The Tale of McKamey Manor- Something Wicked 2020
Do you remember your first haunted house?
The idea of the haunted attraction dates back to the early 19th century. Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors and other grisly exhibits paved the way for institutions and private companies to create morbid entertainment from the masses. Haunted houses in particular became popular during the Great Depression. In a time of economic despair, young people began escalating their usual holiday mischief into the realm of criminal vandalism and harassment. According to Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, haunted houses "...came in about the same time as trick-or-treat did... cities looked for ways to buy these kids off, essentially." But, as with most forms of childhood entertainment, the haunted house was officially codified by the Walt Disney Company in the mid-20th century. Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1969, was a wild success with guests. More than 82,000 people attended the Mansion in a single day after its grand opening. With Disney, the aesthetic and narrative elements of the haunted house were cemented into Western culture. Professional haunted houses became immersive, often technically complex operations, intent on distracting audiences away from the artifice of it all.
But is there a point where a haunted house becomes too immersive?
Created by Russ McKamey and originally based in California, McKamey Manor is an extreme haunt or interactive horror experience that is run in two locations in Tennessee and Alabama. Rather than a standard haunted house experience, where a participant might spend a few minutes lost in a set consisting of teenagers in masks and plastic skeletons, McKamey Manor haunts are physical and psychological experiences of up to two people that can last for hours. Participants are well vetted, undergoing drug and alcohol screening and mental evaluations, before signing 40-page waivers that detail horrifying promises of blood, vomit, shaved heads, broken bones, and pulled teeth. Admission is free- in fact, if you can make it through the whole ordeal, McKamey Manor promises to give you $20,000. If you want to experience the Manor for yourself, there is a waiting list a few thousand names long- however, there are many videos uploaded to the Manor’s official YouTube channel where you can see footage of other participants sobbing, begging to be let out, enduring crawling spiders and simulated drownings at the hands of McKamey’s actors.
If you are squeamish, I would not recommend watching these videos. They are upsetting, despite knowing that these participants are willing, and that the Manor has measures in place to keep their guest out of mortal danger.
While any haunted house is an interesting haunted house in my opinion, there is a reason why I am discussing this one in particular. I first heard of McKamey Manor when I watched a video by a YouTuber named Natalie Taylor. Her video, entitled Exposing the TRUTH about McKamey Manor (with footage), currently has over 2 million views, and is one of many similar videos on the topic. Taylor describes the Manor as “…honestly disgusting…” and “…something [participants] will regret for the rest of their lives.”
These commentators allege that McKamey Manor is not an attraction at all- it is a real-life horror house where patrons are actually being tortured. One victim spoke about her experience to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Her haunt is documented on the Manor’s YouTube channel; the victim states that she gave a positive exit interview in order to get the footage of her 'abuse' published. In the video, the victim is slapped in the face, has her hair pulled, and is forced into a van as part of a mock kidnapping. However, she states that the real abuse occurred off camera. She alleges that she was forced to lie down in a cage submerged in a pool of shallow water with her hands bound. As the actors pushed her head under the water, and her long hair became wrapped around her neck, the participant began to panic and asked to leave-
“I’m going to die here… I’m going to drown [she thought].’ My hair is wrapping around my neck and I start freaking out. I’m telling them I can’t breathe and they’re just laughing and doing it more.”
Reactions to McKamey Manor prominently feature these claims of abuse. Based on these accounts, Natalie Taylor concludes that “…this is not a professional haunted house, okay?... The man that runs this attraction is exploiting them… this man has a fetish.” And she is not alone in condemning the Manor and the man behind it. When the Manor opened in Tennessee in 2017, residents were intent on getting the attraction closed. One neighbour stated that “…I know they can't kick him off his lot, but they can stop him because this is a community with kids… it shouldn't be happening here”. This came after a failed move to Illinois in 2015, where residents were successful in having the haunt banned.
The Manor presents as a real-life horror movie. Their website is grotesque, and McKamey himself plays up the ramshackle feel of his operation. He's aware that infamy has its benefits, and that horror experiences with strong online presences attract attention. He is reminiscent of the old school horror directors like William Castle, or Grand-Guignol artistic director Max Maurey, who styled themselves as marketing aficionados and Kings of Horror. So, the media has bought into this styling (with help from victim testimony) and has become more concerned with real-life ethics. Is this haunt too extreme, and is McKamey liable for psychological damage caused by his attraction?
If this is a genuine torture house, where people sign away their rights and are routinely abused by a maniac who posts everything online, then McKamey should have been arrested by now. Even with a 40-page waiver, torture is illegal. For me, the more interesting idea is that there is ever a situation where an artist is responsible for preventing their work from causing psychological damage.
In a 1997 Cultural Studies article, Andrew Tudor discusses how the perception of horror audiences is shaped by taboo. Because enjoying horror is viewed as a contradiction, those who participate in its creation and consumption are viewed as a strange, like-minded mass-
…it often carries overtones to the effect that liking horror is a bit peculiar… [audiences] are seen as a self-selected group by virtue of their conjoint taste, and analysts seeking explanations suppose, therefore, that this group must share some distinguishable characteristic which underlies their singular predisposition.
With horror, there is no point in separating the artist from the artwork. Both are deviant.
Russ McKamey's behaviour can be easily reframed to fit this idea. For example, when his attraction operated in California, McKamey only accepted donated dog food as payment. McKamey owns five dogs, and uses the donations to feed them. The closure of his successful Californian attraction is also documented online, attributed to an issue with the IRS and unpaid income taxes. However, in her exposé, Natalie Taylor presents this information as evidence of McKamey’s psychopathy. She claims that McKamey left San Diego due to “...a few suspicions that he actually got in trouble with the State of California,” going on to argue that “...we have to admit it’s very suspicious to move the entire attraction across the country.” Taylor also takes the Manor’s not-for-profit model as red flag. She calls the dog food donations an “…interesting choice, I know… it might have been a different story if he was actually getting paid to beat my ass.”
With this reframing of McKamey as a lying torturer, his patrons may also be reframed to be victims. A patron who appeared to enjoy their experience in an exit interview can reframe her experience as one of abuse when she begins to feel the negative psychological effects. While I don't feel comfortable blaming victims, I can't help but wonder where in that 40-page waiver she could have missed the brutality of this haunt. Modern horror sensibilities- immersion, 'torture porn', etc- seem antithetical to modern ideas of mental health and consent awareness. But consider the first question I posed in this post-
Do you remember your first haunted house?
I do, because it featured prominently in my nightmares for a time. I have been psychologically affected by countless horror films. Should the directors of Donnie Darko or The Exorcist or Insidious be held responsible for that? I developed a fear of the ocean after reading Tim Winton's 1998 book The Deep as a child. I am still afraid of deep water- is that the author's fault?
No charges have ever been brought against McKamey for the alleged abuse. This is a story about the paratheatrical. It raises questions about what we find acceptable as entertainment. When we allow our personal morality to dictate what other, consenting adults do with their lives and bodies, we move closer to a line being drawn.
Halloween is a time for campfire ghost stories and urban legends. Let's not continue to condemn those who create horror, and victimise those who consume it- we are not police officers or doctors. If you must condemn, consider that line. Do you want public outcry to determine what horror media you get to enjoy? While it's a concept almost too fraught to be worth arguing over, it's these arguments that make us good audience members.
Alternatively, you can buy into the horror and treat McKamey Manor how it is intended to be treated- as a frightful place of 'real-life horrors,' a story for scared teenagers to trade around the campfire on October 31st.
If you dare...
What do you think of this controversial subject? Please leave your musings in the comments...
Stay tuned for more spooky posts this October, and prepare for a DIY surprise on Halloween...
Shiffer, M 2018, 'McKamey Manor: “extreme haunted house” is not for the fainthearted', The Vintage News, 27 Jul, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/07/27/mckamey-manor/.
Brentzel, C 2017, 'Extreme controversial horror house ‘McKamey Manor’ comes to Huntsville area', WHNT News 19, 4 Aug, https://whnt.com/news/extreme-controversial-horror-house-mckamey-manor-comes-to-huntsville-area/.
Cook, M 2017, 'Terror attraction McKamey Manor is leaving San Diego for the south,' The San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 Jun, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/watchdog/sd-me-mckamey-manor-20170613-story.html.
Carroll, R and Ryan, M 2015, 'Extreme haunted house: inside the real life kingdom of masochists', The Guardian, 30 Oct, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/30/extreme-haunted-house-masochists-mckamey-manor.
Taylor, N 2019, 'Exposing the TRUTH about McKamey Manor (with footage)', YouTube video, 4 Nov, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhVfJPmyOkE.
Heller, C 2017, 'A brief history of the haunted house', Smithsonian Magazine, 28 Oct, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-haunted-house-180957008/.
Cook, M 2015, 'McKamey Manor ‘victim’ speaks out', The San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 Oct,
Barson, M 2020, 'William Castle- American director', Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Castle.
1930s trick or treating children photograph © Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis/Getty Image
McKamey Manor kidnapping photograph © Mae Ryan
McKamey Manor fridge photograph © The Daily Edge
Haunted Mansion exterior photography © Disney