On a recent Saturday night, 10 anxious individuals were blindfolded and taken to a secret location in the desert, 40 minutes outside Los Angeles. They were told that they would each be playing the part of a futuristic criminal who had been lobotomized and summoned to help investigators identify two bodies discovered on the grounds.
Upon arrival, one of them, Taylor Winters, 33, a research and development engineer from Santa Ana, California, was ushered into a dusty RV. After a quick examination by an on-site emergency medical technician, he disrobed and was placed in a contamination suit. A disembodied voice boomed through a walkie-talkie, instructing him to trek into a hazy compound, warning that “movement had been detected” and that he might not be alone. For the next 45 minutes, a shaky Winters followed the voice’s lead, eventually being advised to “take refuge” in a fog-filled tent.
But there was little peace there. A creature stampeded through a cloud of dust: lifting and relentlessly tossing Winters’ helpless body. As he struggled to gain his bearings, hands enveloped Winters’ neck, squeezing tightly. He was stalked throughout the haze, knocked down, and stripped from his suit as claws raked across his skin. The unrestrained being vomited onto his bare chest and dug into his flesh.
“Jesus Christ!” Winters cried out.
The event concluded with Winters stripped to his boxers and curled in a fetal position, caked in mud, straw and simulated body fluids.
His first words, once regaining composure, were: “That was awesome.”
‘Don’t Kill Them, Don’t Scar Them’
This is the 44th time Winters has done something like this as a reprieve from his high-pressure job designing lifesaving heart valves. While wiping fake blood from his eye, he said that this occasion, for which he’d paid $150, was as petrifying as the first: “I was absolutely terrified!”
Every Halloween, theme parks like Universal Studios come alive with actors who are paid to startle attendees. And in recent years, elaborate haunted houses have gotten more popular each fall. But these seasonal events are merely child’s play compared to what is happening year-round in the underground world of immersive horror.
Its leader might be Heretic, a Los Angeles-based experimental horror experience run by a man who goes by Adrian Marcato (a reference to the son-of-the-devil character in “Rosemary’s Baby;” his real name is Guy Michael)and his wife, Jessica Catherine, aka Jessica Murder. The company, which was in charge of Winters’ most recent experience, is part of a growing group of horror attractions known as extreme haunts. These shows put their participants, typically a single member at a time, in intense physical and psychological situations, placing them inside their own real life horror film. A safe word is issued (Winters’ was “parsons”) as their only means of opting out.
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Marcato, 41, an aspiring filmmaker, takes his audience through an original script, uniquely crafted for each show. Using “sometimes true stories with added elements to make it pop,” his experimental content explores the dark side of human nature.
Marcato said he stumbled into the business in 2013 after paying an unusual sort of homage to a friend who was murdered: re-enacting her death for a group of friends at his home. “Everyone that came through was completely terrified and loved it,” he recalled. “I thought we should just continue doing this and see what happens.”
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Heretic runs one to two shows per month in Los Angeles and has recently expanded to host European ventures and “cannabis haunts,” where marijuana consumption, which often has the side effect of paranoia, enhances an already chilling experience. Each show is vastly different. Marcato has buried people alive; flipped guests upside down in immersion devices to witness simulated torture from “an art deco perspective,” as he put it; pushed people off balconies (they landed on an air bag hidden below); and tricked attendees into thinking their heads would be ignited in flames. “Everybody called the safe word on that,” he said.
“Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen audience members march into the ocean in the middle of the night, have their heads locked in a box while music was created from their screams, and get lap dances from naked clowns,” said Dustin Downing, 42, a photographer based in Los Angeles, who, after witnessing a Heretic customer subject herself to her own murder in order to “feel alive,” was inspired to begin filming Heretic’s antics, with plans of turning the footage into a documentary. Jake Odenberg, 38, Downing’s producing partner, described the shows as “a delirious cross between David Lynch, ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,’ and William S. Burroughs.”
To keep his scenes safe but immensely realistic, Marcato works with Hollywood stuntmen like Alex Hill, 36, a special effects coordinator on the hit NBC show “The Good Place,” who handles everything from staging a hanging to lighting actors on fire. “We are gearing up to a simulation where guests are trapped inside a car that gets lit on fire,” Hill said.
Actors are crucial to the experience. John Granillo, 33, who has worked as a “scare actor” for the past 15 years, prides himself on his ability to size up a guest and play upon their individualized fear triggers. “I scope them out in the dark, see how they move, and decide if I should grab them from behind, from underneath, from on top,” he said. Granillo has worked for other haunted ventures, but said Heretic is the most fulfilling, as Marcato allows him to completely improvise the guest experience.
“The only rules are don’t kill them and don’t physically scar them,” Granillo said.
A Scream for All Seasons
Extreme haunts first became popular as Halloween events, but companies have begun offering them year-round.
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Miasma, a company in Chicago, which has been staging them seasonally for the past four years, is adding more dates. Justin Brink, the founder, says he caters to the patron seeking something “much more aggressive and meaningful within a horror experience” than a traditional haunted house.
“Our audience actively seeks us out and prepares themselves for the experience,” he said.
Faceless Ventures, which runs six shows a year in the U.K., is known for its food challenges during which guests are asked to eat century eggs and bugs, among other things. The venture also has offered binding and gagging, claustrophobia, stress and physical tests, water, electric, coffin burials, sound and sight deprivation, for around $170 per pop.
Hvrting, another Los Angeles-based company, provides one-night, invitation-only haunts every two to three months, tackling everything from an extreme spa experience, complete with chest waxing and lavender water-boarding, to an underground gambling ring “where you have nothing to bet but your life.”
And Shock Theater, a company in Rocky Point, New York, runs three to four intimate haunts per month across New York and New Jersey.
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Even Hollywood moguls are getting into the game. Theater Macabre, which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 11 and will run indefinitely, is a choose-your-own-fate immersive theater experience by Clint Sears, Gordon Bijelonic and Darren Bousman, all mainstays of horror films.
“I’ve made 14 movies and I’ve never seen the reactions out of a ‘Saw’ movie than I have with one of my immersive experiences,” said Bousman, who worked on the second through fourth installments of that franchise.
His latest endeavor will have guests venturing between 27 rooms, their destinies determined by the decisions they make from the moment they walk in the door. “Your tracks go anywhere from PG to PG-13 to R onward to NC-17 based on the choices that you make,” he added. (Let it be noted here that this refers to violence; the realm of extreme haunts is not, generally speaking, sexual.) Bousman’s goal for this particular experience is to “make people tense” and “snap out of the zombified state that we all live in.”
“For two hours, we own you and you will not have your cellphones. We will push you the entire time to do things that you consider dangerous, and when you leave, there is that rush of adrenaline that you feel because you have done something that is not every day in your life,” Bousman said.
Hardcore fanatics, like Winters, who also runs an immersive experience review site, Haunting.net, go to every show they can. Marcato said that super-rich thrill seekers, some from as far away as Dubai, have hired him to put on $20,000 private experiences. Celebrities and movie executives have also been known to participate; it’s one place they can be humbled and (relatively) anonymous.
Some devoted fans, like Suchada Juntarakawe, 41, have gone so far as to tattoo company logos on their bodies. A casino accountant, Juntarakawe said the haunts have helped her to process an array of emotions and work through social anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
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Leo Moro, 22, flew in from Finland just for Marcato’s recent haunt. He became so enthralled after his first extreme immersive experience in 2017 that he postponed his plans to attend university, getting a temporary job as a driver for a local hospital to finance his trips to experience Heretic shows. “At the moment, I feel like I am living my life at its fullest,” Moro said.
Mary Pavlovsky, 53, who also attended the haunt, was wrapped in head-to-toe plastic, a cardboard box slammed over her head, and thrashed around like a rag doll. “I’m a little bruised up but I knew that walking in the door and I’m OK with that because of the nature of this,” said Pavlovsky, a student services aide at a community college, adding, “I get a sense of pride from being fit enough to handle it.”
Extreme haunts are perhaps jarring or inexplicable to the average person, and sometimes even to those who understand the industry. “As a horror filmmaker, I have a strong stomach for fear, but these experiences seem a little too intense even for me,” said Amanda Toye, 34, a screenwriter in Los Angeles.
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David H. Zald, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who studies sensation-seeking, warned: “If someone has a history of past trauma, exposing themselves to a plotline of that nature could actually set them up for re-experiencing that trauma.”
But other mental-health experts say there are potential benefits to undergoing extreme haunts.
Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies fear, spent two years monitoring participants of a Pittsburgh haunt, The Basement at ScareHouse. Her results, which will be published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion on Oct. 11, showed that after completing an immersive horror experience, a person’s mood significantly improved.
“There was a global decrease in brain reactivity to different cognitive and emotional stimuli,” Kerr said, theorizing that these experiences may be functioning as a recalibration of a person’s distress tolerance. Post-haunt, participants had a lesser tendency to ruminate on things that were bothering them beforehand. “People also feel like they are challenging their fears and learning about themselves, and that is inherently rewarding,” Kerr said.
Kerr has also seen bonding occur between participants — the recreational equivalent of war buddies, perhaps. Certainly this is true of Heretic’s loyal constituents. After Marcato’s haunts, patrons often get together to compare stories of their experience.
“We’ll usually go to a nearby Denny’s,” Winters said. “And yes, I have sat down in a booth and ordered an omelet, completely covered in fake blood.”
But following Heretic’s latest venture, it wasn’t breakfast that Juntarakawe was craving, it was a shower. “I had to wash my hair three times to get all the slime out!” she said.