Haunters

Jon Schnitzer is one hell of documentarian and he has struck gold with Haunters. You will not be able to look away. This doc will get your heart racing and scare the hell out of you and that’s just from watching other people go through haunt experiences. He’s combined his passion for Halloween and his skills as a director in a crazy good film that should not be missed if you’re at all interested in the art of the scare.

The passion it’s taken to get this film made commands respect. Schnitzer got unprecedented access to the haunts and haunters and ran a successful kickstarter campaign to create the polished and professional work that he wanted to.

What I learned is that in addition to the large commercial “haunted house” industry there are people who build extravagant haunts at their homes and on their street then invite neighbors and friends in to tour.

Caveat: I had to make an effort to separate my respect for the art and elegance of the film I watched from my revulsion at how disturbing some of the material is. The extreme haunts are, well, they are extreme. I would have enjoyed the movie even more if the transgressive material had been left out. I’m guessing there are people who mostly will watch to see those parts. You judge for yourself.

“This movie is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach…”

There are really two stories in Haunters: one of the exciting haunts and haunters both professional and amateur who take great delight in just scaring the living shit out of people. Their guests share in the fun and enjoy the fright. That’s a world of grim delight and a whole subculture community of the macabre by people who pour their love and their hearts into doing it well. It’s genuinely uplifting to see people so fulfilled and engaged. The audience for their performances is deep and growing. People love the experience.

The other account is of a far more extreme end of the spectrum that drifts beyond fun frightening into what should be sophisticated domination/submission scenes but wind up seeming like sinister fucked up endurance and torment where the people attempting to perform it are way out of their depth. It’s a different kind of scary, a not cool kind.

Most of the haunts and haunters are pure delight. They are gothy lovers of the dark and scary. It’s ghoulish theater in the tradition of Grand Guignol. The players love it so hard. Shar Mayer recounts her life, who has loved and suffered being a professional haunter for 35 years. The passion of the people involved is remarkable and watching them make their dark art is a thrill. Halloween is a sacred time for the people in this controversial subculture.

Schnitzer gets a lot of backstory on the haunters. Donald Julson had a bad time being bullied by his brothers growing up but they all work together on his haunt “Nightmare on Loganberry.” We also see that it’s not doing his marriage any favors to be so deeply engrossed , however Julson seems to need this particular kind of scare therapy. One wonders how that’s all going.

At some point we pass beyond into the stomping grounds of the extreme haunts. Some are managed well and some are a hot mess that needs to not happen.

There was an attraction here in Atlanta for a while that varied between fun scary and not cool scary. It focused on gore porn included some BDSM scenes with nudity and torture (the victims in this case portrayed by actors). Mostly it was sophisticated adult fun and it worked but near the end they began wandering into distressing material such as a finale scene of a man confronting his wife about infidelity, abusing her, and then killing her with a shotgun. That crossed the line.

The most egregious example of the extreme haunt in Haunters is “McKamey Manor.” It’s a home-based haunt that has gone right off the reservation. Russ McKamey is directly out of his goddamn mind and he’s going to wind up killing somebody. This is one creepy sadistic motherfucker. At no point watching the proceedings around “McKamey Manor” did I ever get the feeling that this was just all in good fun. There are online interviews where Russ picks his victims from a deep waiting list. He conducts faux abductions where people are collected for their experience. He refuses to release people who ask to leave (he holds them for up to 8 hours) while they are being physically and mentally tormented. I’m not in Law Enforcement but I’ve got to think that’s against the law. It’s very personal, tailored to the “guest.” It includes bodily fluids and insects; essentially he’s trying to re-create Fear Factor in his backyard. To get in requires signing a 10 page waiver, provide sign-off by doctors, an interview by Russ and then being selected from an extensive waiting list. This is like Hannibal Lecter planning a dinner party. I’m a little worried that this description will actually cause a certain type of person to go sign up on his waiting list. My opinion is sincerely not meant as a challenge, but hey, you do you.

Then we get the footage of his long nights doing god knows what in his room poring over the videos he shoots of the people in the haunt. He speaks of the videos with what I can only describe as a sexual intensity.

Look, I understand challenging oneself in what is essentially an elaborate domination/submission scene. There’s a compelling element to that and I can see why people would be intrigued. However in the world of safe, sane, consensual BDSM there’s always a safe word the sub can use when in genuine distress. While the other extreme haunts put emphasis on the safe word Russ laughs at the notion of having one. This is a dangerous person and someone is going to get hurt.

Russ doesn’t take money for his haunt just dog food for a rescue. He also doesn’t allow cursing in the haunt (but his actors will damn sure waterboard your ass for real and serious). This veneer of decency makes him all the more unsettling and creepy. Schnitzer follows Russ as he tries to find a location that will allow him to build his “50 shades of Russ” as it keeps getting shut down when people find out what’s going on. I find myself hoping the “McKamey Manor” projects never open again anywhere. Go find a nice BDSM club instead and vet the players for their experience and safety.

So, yes, Russ McKamey freaked me the fuck out but the fact that I reacted so strongly speaks to the marvel of an accomplishment the film itself is. It will necessitate a few viewings to take it all in.

This movie is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach but if you want to see what goes on behind the scenes of the haunting industry you will love watching it.

Haunters  (2017) Directed By Jon Schnitzer 

9 out of 10

This is an early review. Haunters has yet to debut at a film festival and has not been screened for the public. More information can be obtained by visiting the official Haunters website

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