you cannot escape from. There's nothing to hide.

Flipping that, I understand that about 20% people need to invoke the "safe word" - which immediately halts the action and gets you escorted outside -- on any given night. What are the psychological factors that would cause this to be an overwhelming, intolerable experience?

Kris and I try to tap into some basic fears and hopefully allow the audience members to fill in the rest. If you've been sexually abused in the past, you're going to have a hard time in our house. If you've had a near-drowning experience, you're going to have a hard time. If you're terribly afraid of the dark, again, you're going to have a hard time.

Our biggest asset in the haunted house is allowing people to project their own fears into the situation we provide. We once heard someone talk about hearing "monster noises" and that's why he had to leave and call safety - but there were no monster noises. Another person's father had passed away from a drowning accident, and that person called safety during the "water torture" portion of the house.

It's our goal to set up just enough so that the audience members fill in the rest -- since fear is subjective there is only so much we can do. But if we can create the event so that the sets/costumes/scenarios are partially designed by us, and then partially designed by the person who walks through them - we've been successful because we're allowing each audience member to bring in what scares them the most. And since that's different for everyone, our best asset is to allow the audience to scare themselves.

I'm also curious if there is any psychological profile of the type of actors you select for extreme performances like BLACKOUT -- what makes someone particularly well-suited for fulfilling your vision inside the experience?

To be honest, there's nothing specific. We seek out brave actors who can accept the extreme nature of the event and find a perfect balance between "acting" and just allowing the situation to naturally unfold. Since every audience member is different, it's up to the actors to determine how far to go, or consequently, how much to pull back.

Our actors need to be focused, intense, and be able to maintain an intense amount of tension for a sustained period of time. And they also have to be cool people who we want to spend time with. Nine times out of ten, we choose the actors first and then design the rooms around their strengths and weaknesses.

What they do is incredibly difficult! The people in there that night definitely had an effect on me. Here's my last question: What do you think are the benefits to someone of going through a challenging, but controlled, experience like a haunted house? Even if you're afraid of visiting BLACKOUT, or something like it, why is it potentially a good thing to do for your psyche?

I'm not sure we can speak to that - truthfully, we'll leave that answer to the psychologists. All we know is that people do like it and do feel a strong rush once they've come out.

Much like any adrenaline-pumping experience, it's about testing your own limits and pushing yourself to the edge. For many people, our haunted house does that. We're happy to provide that for them.

-- Mr. Analysand

BLACKOUT is running through October 31. For more information visit them at