Miasma Extreme Haunt Lessons

Twelve Extreme Haunt Lessons Essential for All Creators

BLACKOUT pioneered the full-contact immersive horror genre in 2009 and further refined it over the next decade. Heretic remixed the theatrical haunted house idea in 2012 and added aggressive brutality that would become synonymous with the extreme haunt name. These two horror experiences served as forefathers for the genre and inspired a very small, but vibrant second generation of extreme horror creators, ranging from Miasma in Chicago to Quietus Horror in Belgium to HVRTING in Los Angeles. But as the second generation spawns a third generation of extreme haunt creators, the second generation creators of these experiences want to impart some of the extreme haunt lessons, knowledge, and hardships they have encountered.

 

This article was born from discussions among multiple first- and second-generation haunt creators, including Justin Brink of Miasma; Josh Randall of BLACKOUT; Mathias Verduyckt of Quietus Horror; Lee Conway of Faceless Ventures; Will Wakefield of Shock Theater; Alex C. James, Amori Stewart, Paul Stephen Edwards, and Reyna “Chainsaw Queen” Velarde of BL4KM4SS and Heretic; along with others whom wish to remain anonymous. While Taylor Winters of HVRTING serves as the main author, the ideas expressed are those of many. Read on for our eleven lessons essential for any extreme haunt creator to understand.

 

Blackout - Physical Touch

BLACKOUT

 

1. Determine Why You Want to Create an Extreme Haunt

I’m going to start out as blunt as I can be: An extreme haunt is one of the most difficult immersive experiences to produce. You won’t make money; you won’t be famous; there is an incredibly small (but growing) audience, who will be hesitant to go to an untrusted creator’s experience; you will experience hate from people who don’t understand extreme haunts, other haunt creators, and even your own audiences; and you will have far more liability, safety concerns, and difficulty finding a venue compared to any traditional immersive theater experience. So almost everything is harder than a non-full contact experience. Further, if you’re here to be “the biggest, baddest, scariest dude” in the genre, ready to shave people’s heads and shock them with a fully powered stun gun, you’re just going to get yourself in trouble. You may find some audience, but I promise you, it won’t be sustainable, and you’ll probably end up sued or in jail (and ruin things for the rest of us).

There are names and faces that are well known in this community. Creators that are well-respected among our community of about a thousand. But that’s mainly because they were among the firsts. As saturation builds, you’re just one of many. From personal experience, I will say, you’ll probably get more people upset at you for creating something “where you hurt people” than you’ll get people praising you for it. You’ll put relationships at risk (let me tell you how many dates have been scared away by this), you’ll put your professional career at risk (I can’t show my day-job any of this), and you’ll put your future at risk (if someone gets hurt badly, you’re legally screwed). You may find fame one way though: by hurting someone accidentally or on purpose; and that’s the type of fame you don’t want. Word spreads extremely fast in these communities, and twenty people that didn’t go through your haunt will know what happened 24 hours later, NDA or not. If you injure someone, it most likely will be taken public via social media and you should expect a swift backlash and a ruined name.

With all these reasons why not, why do people start an extreme haunt? Well, as Will Wakefield of Shock Theater says, “I have stories I have to tell, and I would die if I couldn’t tell them.” Many of us grew up consuming and falling in love with horror stories. After discovering the power of immersive theater, it seemed like the perfect medium for horror: It’s literally living out a horror movie. It provides actual consequence to the choices made in experiences (in a safe manner, of course). These stories have lived inside of us since we were kids, and immersive horror provides the outlet; we’re a new generation of film makers using the stage instead of the camera.

 

Miasma: Homecoming

Miasma

 

However, there are a lot of extreme haunts that don’t employ a narrative; most notably BLACKOUT, whose lack of a conclusion is the defining characteristic of their experience. They capitalize on recreating a feeling, an aesthetic, or a mood. They also push the bounds of theater, consistently reinventing themselves to stand against the status quo (e.g., using touch when no one did; pushing experience into participants’ homes). This innovation spawned this genre, and their desire to do something that’s never been done before, to explore the unknown, was a main driving factor.

Speak to any of the sustainable creators, and none will tell you they did it to earn money, for fame, or to act out sadistic tendencies. The only answer you’ll hear can be summarized in one word: passion. Passion for stories, passion for theater, passion for horror. I’m not here to tell you this is the only reason. If you have something different, I’d love to hear it, but this is the consistent answer I heard when talking to the extreme haunt creators that have stuck around.

 

Quietus

Quietus

 

2. Physicality Should Be in Service of Improving a Narrative, Mood, or Aesthetic

For the immersive horror crowd, the defining characteristic of an extreme haunt is physical touch. Touch should always be in service of improving the narrative, themes, mood, tone, feeling, or aesthetic of the haunt. The number one way to take an audience member out of an experience mentally is to throw in a random wrestling match or a slap to the face out of nowhere. I have had this conversation with too many participants to count who have complained of this exact phenomenon.

To accomplish this, start with your narrative (or feeling) and add in contact that flows naturally. Think of what would logically make sense, and what consequences would face a participant given these narrative choices. In Heretic’s Hex, the physicality was disguised as three nightmares that all came forth from the darkness after you were put to bed. Yes, it was intense, but the entire show was building up to the bed and the violent nightmares that were experienced there. More recently, in nocent’s A Memory of Murder, the participant arrives to help a frantic and spiraling friend after he killed his drug dealer. But before the two can put the body in the bag, the dealer’s friend arrives, and the participant is instead zipped into the body bag and driven into the desert to be buried in a makeshift grave. In this case, the bag reinforces the theme of friendship for the show: Two people each wanting to put a body in the bag to protect or avenge their friend. The body bag then serves as the transition into the second half of the experience (a rebirth), when the participant emerges into the desert after their eulogy is read. Thus, the body bag is not simply an added torture, but a key prop that drives the narrative and elevates themes.

While the previous examples demonstrate how a moment of fear elevated the themes and story, there are experiences that don’t rely on narrative. Rather, they focus on a series of rooms, each evoking a feeling or tone with no narrative thread. BLACKOUT’s Hell in the Armory: Inferno felt like an otherworldly walk through Hell, but it’s lack of narrative did not detract one bit. The physicality in that experience was inspired by and served to further our immersion in a hellscape. Further, a third category will find a mixing of the two prior: an overlying concept with a hint of narrative, but transitions and scenes that are not directly bound to the narrative. Heretic’s DVIL or The End and Quietus Horror’s Overture are perfect examples of this: a theme with some narrative, spiraling into concepts and emotions linked to that.

 

Ultra Dark's Death Project:Ritual

Ultra Dark’s Death Project:Ritual

 

To me, this fact is not a constraint, but rather an opportunity and a challenge. One of my favorite aspects of writing an experience is determining how to creatively push the boundaries of an extreme haunt. If you want to use water to suffocate in an extreme haunt spa, make it lavender water; if you want to do the same during a Christmas show, switch it to eggnog; and when that becomes expected, then switch back to water. Everything should fit within your world, make sense, and feel natural to the story.

This also provides an opportunity to not just copy other extreme haunts, but instead to take something that has been done and remix it to be your own. By adding your own special flair to an extreme haunt, you draw less comparisons from audiences and creators alike and differentiate yourself from many others on the market. This can be seen with Heretic’s strong use of horrific monsters and surreal nightmares, HVRTING’s mix of horror and humor, BLACKOUT’s lingering feeling that it’s never over, Miasma’s serious and demanding tone, nocent’s religious theming, Victim Experience’s unrelenting look at death, and much more.

 

Heretic's Exoskeleton

Heretic’s Exoskeleton

 

3. Keep Building Dread, because Once Contact Happens, It’s Over

The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. What the participant thinks is going to happen is going to be far scarier than what actually happens. Unless you have an insane budget, a roof to throw someone off (safely), and a scene that is rehearsed until it’s perfect, you’re likely to derive most of your fear from the build-up. This can be the build-up prior to the show that is derived from phone calls, emails or the waiver, or this can be the build-up that is created the minute they walk in the door of your extreme haunt.

One of my all-time favorite experiences was Heretic’s The Cabin. The story was vague and the instructions simple: Six friends meet for a get-away vacation in a remote cabin in Big Bear. We were told to arrive at 3pm, but the experience would start after 5:30pm. The minute the clock hit 5:30, our blood pressure skyrocketed, and we jumped at every noise, watched every person intently as they walked up the street, and couldn’t sit still. That period, before we finally got the knock on the door, was the most frightening part of the show for us.

This aspect of extreme haunts worked so wonderfully because we knew what Heretic was capable of. The summation of thoughts of all the frightening things they could do was far scarier than what actually happened. For your brand-new extreme haunt, you have the power of the unknown working even more powerfully for you. People know what an extreme haunt is capable of, but they don’t know what you are capable of. Use this to your advantage. Set the right expectations (we’ll talk more to this later), but let the fear persist before you finally show them what you can do.

 

BL4KM4SS | M P4rt II

BL4KM4SS | M P4rt II

 

Once you have been touched, the flight-or-fight mode is activated fully. Your mind is no longer focused on the sets, the dialogue, the acting, the themes; instead, it shifts to just making it through the torture. There’s no worries or dwelling on what comes next, you are fully present in that feeling (which is noted as a selling point of extreme haunts). But know that once you start the torture, the feeling of dread you’ve so expertly crafted is now gone and you have to start all over again.

So, at what point do you start your aggression and reveal your hand to the player? While every experience is completely different and this is not an absolute rule, I find that pauses, rests, and waiting can be some of the strongest tools in a haunter’s arsenal. Specifically, this is introducing a Chekhov’s gun and then waiting to use it, lulling a participant into a false sense of security only to subvert expectation, or saving the climax of the intensity until the end of the experience.

Just remember, the minute you use an item on the participant, it loses its ability to be scary; now, it just hurts.

 

Mrs. Claus' Cookies - HVRTING

HVRTING

 

4. You Do Not Need More Electricity or More Painful Instruments

The cheap and easy way to increase your scares is to increase the pain. It makes sense, right? Well, I guess. If you pull out a zapper, I’m probably not that scared; a taser, yeah, I’m scared now; a cattle-prod, now I’m probably going to safeword. But if you were paying attention to my previous point, scares are not always directly correlated with pain. Yes, the fear of what you might do with it (like using it) is notable, but once you use it, I’m not scared anymore; I’m taken out of the experience and in pain.

Yes, there are some of the greats who have used techniques like this — I’m looking at you Heretic with DVIL’s shocks between the toes. But I didn’t see Heretic ever use any electricity after that show until their end. Even Freakling Bros.’ The Victim Experience, the most extreme experience on our intensity guide, keeps their electricity to very safe levels, and simply finds more innovative ways to utilize it.

 

Faceless Ventures

Faceless Ventures – Fraternity

 

This has been a growing trend of talk in community forums of creators pushing boundaries through bigger bruises, bigger shock value, drug-use in experiences, increased sexuality, cattle-prods, and more — and I’d love to see this one die here. There is no arms race, where each haunt creator is buying more painful instruments of torture (I’m just waiting for someone to use an iron maiden and the rack). Instead, I’d like to challenge you: Find ways to create atmosphere. Scare people with your words, with the dark, with what might happen. Scare them with your stories. Evoke emotion that goes beyond fear. There’s a large spectrum of emotion, and highs make the lows feel even lower.

Touch can have an entire range, from loving and comforting to aggressive and painful. Also, Verduyckt recommends to look at your actors: “If anyone has a specific skill, work with that, instead of only thinking about torture methods, it can only make the concept stand out more. Experience in music, being fluent in a different language, acrobatics, dance… Find a way it might fit in your concept, and use it. And if it doesn’t fit, don’t use it just because you can – make a cohesive whole.”
If you’re reading this and you still want to be the most extreme, then fine, don’t listen to me, and go for it. But build up to it. Don’t try it out of the gate or you are selfishly putting others’ well-being at risk. Remember – people attend these events just as much for the ‘haunt’ part as they do for the ‘extreme’ part. If you are only focused on one aspect, you are missing a huge part of the equation.

 

Shock Theater - Eye For Horror

Shock Theater – Eye For Horror

 

5. Practice, Practice, Practice

All of this is moot if you don’t practice, practice, practice. If you think you’ve practiced enough, practice it more. Don’t just practice with one person or with yourself; practice with a wide range of people. Find the extremes and have people try to do the unexpected — because trust me, participants do weird things in extreme horror experiences.

In one experience, a participant entered an elevated window via a ladder, which was then removed, securing the participant in the bedroom for the duration of the scene. But after a tormentor had finished their scene in the room and left for the next actor to enter, the participant decided she was going to escape, leaping from the window, back into the hands of staff stationed outside. Another company shares a story: “The experience required participants to walk down a hallway, but a few participants simply sat in the living room — and one participant left out the front door.” Everyone will experience this, even Conway: “We’ve had guests run out of the experience twice now: One was on a deserted farm where we ended up chasing them across a field.”

From experience, I can tell you every audience member responds to scenes differently, and both your actors and staff need to practice for these different reactions. Some audience members are incredibly vocal, talking themselves through the scene, yelping in pain, or even screaming loudly; while other participants retreat to a happy place or subspace and become unresponsive. Some will become compliant, responding “yes, sir” to every command; while others will resist and sometimes even fight back (which will end your experience immediately at most shows). Train your actors for each of these variants. During rehearsals, don’t just play the ideal participant, play the various problem participants too. Most will act as you expect, but all it takes is one mistake to ruin everything.

Miasma: Homecoming

Miasma: Homecoming

 

The point here is not just how to learn to do something safely, but it’s to practice until you learn how to handle all the hundreds of things that could go wrong. I can teach someone how to waterboard effectively in thirty minutes. But teaching someone what to do if the participant kicks their feet, if they flail their hands and hit your actor, if they begin to drown, if the chair tips back, and about thirty other things — these are what you need to practice and prepare for. You are not an expert, and will not be an expert unless you do this stuff consistently for years.

Beyond practice for theatrical tortures and stunts, Reyna “Chainsaw Queen” Velarde also emphasizes the importance of improvisation and acting. As this is a theater performance, actors must be able to have the agility to respond to any situation. Velarde explains, “We offer improv, stunt and general performance workshops on a regular basis with our cast/crew members. This also helps them be unified during shows.”

In any experience, there are so many scenarios that are difficult to anticipate, and that’s why it’s so important to practice as much you can. In an information class on the use of physical touch by BLACKOUT’s Josh Randall, he speaks of the concept of escalation of force, which is a phenomena in which an actor becomes desensitized to a scene because it’s the tenth or hundredth time they’re experiencing it — so they go progressively harder in terms of physicality each time. However, they must remember that this is the participant’s first time experiencing the scene. So, practice each scene until it’s consistently the same, no matter how many times the actor has done it.

 

nocent | Initiation | Memory of a Murder

nocent

 

Practice what happens when a participant calls the safeword; practice having audience members refuse to do tasks; practice having participants go unresponsive in an intense scene. Train your actors to identify when to let up and what signs to look for. Communicate that it’s okay for an actor to call a safeword on a participant if they feel the participant is in an unsafe situation (sometimes participants will push themselves past the point of their own personal limits to avoid the stigma of calling the safeword). Have protocols in place for all of this and practice them, even if no one is expected to call the safeword.

No scene will ever be 100% safe, but your job here is to mitigate the risk of injury to the lowest possible degree. Ask yourself: Can you afford to pay the medical bill of someone who was hurt doing your show? Do you have a plan in place if your audience member didn’t disclose a medical condition that becomes a problem (or a hidden piercing that ends up caught in netting during an experience)? Are you sure your actor who’s choking your participant isn’t going harder each time? Do you have emergency protocols in place for not just patron issues but natural disasters too? Can you take a punch to the face from a scared participant twice the size of you without returning fire? Is someone available right away that knows CPR? Do you have a first aid kit? It is absolutely irresponsible to move forward with an extreme haunt if you can’t say YES to all of the above.

I’m going to say this here too: If you haven’t been to multiple extreme haunts (let alone one), and you want to create one, no. Go do a bunch and experience them yourself first. If you are too afraid to do an extreme haunt yourself, you have no business creating one – period. Almost all creators I know from Justin Brink to Mathias Verduyckt to myself test everything on themselves before ever doing it to another human being. You can’t create an effective show if you don’t know what it feels like yourself. Seeing what others are doing and how they are doing it will give you perspective of what’s being done and what can be done.

 

HVRTING

HVRTING – Serialized Death

 

Verduyckt adds here: “A test setting never feels exactly like the real thing. It’s an isolated scene, you know what is going to happen, and you are not in the mindset of someone experiencing the full show. That’s why being an actual guest in other shows is so essential – you need to understand the mindset, you need to know how it feels. I’ve tested scenes that I thought were pretty horrible, but that in the actual show were perceived as easy to handle – because of the adrenaline flowing, because guests had been going through other scenes, creating a more accepting mindset. On the other hand, something that seems trivial during practice might feel a lot scarier in a setting where someone is completely immersed into the experience, or if you happen to touch on a specific trigger of a guest.” It’s impossible to gauge how every audience member will react, but the more you do this, the better you become.

The participants are not your test subjects. They are paying customers; make sure the show is ready to go from the first to the last participant. Extreme haunts are full contact sports – for the cast and the participants. It’s your duty, to the absolute best of your abilities, to ensure that no one is harmed beyond a scratch or bruise. That’s not just for the guest – your actors and crew need to be taken into account.

 

nocent | Initiation | Memory of a Murder

nocent

 

6. Who’s On Your Team?

Even if you are the world’s most renowned expert in electricity and waterboarding (and hopefully, not at the same time), you are only one person. You can’t be in every scene, doing every activity. That’s where your team comes into play. You may be the director or the writer, but every single sustained extreme haunt I can think of is balance of at least two people (yes, I’m sure there’s an obscure exception out there): BLACKOUT’s Josh Randall and Kris Thor; Heretic’s Adrian Marcato and Jessica Murder; Quietus Horror’s Mathias Verduyckt and Lila Close; HVRTING’s Taylor Winters and Alyssa Concha; Miasma’s Justin Brink, Dee, and Liz; and Freakling’s JT and Duke Mollner. Some teams even have four founders, like Faceless Ventures’ Lee Conway, Sarah Conway, Rosie Woodward and James Holman; and BL4KM4SS’ Alex C. James, Amori Stewart, Paul Stephen Edwards, and Reyna “Chainsaw Queen” Velarde.

Most of these teams are a balance of an idea person that pushes boundaries through innovation and creativity and a person that is focused on safety and logistics. While these roles are fluid and may shift, I do recommend that ideas are not made in a vacuum and that there is someone on your team that can refine unrealistic ideas, identify safety concerns that you may not notice, or brainstorm safer alternatives.

 

3STH3R | BL4KM4SS | H0L1D4Y

BL4KM4SS – 3STH3R

 

Furthermore, the safer alternative does not always mean that the scene will be less scary; often, it increases the fear. If you are afraid an audience member may flail or hit your actor, restrain their hands to a bed or a chair – it’s frightening and safe. If you are afraid of getting duct tape in their hair, wrap their head in saran wrap first with a small moment of suffocation. If you don’t want an audience member tripping and falling, don’t lead by the shoulder, grab them at chest level in a bear hug and move them. These tips are designed with safety in mind, but elevate the narrative and scares.

Even beyond creative partners, you need actors that are reliable, safe, and memorable. Finding these can be incredibly difficult. In the same lecture given by Josh Randall mentioned above, he recommends looking for actors with kindness, rather than people “who want to fuck someone up”. If you can, find someone who’s worked an extreme haunt before (use courtesy and ask the other extreme haunt creator before using part of their core team) or at least has been through one; this can be immensely helpful. While you don’t need to use the same actors for every show (new actors can add an air of mystery to an experience), there are a lot of extreme haunts that do stick to the same actors for most shows because find great, kind extreme actors is difficult and developing trust takes a lot of time.

 

The Ciccone Tapes cracked uk faceless ventures blake ciccone survival experience

Faceless Ventures

 

7. Start with a Residency

This is probably the best advice I can give right here. If you want to know how to run an extreme haunt, learn from someone who’s been doing it and doing it well. Find an extreme horror experience that matches your style (single-night experiences for small audiences or month-long events with large audiences), and send them an email about working with them. While you may not get paid (think of it as an internship), the experience you learn behind the scenes will be invaluable. Even if you are an established creator, I recommend seeing behind the scenes of as many experiences as possible to see how you can improve your experiences.

The four founders of BL4KM4SS all had a residency with Heretic for four years. They recommend the process, stating that “watching Adrian and Jessica’s process helped us to develop our narratives and styles with BL4KM4SS.” Before I started HVRTING, I acted in both Heretic and Screenshot Productions, learning invaluable experience of managing an extreme haunt from both. More recently, Tristan Wells did a residency with HVRTING before starting Ultra Dark Society, which produced 2019’s Death Project. HVRTING has also taken on a remote resident to help with set design and character refinement, to help round out her immersive portfolio.

These are great ways to get your name out there and establish trust in your brand before it even begins. And there’s no excuse not to do one; if you need help, contact me and I’ll help align you with the right creator for your style and location.

 

Ultra Dark Society Interview Tristan Wells

Ultra Dark Society / Photo: Kevin Hsu

 

8. Start Small and Take Your Time

As we’ve established, extreme haunts carry a lot of risk and require a lot of trust. As a new extreme haunt, all but the seasoned veteran participants will likely be hesitant to jump into your first experience because you don’t have that trust yet. A small, single-night experience for just a few people can help foster this trust.
Most creators I spoke with utilized this same strategy. For Quietus Horror, Verduyckt states, “I started with a simple concept I could test run for a few people I knew well, in my own house, that my girlfriend and I could pull off between the two of us. Test one was received positively, which led to test two, where we had a guest familiar to the concept and experience of immersive horror for the first time. Again, we took feedback, and redesigned, all before ever asking a single cent from our participants.” This is similar to the story of HVRTING, in which, for the first year, it was a Haunting patreon backer reward for only three people that received private experiences customized to them. It wasn’t until HVRTING had produced five extreme experiences that we decided to do a ScareLA pop-up show to further expand our name and build trust with a wider audience.

I had theater experience before this. What if you don’t have that experience and want to jump in? Well, Randall suggests that “no amount of research is going to show you how to properly navigate insurance, police, choreography, design, etc… The consequences for this extreme haunt field going wrong are legal, emotional, and moral. If you don’t know what you’re doing, this not the field to try and figure it out. Make a play, or a more traditional haunted house, or a short film, or something. Figure that shit out and THEN go extreme.”

No matter your experience level, start small and build up. Do a residency, volunteer your time, do a haunted house or traditional theater experience, and then work your way up an extreme experience. It’s a longer road, but you’ll save yourself and the community a lot of harm. I have seen so many fail because they want to include everything in their first show; they want their debut to be their statement piece. They are too ambitious or try to sell too many tickets, and when they can’t recuperate their costs, they’re dead for the future. Until you have a strong audience and trust that can support multiple nights, start small and build from there.

 

quietus horror, extreme haunt, belgium

Quietus Horror

 

9. We All Need Some Space

Immersive theater is strongest when it’s in a site-specific location, which means the actual location it’s written for, not just a warehouse or house disguised as such. However, it’s hard enough for any theatrical production to find a non-traditional space to perform in, never mind one where you are simulating torture. Add in security guards at motels, nosey neighbors, unreliable AirBnB’s, ridiculously expensive warehouses, and even more expensive Gigster and Peerspace locales — and you have a recipe for a headache.

For an extreme haunt, ideal locations need to be remote and large, but those are hard to come by, too far for participants to travel to, or out of your budget. If you can’t find remote, then you’re going to have to deal with neighbors or a lack of privacy. The police have been called on almost every extreme haunt out there, from Catharsis to Shock Theater to Heretic to BLACKOUT. An errant scream will attract the attention of neighbors, and a person being led into or out of a hotel with a hood will likely result in a 911 call. Do not carry prop weapons in public either. I hope this is common sense, but I’m repeating it for safety. BL4KM4SS founders further recommend “to alert the police at your location if you are making loud noises (gun shots or screams). Our crew have walkie talkies, which helped us look official when the police showed up during Clausen: Inauguration. They searched the house, we explained we were doing a performance, and they gave us a pamphlet with their number to call in advance next time.

It’s incredibly important to alert others in the vicinity of your experience as well. Velarde explains a situation that happened to her in Heretic’s Midnight Killer 4: “someone else working in the warehouse called the police when they saw me with a guest during a scene during Midnight Killer 4. The police helicopter showed up very quickly” Faceless Ventures’ Conway tells us a similar story: “On the very first Cracked show we were using a huge barn, and in an adjacent barn on the farm, a wedding was taking place. Halfway through the show, we looked up to see about twenty people peering over a wall who had climbed up a huge haystack to see what was happening.”

 

Heretic - The Cabin - Ruin - The Patient - Extreme Haunt - Horror Experience - Big Bear

Heretic – The Cabin

 

Finding a location to meet these needs and give you privacy is more difficult than you’d think. BL4KM4SS’ Paul Edwards recommends “to embrace the space you do have access to.” Velarde follows that up with, “You can improve the space with props, lighting, sound, art on the walls, and especially strong characters in the scene.” Shock Theater’s Will Wakefield recommends talking to local haunted houses as well.

If you have to look at more commercial or residential spaces, practice your elevator pitch without completely lying. Many, many landlords hear the word haunt and the conversation is over; now try peppering in extreme haunt, and your probability is instantly lowered. The type of landlord you’re looking for is the one who says “Do what you want; don’t mess up my space; and don’t do X.” I urge you, please, don’t do X. This is often something like no tape on the walls, no starting before 9PM, or parties (having one guest in at a time is not a party, right?).

But also, be aware that despite all your best planning, there will be curve balls thrown your way. There may be cameras in the location, noise may travel much further than expected, you may have nosy neighbors, parking may be a nightmare for participants (if there’s parking at all), there’s an art festival happening right outside the entrance (true story — happened to Miasma), or there may be a tenant staying in the guest room of the location that the landlord didn’t tell you about (true story, it happened to us!). Make sure you have the agility to adapt your work quickly; and prepare for disappointment.

 

Horror, Immersive Theater, Shock Theater, eye for Horror, winter Session, New York, Long Island Immersive

Shock Theater

 

10. Insurance is Not Cheap, But Lawsuits are Even Less Cheap

First things first, set up an LLC. With a limited-Liability Company (LLC), only the assets owned in the name of the LLC are subject to the claims of business creditors, including lawsuits against the business. The personal assets of the LLC members cannot be claimed to satisfy business debts. For you, this will be the most important reason to form an LLC and protect your assets. Your LLC can still be sued and be liable for large sums of money, which is why it’s still smart to carry liability insurance policies such as general liability insurance. The benefit of having coverage in place is that the insurer is then responsible for defending the suit, and the proprietor of the business doesn’t have to worry about spending their own assets to go out, find an attorney, pay the attorney, and deal with any settlement that may be made.

Be warned though, LLCs are not cheap. Per Legalzoom, “an LLC is formed in California by filing Articles of Organization with the California Secretary of State and paying a $70 filing fee. Most businesses must also pay an $800 franchise tax. In addition, within 90 days of filing the Articles of Organization, the LLC must file a Statement of Information and pay a $20 fee.” But that $800 isn’t a one time fee. “The $800 franchise tax must be paid annually.” Make sure this is added into your costs. To either form an LLC in California or register a foreign LLC, the basic minimum cost to get the business up and running for the first year is $890. For subsequent years, the minimum cost is the $800 franchise tax.

Now comes insurance, Blackout’s Josh Randall says from experience: “It needs to be said that insurance only covers you if they are 100% clear on what is happening and what they are covering. Waivers are irrelevant and mean nothing (we’ve been sued a lot, trust me) and even more importantly, fake insurance is also irrelevant and means nothing. It’s all well and good to get film set insurance until something goes wrong and they see it’s not a film set and the whole policy is canceled. It’s all well and good to get coverage saying there’s no physical restraint, and then the moment someone gets hurt from a handcuff or tied hands, your insurance is gone and you are no longer covered. The question is not about just getting insurance – you need the right kind of insurance. If you’re paying less than $5k to insure an extreme haunt – something’s wrong and I guarantee they don’t understand what you’re doing. $5k being a minimum! Blackout paid a lot more than that for most shows. My biggest advice is don’t fool yourself into thinking you have insurance if they don’t know exactly what you’re doing. You need to be clear about the show and you need to be ready to pay. Everything is available, even insurance for extreme haunts. It just comes at a price.”

Yes, you heard that right. $5000. And that’s $5000 per production. As Randall continues, “Sometimes you could bundle a couple of different cities up in one policy if we had several shows running that season. But normally each production (depending on size of cast and physical elements – ie hoods, nudity, physical contact, etc – was anywhere from 5-8k. 9 times out of 10 all need to be paid before production starts. Short or long term coverage isn’t important. It’s about what’s happening in the show. The insurers will be taking on the whole production (not just the performance days) so that includes rehearsals, building, design, load out, etc. Whether it’s a 4 day show or a four week show – if you tell them there will be naked actors physically interacting with audience members, some of whom may be bound, forced to run in the dark, restrained, yelled at, all in a pitch black warehouse with heavy fog and strobe lights – that’s just a tough pill for an insurance company to swallow. They take on A LOT of responsibility for these shows, the difference between 3 nights and 3 weeks is negligible. Even for a 3 night run – they most likely would be representing your company for a period of time (ie, 3 months) to cover everything associated with those three days of performance. Once again – it comes down to physical interactions between guests and actors, nudity, and restraint. Those are your three biggest issues to get around with insurance carriers.”

Ricky Brigante of Pseudonym Productions offers some advice, “Document everything. Surveillance. Customer logs. Every moment from every show. Ensure you have someone who can personally talk to any customer who might have experienced something negative, even down to them tripping on their own two feet. People can and will sue for anything, if they think you have money.”

 

Blackout

Blackout

 

11. Set Expectations and Vet Your Audiences

Now that you have a location, insurance, a team, and a reason for doing this, on top of some experience and practice, it’s time to consider your audience. Extreme haunts are NOT for everyone, and I can’t stress that enough. This is not an experience where you let everyone who wants a ticket grab one. Why? Because first you need to set the right expectations for your audience and you need to learn about your potential participants.

Setting the right expectations involves a complex balancing act between listing triggers and potential torture against spoiling what might happen in an experience. Heretic used the technique of providing an almost complete list of every torture they’ve ever used in their emails prior to shows. This helped set the appropriate expectation while not spoiling anything because anything could happen. It also served to elicit more fear because no matter what, the thing that scared you was on the list — even if it wasn’t in the show.

This is also the time you need to communicate the safeword to participants. This should be clearly stated in an email and repeated when they sign the wavier at the experience. While waivers really have no legal standing and can’t protect you from negligence if anything ever happened during a show, they do serve as just another method to set expectations to your audiences. This is why most extreme haunts will have you repeat the safeword back to them at this point and suggest you read the waiver. Miasma’s Justin Brink says, “I actively discourage people from attending our show because it’s not for everyone. You should only be at Miasma because you want to be at Miasma.”

Communicating these expectations can only go so far from dissuading certain people; it’s up to creators to do the last bit of homework. The extreme haunt community is small, and the creator community is even smaller. We all talk and most of us are friends; so if a participant causes problems in one experience, just like safety concerns with an experience, word will travel fast among creators. If you’re a new creator, say hi; we’re all friendlier than our haunt personas seem. If you have a question about a participant, feel free to ask us as well.

 

Heretic | Midnight Killer 4

Heretic – Midnight Killer 4

 

12. Learn to Accept Hate, Criticism, and Apathy

Extreme haunts, traditional haunted houses, and immersive theater all live side by side, often intertwining due to the limitless possibilities of each format. While these communities on their own can be supportive, vibrant, and warm, fear of the unknown can often lead communities to lash out against extreme haunts. Both haunted houses and immersive theater fear the exact thing this article is pointing against: an extreme haunt actually killing someone, which will bring down city or state legislation to provide external regulation. While the claim could be made against all theater (I’ve almost slipped on wet floors or tripped on dimly lit stairs in more immersive shows than extreme shows), the venom is more often than not directed at horror. The minute you announce you are entering the extreme arena – expect to be looked down upon until proven you shouldn’t be.

Further, there will always be a subset of people who’ve been to your experience, and more so, those who haven’t, that will hate your experience. Extreme work is evocative and divisive; those who hate it will say it to your face, to the internet, and to others behind your back. They may hate the content, the themes, or just the fact that it’s extreme. They will also hate it much louder than those who love it. Be sure you have the strength to survive someone ripping apart the work you’ve spent hundreds of hours on, that you poured your soul and passion into. There’s not much you can do to convince them to like it, the damage is done; and all you can do is move forward and create something new.

When it comes to the day of the show, let’s talk creator expectations. Participants will cancel hours before the show. Babysitter canceled, wife got sick, I forgot to charge my electric car. All of these are real excuses we’ve heard as creators. But remember, this is your dream; not theirs. It’s a fact – this is one of many experiences they are going to have. If they miss it, it’s a financial loss for them, but one that’s acceptable. To them, it’s just another show.

 

Miasma - Into Great Silence - Chicago Extreme Haunt

Miasma – Into Great Silence

 

Now, even those who do show up may have a completely different response than what you expected or anticipated. Don’t get upset when your audience doesn’t look scared, or excited, or even engaged. Maybe they have a grin on their face. The kind of grin that’s reserved only for those moments when one realizes how stupid they believe something is. You will see it; they don’t owe you fake enthusiasm; they already paid you. You owe them – and you aren’t delivering.

The nature of extreme haunts and immersive theater means your hecklers are right there in your arms and they will not hesitate to let you know what they think through their movements, gestures or responses to the actors. You’ll also see the positives though, the screams when a scare lands, the awe in their eyes at the cinematic scene you crafted, and more. You just need to focus on the positives, not the negatives. You can’t please everyone, and in this genre, you are guaranteed to have audience members who don’t just dislike your show, they hate it. How do you take negative criticism? Brace for it.

Well, that’s just audiences, right? Creators must like me, we’re all doing the same thing! Well, sorry to break it to you, but it’s going to be similar. Some creators will accept you and try to share information and learn, but others will fear you just the way audiences do. In the extreme creator realm, some creators are open and friendly, but others are suspicious of you and cautious because you are creating a similar show. In fact, they may be the ones that will be the most critical of your every move. It takes time to establish a reputation – don’t expect one after only one or two shows.

This community is already small and limited, and with the content being extreme by nature, it is easy to traumatize someone. One bad experience can ruin the entirety of extreme haunts for a single participant. Keep a bag over someone’s head or waterboard them a little too long and it can cause PTSD which could make them stop doing extreme shows entirely. This doesn’t just hurt your business; it hurts all of our businesses. By not taking it as seriously as the rest of us, you’re destroying a shared audience that’s already small to begin with. You can’t control what others do, but you can ensure you are doing it right.

 

Science of HVRTING

HVRTING – Science of HVRTING

 

Conclusion

Running an extreme haunt is an exercise in constant and consistent care, thought, planning, and practice. There are numerous challenges that work against us and start us at a disadvantage. But if you’re willing to work through those, put in the time and effort, and you have the passion to create something larger than yourself, then this might be the right genre for you.

This article aims to be an honest look at the extreme haunt industry with stories from those who have been doing it for the past two to ten years. It’s a small community for a reason, but there is room for more. So use these lessons, and prove that your show is the one worth spending money on. Prove that there are novel and innovative ways to create fear, to push audiences further, and force them to shudder when they mention your name. Conquering your fear and hesitation is what this medium has always been about anyways. Show us your strength, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

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About The Author

Taylor Winters
Taylor has loved immersive theater since his first experience at ALONE in 2013. Since then, he has written, produced, & directed immersive theater, consulted for numerous immersive companies, acted in others, and attended even more. He has his PhD in Bioengineering, an MBA in Organization Leadership, and currently works fixing broken hearts.

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