The Appeal of Extreme Haunts, What They Are, and How to Start

What is an ‘Extreme Haunt?’

Extreme haunts give you the opportunity to live out your own horror movie. You will be placed in the role of the victim—and you will be handled as such. These haunts are not your stereotypical haunted houses with jump scares and latex masks; instead extreme haunts focus more on the psychology of what scares people. Some experiences send out questionnaires to determine personal fears to create a more personalized show. The content is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, so expect nudity, simulated torture & violence, and sexual situations. Also, don’t expect the safety of a group setting–you will usually go through completely alone. Actors have full permission to aggressively move you, invade your personal space, deprive you of your senses, or abandon you in utter darkness. Extreme haunts can focus on brutal physicality, psychological terror, or a combination of the two. The physical aspects can include suffocation (breath play), aggressive scratching, or bondage elements. But the mental aspect can often be more frightening than the physical–these tactics will aim to break you down and make you feel like trash or a failure, they will strip you of your senses and leave you in the dark with nothing but your fears, and they will also use personal content from your daily life to blur the lines of experience and reality. But, despite the increased intensity of extreme haunts, they operate with complete safety and in a controlled environment.

Extreme haunts give you the opportunity to live out your own horror movie.

The Appeal of Extreme Haunts

So why would anyone want to be tortured? To be put in an extreme situation? To give up all control to someone else? Well, most people that I talked to explained that the loss of control was exactly why they liked it. Tucker Barkley said that in life, he “tends to be a bit of a control freak. I like doing extreme haunts because I relinquish all control to my tormentors.” Others concurred that they felt feelings of liberation and freedom when exploring their limits in an extreme haunt. Similarly, Beth Hipple uses extreme haunts as a cathartic experience. “I have always been a person who bottles up my emotions, but extreme haunts are an emotional high for me. I use them as my emotional outlet.” Therefore, they also serve to break down the control people have over their emotions and provide a cathartic release.

Psychologist Elliot Cohen, PhD explains that “control is a reaction to the fear of losing control.” These control issues can be related to anxiety, fears of abandonment, damaged self-esteem, resistance to painful emotions, or perfectionism/fear of failure. Thus, extreme haunts give people the opportunity to give up control in their life, ultimately providing a medium to be vulnerable, to fail, and to give absolute trust to someone. Cohen suggests that the only way to remove the anxiety caused by losing control “is to give up demanding certainty and cultivate courage.” You need the courage to accept yourself as flawed, as part of an uncertain universe with no guarantees, and as a being that lives imperfectly in this imperfect universe. And this is exactly what extreme haunts offer. They demonstrate that failure is okay, that emotion is okay, that losing control is okay—and that you have the courage to face it and come out stronger.

Others commented that they enjoyed the fear response—they liked the adrenaline rush. “I like to be scared. Always have,” John Longino says. “But like all things, the more you do it, the less it affects you.” So to him, extreme haunts are a way to recapture that feeling of fear he had as a kid. Multiple others discussed the high they felt following the actual experience. When Crystal Gropp exits an extreme haunt, she “feels everything more and it takes a couple of weeks for that feeling to go away.” Mary Ellison spoke that she enjoys “the adrenaline rush that’s similar to [her] previous drug of choice.” Immersive horror is the only thing that fills that need for her. She further elaborated that it “fulfills some unmet psychosexual need of [hers]” with a clear BDSM connection. Drugs, sex, and fear all elicit a dopamine response from the brain. Thus, in order to recapture those feelings that one may crave, they turn to more extreme horror experiences, which can offer the similar feelings in a much safer environment.

Extreme haunts also offer personal exploration and growth by offering “fear without consequence.”  This concept allows people to push their boundaries and face their fears in a safe and controlled environment. Doing so provides a portal into a portion of yourself that can only be explored in this kind of scenario. Jenny Hoover uses it as a way to “exercise her mind to be able to manage this kind of pressure in the real world. Every time [she] leaves an extreme haunt, [she] feels empowered.” She explained that this helps her control her anxiety and use the mental notes from the event “in [her] regular life when [her] anxiety hits.” Barkley further states: “I’ve left experiences with new insights on myself regarding what I could survive if I had to, and strengths I didn’t know I had.” This leaves him with a confidence in his normal life to achieve the dreams he has. These events are appealing to individuals with a desire to explore themselves because it allows them to ask a question–“why does this make me uncomfortable?”–and explore that deeper issue. This curiosity allows people to grow and can be empowering to an individual.

Finally, others discussed their personal desire for community. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory postulates that the need for community is a drive inherent in all humans. Shelley Taylor, PhD of UCLA Psychology explains that humans are social beings and have evolved to need each other during times of stress. Oxytocin and other hormones are released during instances of intense fear and happiness, and the brain remembers the people with us during those moments more strongly. Thus, the extreme haunt community becomes a family—supporting and nurturing each other. Carl Webb recognizes “the bond that exists between survivors of haunts like Blackout and Heretic, the sort of connection that only exists between people who’ve shared a deep experience, and [he] wants that connection.” These ‘families’ all support each other and are happy to provide information, guidance, and support to any newcomers interested in an extreme haunt.

“Extreme haunts are an emotional high for me. I use them as my emotional outlet.”

-Beth Hipple

Recommendation for Newcomers

More so than immersive theater, extreme haunts are difficult for a newcomer to jump into due to the intense nature of them. First and foremost, these are not for everyone, so do not push yourself to do one if you simply have no interest in doing so. But if this is something that sparks your interest, then we have some recommendations for you. Amie Elrod suggests that prior to anything, you “go through an experience in which you go through alone and that you are touched.” Both Alone and Screenshot Productions, while not extreme haunts at all, are both fantastic forays into the world of full contact theater without them being too scary or terrifying. This supports Stuart Chait’s previous advice to start with less intense experiences and build up to the more extreme ones.

If you’ve already done experience in which you have been touched or you simply wish you jump into an extreme experience, the next step is to do your research. This advice was reiterated by every single person that I asked, and I’d say this is the most important recommendation for numerous reasons. First, you are basically putting your life in someone’s hands. Make sure they are a trustworthy company and they have your safety in mind.  Safe-words are in place so you can exit the experience if it ever becomes too intense. These, in addition to waivers, are standard in the industry, and we do not recommend trying any event that does not provide you with this safety. Second, you need to know what level of intensity you are signing up for. Hipple told me stories of “friends who were unpleasantly surprised at their experiences because they didn’t know what an extreme haunt entailed.” To avoid this, email the organizers, talk to friends in the community, ask on the Haunting Slack forums, and read as many reviews as you can. Hoover prefers “articles with spoilers because I can get a good idea of what I’m going to be subjected to. If I read something that sounds like it would be too much for me, I’ll know this may not be the right event for me.” However, both Elrod and Barkley suggest avoiding those with too many spoilers as “the fun part is not knowing what you are getting yourself into.” We suggest using your best judgment in determining the level of spoilers you want—but if you want a full walkthrough of some extreme haunts, check out our Recollections Section. Haunting’s Immersive Experiences Page is also a good resource as we provide a subjective Intensity Level for each event and what to expect in terms of themes and physical contact. When your ready to immerse yourself in the extreme haunt world, start looking into a Halloween-Season Blackout show or a Heretic show (note: Heretic is notorious for being difficult to procure tickets for).

Now that you’ve decided you’re going to do an extreme haunt, you’ve researched them and found the right one for you, and purchased tickets, the waiting begins. But with the waiting comes the anticipation and anxiety—and as Barkley points out, “the anticipation is often worse than the actual event.” Some extreme haunts capitalize on this fact and generate as much anxiety as possible leading up to an experience. Heretic sends emails describing real events and horrifying glimpses into what may happen, all accompanied by surreal imagery that will inhabit your mind. Have You Seen Jake? provided visceral calls from characters describing tortuous activities days, and even weeks, before the event. These lead-up activities create an atmosphere of fear, tension, and anxiety. This enhanced fear occurs because the unknown is scarier than known. Your brain can project its own fears onto a blank canvas, conjuring up nightmares that are even more frightening than the real event. However, if you did your research and have a general level of trust in the creators of the experience, this should help with the anticipation. We also want to note that sometimes reading too many spoilers can aid in the anxiety. Mike Fontaine of My Haunt Life recounts that The Victim Experience is more difficult the second time through because he knew what was coming. Finally, Webb suggests picking up some clothes that you doing mind getting destroyed because often times they will be covered in blood, torn, or stained during a show. One final warning: definitely make sure you use the restroom before a show.

Now that it’s time to enter the show, relinquish all control and trust in the actors. Do not resist anything as it could pose a safety risk for you or the actors. Give yourself to the narrative and the characters, and as Tim Redman suggests, “follow the first rule of improv: always agree and always say yes.” When things start to get intense, Hipple says to remember that “it’s not real and that it will all be over soon.” Other participants discussed “going to their happy place”—a mental state where they can dissociate themselves for the situation and feel safe momentarily until the scene is over. I personally sing to myself in my head, while others imagine a loved one or an actual location they feel safe. Tim Redman expanded on this by saying when he enters an extreme haunt he “plays a character, [suggesting that] you don’t have you be yourself.”  And finally, it is ever gets too intense, “make sure you know the safe word and never feel any shame in using it,” says Hoover. I would never suggest doing an extreme haunt without a safe word. Kimberly Stewart reminds us that “that word is there for a reason. It’s peace of mind.” Elrod further elaborated that she has “never heard of a haunt that doesn’t want their customers to make it through, but haunts also understand that not everyone will. They don’t think less of someone that doesn’t make it, so don’t feel embarrassed to use the safe word.” People that use it are brave individuals who recognize their boundaries and avoid getting hurt (often mentally) by pushing themselves too far.

Now that the show is over, Webb recommends that you have “a spare set of clothes, some wet wipes, and maybe a band-aid.” These can provide invaluable if you are meeting up with friends afterwards to grab a drink and discuss the experience or want to keep your car relatively clean on the drive home. You may have really enjoyed yourself—and if you didn’t, then at least you tried and know that extreme haunts are not for you. And that’s okay.

“The anticipation is often worse than the actual event.”

– Tucker Barkley

Conclusion

Extreme haunts provide the unique opportunity to live out your greatest fears in a controlled and safe setting. They offer a freedom from the control some need in their daily life. Relinquishing control liberates them from daily fears, insecurities and anxieties—and thus, a cathartic release of emotion. Others enjoy the release of dopamine and adrenaline that these events offer. Finally, some enjoy the personal exploration, growth, and community associated with extreme haunts. These events are not for everyone, but if you find interest in playing the victim role, extreme haunts may be for you. Come live out your own horror story.

“Extreme haunts provide the unique opportunity to live out your greatest fears in a controlled and safe setting”

About The Author

Taylor Winters
Taylor has loved immersive theater since his first experience at ALONE in 2013. He has his PhD in Bioengineering, is working towards his MBA, and currently works at Medtronic fixing broken hearts.
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