There’s a difficult time when we are young and are just discovering what boundaries are, those invisible lines that each of us has and never wants crossed. The easy thing is learning that there are boundaries, the hard part is knowing where they are with each situation and each person. Each circumstance dictates different behavior and each person demands different boundaries. Learning and respecting these boundaries is part of growing up and is something none of us can fully master. All of us have those awkward moments where we go to hug someone who doesn’t want to be touched, or don’t hug someone who does. We have those moments where we make a joke that wasn’t appropriate for the time or audience. All of us goes through these growing pains.
Welcome to the fun of humanity.
We are at a crossroads, in society, with a lot of issues and ideas and the idea of boundaries is one of those that, while not noticed, is at the base of what is shifting. How far is too far is something we have always struggled with but the shift in gender and sexuality that has been happening has set off a lot of boundary debates. As things shift in society this is bound to happen but we are definitely at a very emotional crossroads that is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time to see through.
This past weekend I attended a ‘horror campout’ where you would camp out overnight and be scared over the course of many hours. Think of it as like a haunted house but with camping. The event promised its patrons ‘extreme scares’ and warned there would be dragging. I can’t tell you how extreme the scares were but I did see some dragging, people being tied up, and a young woman being put on her belly with her arms behind her back and someone sitting astride her. All of it unnerved me and made me really start to think about personal and cultural boundaries, especially in relation to haunted attractions.
As I said, all of us have our boundaries, or limits if you prefer and while it takes time to learn all of them once you know them you KNOW them. Sure, we sometimes allow people to push our limits and once in a while it can help us open and grow but most times these moments serve only as bitter reminders of why we have our limits in the first place. Pushing boundaries is about power as much as it is anything else and power can be easily abused.
The thing about haunted attractions is that it lets people live within the horror movie for a short time. They get to face the boogiemen, the ghosts, the demons, the monsters and survive. They get to venture into the darkness and come out in the light at the end. They let us tap into that primal part of us that is so deeply connected to our childhood and for a short time we can get an adrenaline rush with no harmful consequences. The thing is though that the art of the haunt seems to be dying as more and more move to the ‘extreme’ scares. Once upon a time a haunted attraction was about you being put into scenarios or scenes where something or someone would scare you, or at least try. There was a lot of play with darkness, with confusion, with misdirection, and with shock. Slowly the people began being replaced by animatronics, which has been the big trend for the last decade or so. Sure, there are humans in the attractions but most of the scares come from something popping out of you, screaming at you, or flailing in the background of a scene. The animatronic scares work best as backgrounds or when used sparingly but it’s been my experience that the more you lean on them the smaller the scares. The animatronics cannot adapt to the guests and they are so stiff in movement that beyond a slight shock you don’t get genuinely scared. From animatronics the attractions got I gorier and gorier so that people became so accustomed to outrageous scenes of blood and grue that they stopped being effective in unsettling people. Now we are in an era of the ‘extreme’ scare.
What is an ‘extreme’ scare? An ‘extreme’ scare is where the performers can yell at you, scream at you, swear at you, push you, pull you, drag you, and get overall physical with you so you feel threatened and scared. I don’t doubt it is effective for many people. Having someone break through your boundaries can scare you to your core. It can frighten you. People have become so jaded, so indifferent to imagined terror that I can absolutely see the allure of the ‘extreme’ scare. If you can’t scare the guests then your business is shot. The problem is that once you commit to the ‘extreme’ scare…there is nowhere left to go. When people get jaded to being yelled at and pushed around, even having gross things done to them, what then? There’s nothing left. You can’t HARM the people. You can’t KILL the people. So what do you do? Once you break all the boundaries, the boundaries you CAN break, where do you go?
You go broke.
Boundaries exist for many reasons but one of them is so that we can know how much is too much, how far is too far, and when we have had enough. Take the boundaries away, or push them too far then you either break the person or you break the experience. Sure, there are people who love the extremes in life, they wanna be not just pushed but shoved when they do things. Those people have always existed and always will. The thing though is that they are not the ‘rule’, they are the ‘exception’. Most people want to test themselves, see WHAT their limits are but they don’t want to push well past them. Those limits exist for a reason and most people respect that. So we drive a LITTLE too fast, and go a LITTLE too far when we do things that scare us but most of us don’t have an interest in seeing how far we can go because we don’t want to lose control. There is safety in control. Ah, but scares are all about losing control and that’s where the trouble comes in.
To me, the ‘extreme’ haunts are lazy. It’s easy to scare someone, at least for a moment, if you threaten them or put them in situations where they could genuinely be in some danger of harm. It’s an easy scare because there is no skill needed, no art to it, and it’s honestly shooting for the lowest common denominator. If being screamed at and pushed and shoved don’t freak you out then a haunt is not what you are looking for at all. You want something much, much darker. And fine. Swell. Truly, each to their own. But here’s the thing – a haunted attraction is ABOUT the art. It IS the art. There is a roughness to a haunt but there’s also refinement and care and when you take that away you are losing the heart of what makes a haunt so special.
A really good haunted attraction tells a story. It weaves a world where anything can happen and does. It tricks you, if just for a moment, into thinking something could be going on that shouldn’t. I remember when I was 18 and going through a haunt at a haunted hotel and remember them telling us that the place really was haunted and that the ghosts had appeared during the haunt itself from time to time and it amped the experience up because I was LOOKING for ghosts. There was another that I went to a few years back that wove a great story and kept to it. They didn’t mix clowns and killbillies. They didn’t mix aliens and mad bombers. They kept to the story and the things in the story are what came after you. They also used set design to create set pieces that put you on edge. Sure, no one REALLY believes that a boogeyman is going to get you but you want to believe one COULD get you. You have to have a story, something so people have a base to build from. Tell them a place is haunted and their mind fills in blanks. You let the guest do the work for you. Once you have the story you build sets that take advantage of that story and that exploit people’s fears. Rooms that are off kilter, that are dark, that are damp, that have hidden areas, that trick you, or rooms that just seem…off. Next you need the soundtrack, something that isn’t overpowering but which keeps people on edge. Subtlety is best. You don’t want driving music, raging heavy metal, no, you want sounds, nuances that tickle at the back of someone’s spine. The most important piece is the staff. It’s great to have animatronics to fill in and to give an occasional jolt but you want a staff that is dedicated to scaring, can adapt, and knows the boundaries and will keep to them. And again, subtlety is everything. If everyone is screaming or laughing or yelling it kills the mood. You want some to be ‘aggressive’ and others to be ‘passive’, that way the guests don’t know what to expect. You want them to understand that some folks won’t be scared but to still try. When a haunter quits on a group it kills the entire haunt and takes you out of the moment. With a good staff you can do a lot with very, very little.
And that’s it.
None of it has to be really expensive or high tech. Fear isn’t high tech. Fear is low down and dirty and primal but a haunt has to have boundaries. It has to have a line. The thing is, the patron KNOWS there is a line but deep down, deeeeeeep down they don’t know. They worry. They ask ‘what if’. That’s where you can use dummie guests that you CAN grab and ‘kill’ and ‘torture’. If they see it but it doesn’t happen to them then it lets them think ‘what if?’. What if this is real? THAT is the power of a good haunt. It’s meant to be fun, not traumatic. It’s meant to send shivers and give you chills, not give you emotional trauma. That’s what we’ve lost sight of these past few years as the horror arms race has escalated – the fun. I LOVE horror films and attractions that genuinely unnerve me but just as much I like them that have fun and are dedicated to the fun side of horror. The playful scare that wants to give you goosebumps but doesn’t want to harm you. Horror has gotten too mean spirited of late and the haunts reflect that. It’s good to look into the well of darkness but once in a while it’s nice to know that you can look away. Humor has been cut from haunts and it’s a huge mistake. You need the laughter, nervous, uneasy laughter, to set up the next scare. If you push too hard for the entirety of the haunt then it all blurs together and loses its impact. It’s a dull gray roar or fear and not a vibrant rainbow of terror.
The fact is that some people will always want their horror more extreme. That’s fine. It’s awesome. But with a haunt attraction there’s got to be way more craft, way more art for it to be memorable. Why are people going for the extreme? Because there’s nothing else new. No one is innovating. No one is breaking ground. No one is taking from the past and improving it. All we have are mimics of one another. It’s an arms race with mirrors and smoke. There’s a lot to be done with the way haunts are created and run, a lot to be learned, and a lot of fun to be had without going ‘extreme’, it just takes an innovative and creative mind to make it happen.
Me, I am always looking for the unique haunts. I can get ‘extreme’ in any number of ways in real life and for me, I prefer the fun escape of the unreal and not the despairing horror of reality. I’d like to think there are others out there with the same feelings.