Think, for a second, about the collective creative intelligence contained within the five boroughs of New York City. This place has housed, at turns, the twisted minds of Robert Moses, Al Capone, Andy Warhol and Anna Wintour, in addition to what must surely be some of the most highly regarded psychologists in the world. You'd really think, then, that we could pull it together to craft a truly, desperately horrifying haunted house experience that would leave all who beheld it soiled and frothing. You would be wrong.
I’m not a tough person to scare. I might even be so bold as to call myself the ideal haunted house visitor: Jumpy and high-strung, but generally nonviolent and extremely game. If you scream in my face or throw a bag over my head or feign peeing on me (all of which did actually happen over the course of around four hours Saturday night) I will react in a fashion that I think resembles impeccable haunted house decorum—some combination of terrified shrieking/laughter, and the total absence of biting and vomiting. I take a certain amount of pride in these gifts, in general.
On Saturday, accompanied by my equally cowardly friend Drew, I decided to hit four of the city’s notable haunted attractions in one night—Times Scare, Blood Manor, Blackout and Nightmare—both for efficiency but also in the name of Science: What happens when the fear is administered not over the course of several weeks, but in a lump sum? Are you worn down one scream at a time, until the end finds you damp and pallid with defeat, like a spent tissue? Or is your once meek psyche increasingly callused by each new threat, leaving it brittle and tough—a battle-hardened, fear-immune nugget? I planned to find out.
I was a few minutes early arriving at Times Scare, fittingly located across the street from Port Authority. I decided to wait for Drew in the bar area, a dark but bitterly dismal room with a stage on one end and a blue, LED backlit bar on the other. In an attempt to leave my experience as unalloyed as possible, I’d vowed not to drink anything harder than a soda during any part of the multi-hour experience. Times Scare's setting made that easy: The menu consisted primarily of complicated vodka-based cocktails, and the bar itself made me feel like a stowaway on a moribund military vessel mysteriously occupied by Jersey Shore casting rejects.
No thank you. (Via Yelp)
Still, Times Scare itself was worlds better than you might have expected from a year-round tourist trap, or perhaps it's contextual: The horror therein is intentional, versus the insidious dread a person might feel staring at a congealed appetizer platter at the Applebee's around the corner. Drew and I agreed that we enjoyed its theme (haunted hotel, whoops, now it's a psych ward) in addition to its persistent and stunning raunchiness. Upon entering, we were greeted by what we interpreted to be an inn keeper, a Woody Allen-type fellow dressed in what I will call "grandma drag." He made a series of lewd jokes, the best of which was the threat that, if we made contact with any actors, he would rip out our tracheas, fashion them into condoms and then "skull-fuck" us. This was not the last reference to skull-fucking that would be made in Times Scare, a touch that I appreciated.
Debriefing afterward, Drew and I found ourselves chagrined by how much we'd delighted in the spectacle. "The scariest thing was obviously the Chainsaw Jason," said Drew, referring to masked man who chased us for what felt like several hundred yards. "You could say 'already been done,' but also we screamed like little babies. So it's really effective."
But Times Scare's most endearing quality, by far, was the total absence of anyone else in our group. Hell is other people, said Sartre, a maxim that he must surely have coined after being vomited upon by a drunken bro in a haunted house, but more on that later.
Having arrived at this second destination early, we milled around outside and watched as the line grew to stretch down the block. Who were these people coughing up nearly $35 for 20 minutes of terror? A coltish group of teenagers in line were celebrating their friend's 16th birthday. What level of fright were they anticipating? "$35 worth," one said drolly. A group of ladies dressed to the nines said they were trying to take advantage all the city had to offer, but also, they'd bought a Groupon. Drew told me a story about a time he got drunk in college and barfed on his external hard drive. We waited some more.
As with Times Scare, the option to enter alone was also available at Blood Manor, though we declined to take advantage in the interest of "journalistic integrity." What a mistake. After what felt like several millennia of listless milling, we were escorted into the West Village warehouse with the first group of the evening, ignoring advice to wait a few rounds until the actors had a chance to warm up.
Whether we'd heeded those warnings or not seemed beside the point: Blood Manor lacked the thematic continuity of Times Scare, with each room seemingly dropped at random from various B-movies I probably wouldn't pony up five bucks to rent. The zombie stripper gave way to the deranged operating room and at one point, we were handed 3D glasses, left to traverse the rest of the way through hallways adorned with neon spray paint. The effect was trippy, certainly, but not scary, and crouching actors were relatively easy to spot among the obvious inanimate distractions.
It was only 7:30 p.m., but I'd already begun to question my commitment to sobriety. Pausing beside the glowing painted wall, I fished through my pockets hoping to locate a stray Excedrin or anything. Eventually my fingers touched upon a dessicated Mentos, and, after contemplating it through my glasses under the eerie black light, popped it in my mouth. That was about the most disturbing event that occurred during my time in Blood Manor.
I expected Blackout to be the highlight of my evening. I'd visited some time ago during its first or second year, and the impression it made on me was indelible. The requirement to go through alone, which was waived for the first time this year, set it apart from other haunted houses—in addition to there not being anyone to cling to, you are targeted specifically and relentlessly by a house full of ghouls whose sole career goal at that particular moment is to compel you to wet yourself. I remember few details from my maiden visit to Blackout, besides that I left genuinely fucking terrified and with the acute understanding that I would not hold up long as a P.O.W. Do not tell me your secrets, as I will reveal them all within moments of a stranger sniffing my hair.
Not pictured: Doofy Converse. (Blackout)
In this year's version, though, we were not only not given the option of making the journey alone; we were specifically denied it. Drew and I were separated into different groups, which was fine with me: In moments of terror, I have no compunction about balling myself into the armpit of a total stranger, or, if I'm being honest, shoving them ruthlessly toward the source of the danger while I run like hell. My groupmates consisted of two couples—one seemingly intoxicated woman and her visibly annoyed boyfriend/husband from Philadelphia, and the other an Indian couple, the female half of whom was pregnant. I struggled to imagine any part of the Blackout experience being suitable for an unborn child, and I briefly considered that she was part of the act. My deepest hope was that halfway through the ordeal I'd be tasked with performing an emergency c-section, the woman of course having been impregnated by Satan a few rooms earlier. This, unfortunately, was affording Blackout way too much credit.
The theme of the evening turned out to be BDSM Lite, or, "The Time a Giggling Asian Woman Fake Urinated On My Face." The overall effect wasn't scary so much as it was vaguely awkward. Between the naked, blood-splattered man in Converse and the forced touching among the members of my group, I felt at points the need to stifle a bored yawn. As a person who came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the annual Folsom Street Fair is regarded as a cherished cultural event, I was unmoved.
This was also around the time I learned that drunk people are the natural enemy to an enjoyable haunted house experience. The woman from Philadelphia, who in line seemed just north of charmingly buzzed, kept trying to scamper behind off-limits curtains and other forbidden destinations, leaving the actors—the majority of whom were petite women—struggling to wrangle her without breaking character.
While Blackout's efforts to create an Interactive Group Experience fell horribly flat, I do think that my lackluster experience can be partially attributed to the suckiness of my particular crew. Drew, for his part, had the pleasure of being spanked with surprising aggression by a matronly middle-aged woman, who apologized profusely for hurting him when he cried out in pain. He claimed he enjoyed this, if little else.
Enjoyable or not, it was also over alarmingly quickly. The end arrived when we were unceremoniously dumped into a room filled with flashing TV screens, and a man in a suit asked if I'd checked a bag. I retrieved it, hoping it would be wrested from me in threatening fashion somewhere down the line. Instead, I opened a door onto East Houston, where a frat bro reeking of Old Spice promptly stepped on my foot. I was back.
Disappointed, I regrouped with Drew at a nearby bar for a shot of cinnamon flavored whiskey, abandoning my brief life as a teetotaler. From there we wandered to our final destination.
I knew from last year that Nightmare is an experience ideally suited for those with attention-deficit disorder, with participants whisked from one quadrant to the next with an efficiency that would make the TSA blush. As it was nearing 11 p.m. on a Saturday in the douche-addled LES, nearly every visitor was properly sauced, their drunkenness fueled by the availability of alcohol in line.
I understand that these are money-making ventures, but of all the haunted houses, Nightmare most wantonly packed people in. I swear there must have been 20 other people crammed into my group, and of course, I was promptly trapped right in the middle of them, a little island safely insulated from any threat of entertainment.
Moreover, I had neglected to read up on the various aspects of the Bad Old Days posted in descriptions on the walls, so many room themes were lost on me, though I did enjoy the old subway car in which we were menaced by various crackheads. (Correction: I watched with envy as other people were menaced; by the time I passed by, they appeared to have worn themselves out, unlike on the actual subway, where crazies of all stripes seem to have unceasing enthusiasm for showering me with attention.)
Just another day. (Nightmare: NYC)
Nightmare also borrowed shamelessly from the Blackouts of old, at one point arranging all 55 or whatever of us against a wall and throwing bags over our heads. As something of an aficionado at this point, I was pleased by the quality of the bag: Cloth, not plastic, with the scent of freshly scrubbed linoleum. We were then instructed to follow a line of caution tape, at which point I smashed my face directly into the gentleman in front of me because of some lazy line monitor's inability to effectively guide such a monstrous and unruly mass of people. Or perhaps this was just how they amused themselves. I can't blame them.
Despite having been marked with a large red X indicating my willingness to be assaulted/chopped into pieces and stuffed in a suitcase, I was barely regarded by any of the ghouls at all. I exited Nightmare into an empty back lot filled with the same sense of dejection a nerdy middle schooler feels at not getting asked to dance, which, whatever, Nightmare. I didn't want to dance with you, anyway.
Five continuous hours in the dark afforded me a certain amount of haunted house wisdom, which I will now impart upon you: Haunted houses are most terrifying by yourself or with one other person, the effect diluted incrementally with the addition of each human present. They are also LOUD. I swear I hear two percent worse now than I did before I first stepped foot in Times Scare.
The hardened fear nugget theory turned out to be correct. When a man brandishes a chainsaw in your face and the first thought you have is, "I see where you're coming from, but perhaps next time you should consider wearing a blood-stained nightgown and a deranged baby mask," then you have reached capacity.
Perhaps, though, haunted houses are just a dull facsimile of the terrors we as New Yorkers experience every day: If I want to be menaced by a crackhead on the subway, I need only ride the subway. If I want someone to threaten to "skull-fuck" me using my own trachea as a prophylactic, I need only ride the subway between maybe 2 and 6 a.m. If I want to solicit someone to pee on me, I need only wait for the bus.
I can do all of these things in New York City, plus order a burger at 4 a.m. when it’s over. And really, what more can you ask for?