Full Contact: “Dead of Night” and The Extreme Haunt ExperienceBooks/Art/Culture,News Madeleine Koestner
I met P.H. in a parking lot while waiting to be blindfolded and put into the trunk of a car. This wasn’t part of a kidnapping, just the method used for entering an immersive haunted house named Nyctophobia. P.H. stared me down menacingly before breaking into a laugh and admitting he wasn’t there to kidnap me, but was attending the haunt as well, and introduced himself as the creator of another extreme haunted house called Dead Of Night. My interest was piqued; I’d heard stories of Dead Of Night from locals, and knew it had recently been named one of the most intense haunts in the country by The Raven & Black Cat. P.H. promised this was going to be the strangest year yet, but wouldn’t say anymore except that it was happening November 13th and 14th of this year. We exchanged contact information, and I convinced him to meet me for a chat the following week.
Immersive and extreme haunted houses are very unusual events that seem to be growing in popularity as word of them spreads. These are haunts that border on theatrical events, asking you to sign away your personal space upon entry and arming you with nothing but a safe-word that, if uttered, will eject you from the experience immediately. You will be touched, threatened, and asked to do things you wouldn’t dream of in an everyday setting. In other words: you will be scared in ways far more intense than a man in a mask popping out from behind a corner.
While waiting on the train platform for my meeting with P.H., I was suddenly struck by a wave of paranoia; I was alone, meeting someone I barely knew to discuss extreme haunted houses in the middle of the night. As an enthusiastic attendee myself, I was familiar with the daredevil who goes to this type of haunt, curious and titillated by the idea of pushing their own limits. But what strange kind of person masterminds the haunt themselves? And should I be concerned that at any moment, a bag could be thrown over my head and my body, yet again, thrown into the trunk of a car?
And was I excited or frightened by this idea?
There’s a stigma behind haunted attractions as a whole, and when the boundaries of what can be done to guests in a haunted house gets challenged, there will be a lot of pushback from anyone who doesn’t understand this. Due to this, it can be hard to lock down locations, get permits/insurance, and acquire a budget. Working for such a niche audience, there’s plenty of roadblocks, and in the last year,we’ve lost what may have been the most accessible extreme haunt in NYC, Blackout, and the popular themed haunt, Nightmare has changed from a haunted house into a strictly theater event. For shows like Nyctophobia and Dead Of Night, making a profit isn’t the goal– it’s about having fun and creating something unique that will affect people.
When P.H. did arrive, I was greeted with a hug and a lot of enthusiasm. His passion for haunted houses, horror film, and scaring people started at a very young age. P.H. proudly informs this writer that he met the founder of the first haunt he worked, House of the Living Dead in Lake Grove, NY, at a FANGORIA Weekend of Horrors convention over a decade ago. A young punk with liberty spikes and a penchant for Frank Henenlotter films, he was a perfect candidate for acting in haunted houses. Yet, while working and attending haunts, he felt something was missing.
“I had never been to a haunted house that dealt with real world issues,” P.H. explains. And even if any existed at the time, they must have been few and far between. On the path to developing Dead Of Night, P.H. became enveloped in conspiracy theories and found himself growing more and more paranoid. “I went off the deep-end, and I had to crawl my way out of it. I think I became a lot smarter in the end. Whether these things were true or not, I was able to start questioning things. It relates back to being from the punk scene, since you’re always rebelling.” This became the impetus of Dead Of Night— his fear of the new world order, martial law, and being thrown into a police state. Although P.H. penned the first year in 2008, it was quite some time before he was able to implement it.
Years passed, and a haunted house called Chamber of Horrors that P.H. had been involved with since they launched at their current location was looking to branch out. P.H. approached them and pitched a few concepts, including Dead Of Night. They were interested in collaborating, and in 2013, he was finally able to actualize the ideas he had been ruminating on for so long. “I told them it was a full-contact haunted house, based on a dystopian future with a concentration camp-like feel to it,” P.H. explains. “You’re going to be herded into a place and kidnapped, and horrible things are going to happen to you inside.” Taking place over two nights during the regular season, Dead Of Night was essentially a marketing stunt, but a very abnormal one.
Each Dead Of Night has a linear narrative that starts the moment you arrive on the grounds. Before anything begins, guests are asked to sign a waiver. Only then can they get in line, and even the line to the entrance is an element of the show. In 2013, guests’ mouths were taped shut, and they were forced to watch disturbing videos as they waited. Then a group of men in black, faces obscured by gas masks, burst out and began pulling people into the haunt. “No one had ever attended something like this before on Long Island. And it really bothered people. It was a state of complete chaos. Whether or not you’re under the control of a fascist government, it’s still chaos inside.”
As the timeline reaches 2014, P.H.’s attitude changes as his words weigh considerably heavier. “2014 was the most violent and grotesque year. I wish I could go back in time and change things that happened. Things I don’t mind talking about now…” He trails off. “Let’s just say, I had never done a show where I felt horrible about myself afterwards. I stand by it, but I can’t believe half the shit that happened inside. Mostly, I can’t believe how far people will go just to prove to themselves they can do something.”
Stemming from the police state plot of the year prior, Dead Of Night 2014, titled “Initiation,” was about joining a secret society, reminiscent of the Illuminati. For each installment, P.H. did extensive research, and found help from individuals who could help him ground his vision in reality. While doing brand promotion out in the wealthiest area of the Hamptons, P.H. found himself receiving invitations he didn’t comprehend, but couldn’t refuse. “I went to this black mask sort of event. I wasn’t involved, I was a wallflower. There was sex. I watched them kill animals. I was shocked by what I saw,” he confesses.
His research extended into Theistic Satanism and Luciferianism as well, hunting high and low for real evidence of what these lifestyles looked and felt like in the real world. P.H. immediately identified the seductiveness in worshiping the devil, and things began to happen to him, good things that didn’t make sense. He incorporated all of these ideas into the story of “Initiation,” from the underground parties, to the sacrifices, and of course, lots of Satan.
Yet, it wasn’t just a story about the things he had seen, it was a test. “My goal with ‘Initiation’ was to bother people so much going into it and make it progressively worse and worse that no one would make it to the end. That didn’t happen,” he chuckles. “Most people made it through. No one is forced to do anything, but they push themselves to the end.”
Arriving at “Initiation,” guests would meet a lawyer with slicked back hair and a pair of horns: Lou Cifer, Attorney at Law. He requests you sign a waiver, which allowed for the full contact experience, but an additional clause to the contract informed you that you were also signing away your soul. It was on the nose, but effective and fun, and once guests have signed away their souls, the chaos begins.
Brought in right away, guests walk through a ceremony and then find themselves on a dance floor, pounding bass and strobe lights, and dancing isn’t optional– it’s a requirement. As the party rages, the men in black return, grabbing dancers and pulling them into the show. From there, it’s room after room of horror and freakishness: clowns forcing guests to paint one another, dominatrixes, guests being told to hold one another’s heads underwater, mutilated topless women, and other bizarre tasks and sights. A pair of Christian missionaries would confront you about the horrors you had just committed, then suddenly you were thrown into it again.
The guests got extreme. The guests crossed not only the boundaries provided to them, but ones no one had anticipated would be crossed. No one was forced to do anything, as the show puts a huge emphasis on consent. Things were simply suggested, and people took the risk.
“A man came through in 2014 who believed he really lost his soul,” P.H. admits without a hint of enjoyment on his face. He continues meekly, as if both tired and ashamed to be telling the story again, “At the end of the show, I gave him my personal phone number, which was a bad idea. I let him know who I was… this man has suffered, in his mind, for almost a year now. He says he’s been going to church more, and trying to make his life better. He called me at 4 in the morning once to ask me why I did this. So I asked him, ‘Why did you sign the waiver?’”
P.H. refuses to divulge the man’s name, but after months of phone calls from this individual, P.H. heard from a lawyer that he was being sued for stealing the man’s soul. The case was dismissed quickly in court due to the ridiculousness of trying to prove legal ownership of a soul, but even the most ridiculous things have ramifications and Dead Of Night was nearly shut down.
P.H. was crushed. Guests had gone out of control, a man’s life had been ruined, he’d seen animals slain, explored dark religions, and even sacrificed several real life relationships all for the show. Yet, for P.H., the haunted attraction was his life, and the show must go on. With much hesitation, he began planning for the Dead Of Night 2015, a psychotropic sci-fi horror exploration of drug trials inspired by BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Lovecraft, and a slew of true stories almost too disturbing to be believed. P.H. began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, detailing those experiences in artwork for the show.
Dead Of Night 2015 is set in a futuristic 1984 with a synthwave soundtrack. “I can’t tell you everything that’s going on this year, but we are using real government mind control tactics that the CIA used. You’re not going to take drugs. We are going to make you feel like you took them.” P.H. describes a few other aspects of the show, including a visit to Arkham Asylum and the City of Innsmouth, and a guarantee that every guest will be leaving covered in blood.
There are other shows in the works as well, including two events P.H. is calling Fringe. Fringe is a cinematic horror experience, opening with a movie and then turning into something completely unexpected. P.H. is working on two shows for Fringe, “Rituals” and “Slasher”, which lean more towards theatrical performances than haunted houses, with one catch: You’re the main character, and you haven’t read the script.
Inspired by Italian Giallo films, “Slasher” casts you and a partner as undercover female detectives trying to solve a murder. “Rituals,” inspired by the films of Dario Argento, casts you as two inductees into a coven of witches. Although “Slasher” has not been scheduled yet, “Rituals” will be taking place on November 28th in Medford, NY. The event is a benefit for one of the last video rental stores on Long Island, 112 Video.
P.H. confesses he has also been in talks with Russ McKamey, the founder of what is probably the most notorious extreme haunt, McKamey Manor, but the same old roadblocks have kept them from getting anything off the ground. “Russ McKamey is a lot like William Castle, who he admires as much as I do. He’s a showman. He controls all the information, what you hear and what you see, coming out of McKamey Manor. And people buy it, hook, line, and sinker.”
Sadly, McKamey Manor is another in danger of closing their doors for good. The world simply isn’t very accepting of this breed of fun: shows that challenge, frighten, and transport the audience to an entirely different state of being.
I smile at P.H., impressed by the apt reference to William Castle. The admiration of a man who made his name via staging elaborate events and pranks to promote his films is telling. “You don’t have to believe everything I say,” P.H. tells me. “But write about it. It happened.”
Tickets are available for Dead Of Night, taking place on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th of November, and Fringe: Rituals on November 28th. Visit their Facebook pages for more information: Dead of Night and Fringe.