In immersive horror, fear is key. But placing your guests in a state of simulated chaos without ever placing them in actual danger requires a safety-oriented team. In doing so, they must ensure that the environments, scenes, and content are safe and that both actors and creators have prepared for as many circumstances as possible. Accidents can and do happen, but these should not be your learning tool. Test everything—then test it again. Canceling a show is a better option than placing an audience in an ill-prepared scene. in an extreme haunt roundtable.
Extreme haunts are arguably some of the safest experiences out there—because they have to be. Haunting sat down with four extreme haunt legends to discuss how they prepare for audiences, what they look for in actors, and what is too far. Below are the responses of Adrian Marcato of Heretic, Justin Brink of Miasma, Warren Ross of Freakling Bros’ The Victim Experience, and Lee Conway of Faceless Ventures (Cracked).
1. With extreme haunts always pushing to innovate, bring more frightening scares, and push the boundaries, how do you determine what is too far for an experience? Where do you draw your line?
Miasma: That’s such a challenging answer – from a creator and a fan standpoint. If you want to be specific, removing a safe word, to me, is too far. Sure, it’s extreme, but the guest should have the absolute right to remove themselves from a situation. We all know an extreme haunt can sneak up and hit you in a place you don’t expect (physically, emotionally, mentally) and you need an exit. This is, at the end of the day, art and entertainment. I’m much more likely to dismiss a physical stunt if I don’t believe I can perform it to the safest degree possible – that doesn’t mean I won’t learn but I’m not going to drive until I have my license. Another big one, maybe the biggest, is ‘would I do that myself?’ If I’m not willing to do something, it’s too far.
As a fan, I throw caution to the wind and run as fast as I can to try it. And that’s the rub: Fans give a lot of trust to creators, they have to. Going too far is such a personal thing and you’ll know when you hit it. As Creator, you might not know until you start seeing all your guests safety out – and again, some simply won’t. Tough, tough question.
Heretic: In extreme haunts, the idea is making people uncomfortable and testing limits. There is also a responsibility to not place guests in real danger but always present the idea of danger. I make sure that this simulated danger always fit within a narrative or story framework. I will not simply torture someone and make them call the safe word for the reputation. As for going too far, I will never do something I know is unsafe, like feeding them rotten food or pushing them just to get them to call the safe word. The unfortunate reputation these types of experiences have is also what makes them appealing; but my job is not to cater to a fetish or fantasy, but to create a narrative and present raw, visceral, intense content.
Victim Experience: As far as what is too far, our personal guidelines are that if the “victim” at any time would not be able to do a regular day’s functions (albeit sore, exhausted, etc.) after one of our shows, it’s too far. We are not here to cause any permanent (other than perhaps mental) damage. This is a show and it is meant to entertain, not harm.
Faceless Ventures:You have to be comfortable with the product you are releasing, but not make it too predictable for the guests. We have, in the past, found a tried-and-tested way of enacting some scenarios and ways of twisting these in ways to make your product always seem fresh, but you have the confidence in how different scenes are run. But you always want to push the boundaries as far as you can in order to create an innovative show. An endurance event like Cracked can pose different issues. One of the worst is guests burning out or, god forgive, boredom; this brings into play a whole new issue of pacing and scene placements. Any attraction or company can destroy their guests in minutes, but you want the same guys to return to repeat shows and also feel like they have achieved something even if they don’t complete the whole show. It’s a fine balance.
2. We understand that it’s impossible to test every scenario, but can you speak to what you do prior to experiences to ensure audience safety? Do you test props, scenes, or beta test entire experiences? Do you test the experiences on yourself first?
Heretic: I don’t want to reveal every detail of my process, but I always have meeting after meeting (I call it our “war room sessions”) where I talk with actors and crew about every detail of the show. This allows us to talk about safety, such as who is doing what and exactly how to do it. I block scenes with actors and place specific actors with specific training in scenes that involve really intense aggression. I have the performer test the idea of what we are trying to accomplish on me and have others watch including my co-owner, who is very diligent on safety. If you have been through a Heretic show it is a gritty underground experience but there is always a feeling of safety.
One cannot prepare for everything. One such experience was with a show I did, called THE CABIN. I had blocked a scene that was really simple and safe but during the actual show, a situation occurred that I was thrown off by and was a potential problem based on human error. It was a major learning experience and that changed my entire system, but it was needed to prepare me to be even more cautious.
Miasma: My process is: test on myself several times, sit down and think how that could go wrong. Test on the cast, see how they react, see new ways this could go wrong. Have the cast test on me again and throw them a curveball, see how they react when I go left and 99.9% of the time people go right. Test the entire show as the ‘nightmare guest’ that simply won’t conform to the planned scenario. Finally, test on preview guests that have no knowledge of how you think the scenario will play out. If this all goes well, you are ready. But be prepared to see something you never expected. It’s easy to assume a scene will go as planned but the real work is in creating a scene that will allow a safe outcome regardless of how the guest chooses to react.
Victim Experience: Everything in our shows is tested by the creators and the actors for that scene, albeit not in the same setting the “victim” does. Nothing goes into a show until it’s been repeatedly tested and refined until it meets our standards. No, we don’t do it in the same setting the “victim” does, but we do go through it many times until it is correct. I personally have done everything in [The Victim Experience] several times, often upwards of 25-40 times each. Many times, slowly building up to the desired intensity, many times reeling in the intensity. Once the creative team and builders have it where it’s wanted, all actors in that scene also do it so they know exactly what is happening to the “victim” to help not only the scene, but increase understanding and safety.
Faceless Ventures: All storylines and what happens in them are scripted and looked over by the creative team; anything that is totally new, we will run through with our crew and test it before the show starts. More crazy ideas are thrown out than are brought into the shows. Of course, there will be times things are done unscripted within a show, everybody who runs these types of attractions will know nothing runs perfect: the one thing you can never rehearse is how every individual will react every situation. Would I test situations myself? Sometimes, yes; but I’m lucky to have a crew that don’t mind me testing new contraptions and scenes on them first to save me doing it.
3. How do you build trust in your extreme haunt actors? Do you start them off in a small, non-interactive role to see how they react to guests?
Victim Experience: Veteran actors in perfect standing with the company are the only actors used in the show, and all three haunts [Castle Vampyre, Coven of 13, and Gates of Hell] contribute actors. There is a waiting list to be an actor in the show, and then an audition as well.
Heretic: I have been doing this type of event for 5 years, all the while, my core actors and I grew into our significant roles and have evolved together over the years. Most of us have worked in traditional haunts for years prior to Heretic, so the training for the extreme elements was reinforced by the traditional haunts’ safety rules and regulations. Working in a corporate haunt setting puts into perspective the careful consideration one must undergo to throw any event—and extreme haunts must follow those considerations two-fold. Actors have to trust what you have created is safe for both parties, and for the most part my crew and I have learned how to work this out.
Faceless Ventures: Selecting the right aggressive immersive horror actor can be far more difficult than a conventional scare actor. You must have unconditional trust in the actor when there is contact between the actors and the guests. We have come across seasoned scare actors, in which they just don’t feel comfortable being in the situation where they have to make contact with guests or even disagree with certain content of scenes. You have to make sure the actors are fine with what you are asking them to do.
We have a stock of actors: some that we have accumulated from way back when we did scare mazes and some that have joined us after finding out about our shows in the media. We also have some actors that started as guests but have now found they like acting more than going through the shows (some alternate between acting and visiting).
Miasma: So far, I’ve had the unique (and rare) situation which I have known my actors for many, many years. I know their temperament, their ability to stay on script, and how they handle tough situations. I work with the same people annually, adding or removing one or two. The new cast members always start in the least confrontational situation so I can see how well they adapt. Once I know their strengths, I move them to the position where they will be the most successful. As we expand, adding actors I’m not as familiar with, I’ll have to get to know them on a personal level and follow this process before I have faith.
4. What qualifications do you look for in an actor that will be in a more aggressive scene of an extreme haunt? What raises a red flag for you in an actor?
Miasma: I look for somebody who genuinely cares about the person they are putting through a terrible scenario but also understands that they should not pull back unless they hear the safety word—this is what [the guest] paid for. I’ve found that the most sincere, kind people are the most likely to ensure the scene plays out as written in the safest manner possible without sacrificing the need to push the guest further.
Oddly, one phrase sticks out in my head because it’s an immediate red flag: “Let’s fuck some people up,” or whatever variation of that you may hear. In jest, and if I know you, I get that you are being sarcastic. From someone I’m less familiar with this takes on an entirely different tone. A look of shock after explaining a scene makes me trust you more than that phrase. If I tell an actor a scene and they immediately begin questioning how we are going to pull it off without hurting someone, I know they will not blindly trust me and they will be looking out for the guest’s best interest. If my actor (or production member) does not question me, I am concerned how they will react if a scenario goes wrong.
Heretic: I start with their personality and acting background. If they have worked in extreme haunt or immersive environments this helps because they already know what is expected. Any professional training (prior military or medical training) is also helpful. I also test them by discussing their comfort level on the idea of aggression and physical interaction.
Red flags are usually if an aggressive scene is explained to a potential performer and they do not think of asking about the guest’s safety. If a performer is over-excited about hurting a guest or has a disregard for my specific direction (which is never instructing to punish a guest) I will not bring them on. It’s very important to have specific performers in the aggression roles that are professional and understand what is expected.
Victim Experience: We don’t need a “red flag” because our actors earn the spot, and the second anything is done incorrectly, they are reprimanded and can lose their spot on the show.
Faceless Ventures: We would generally ask new actors to come down and assist behind the scenes on an aggressive show, so they can see what it entails, the shows are generally nothing like they expect so it’s always good for them to see before they join in acting.
5. While the safe word is an obvious stop in any extreme haunt, creators and actors must learn what non-verbal cues to look for when someone is in distress. Do you train your actors to look for anything specific to ease up?
Victim Experience: The actors have no say in this matter. Unseen, there is always a supervisor. Actors are only given the job to act. The supervisor calls all shots and listens for the safe word, or in cases where the supervisor feels the “victim” is not responding safely or properly the scene is stopped and we end the show. This is made known to all that participate. To end the show, the safe word can be said, the “victim” may not respond properly and we stop the show (a “TKO”), or the victim can do something dangerous and the supervisor can stop the show and call for an “Ejection.” All are done for safety reasons.
Miasma: Prolonged hesitation is an obvious one. As a guest, I often hesitate at a direction to make sure I heard it correctly. If I do not hear an actual instruction, I don’t move – this has resulted in some unintentionally hilarious moments. I am a dumb guest because I want to do it right. Prolonged hesitation after repeated instruction results in a check in “Are you OK? Do you want to say STOP?” If a guest can’t move, can’t respond for a prolonged amount of time, it’s over. It gets tough there – everyone reacts differently. I’ve seen guests that appear to be laughing through an entire show and exit shivering. I’ve seen the exact opposite of the same thing. I’ve seen more than one person crying, appear to be hyperventilating – and they turn around and say they loved it. My point is, there isn’t one thing you can look for in my experience – you know it when you see it. Of all our guests, it’s always been prolonged hesitation where you need to check in. I don’t believe in easing up – the show is what it is and you either continue or you do not. Easing up, in my specific scenario, sends mixed signals to actors that there is a different way to perform the scene than how they were trained. I don’t want them to go easy on person A and go hard on person B. I understand for some shows it works perfectly, I simply don’t want to create that many avenues for an actor to travel down.
Heretic: The performers that deal with the more aggressive interactions would be instructed to assess guests as much as possible during the scene. If they notice anything where the guest is having a bad reaction they will break character and ask the guest if they are okay. In my last show, D E V I L, which was a very high intensity simulator, I was always watching over the guest and making sure that they were okay. I took care of a few of them during the scene and asked if they can continue. This is something that you have to really be on top of during a scene that involves intense aggression.
Faceless Ventures: This is a double-ended question. First, a lot of the guests we get are repeat visitors and you soon find their hang-ups and limitations, which we try to avoid. For new guests, it’s noticing when they are flagging or not enjoying the situation they are in. With this, you have to monitor your guests intensely; this can be done on the fly by the actors and also by a behind-the-scenes crew as well. In the past, we have pulled people out of situations and even full shows because we as a group felt uncomfortable with the way they reacted. Some actors disagreed, but as the creative team, you must have the final say and most come back later and agree it was the right decision. There is also the option to ease off individuals that are really flagging in scenarios. I would rather every guest finish a show (even though Cracked has around a 35% finish rate) than try to destroy a guest as fast as possible.
6. Aftercare is becoming increasingly common in extreme experiences. Do you offer aftercare in any manner? Why or why not? And if you do, how is aftercare delivered?
Faceless Ventures: Yes, we have a novel way of decompressing guests that finish the show. We will generally take them into a room and slowly bring them down from the high of the show. We will then let them meet up with all the actors and creatives to talk over the show and situations within the show. We find this great for letting the guests come back to reality. We have many creative companies scoff at this idea of totally breaking the fourth wall, but it works for us.
For guys that have pulled out of the show or used the safe word, we have an area where they can feel safe and warm. There is medical assistance on site and people to talk to them about the show and how they feel. Care and attention is so important. With Cracked, we also have a secret social media group where after the event has finished participants can freely talk about their experiences with other people that have been through the same situation. Most have found that this community is cathartic because “normal” people can’t understand why or what they have just experienced.
Victim Experience: You guys are our fans; we do this for YOU. After [The Victim Experience], there is a very long cool-down session and evaluation of the show. This is very private. I cannot say what happens here other than the fact that no one leaves until everyone has been evaluated, and we feel comfortable ending the debriefing. It’s a very emotional and private experience. Imagine witnessing what these people are going through, what they’ve paid you to do to them, then hugging them after and having them tell you “thank you” for it.
Heretic: In moderation, aftercare is important. If a guest is very shaken and they vocalize this, we will ask them if everything is okay and offer them a place to calm down. Heretic has always been an underground type of show. We walk a fine line of gathering information on the guest’s current health and safety, but we also try to maintain performer privacy as well as production privacy. If it is needed, we will offer the safe space; if not, guests just usually exit. I am not opposed to it, but my show is more of a case-by-case scenario.
Miasma: I’m a strong believer in the cold ending so, unless there is a safety called, we’ve never provided aftercare beyond a check-in at the end. We did not in 2016 but we are again this year due to the higher intensity level. If Miasma was to go down a harsher road, I will certainly re-evaluate. I used to think it would heavily affect how the guest perceives the show afterward but I’ve learned that’s far from the case.
Conclusions for an Extreme Haunt
Extreme experiences require more planning, more consideration, and more trust than any other experience. But it’s important to note that these are, by default, slightly dangerous. Creators do their best to mitigate the risk, but these experiences are also not meant for everyone. We hope this article serves as an opportunity for creators, both new and seasoned, to learn something from other creators who have been doing these experiences for years.
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Huge thank you to Matt Wiehl Photography for the cover photo of this article.
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