Spookers: The business scaring the heck out of people

by Joanna Wane / 18 September, 2017
Photography by Adrian Malloch.

Why would anyone think being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac or mauled by a zombie sounds like fun? In 2010, armed with only a torch and running shoes, Joanna Wane went to find out.

An eerie wind is running its fingers through the cornfield as a battered sign looms ominously from the darkness. Bates Motel.

Inside, a hunched figure in an old-fashioned blue dress sits facing the wall, a coil of coarse grey hair pulled into a bun at her neck. Then the voices come.

“Mother, there are people here. Shall I let them in?”

“No, keep them out! You don’t need anyone else. Take them into the bathroom and do what you did to that girl...”

I step through the next door and straight into the shower scene from Psycho. Splattered blood coats the plastic curtain above the bathtub and the walls are smeared red.

I’m still standing there – my head filled with the sound of screeching violins – when the old woman hurls herself at me from behind and puts a knife to my throat, her face an oozing mass of half-decomposed flesh. And that’s when I scream.

The cast gathers for a final briefing and waits for darkness to fall.

The cast gathers for a final briefing and waits for darkness to fall.

Now I’m not admitting to anything here. You won’t find my name among the “peetalities” on Spookers’ honours board, and certainly not among the “crapastrophes” – although apparently there’s at least one pair of discarded underpants found among the corn rows most nights. But, as a mother of two, let me just say that the ravages of childbirth can leave you vulnerable in certain parts of the anatomy.

Dignity, I discover, is something you check in with the ghoul at the door. A crowd of more than 700 is here for the opening fright night of the season, among them a bevy of blonde, skimpily dressed young things from Auckland’s North Shore celebrating Amber’s 16th birthday (she’s an easy target in her fluoro “Birthday Boo” yellow vest). All four girls have already scrawled their names on the Official Pee Chart, along with their mobile numbers, for the “hot camo guy” who gets blown away in the Haunted House. “Call me!”

By midnight, my throat is raw from channelling Fay Wray and there’s still a huge queue of people waiting to be drip-fed into CornEvil, an R16 haunted maze where psychotic schoolgirls, mutant zombies and chainsaw-happy hillbillies lurk in the labyrinth around every twist and turn.

“I have to go back in and pick up my nuts,” a laughing survivor tells his mates, as they swap war stories by the exit.

I later spot them all posing for a photograph with Jason – the crazed slasher in the ice-hockey mask from Friday the 13th – like a bunch of excited kids descending on Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

But back at the Haunted House, the night is winding down and when a wild-eyed beast with blood dripping from his bared teeth growls menacingly in my ear, I’m too scared-out to even flinch.

So, does it make me some kind of twisted psycho to admit that I loved every moment of it? Most of my friends seem to think so.

But I’m not alone. In fact it’s a global phenomenon. The “horror paradox” is what psychologists call this fascination with fear and the impulse to seek it out. Having the pants scared off you – in a safe environment where there’s no real threat of pain or danger – can be strangely addictive; some research suggests it literally makes you high by triggering the release of opiate endorphins.

“I aim to provide the public with beneficial shocks,” said Alfred Hitchcock, who thought modern life had robbed us of the ability to get goosebumps instinctively.

And terror sells. One of this summer’s big blockbusters, Paranormal Activity, is billed as the scariest movie ever made and the recent explosion in “bête-lit” has left not even the classics safe. Android Karenina, a 19th-century cyborg version, is about to be published to mark the 100th anniversary of  Tolstoy’s death – hot on the heels of last year’s monster mash hit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Worldwide, “dark tourism” has become a multibillion-dollar industry, and visitor numbers are on the rise to everything from macabre fairground-style attractions, with their manufactured spooks, to the historical spectres of Alcatraz and Madame Tussauds. In New York, you can order your own designer kidnapping, with a customised abduction by former SAS officers armed with a list of your greatest fears.

Spookers, Auckland’s dark fun factory, is a scream park based in the former nurses’ hostel of the old Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital in Karaka. Opened late in 2005, it’s become one of the city’s signature tourist attractions with some 250 staff, including a pool of 80 or so actors – most of them former customers hooked on the thrill.

On big nights like Black Friday or Halloween, some 1500 people pour through the gates (and that’s not counting the ones who drive into the carpark, take one look at the ghoulish skeleton mounted over the main door and head straight back out again).

“A lot of it has to do with adrenalin and it’s quite unexpected how people will react,” says Julia Watson, who manages Spookers. “Some go through the whole thing with their eyes closed. Then there are the big, staunch guys who you think will be totally fine with it. They’re the ones who go round holding their girlfriends out in front of them.”

Scaring the willies out of people is a family business for Watson, whose parents Andy and Beth created the world’s first CornEvil in Marton and oversee franchises in the Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Christchurch. Now expanding offshore, the Watsons are on track to open haunted attractions in Brazil and Chile by Halloween 2011. Australia, they reckon, is already scary enough when you’re out after dark. “Too many snakes.”

Originally a horticulturalist, Beth Watson developed lupus, an auto-immune disease, and was looking for an alternative source of income when she came across the idea of turning their maize crop into a tourist attraction. The Amazing Maze ’n Maize, a family-friendly daytime version, opened in 1999, followed by CornEvil the following year and then a Haunted Woolshed.

On fright nights at Spookers, husband Andy’s alter ego is Old Man Joe, a lascivious drooler with a taste for pretty girls. Back home in Marton, he’s the deputy mayor. (No prizes for guessing who snuck a holographic haunted portrait onto the council-chamber walls.) 

In March, Andy is off to the United States for TransWorld’s Annual Halloween & Attractions Show, where speakers include haunt consultants and a makeup artist known as Bloody Mary. Fear, says Andy, holds a primeval allure. “Guys like to see their wife or girlfriend scream.”

Each month, some 40 to 50 wannabe scarers turn up to audition at Spookers. The current cast includes an accountant, a science student, a music teacher, a professional hip-hop dancer, a kick boxer, a hospital worker and a house­husband.

Gill Russell, a makeup artist and senior actor, is a typesetter by day. Here, she’s known as Ma or Screamer (Ma because of her age; Screamer because she’s terrified of the dark). “You’ve got your zombie, your vampire, your crash victim... I’m punk-rocker mutton dressed as lamb,” she says, pulling out some fishnet stockings, fake teeth, blood-spattered boots and a purple wig. “This is one of my favourites.”

Actors have free rein to create their own characters and everyone has a different scare technique. Rowan Dixon, a dwarf and Spookers’ resident Chucky (the demonic doll from Child’s Play), scampers through the corn rows on all fours at breakneck speed – a truly petrifying experience when you’re totally disoriented and night-blind from the torch light. Some mutter in a foreign language; others have pigs’ eyes from the butcher stuck to their shirts.

“They might invade your personal space, or run around really fast,” says Russell. “Me, I usually gross people out.”

In the corridor, a diminutive teenage girl stands in front of a mirror, applying sticky gel skin to her face, which will have become ravaged with gore by the time I encounter her as Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho. “She’s one of the shy ones. Except when she’s got a chainsaw.”

One of three generations of her family on the payroll, Jess Armstrong’s signature character is Jenny May, the baby girl of an inbred hillbilly family with a taste for carnage. Last year she won Best Chainsaw at the annual Spookers’ “Oscares”. The chainsaw, which has been painted red and black, was a present for her 18th birthday.

Tonight her mum, Barbara, is working the cornfield, hiding out in a wrecked bus that looks like a slaughter scene. Her grandmother, Gloria, is rostered on in the Haunted House coffin room.

As the sunlight starts to fade, all the Corn-Evil actors gather round in the staff courtyard. A zombie schoolgirl with teased blonde pigtails and a mutilated face bites chunks of pink candyfloss, while a 140kg masked monster lovingly fingers his knife as they’re briefed for the night. Panicked punters can put up their hands and ask the actors to back off or, if they’re completely freaked out, to be led out of the maze. Manhandling the
customers must be done with discretion: “Don’t touch the bits that jiggle. And if they all jiggle, don’t touch them.”

There’s a crackle on the RT as actor support manager Jim Richardson – who has a CornEvil tattoo on his arm – gets an update from the field. A group of Muslims are praying out back.

At least they know where to find Mecca. Inside the labyrinth, it’s easy to lose all sense of direction as its forks and loops trick you into following dead-ends. Cross-planted so you can’t see down the rows, the cornfield grows up to 15cm a day. By the time the season closes at the end of April, the stalks will be four metres tall and there won’t just be demons and cannibals to contend with but fierce, saucer-eyed possums with a fondness for corn on the cob.

In 1884, Roland Edwards was hanged at Napier Prison for the murder of his wife and four children. In those days, executions were public spectacles. Toffee apples and candyfloss were sold in the hanging yard, and it cost sixpence to sit in the gallery or one shilling for a front-row view. More than a century later, it’s said Edwards’ spirit still returns each year, on the anniversary of his death.

The oldest lockup in New Zealand, Napier Prison had been derelict for nine years when the cell doors were opened in 2002 for backpackers wanting an overnight thrill. (One backpacker ended up staying on almost a year in solitary confinement; another spent six months in the lunatic asylum. Weirdly, both were accountants.)

When “Dead Hill” R16 haunt nights were first introduced at the prison over winter, backpackers were used as the talent. Now professional actors have been hired and the hostel accommodation has closed to make way for regular prison tours.

Manager Marion Waaka has plenty of eerie stories to tell: a bunk bed shaking of its own accord, the sound of a phantom baby crying, lights flicking on and off. One woman got her bottom pinched. “Some apple pickers had a séance [in the cells] and one of the guys got taken over. We had to get in a priest.”

Visitors who come on the prison tours are simply interested in its history, but Dead Hill nights draw a different crowd. She suspects people have become so numbed by stylised screen violence and gore that it’s lost any real visceral impact. “This is full in your face; you have to take ownership of that fear.”

Waaka’s daughter, Bonnie, wrote her MBA thesis on dark tourism. Now living in Colorado, she says panic-button experiences like Dead Hill provide the adrenalin rush of a bungy jump without any risk of danger or injury. “The darkness, unfamiliar territory, the screams of other patrons, the sound and smell of the chainsaw, the light touch on your ankle… You just don’t know what is coming next. People are desensitised [by the media]. They want more and this experience gives them that.”

Fear is physiologically arousing, a fact endlessly exploited by Hollywood. Marc Wilson, a psychology lecturer at Victoria University, calls it the Speed effect, referring to the movie where Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeve bond behind the wheel of a booby-trapped bus. According to one research study, men were more likely to score a date with someone they chatted up on a high rope bridge than if they met on the ground.

Scary attractions, such as CornEvil, are also an opportunity for men to show courage. Says Wilson: “Even the burly plumber who ends up screaming like a girly can still say afterwards that he did it.”

Exposure to fictional horror has been described as a kind of exorcism – a safety valve for human anxieties that allows us to express and experience things that legitimately frighten us. Vampires, for example, put a face on what we worry about in the dark and can’t see. “And the pathos of the heroic vampire’s inability to feel and experience things we take for granted allows us to reflect on the nature of what makes us human.”

Our fear response is also deeply personal, which is why one person comes out of Spookers on a high and someone else would rather eat a bowl of cold sick than walk through the door. Apparently people like me (I’ve bungy jumped and love rollercoasters but prefer suspense to slash) are sensation seekers with a higher degree of empathy for the victim than the fans of explicit “torture porn”, who identify more closely with the aggressor.

“It doesn’t mean someone who likes the Saw movies desperately desires to be a chainsaw-wielding killer,” says Wilson, “but it allows them to vicariously experience things they would never act out in real life.”

It’s 1.30am by the time I crash into bed after my night at Spookers, disembodied screams from the cornfield still ringing in my ears – only to wake up in a cold sweat a few hours later when a family of murderous hillbillies chase through my dreams.

Yep, Jess got me again. But, like Arnie in The Terminator, I’ll be back. And next time I’ll know that she’s waiting.

This was published in the October 2010 issue of North & South.



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