Haunted houses are designed to scare the shit out of you. Their mission: complete immersion in the world of terror. You don't just watch violence and fear like you would in a movie; you are a tool for violence and fear. Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and you want to run even though logically you know that there is nothing to be afraid of.
A prefect example: Blackout, New York City's scariest haunted house. (There's one in Los Angeles, too.) The creators, Josh Randall and Kris Thor, are evil geniuses designing the experience to simulate their own deepest darkest fears since 2009. “We kind of just sort of did it to see what would happen, and within two days there was a line around the corner," says Randall. "We were touching people, making them sign waivers and seeing just how far people will take themselves.”
Oh yeah, there’s a waiver. It’s given to you when you first arrive at the obscure location, which doesn’t even have a sign above the door - you have to just know that this is the place where horror-junkies come to die. You’re given this waiver by two stone-faced physically-imposing men who don’t break their character for anything, and you realize that this is the beginning of psychological torture. You want to connect with people, you want reassurance that no, you’re really not going to get hurt, and the waiver is simply for insurance purposes.
But that reassurance doesn’t come.
The waiting game is what really builds up the anticipation and wreaks havoc on the body. The room they have you waiting in is dark, if not borderline pitch-black, and the man in a suit who brings you downstairs barks at you to “get against the wall.” Your heels must be directly against that brick otherwise he’ll yell again.
Brittany Smith and I arrived early, so we were forced to wait in that dark room a good 30 minutes. We met a girl who came by herself last year and she described Blackout as, “the most screwed up experience you’ll ever have. My friends refuse to come with me. Yes, it’s that bad.” Needless to say, she didn’t help calm our nerves at all.
Getting scared is a full-body experience. A study done a few years ago showed that watching scary movies can burn up to 200 calories at a time. "As the pulse quickens and blood pumps around the body faster, the body experiences a surge in adrenaline. It is this release of fast-acting adrenaline, produced during short bursts of intense stress (or in this case, brought on by fear), which is known to lower the appetite, increase the basal metabolic rate and ultimately burn a higher level of calories," Dr. Richard Mackenzie told The Guardian. Another study suggests that watching scary movies can increase white blood cell count, which could actually give your immune system a boost.
That fight-or-flight reaction is something the creators of Blackout have noticed in the countless people who line up outside their doors every October.
“The waiting in line part is the scariest – we have cameras on everything," says Randall. "Watching the people in line just the body language alone is just astonishing. People are either crazy fidgety or they’re still. You can see the veins in the neck, you can actually watch their veins getting bigger and brighter. They’re on their knees and their facing a wall. You can see their pulse.”
When the waiting game is finally over, the man in the suit comes back and hands each one of us a mask to be secured over our ears and mouth. The drunk girl behind us promptly snaps hers trying to pull it on over her head and wails, “I fucking broke it!” Though this eases the tension and ripples some laughter around the room, we’re all feeling restricted physically – it’s not easy to breathe anymore, we are now starting the process of mental torture.
Next you're given a set of headphones to listen to your instructions for the night. You are ordered to stand around a radio that serves to get inside your mind and mess with your perception of reality. The woman on the other end tells you that you are on a team, and you will all have to “lead” the group at some point in the experience. She then proceeds to tell you the “safe word” (which is ironically “safety") and that if two of you end up yelling out the safety word, the entire group must leave. Needless to say, by the end of this experience I was clutching Brittany’s hand for dear life, the mask over my mouth already drying out my lips, and my heart pounding out of my chest. Then the lights cut out.
Without giving too much away, when the creators called this extreme haunted house “Blackout” they weren’t kidding. Your first give minutes are spent in complete darkness trying to find your way, and the rest of the journey is an intense psychosexual experience designed, according to Randall, to express the true meaning of being scared. “Once you’ve answered too many questions for an audience member, it doesn’t leave them scared or disturbed. If you’re able to keep them asking questions and keep that fear and tension, that’s a truly uniquely frightening experience.”
Aside from the health benefits people get from being scared, like caloric expenditure from having your heart pound, it’s also really freaking fun. It reinforces the idea that living life on the edge is the way to go and that pushing the human mind to visit a place it would rather not is a healthy dose of good old-fashioned exercise.
While Blackout was the haunted house we visited, there are plenty of Haunted Houses around the country that can scare the pants off of you and whoever you decide to drag along. Here are some fright fests from around the country:
Woods of Terror (Greensboro, NC): These 20 acres of horror are one of the top-ranked attractions in the country.
The Terrorfest (Columbus, OH): Formerly called the “House of Nightmares,” this attraction includes over 60 actors and terrorizing sets.
Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia, PA): This haunted house is literally set in a state prison, and was ranked the no. 1 haunted house in America by AOL City Guide. Need we say more?
The House of Shock (New Orleans, LA): This is the final year for this fearfully popular attraction, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best.