Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Jon Schnitzer’s “Haunters: The Art of the Scare” is a loving tribute to people who love to terrify people for a living—or just for fun. There are three subjects: legendary haunter Shar Mayer; Donald Julson, creator of Nightmare on Loganberry Haunted Attraction; and Russ McKamey, creator of the infamous McKamey Manor, highly controversial due to claims of assault and torture occurring there. Although energetic and well-intentioned, the documentary lacks a consistent propulsive trajectory. Just when it is beginning to get interesting due to the nature and type of questions being asked, it has a habit of jumping onto the next subject—as if it is afraid to tackle the more awkward or difficult subjects straight on. And so interest wanes.
Perhaps most highly regarded of the three is Shar Mayer, a haunter who has been in the business for decades. When the camera focuses on her face as she recalls specific haunts, there is a certain glint in her eyes that makes her look twenty years younger. She is so enthusiastic in retelling personal experiences, notice there is no need to cut to recordings of people trapped in mazes being scared witless. The reason is because there is already joy in her words and animated facial expressions. She does not need to say how much she loves what she does. We feel it in every fiber of her being. It is amazing how she embodies her character, for example, when a mask is plastered on her face. She is a true performer. Everything changes: her voice, her laughter, her posture, the way she blinks or moves her lips. It is not a surprise she has garnered so much respect in the haunt community.
The amusing portion of the film—which I found to be least interesting—is Donald’s passion for his Loganberry project. The haunt is composed of simple scares, and it is very family-friendly. Seeing glimpses of his haunt made me feel warm. It is ordinary, familiar, the kind I visited when growing up. Donald prepares months in advance, much to the dismay of his loving wife (who would rather prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas), but the attraction is open for only four hours during Halloween night.
Donald’s love for his work is admirable, but I wished the documentary focused more on his sacrifices to make the haunt successful. For example, although the married couple are interviewed together, which creates an impression that all is well, there is telling a moment when Donald receives a text from his partner claiming she has had enough with all the Halloween planning—either head home the moment he received the text message or do not come home for the night. There is talk about going over budget and implications of Donald not living up to his potential. Here is a man who was the prop master for movies like “Minority Report” and “Van Helsing.” Clearly, he is great at his craft. And so his segment ought to have been more in-depth, more probing, more curious.
And then there is the McKamey Manor, infamous for having the reputation of being a torture chamber than an actual haunt. The film brings up an interesting point: Over the years, haunts have become more extreme because people require more to be scared. I enjoyed that Schnitzer is willing to ask Russ questions such as whether he himself would go through his own haunt. He provides a funny—but informative—answer. Still, there are serious concerns about his haunt: underaged teenagers being hired, the lack of a safe word for participants who wish to quit the intense attraction, legitimate concerns from neighbors not being taken seriously at all.
It is clear that Russ is a fun-loving guy. But there is an impression that he fails to take into account how people feel during or after the experience. We watch participants (not customers since there is no monetary payment provided, just cans of dog food which go to a good cause) being drowned, confined in tight spaces like coffins, eat questionable food which make them vomit, insects and bugs being placed on their faces. It is—and it is meant to be—extreme. Most heartbreaking is when participants watch videos of their humiliation. It brings up a number of moral and ethical questions.
“Haunters: The Art of the Scare” also consists of interviews of sociologists, historians, a creative director at Universal Studios, members of the Air Force, film producers. While their takes are welcome, their contributions are treated mostly as color commentary. I would rather have learned more about the history of horror and haunts, their relationship with economic downturns, how the fantasy or experience—being scared—is utilized as a tool to exorcise our own frustrations, fears, and concerns in real life.