Roughly 10 years ago, I attended an evening of “Terror Behind the Walls” at Philadelphia’s historic prison-turned-museum, Eastern State Penitentiary.
At the time, extreme adult-only “haunted houses” were not yet a common Halloween thing. Eastern State’s iteration was frightening mostly because it happened before many of the more recent renovations at the prison, when much of it was still a crumbling ruin, and to be honest, Eastern State is terrifically creepy even in broad daylight.
True story: On one daytime visit, I entered a random cell just to look around, and was instantly overcome with such panic that I literally knocked a stranger down -- like, fully bowled her down onto the concrete floor, sorry lady -- in my haste to get back outside. What made it weird was that nothing had actually happened, at all -- I just freaked the hell out for no discernible reason. That’s the kind of place Eastern State can be.
The Eastern State nighttime haunted house (or rather, prison) never delivered a fear response even approaching that bizarre experience, but it was still pretty scary, featuring lots of darkness and mumbling/screaming actors in strait jackets lunging around, some spooky special effects, and a few scenes clearly designed to shock even the most jaded attendee, if not terrify them completely.
I enjoyed the experience for the adrenaline rush, and while I’d never classify myself as a haunted house connoisseur, I’ve been through a few other adults-only Halloween haunted houses and found them (mostly) entertaining.
That said, I don’t know if I could see myself willingly attending the infamous Blackout Haunted House (which has locations in both NYC and LA), an “extreme theater” next generation version of the iconic Halloween experience I've been hearing about for a couple years now.
Blackout, which of course bills itself as basically the scariest haunted house ever, vaguely warns its patrons of what is to come with its list of strict rules and its requirement that all attendees sign a waiver before entering. Every individual must walk through the experience alone. No one under 18 is admitted. All participants must follow any instructions given to them by performers (ostensibly, for everyone’s safety). No talking, although screaming is fine, and there is a safeword people can yell if it gets too much for them.
Obviously, a huge portion of the appeal for this sort of experience is the unknowableness of it. What the heck happens in there? How scary could it REALLY be? It’s difficult to consent to an experience fully if you’ve not been told what is likely to happen.
(Un)fortunately for you, the Internet is full of spoilers from previous years, ranging from the absurdly grotesque to the outright disturbing. From 2011:
Here's probably the grossest thing that happens. At one point, you are in a room with a really creepy girl. She points for you to sit down in a chair in the corner. She slowly makes her way behind you, so you can't see her. She comes close to you and pulls your hand between her legs and whispers "pull the string." So you pull a tampon out of her! I have no idea how they simulated this but it felt so damn convincing. Then she sticks it in your mouth!
Last year’s experience also included waterboarding, albeit waterboarding while kneeling and without being forcibly restrained (the question remains how someone could successfully use a safeword while being waterboarded, if the need arose).
I'm turned around and told to get on the ground. My captor pulls me to stand on my knees and a wet bag is placed on my head. Before I know it, I'm hit in the face with a wall of water. It drips down my face and chest all the way down into my pants. I'm drowning. The fabric from the bag has made its way into my mouth and nostrils. Every breath I take is labored and filled with water. My assailant shoves his fingers into my nostrils, pushing the fabric deeper into my nose, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. I can't breathe.
“I wanna hear you scream”
There is also evidently a fair amount of implied (if not actual?) sexual assault.
First room is a dingy basement. There's a male mental patient humping a wall in the corner, two TVs and a chair. One of the TVs is a CCTV of the you in the room, the other is a video of a cow being mutilated. You walk into the room and have no idea what to do. Out of the shadows in the corner, a very large female mental patient comes out of nowhere and pushes you into a chair. After you sit, the male leaves the wall and starts groping and molesting you. He groans and nuzzles your face and rubs his hands all over you... all while you watch a cow get torn apart!
The presence of nude or partially nude men in several scenes seems intended to specifically suggest the threat of rape, even if it doesn’t carry it out:
I find myself standing in the dark. As my eyes adjust, I see a short completely naked bearded man approach me. He is grinning, so I smile back at him. He greets me by name, which is super creepy. He doesn't appear to be feeling well and this is confirmed when he grabs my hand and makes a run for the nearby bathroom. He leads me inside and then shuts himself into the stall and vomits profusely. When the stall door opens he is smiling again and asks me to come inside. He explains that he needs me to get a key from inside the toilet... [H]e slowly guides my hand into the filthy toilet. "You have to savor it." he says creepily as he moves my hand back and forth through the water.
Then the epic creeper asks "Isn't this the best sex you've ever had?"
There’s more, actually, and some of it even worse, but that should give you a rough idea.
Having read through several peoples’ experiences, I’m a little torn on how I feel about this whole Blackout deal.
On the one hand, I pride myself on being pretty open-minded about how people choose to spend their leisure time, and I firmly believe that what happens between consenting adults is none of my business, regardless of whether I personally think it’s creepy or gross or whatever.
On the other hand, I don’t know that it’s entirely accurate to call this attraction a “haunted house,” especially given the lack of supernatural themes in favor of terrible things that really do happen to real people in real life.
Call me oversensitive, but while I might be fine with a privately-negotiated interaction between consenting individuals, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that simulated sexual assault and torture should be marketed as entertainment -- for fun, and without only a vague disclaimer of “sexual situations” at the start. It feels dismissive, somehow, like it’s diminishing the real horror of these events when they don’t happen in tightly controlled scenarios.
Most people who are groped by strangers don’t sign a waiver beforehand, and most people who are waterboarded don’t get a safeword to stop the torture if it becomes too intense. Is it cool to try these experiences on like you might a new shirt, to literally sell real-life horrors as a recreational good time? I don’t know, but I’m inclining toward no.
This year’s Blackout experience has yet to be spoiled, though I’m sure it attempts to outdo itself to meet the expectations of fans. What do y’all think? Have you been to a similar "haunted house" before? Would you consider attending?