Haunting was designed to help set expectations. Part of setting those expectations is ascribing qualities and labels to immersive and haunt experiences. If it’s full-contact, audiences should expect to be touched; if it’s interactive, audiences should expect to interact. Seems simple enough, right? Well, I’d say so, except more recently, anything with even a hint of aggression has been labeled an “Extreme Haunt.” And while most experiences do fall along a spectrum, we at Haunting believe that there’s a huge distinction that’s being lost in the umbrella term of “Extreme Haunt.” Thus, in this article, we propose a convention that Extreme Haunts refer to themed Haunted Houses with an extreme, full-contact element, whereas a new term, Extreme Immersive Horror (EIH) should be used for immersive, narratively-rich experiences with an extreme, full-contact element that serves its narrative.
To distinguish the two terms, we interviewed creators from both the Extreme Haunt and the Extreme Immersive Horror (EIH) realms to get their take on what their experiences are, what differentiates the two categories, and what audiences should expect from their experience, regardless of category. Read on for detailed answers from Mathias Verduyckt of Quietus Horror, Chase Dunfield of Castle of Chaos, David Higgins of Site 2, Justin Brink of Miasma, Edward De Leon of Lights OUT Haunt, The Director of HVRTING, Will Puntarich of Shock Theater, an anonymous creator, and the creative team of BL4KM4SS.
What is the difference between an Extreme Haunt and Extreme Immersive Horror?
Extreme Haunts emerged as Haunted Houses differentiated themselves from their counterparts by adding an Extreme Night, in which the actors are able to touch audience members, get them dirty (often with blood, food, paint, or mud), and even remove them from the group and lock them up for a given duration. Key examples are High Desert Haunted House which hosts an Extreme Night once or twice a year, The Haunted Hydro in Ohio that also hosts an Extreme Night, and, most notably, Freakling Bros’ The Victim Experience, which is one of the most physically demanding yet survivable experiences that takes place in a haunt after hours.
Extreme Immersive Horror emerged in 2009, when BLACKOUT decided to take their theater experience and marry it with the haunted house formula, resulting in a theatrical experience that captured the fear of going through alone and being touched with a feather (a taboo that was rarely broken in haunted houses). As time went on, numerous creators (including many in this article) took this format and expanded upon it with strong narratives, increased engagement, and more personalization. Thus, these experiences are generally single participant- or small group-focused and run much shorter durations than their Extreme Haunt counterparts (which have the luxury of a haunt to use for a location).
But don’t just take my word for it: When asked, Verduyckt puts it succinctly: “It’s in the name: Immersive or Haunted House. While immersive can mean a spectrum of things, the use of the word haunted house makes me think that those experiences should still feel like a haunted house – i.e,. a walk-through attraction where you progress through different rooms and corridors, encountering multiple actors – the different scenes not necessarily having a direct connection between them… Interaction with actors can happen, but in general actors stick to their scene and don’t carry over into the rest of the experience.” The 17th Door is a wonderful example of this; a compartmentalized haunt with actors contained to each room. There is a narrative, and a good one at that, but the moments of interaction and engagement that occur are few and far between.
There is another evolution of Extreme Haunts that has emerged: the endurance test. An anonymous creator explains “the emphasis here seems to be more on how much can you take?” Cracked by Faceless Ventures is a perfect example of this – a single-night, group experience in which guests are pushed further and further until only the strongest of the strong remain. Freakling Bros’ The Victim Experience is another that tests the limits of endurance for participants. These haunts become a badge of honor for those that survive the night without calling the safeword.
So what about EIH? Let’s start with Verduyckt: “Extreme Immersive Horror doesn’t start out from a haunted house template, but from a theater or movie template. There is a continuing story, characters play a more important role, and can have an extended presence throughout the duration. It should feel a bit more real, both in the interactions and the location.” Looking to Heretic, most of these experiences felt like walking into a Lynch film; and HVRTING even describes their experiences as films produced by The Director, the meta owner of HVRTING. Even Puntarich agrees with the film analogy: “An immersive experience always felt more like making a film.”
So, to sum it up, I’ll use a quote from Brink of Miasma: “The difference comes down to approach – theater vs haunt – what is it that you’re creating?”
What is the single main differentiating factor?
Finding one main differentiating factor between these two genres is difficult. Going into this article, my gut feeling was narrative; with EIH putting their focus on narrative and Extreme Haunts focusing more on the scare or shock value. However, I think BLACKOUT is the perfect example of a counterpoint here; usually focusing more on a mood, aesthetic, or theme, they immerse audiences with expert finesse, and no one would call them an Extreme Haunt–even their creator Josh Randall just identifies themselves as Immersive Horror. So, our differentiator must extend beyond just narrative.
When I asked the other creators, they all explained, to some degree, EIH’s ability to immerse audiences in an experience, which makes sense – Immersive is the second word in EIH. Higgins of Site 2 explains that, to him, the main differentiator was “the role of the patron. Extreme Immersive Horror gives the patron a unique role that immerses them in the narrative. My favorite Extreme Immersive Horror experiences make me feel like I’m actively engaged in a dark and scary adventure.” De Leon of Lights OUT concurs: “[EIH] brings you into the story and can differ for each guest experiencing it.”
I read over their responses multiple times, each time focusing on their discussion of immersing audiences – but after about the thirtieth read, I don’t think immersive is the key word here. Personally, I think it’s the words Higgins used: actively engaged. To me, that’s the key differentiator. This means that the participant has the ability to take an active role in, or even the agency to influence, the unfolding events.
Sure, it’s way easier to become actively engaged in an experience with a narrative, but BLACKOUT is able to engage participants in the feeling and aesthetic of their EIH through their mastery of theater. Extreme Haunts, on the other hand, don’t actively engage you; instead, they ask you to actively endure the scares, the pain, and the fear. In an experience like Freakling Bros’ The Victim Experience, participants are not actively engaged through agency, choices, or narrative twists, but rather, they are forced to survive until the end. An anonymous creator captures this fact nicely: “If scenes in your show are designed to push people to the limits of their physical and psychological endurance, and that’s your primary goal when constructing said scenes, you’re probably doing an Extreme Haunt.”
A New Definition
So, at this point, I think we understand the terms. I’ll propose the following definitions:
Extreme Haunt: A physically intense experience born from a haunted house that evokes a given theme through set design, scare-actors, costumes, and messiness, often with a focus on enduring or surviving the experience across various intensity levels.
Extreme Immersive Horror: A cinematic, theatrical, and physically or psychologically intense experience that actively engages participants through interactions, evocative themes, and/or strong narratives. They use their physicality or psychological horror to enhance the fear and add consequence to choices.
These are definitions we are pioneering. These definitions are meant to help audiences set expectations and more clearly describe the kind of events we’re going to. But these definitions only go so far, and it’s important the creators begin to see themselves as such.
As Brink describes, “if an audience member looks at all your marketing and mentally determines you are one type of experience and, after going through, determines you are another, you have done something wrong. Make sure you [as a creator] know what kind of experience you are by attending shows labeled both Extreme Immersive Horror and Extreme Haunt.”
So, let’s see how creators see themselves. Below, we asked our panel what they see themselves as. How do their answers align with how you see them?
Quietus Horror (Mathias Verduyckt): “Immersive horror. Taking the points I said before – a low throughput, an attempt at a continuous story or concept-driven experience, the focus on trying to immerse a guest as much as possible.”
Castle of Chaos (Chase Dunfield): “At the moment, this is a little tough for us to answer completely one-sided. The Castle of Chaos Haunt would, in my opinion, be considered an extreme haunt and boo-haunt hybrid, as we offer a level system that is run throughout the season. From Level 1, which is meant for small children or very terrified timid adults. This creates more of a scary adventure feel and the actors adapt as such, all the way up to Level 5, which is our most intense and adult-themed experience available during the season, involving a few elements such as strong language, suggestive themes and more aggressive physical contact.”
Site 2 (David Higgins): “Site 2 and my first show, They Dream of Insomnia, were both Immersive Horror with some extreme elements. They were both focused primarily on narrative. The few elements that are a little more extreme served purposes beyond just scaring my guests. They aren’t the point. The immersive story is the point.”
Lights OUT Haunt (Edward De Leon): “Lights OUT is in the middle ground of all things haunts.”
Shock Theater (Will Puntarich): “Shock Theater produces both styles.”
BL4KM4SS (Creative Team): “We lean hard into the Extreme Immersive Horror definition but have dabbled in Extreme Haunt satirically. Most of our story lines exist outside of the traditional maze/boo concept that we feel Extreme Haunt occupies.”
HVRTING (The Director): “Extreme Immersive Horror indeed. I want people to feel like they are walking into a film with a deep story, and see what choices they’d make when dread takes over and they can’t think straight.”
I hope most aligned for you – and, if you didn’t know about the company before, that the above shed some light on their stylings and intention.
The Larger Community
The people who responded are just a small subset of the people we reached out to; and while everyone we wanted to hear from did not respond, the staff at Haunting took to applying our new definitions to the various “Extreme” companies out there. Whether you’ve heard of the company or not, let this categorization help you use the right vocabulary when talking about these companies and choosing which experiences to attend.
The 17th Door (CA)
Asylum 49 (UT)
Brighton Asylum (NJ)
Caedis Silvis (TN)
Castle of Chaos (UT)
Catharsis – CLOSED (CA)
The Devil’s Attic: Chaos (TN)
Exit 13 – Extreme Night (MI)
Faceless Ventures: Cracked (UK)
The Fear PDX: Nightmares (OR)
The Freakling Bros: Gates of Hell & The Victim Experience (NV)
Haunted Hoochie (OH)
Haunted Hydro – Extreme Night (OH)
High Desert Haunted House – Extreme Night (CA)
La Casa De Satanas (IL & NY)
Lights OUT Haunt (CA)
Prague Fear House (Czech Republic)
Scarehouse: Basement (PA)
Scream Camp (UK)
Shock Theater* (Some shows fall into the EIH category) (NY)
STAG* (Some shows fall into the EIH category) (MI)
EXTREME IMMERSIVE HORROR (EIH)
After Dark Helsinki (Finland)
BLACKOUT – CLOSED (CA, IL, NY)
Dark Hills (PA)
The Experiences (CA)
Faceless Ventures (UK)
The Fear Experiment (IL)
Heretic – CLOSED (CA)
Indy Horror Story (IN)
Intruder Escape (CA)
Quietus Horror (Belgium)
Reign of Terror (PA)
Santu Productions (CA)
Scarefest Scream Park (MI)
Shock Theater* (Some shows fall into the Extreme Haunt category) (NY)
Site 2 (CO, IL)
STAG* (Some shows fall into the Extreme Haunt category) (MI)
Stygian Experiential – CLOSED (CA)
Ultra Dark Society (CA)
The purpose of the article wasn’t just simply to construct a new definition; that would be a pretty boring article. Instead, it was to bring awareness to the fact that while there is some overlap between these two genres, there is a significant difference between them in terms of intention and approach. Extreme Haunts are haunt experiences with a goal of scaring their participants and letting them face fears and endure – without consequences – that which they may never face in their daily lives. Extreme Immersive Horror experiences are cinematic and theatrical, with a goal of engaging audiences and making them feel, whether through narrative or not.
It’s important to note that all companies and experiences exist on a spectrum, and our goal here is not to say that something is one thing and can’t change. Things change and people are always blending genres. There are those of us that will only attend one or the other, but there are a lot who attend both because they like anything “extreme.” We just hope that in publishing this, you understand how we came up with this new classification, and you can start to look at the Extreme genre as not just one large category, but see the nuances and differentiations within it. Extreme Immersive Horror is a phrase we all need to start using; let’s bring this into the horror vernacular.
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