Fear captured at haunted house
October 31st, 2012
11:32 AM ET

Chasing the ultimate 'BOO!'

Editor's note: Aaron Sagers is a New York-based entertainment writer and nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. He has specialty knowledge in "paranormal pop culture," has lectured at conventions nationwide on the topic and is a media pundit on supernatural entertainment. He covers pop culture daily at ParanormalPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter @aaronsagers.

You're fumbling around in the dark, and unless you have the twisted pleasure of taking the lead, you may be gripping onto the person in front of you as the group makes its way from one room of horror-made-real into another. It is a haunted house attraction, or haunt, and you can feel it in your bones - just around the next corner, someone is going to jump out and squeeze a scream right out of you.

And your scream might just be the highlight of that person's night.

Welcome to the world of the haunt nerd, whose obsession is crafting the best scare he can as an actor or effects artist through homemade and professional haunted houses. Halloween is his Christmas, a season where screams are the gift that keep on giving.

There are a lot of screams to give, according to Hauntworld.com an unofficial haunted attraction industry website. The site estimates there are more than 1,400 for-profit attractions and amusement parks charging admission in America, 3,000 charity attractions and 10,000 "home haunters." Moreover, a recent study by horror site and cable network FEARnet reported that nearly 50 percent of Americans would decorate their home or yard for Halloween and that about 23 percent of people would be visiting haunted houses this season.

These facts add up to a lot of interest in scares by the public, which is no surprise. But who are the people behind the terror? Who are the haunt nerds?

"There is this through line of passion" between haunters and other nerds, said Michael Stephenson, director of "The American Scream," a documentary about three families behind neighborhood haunted houses.

The doc, which premiered on October 28, is set to re-air today at 5:00 pm Eastern. on the Chiller network, examines why people dedicate so much time and money annually to the business of fear.

"You watch horror to be scared and have an emotional release," said Stephenson, and the appeal of going to a haunted house is not dissimilar. But those who then choose to provide the scares are seeking to transport people out of reality for a few minutes,  just like hard-core fans of fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, etc.

And like other nerd cultures, the haunt nerds are also fairly organized and commune in forums online and at conventions. In addition to the Hauntworld site, which has an active following, home haunt websites such as GarageOfEvilNetwork.com, HauntForum.com and HauntProject.com all provide a community for haunters to trade tips to create the best scare experience. The nerds are also served by the popular HauntCast online radio, and by the TransWorld and Monsterpalooza cons, just to name two.

And, obviously, there are the costumes. Like cosplayers, "many of these haunters … share this ability to create a new sense of place and magic," said Stephenson. Unlike cosplayers, they want to use their transformative powers to scare bejeezus out of people. He called them masters of a "temporal art form" - since their efforts are essentially all for one night - who gain empowerment from creating enough of an altered reality that they can make adults and teenagers scream at the top of their lungs.

"It is the greatest joy of my life," to hear people scream at his attraction, said Robert Frey, CEO of horror director Eli Roth's Goretorium, the year-round haunt in Las Vegas that just opened last month.

"They want the adrenaline rush of being scared within a safe environment, and to be taken away from their daily routine," said Frey, and he's more than happy to provide the  experience for  patrons. According to Frey, more than 40,000 visitors have walked through since its September 27 opening.

John "Johnny Mischief" Heaukulani, who plays the character of Health Inspector at the Goretorium's fictitious Delmont Hotel & Casino, shares Frey’s love for delivering fear. Heaukulani said he experiences a build-up of anticipation and excitement right before he launches into a scare, followed by his own adrenaline rush.

"It gives me joy to see the terrified looks on all their faces," he said.

If the haunt nerd delight in causing eliciting screams sounds twisted, it is shared by well-regarded horror creators.

"We scare others for our own enjoyment and for theirs," said R.L. Stine, author of the "Goosebumps" book series, as well as the adult horror "Red Rain" and the creator of The Hub network's "Haunting Hour"
children's series.

Stine added he views it as a compliment when people get frightened by his creations - in much the same way it was a compliment when he was terrified in a New York City haunted attraction where he passed through a completely darkened corridor.

He also thinks that the emotional responses evoked by fear and humor are so closely connected that "it's funny" to scare and be scared. As someone who has written more than 110 "Goosebumps" books, he can relate to the haunt nerds.

Peter Block agrees. Producer of the "Saw" franchise and president and general manager of Fearnet, Block said he loves to scare other people, and considers it part of his "everyday job" as a dad. He also equates the motivation to scare others to the reasons behind telling a joke.

"There's nothing funnier than watching someone else get scared," he said. And whether you're telling the joke or hearing it, there is a shared relief and release as part of a social experience. He points to "America's Funniest Home Videos" as a similar example where "half the videos are about scaring people."

Stephenson emphasized that giving scares isn't some morbid exercise and that haunt nerds, especially home haunters, are actually quite committed to giving back to their community each October.

Halloween is a community holiday, he said, and the haunters are inviting a thousand strangers to come through their house or yard on one night to have fun. Likewise, he said the sharing extends to the online community of home haunt nerds, where there is no real sense of competition.

Whether they work as amateurs or professionals, haunt nerds are like most other nerd cultures in that there is a strong desire to collect. But instead of rare issues, replicas or toys, haunters collect scare stories.

Stephenson relayed the prized story from Victor Bariteau, one of the home haunters from "The American Scream" who has since gone pro with his Ghoulie Manor attraction in Taunton, Mass. Bariteau's giant "Gourdzilla" Pumpkinhead monster scared a grown man so severly he "ran backwards, fell down and did a reverse-backward crab walk all the way down the street."

Meanwhile, Heaukulani, who calls screams the "money shot" of his job, said he had a man who was "roughly 6'8” and had a macho presence" to shriek like "like a little girl."

"That was by far the best moment to date!" he said.

So although they resemble other nerdy cultures, in the October world of the haunt nerd, tricking people into being afraid is the biggest treat.

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Goretorium

    And we love giving the "BOO!'

    -@Goretorium

    November 16, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  2. The Other Jack Walsh

    Something of a companion piece for rado:
    http://theotherjackwalsh.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/no-one-expects-wetness/

    November 2, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  3. Robert

    The correct term is "Haunter", not "haunt nerd".

    We are the Haunters, my friends
    And we'll keep on building 'til the end
    We are the Haunters, WE ARE THE HAUNTERS
    No time for Christmas, 'cause we are the Haunters...
    ...of the world.

    November 1, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  4. Levi

    loved these pics, lol so much fun!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  5. The BBITZ

    Thumbs up for the guy in pic two in the skeleton costume who looks like he's peeing himself haha. Looks like an awesome haunted house.

    October 31, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  6. Mitch

    American politics and this election are much scarier...Congress and the Supreme Court too.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Levi

      oh stfu troll. go read a book

      October 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  7. gah

    these posts are making me crave a Dr. Who Halloween special!

    October 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  8. palintwit

    Teabaggers scare me the most. And their queen, Sarah Palin. She's really frightening.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Aristophanes

      But not anywhere as scary as Big Foot, err I mean Moochelle Obama.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
      • woodyplace

        admit it. you want to bang Michelle. She gorgeous and nice. More woman than you'll ever have. Deal with it.

        November 1, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Petercha

      Liberalism scares me the most.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  9. Treva

    I don't do scary houses or movies. I am chicken and I know it. No shame here.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Gina BonBon

      i feel ya, treva!! meeeeee either!!!! no way, no how!!

      October 31, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • dfoos

      I'm right there with ya! Not for me at all!

      October 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Summer

      I don't do them either. I went to a haunted house once and literally pooped in my pants. I was mortified. Never again.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
      • Oh gawd

        How to: instant tmi. hahaha ;D

        October 31, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  10. The Doctor

    Better than a Dalek yelling "exterminate!"

    October 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  11. Squeezebox

    Just imagine you're walking up to a darkened garage. You're looking for candy, but all of a sudden you see these two lights coming at you from the darkness and a voice screams "DESTOY! DESTROY! DESTROY! as the robot run amok reveals itself. RUN!!!!!!

    October 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • AndriconBoy

      Cold, unfeeling robots that scream about destroying everything that is not like them...

      You're talking about Republican Xtians, aren't you? They're the scariest thing I have seen in my life.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
      • Petercha

        I'd say that liberals are the cold, unfeeling robots that scream about destroying everything that is not like them...

        October 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
      • Derek

        AndriconBoy and Petercha, you both are complete idiots and wastes of life. Close you fat tub lard a** mouths and get out of your parents basements and do something with your life.

        November 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm |