Before I make my case, let me say this, lest I be written off as a fuddy-duddy old scaredy cat — I’ve always adored this time of year and all the creepy, dark things that go with it. I was that kid who would seek out the scariest books and watch the scariest movies. The "Halloween" theme song made me giddy with anticipation the way “Jingle Bells” probably does for other people. I love the ambiance of the whole season: longer evenings punctuated by gusts of cold air and crunchy leaves, the sense of nature shedding the year and getting ready to hibernate and begin again, the fear that something menacing is watching from the shadows.
I spent hours upon hours of my teens and twenties contacting the dead through Ouija boards, reading tarot cards, and visiting places rumored to be truly haunted. I could tell real life spooky stories most people wouldn’t believe, and I believe in things that most people would find unbelievably eerie. But there’s a line even I wouldn’t cross as a feminist, as an abuse survivor, as a human being.
Halloween, in its many guises — Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, All Saint’s Day — is said to be the time when the veil between this world and the next is thin, when spirits and all sorts of unexplainable phenomenon have access to the earthly plane. Some of them are good and some are not. Most of our traditions, like dressing-up as ghouls and demons or setting out lanterns, are based on attracting the nice ones and scaring the bad ones off.
Whether you believe in any of that or not, it’s only natural to have a fascination with the death and the afterlife. It is, after all, the true final frontier, and one we probably won’t ever be able to explore or explain, unless major scientific breakthroughs someday make that possible.
But I feel like we've gone overboard sometime in the past decade or so. We’ve forgotten the mythical and spiritual aspects of Halloween and have turned it into a celebration of inhumane brutality instead. Eighties slasher films like "Friday the 13th," already in bad taste to many, have morphed into even more severe torture porn like "Saw," "Hostel," and "The Human Centipede."
And our appetite for that type of gore and violence seems to be boundless. If you aren’t satisfied with simply watching people being viciously gutted on screen, you can now pay to participate yourself.
So-called “extreme haunted houses” are for those who don’t get enough post-traumatic stress from the run-of-the-mill masked maniac chasing you with a chainsaw. Not content with being grabbed by mummies or shocked by pop-up zombies, some hardcore horror fans want to be the star of the show at places like McKamey Manor in California.
According to Inquisitr, visitors to extreme haunted houses are not permitted to go in groups (moral support lessens the sense of isolation and terror), are “seen being held against their will, hit, punched, bound, and gagged” and have come out of the experience “physically injured with numerous scrapes, cuts, and bruises. Participants can also be seen shivering and in ‘shock.’” The article goes on to say that at another extreme haunted house in New York, “patrons have ended up half-naked, bound, and gagged, standing opposite a highway in full view of the world.”
I know — what’s the problem? These are adults, after all, and they signed a waiver. They even undergo screening before they’re allowed to come in. In theory, it seems like mostly harmless — if maybe a little over the top — fun. Just entertainment. I don’t begrudge anyone their version of a good time, even if I don’t get it. But I wonder, what does this really say about our culture?
When I see the pictures from inside McKaney Manor, I can’t help but think of the people for whom being kidnapped, tortured, assaulted, and murdered is a real-life nightmare and not some type of abstract amusement, and they are almost always the most vulnerable: LGBTQ communities, people of color, children, women of all backgrounds. Nearly every day, I hear of another. I imagine people who have to wake up daily to this terror, either as survivors or the loved ones of those lost, and I feel like it’s a twisted form of privilege to voluntarily participate in it for kicks.
What would we think of an amusement park based on a real-life genocide, where people sign up to be beaten by actors dressed as military guards and threatened with all manner of abuse and pain and death? These torture houses are just as vile to me as that would be. I’m not calling for a ban, or uniformly denouncing people who participate, but I am asking that we step back and think about the ways in which we entertain ourselves, and at what expense.
What has become of our humanity when we can think subjecting ourselves to hours (yes, hours — the typical “experience” at McKamey Manor reportedly runs four or more, though few manage to make it all the way through) of torture is fun? How dead are our emotions that this is what it takes to draw them out? Have we lost the ability to be afraid without having to go so far? I am reminded of Roman gladiator shows, of people cheering as others are being executed in public places. Is that the logical conclusion to this unending trend? How much horror will ever be enough?
Stephanie Sylverne is a writer and mother.