It's easy to forget 11 months out of the year about haunted houses and other spooky ephemera, as they only enter our mainstream consciousness around Halloween. But for a whole subculture of professional horror aficionados obsessed with those things, it's a year-long investment of time and money to turn their passion for scaring people into an art form.
That's what Chapman University alum/OC native Jon Schnitzer focuses his lens on in his independently-produced documentary Haunters. For over a year, Schnitzer followed up on a variety of haunted houses throughout the country to find out the stories behind the cast members, the designers, and those as passionate about haunted houses as he is. His work isn't finished yet: so far, Schnitzer has pulled a thorough amount of footage and interviews to impress composer Jonathan Snipes (Room 237) into composing the soundtrack for the film. With that promise, Schnitzer set up a Kickstarter campaign to gain help from horror fans to help him complete his vision.
Even as I phoned Schnitzer during an early morning last week, his enthusiasm for the project is palpable. Not only has his Kickstarter quicklypicked up steam, it's been backed by none other than Neil Patrick Harris and given the public boost from NPH's Twitter. A life-long horror fan, Schnitzer got the idea for the project after shooting tons of footage from Universal Studios 3D Horror Nights for fun. After reviewing it, something clicked: why hadn't he, or someone else, examined the world of haunted houses?
Schnitzer followed multiple leads, gaining behind-the-scenes access to many commercial haunted houses like Universal Studios and Knotts Scary Farm, as well as independent folks who built haunted houses out of their own garages, putting thousands of cash into decoration and design, and charging neighbors and friends nothing for the experience to get scared. These haunters, as well as the haunters behind more sophisticated horror gems Delusion and Blackout, relate to the variety of genres of haunted houses that exist, yet their common desire to scare people is what binds them.
There's also the notorious thrill experiences from San Diego's McKamey Manor, where visitors come to experience fake blood thrown on them, coming in contact with spiders and snakes, and getting tied up, among other things. It's a year-long attraction with a lengthy wait-list of over 20,000 people, considered so extreme no one has gone all the way through–not even Schnitzer.
"When I was filming it, I almost passed out, I almost threw up, I freaked out. But his (McKamey Manor founder Russ McKamey) fans worship him and love him. So we've been kind of exploring and delving into why it is that people love to see these scary things and why we love getting scared."
The answer, according to Schnitzer, is that haunted houses are stress relievers that allow the visitors to run and scream as much as they can without fear of judgement. "This is real, interactive, visceral theater. It takes you off the computer and away from being a passive audience member and into an active participant. and that's fascinating to me."
Since starting on his project, Schnitzer's received tons of love from the haunted house community, many who have donated footage from their haunted houses, access into costume and makeup studios; even Ryan Gosling's band Dead Man's Bones granted Schnitzer the use of two of their songs for the documentary. With the money raised through Kickstarter, Schnitzer will be able to hire more assistant editors and accomplish more with the music score with help from film composer Jonathan Snipes. There's also plans to include some stop motion animation, motion graphics, and even a mystery celebrity narrator. The end goal? $30,000; not bad, and it's already 20% underway, with less than a month to go.
But despite all the fancy upgrades for the film, Schnitzer insists the focus remains on the stories of the people behind the haunted attraction industry. "The people in the haunted house community are a community of people who want to believe in magic, are great storytellers, and want to create something that's going to affect you viscerally and emotionally. A rollercoaster is one thing, but this is more about a rollercoaster for your mind where you get creeped out and laugh. It's scare-apy."
Check out the trailer for Haunters below, which really just offers a glimpse of what to expect in the film. But kick in a couple bucks, help the film reach its goal, and watch out for Haunters on its prospective release in October 2015.