I am being recorded on video as I read from a waiver. I have seen many such waivers, but this one is more frightening than most. It is long, but certain phrases stick out… Castle of Chaos Level 5 Castle of Chaos Level 5 Castle of Chaos Level 5 Castle of Chaos Level 5
“My name is… I am of sound mind and body… intense experience which is meant to create maximum intensity and stress… water and head coverings that make breathing difficult… scratches, bruises, electrical shocks, rough handling, blindfolds, submersion… intense body temperature changes… loss of consciousness… restraints of all kinds, confined spaces, demeaning acts of submission… insects, food ingestion… religious themes, hazing… I am okay getting dirty, wet and cold… you may lie to me… this event starts now and continues until sunrise…”
Why Am I Here?
I had traveled to Utah with friends to try myself against Castle of Chaos’ Level 5 overnight experience. Castle of Chaos is a longstanding and popular haunted house, that for years has offered their signature four levels of terror where Levels 3 and 4 involve touch. This last October, they introduced a fifth level, venturing firmly into extreme haunt territory. Starting in December, they began offering a monthly opportunity to experience this level of hospitality for an entire night. We were the third group to attempt this.
On arrival, we got to meet the rest of our group of seven. Everyone else was local to the area, and for all of them, it was their first extreme haunt. My god, I thought, did they read that waiver? They’re going to die. I mean, so am I, but at least I gave informed consent… (Spoiler alert: They did fine!)
(Let me point out now that the waiver was at the same time literally true – as serious as a heart attack – and a masterwork of devious psychological warfare. The waiver was a star in its own right, and had given me a couple of sleepless nights.)
Somewhat confusingly, the Level 5 extreme experience had its own 1-10 intensity scale, where the default and minimum starting point was a 7. You could raise it to 8, 9 or 10 by stating this desire when they recorded your recital of the waiver. This would apparently both increase the intensity of the content that was already in one’s show, and unlock additional, boundary-crossing content. Exactly what that was, you’d find out if you tried it. Another option, which again required asking for it on camera, was to waive the safe word. To be clear, you’d still have one, but the people you’d be entertaining at the time would just start ramping down the intensity over the course of up to ten minutes. I decided the defaults were just fine in all respects, especially since, when I’d asked about higher levels, I’d been informed no one had ever finished the night at them.
Our particular experience had been customized to include both the Castle’s Serial Killer escape room (a grueling two-hour event) and the haunted house itself, both reimagined to Level 5 standards. Before either began, we had a safety briefing that covered the ground rules. We were encouraged to ask questions, and reminded that this was the last time all night that we could expect to get honest answers. Our host finished by holding up a crisp $20 bill, offering it to anyone who would increase their intensity level to above 7 then and there. There were no takers, so things began in earnest, and the friendliness disappeared.
The Fun Begins
First, we were lined up and hooded to be led to the escape room. There was to be a lot of hooding throughout the night as part of going from one room to another. It was scarcely necessary, as the entire venue might as well be one huge labyrinth. This was literally an underground event.
The premise and structure of the escape room were clever. We were bank robbers who’d committed a highly successful heist but, not trusting each other, had buried the loot with locks requiring an individual combination from each of us. We each had a list of four clues as to the location (the same for each of us) plus our unique combination. Unfortunately, we’d celebrated our success a bit too publicly, and hadn’t kept a very close eye on our drinks. This is why we’d all just woken up handcuffed to a web of chains, and in the hands of a group of serial killers who were quite keen to get that list of clues from us. We would certainly die if we didn’t escape in two hours, but it was possible to survive without our profits if the interrogators had gotten enough clues out of us.
The puzzles in the escape room were also clever – I think. It was hard to concentrate on them given that, every few minutes, one of the serial killers would come into our holding room, and pick one of us to be hooded and dragged off. Given how shaken people looked when they returned, I was not looking forward to that part. Eventually, I got my first private entertainment.
And no, I won’t be going into a lot of detail about what happened there. The content list in the waiver was substantially accurate. Probably the closest cousin to this event in the extreme haunt world is the UK’s Cracked, a long, endurance-focused event notable for the things you have to be covered in, let crawl on you, and/or eat. (Disclosure: I have not attempted that one.) In any case, Castle of Chaos does have bugs, but much, much more; when a tormentor took you away, they had many rooms to choose from, each featuring unique entertainment just for you. It was quite possible to finish the night without seeing all of them.
I will say that I didn’t let the team down by giving up any of the clues, and even managed to ignore the looming serial killers long enough to contribute to one of the puzzles. We finished the game with 12 minutes to spare and our loot intact, but a couple of our number had already quit.
In For The Long Haul
With very little fanfare, we were escorted to a room where we’d be spending the majority of the night. The tiny, oddly shaped common room was furnished with a concrete floor, a TV playing non-stop horror movies (I finally got to see a bit of Repo: A Genetic Opera!), an inexplicable mannequin of a bride, and the dread of having several shadowy entrances on all sides from which tormentors could leap out to hood and collect you. If you’d brought a pillow and blanket as recommended, you could try to sleep. I strongly suggest against that; a less restful room would be hard to imagine. This room was the closest thing to downtime all night, but hardly a minute would go by without low growling or footsteps from outside the entrances. Oh, and I almost forgot – we were promised that leaving that room without permission or an escort would result in severe punishment. With nothing to do but wait, we got to know and like each other well, and shared confidences and life stories.
Our group initially filled the little room to overflowing, with not quite enough room for everyone to spread out their blankets and sleeping bags. Through the night, as people quit one by one, there was a lot more room to spread out, but the tension never, ever slacked. Eventually, you would even start to wish you were picked by the next tormentor, just to get the horrible waiting over with.
This is probably a good point to mention again the lies we were warned about. There were many, but a large number of them involved the time. Any watches or electronics had been put in lockers at the start of the night, so we had to gauge our progress by adding up tortures and film runtimes. One harrowing “entertainment” might end with your host encouraging you that there were only three hours left, and the next with them saying, “Well, you got through that one, but of course there are six hours left to go…”
There was a safe word, of course. Unlike many events, using it didn’t necessarily end your experience. Discretion was left up to the person you were with, but typically you were given a moment to recover, and then asked if you wanted to resume. After all, their goal was to extend your suffering as long as possible, and if you willingly re-entered the fun, so much the better. There was always the possibility, though, that any time using the safe word might be your last. I ended up using it several times, each time fully aware I might be out, but was always offered the chance to continue and did. The staff was obviously learning a great deal about each person’s limits, and occasionally exceeding them, then backing off a bit.
(It is entirely possible that safe word policies will change with their later events, and I suspect different rules might apply in any case above an intensity level of 7.)
Even without breaking character, the cast was able to provide care for their guests. As promised, we were wet, cold, and dirty in full measure. (Though “dirty” doesn’t capture the smell.) After one particularly horrible room that left me especially wet and cold, I was shivering for most of the rest of the night. Periodically, I’d be given an extra bit of quiet recovery time in a pile of blankets in between torments. Wow, they’re being so nice now, I’d start to think, but this would be offset by people saying things like, “You know, you look like a chihuahua shivering like that.” (This was an especially ominous comment if you were aware that there was a dog kennel on the premises.)
Things Get Psychological
What seemed at first like a night of nonstop torture with no plot or point eventually was revealed to have quite a narrative, or at least a meta-narrative. A character foreshadowed at the very beginning made his appearance sometime around the witching hour, and the tone began to change. The physical onslaught, if anything, got worse, but the psychological angle became extremely important. Those of us left started to become aware that our captors had not only been studying our reactions throughout the night, but knew a surprising amount about our outside lives, hopes, dreams, friends, fears, and travel schedules. Furthermore, this event was not quite what it seemed.
The last hour or two was the emotional payoff for the whole ordeal, but only two of us were still there to experience it. There was hope (always quickly dashed), betrayal, and plot twists. Sadistic choices threatened friendships. There were several points during which I couldn’t decide between laughing at an expertly crafted reversal, and sobbing in frustration and despair, so I settled on doing both at the same time.
Even the most hellish nights eventually end. In my case, it ended when I called the safe word one final time at what turned out to be just five seconds before sunrise. What defeated me that time? Without giving away a truly masterful ploy, I will summarize it as two consecutive and brilliant lies, one final wet hood, and an empty but very believable threat.
After babbling my way through an exit interview, again on video, and insisting my interviewer prove to me what time it really was, I was reunited with the rest of the group in a room where the newly-risen sun was in fact visible. The cast, unmasked, looked quite friendly and completely human, and graciously stayed to answer all the questions we had. One thing they told me is that they still had some plot twists in store should I choose to return, and Levels 8 and up have some interesting surprises as well.
One final thing: I should point out that in the interest of maintaining the integrity of the experience, I too have told a few lies in this review. But then, is there ever really such a thing as a reliable narrator?
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Castle of Chaos offers overnight Level 5 haunts monthly, but has other off-season events, plus their Level 5 Serial Killer escape room by itself. For more information and tickets, please check their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. For more local events, check out our Events Guide.