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”
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.