If you’re a horror fan, chances are you have a lot of love for haunt season, and cannot get enough of the spook-filled attractions that pop up each and every fall (much like this writer). It’s that devotion to the thrill of being scared and pushed to our boundaries that is front and center in filmmaker Jon Schnitzer’s upcoming documentary, Haunters: The Art of the Scare, and if you’re someone who loves haunts, mazes, and immersive horror-centric experiences, you’re going to want to check out this doc once it's released on October 3rd (for more information on the film’s release, click HERE).
Haunters is currently playing in Austin as part of the 2017 Fantastic Fest, and while there, I had the opportunity to chat with Schnitzer as well as legendary scare actor Shar Mayer, who has been a fixture on the haunt scene for 40 years now. The duo discussed how The Art of the Scare evolved throughout production, the shift of haunted attractions over the years, and much more. Look for more on Haunters: The Art of the Scare later this week, right here on Daily Dead.
Congrats on everything, Jon. I’m curious as to how this project evolved while you were working on it, so I was hoping you could discuss what your initial vision was for this documentary, and how much did it shift the further you got into everybody's stories?
Jon Schnitzer: Yeah, it did change a lot. Okay, so, remember the part where they're showing pictures of Donald and he's dressed out as the dead Army guy when he was a child? The picture of the Freddy Krueger kid, that's me. I met Donald in the sixth grade, and we met because I had a ton of Fangoria magazines, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, and that's what I brought to school. He also brought the same stuff to school.
And then, we worked on a haunted house together, and we scared kids, and we had fun, and I've seen him just keep growing with his haunt, and I was like, "This kid, he's having so much fun, he should be telling his story about why he's doing this." Because, when you look at him at first, you think, "This big, giant, tough guy," but, when you learn more about his story, you see why he likes to scare people, and you learn about how vulnerable he really is, and how his haunt has brought his family together, and it has actually healed his family in a lot of ways.
I also thought, "This is amazing, because there's also this other guy across the street from him who has a haunted house, too." They’ve been there for a decade, and Donald has never talked to him because he saw him as the competition. I was like, "Wait a minute, the whole movie could just be the haunt across the street, and how they go out of their way to try to outdo each other.” But, then I went to go film Donald to talk about his neighbor, and he said, "You know what? I talked to him the other day, he’s a really nice guy, so I don't know what I was thinking." I'm like, "Well, there goes that movie," [laughs].
So, because I love haunts so much, and they have been evolving over the last few years, I just wanted to film as many really awesome ones that I could find because that’s inspiring to me. And, as I was filming them, I kept noticing, "That's right, there's that one that's interactive, and there's that one that's extreme, and there's another one that's extreme. Now, there's McKamey Manor, which is the most extreme thing in the world." And, once I started exploring the history of it like that, it all started coming together, and it was clear that this needs to really be about the rise of terror as entertainment, and how far is too far?
It's fun to even think about the idea that we've gone from “boo!” scare mazes to haunts that are so extreme, that they even waterboard you. Think about all the sub-genres of horror. There are thousands of sub-genres of horror, and now look at the haunts. We had Saw, and now we have escape rooms. We had Hostel, and now we have extreme haunts. It all just naturally progressed, like you said, and initially, I thought I was going to spend two years doing this doc, but I ended up spending four years on it.
Shar, for you, because you've had such a great career as a scare actor, was it cool for you to get approached for something like this? Because I think most folks have overlooked the art form that is being a scare actor.
Shar Mayer: Well, I have to tell you, I've been approached and interviewed lots of times, because I've been doing this almost forty years, but nothing I’ve ever done before is like this movie. I met Jon at Play Dead, which is a show I was doing with the amazing Todd Robbins, who's this great showman, and one of my cast mates knew him, and he came and saw the show. And the thing about Jon is, he really does understand the art of the scare, and that there is an art to this, and that it's not a bunch of crazy people running around randomly. There is a performance art to it and there are all these different types of people that are into this.
But, it's a lot of people that are into performance art who are the haunters, and now, it's like second-generation haunters are starting to come in. You start seeing people that their parents were haunters, too. I am a haunter, my daughter haunts a little too now, because she just started getting into it. So, there's another level to it, and I'm so proud to be part of this movie, and it has to do with this guy and his vision. Because he saw what we were doing and what was going on, and he was able to show that to other people. A lot of people think I'm crazy. But this movie really translates, not just for our industry, but to a wider vein of people, and I'm really proud to be part of something like that.
Jon, you mentioned the evolution of these attractions, and even in your doc, you reference the fact that something like 30 million people attend these things worldwide now. From the conversations that you have had, what do you think is behind this shift? 10 years ago, I could barely get anyone to go to Halloween Horror Nights with me, and now, most of my friends who don’t even watch horror movies are all about these various haunts and mazes.
Jon Schnitzer: It's grown in a lot of different ways, but look at the different times when it has been popular. Like in the movie, we're showing how all of the Universal monster movies, the classic monsters, came out during the depression, so haunted houses for Halloween started really becoming a thing during the ’50s and ’60s. Then we started having the extreme haunts, but look what they came out of. In 2001, right after September 11th, that was one of the biggest Halloween seasons of all time. 2008 was bigger, and that was around the time of the financial meltdown. Now we're on track to having the biggest Halloween of all time. It just seems like we all need some "scare-apy." We need the therapeutic value of screaming our head off.
It’s just like what George Romero used to do. He would hold a mirror up to society, so that we could look at ourselves, scream, and then think about life. What we're doing with these haunted houses now, is you get to go and scream your head off, freak out, face your worst fears, and then laugh about it, feel good about it, and know that you survived. But the line with some of these events becomes, "How far is too far?" When a simulation blurs the line with torture, then when does the simulation stop? When does it stop being a horror attraction, and just start being a horror itself?
Shar, I wanted to find out, what is your favorite part of this season? Is it the act of dressing up and being able to disappear into these fun characters? Is it seeing how people react to you?
Shar Meyer: Well, I'm really lucky at this point. I'm year-round working in different aspects of the industry. But, at this point in my life, it's seeing the new haunters come in, and seeing it spread. I really like that. There's nothing like scaring someone, and for that moment you're making a connection with somebody you don't know. For a split second, you and that person, you're connected, and there's nothing that you can think of, or that I can think of, that is anything like that. When do you just have a connection with somebody? If you sit for an hour and have a conversation in a bar with somebody, you can learn about them, you can talk to them, but you're never gonna connect in an instant, and this is one of those things that you really do.
I see these new haunters coming up, and they feel this energy and this exhilaration that you get from haunting, cause as much as it feels good to the victims going through our mazes, we get that in triplicate. So, when you scare someone, and they're like, "Ahhh," you feel that three times what they feel. So, it's very addicting, and this is the season where it expands and grows. Like you said, over the years it gets bigger and bigger, but in November it's hard. Most of us put our costumes in boxes and move on.
But, come August, it gets even bigger and bigger. This season now starts in August and it goes until November. So, if you just work at a haunted house, by the time you're hired and trained, it ends up being almost two months, and that's pretty cool. Like you were saying, it just continues to expand.
In case you missed it, check here to read more Fantastic Fest 2017 reviews and interviews, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more live coverage of the festival.