Published 7:10 PM EDT Oct 30, 2019
A haunted house has gone viral for its hair-raising requirements for entry: participants must clear a background check, pass a doctor’s physical and mental exams, and sign a 40-page waiver.
And with virality comes controversy: plenty of speculation and outrage has arisen online over how safe the extreme haunted experience really is.
The premise of McKamey Manor: “contestants,” as they’re dubbed, are pushed through a series of terrifying, seemingly dangerous tasks while blindfolded as they’re transported to various locations between Summertown, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama. Owner and creator Russ McKamey offers a $20,000 prize to anyone who can complete the course, though nobody ever has.
NSFW videos of past contestants’ experiences are required viewing before signing up for the tour. The images are harrowing: they show grown adults sobbing, shaking, often soaking wet and covered in what looks like blood. McKamey maintains the danger is all an illusion. Critics say participants are signing themselves up to be tortured.
But people continue to sign up anyway.
‘There’s a chance of death’: Inside the chilling 40-page waiver
The contents of the usually 40-page waiver (sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the “activities” that day, McKamey tells USA TODAY) visitors need to sign beforehand are more than frightening enough for anyone looking for a Halloween spook.
Kris Smith, a remote volunteer for McKamey Manor, has been through the tour twice.
But before both attempts, he was initially scared off by the waiver, which details all the physically painful, mentally scarring and grotesque things that could happen along the way: it says you could be be buried alive in a coffin, for example, or swim through a tunnel system with minimal air pockets and caimans trying to bite you.
“I read it and I quit,” Smith says in an interview with USA TODAY. “I got to the last page and turned around and went home. … There’s so much. You have to pull out your own teeth, there’s a chance of getting a tattoo, a chance of your fingernails getting pulled out. It’s really overwhelming. There’s a chance of death. Accidents do happen.”
When a participant finally gets the courage to hand over their John Hancock, there’s still the actual tour experience go through.
‘Just putting on a big show’
McKamey comes across as a charismatic, theatrical man. He grew up loving movies and theater. After serving for 23 years in the Navy, he spent another 13 working in veterans affairs before turning McKamey Manor into a full-time gig.
“It’s all entertainment,” McKamey says. “Halloween is nothing more than a big play. (The Manor) is just putting on a big show. That’s all it is, just a big production.”
Much like a reality show, potential contestants are screened beforehand (“We want people that are going to be outgoing, people who are going to put on a show for fans,” says Smith.)
Each contestant is filmed through their attempts at making it through the tour, with clips of their experiences shared for fans to watch through a private Facebook group.
And, like the way reality shows set their contestants up for drama, It’s easier to pull off the ultimate scare when Smith and a handful of other volunteers are working behind the scenes with pre-tour screenings that help cater the experience to what would scare each individual.
“I’ll be your best friend,” Smith says of his relationship with contestants leading up to their tour date. “I’ll be calling you, checking up, … getting into your head to figure out what makes you tick.”
Smoke and mirrors: McKamey explains the making of some of the horror
The appeal of a typical haunted house or horror movie lies behind its safety. Guests or viewers can enjoy something shocking and seemingly frightening because they know deep down the danger is make-believe.
But some contend that at McKamey Manor, people are really getting hurt. A recent Change.org petition by Frankie Towery asking the Tennessee and Alabama governments to shut down McKamey’s operation continues to collect signatures. So far it’s gotten over 62,000 signatures.
The petition, which cites Reddit threads and unnamed “reports,” calls the Manor “literally just a kidnapping & torture house” and claims “some people have had to seek professional psychiatric help and medical care for extensive injuries.”
“It’s a lot of nothing. The manor is not getting shut down,” McKamey says of arguments like those, adding he’s not going to stop doing something just because some people don’t like it.
McKamey maintains the discussions of controversy are led by folks who haven’t gone through the tour themselves and are based on an iteration of the manor that hasn’t existed for five or six years. It used to be a more physical experience, with actors “yelling, getting real physical with them.” Now, McKamey says, he’s the only one who interacts with contestants during the tour. It’s a mental game now.
“They’re not getting hurt,” he says. “I use a lot of hypnosis, a lot of mind control techniques. If you can hypnotize people, you can make them think whatever you want. I don’t need to rough anyone up. Hypnosis is a powerful mind tool. I can put somebody in a pool with 3 inches of water and tell them there’s a great white shark, and they’re going to believe they’re swimming (in the ocean) with a great white shark.”
Smith recalled tapping out during his second attempt at conquering the manor: he said he went through a round of hypnosis that gave him a “complete panic attack.”
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Who would sign up for something like this?
Adrenaline junkies, McKamey says; people who see the tour as an extreme obstacle course and a challenge to beat their personal best time.
Repeat contestant Brandon Vance told The Nashville Scene in 2018 that after serving in the Army, he’s constantly seeking a similar adrenaline rush. Extreme activities like skydiving and bungee jumping don’t do it anymore, he said. So he turned to McKamey Manor to get his extreme thrills.
“I don’t get that adrenaline rush from jumping out a plane anymore. It’s not the same as when you’re sitting in a Humvee, locked and loaded, you’ve said your last prayer and go outside the wire — it’s very hard to replicate that,” he said. “With McKamey Manor, that’s the closest I’ve ever come. I get to experience that feeling again — it’s almost euphoric.”
That’s what McKamey says it’s all about: “The energy and the folks; entertaining the folks,” he says. “It’s fun to be able to design something that comes to fruition and succeeds and does all the things you hope it would. Its rewarding to see that take place. Its just entertainment – nothing more, nothing less.”
Contributing: The Associated Press.
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