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NEWS: Adult Haunted Houses for ages 18+ spring up in NY.

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After walking through a hallway littered with used condoms, I entered a large, dark room where a man and a woman were having sex on a bloody bed.


Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Unmatched shoes covered the floor. A cracked mirror sat in a corner. And there I was, watching like a perverted Peeping Tom. Then the man froze, turned his head and leapt to his feet, his naked body hunched over in a threatening pose. His eyes bulged. He looked very, very mad. The woman he left behind was limp as a corpse. Uh oh.


My body tensed, but even with the palpable sense of looming violence, the only thought racing through my head was: where is my left shoe?


This new interactive production in Chelsea by the Vortex Theater Company is not your grandmother’s haunted house, but it’s not your younger brother’s, either. No one under 18 is allowed in this dismal den, “The NYC Halloween Haunted House,” and delicate older audiences should stay away as well. The goal is clearly not to give your nerves a safe tickle; it’s to titillate, unsettle and generally mess with your mind. It succeeds magnificently.


In the past two decades, haunted houses have become a booming national industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars and includes family-friendly theme parks, huge high-tech productions and evangelical Christian hell houses.


It’s the rare theatrical genre that consistently draws young audiences and makes a profit. Other cities have more haunted houses, and certainly the largest productions spring up where real estate is cheaper, but with the help of theater artists moonlighting for Halloween, New York has become an artistically fertile scene that specializes in the kind of extreme scares that new horror movies rarely provide anymore.


“Blood Manor,” also in Chelsea, is the most conventional offering in Manhattan. It is essentially one room after another of your favorite movie psychos methodically jumping out from around the corner, like a very elaborate game of peek-a-boo. As scary as a guy with knives for fingers may be, he is so instantly recognizable as Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies that meeting him in a building in Chelsea is like seeing an old friend. When he pointed one of his sharp knives at me, I felt comfortable enough to shove my index finger right back at him. He backed off. The nightmare abruptly ended.


For more deft cinematic references, “Hotel Savoy,” an atmospheric tour through vacant floors of an apartment building across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a milder, more meditative brand of a haunted house, evoking “The Shining” merely by playing a few seconds of Ray Noble’s “Midnight, the Stars and You.” The moody song, which plays in the movie, is hard to place at first, but the cue works on your mind like an image of an empty knife rack in a scary movie.


The most terrifying haunted houses mix the traditional men in costumes jumping out of shadows with inventive showbiz intelligence. Created by Timothy Haskell, a director, writer and publicist whose work has long displayed a gleefully trashy pop sensibility, “Nightmare: Superstitions” in NoHo is as meticulously designed as it is slyly cast. (The size of a few actors is striking.) It also consistently transforms its environment, moving from rooms with dizzyingly high ceilings to impossibly claustrophobic tunnels.


In one scene conceived by the playwright Eric Sanders, a doctor inside a room of mirrors explains the story of a 19th-century psychologist, who, after writing a paper on fear, learned that the most frightening thing in the world was confronting yourself. He then went mad, we are told, building this space where he could confront his phobia. Besides being well executed, the following “boo,” which involves the mirrors, works on old anxieties, tweaked just enough to make something new.


You begin this production in a room surrounded by curtains with a small group of fellow patrons. On the night I attended, a young woman opened a curtain and found a wall. Another did the same. Right before I did too, a clown burst out of the wall and knocked me in the chest. It was just a tap, but the shock made it feel like more than that.


I turned around and a shadowy figure was coming at me. Evading him quickly, I was herded through a door onto a bridge in a narrow tunnel surrounded by fun-house mirrors. Then the bridge started to rock, creating a life-size kaleidoscope. A nicely staged gambit, this disorienting sequence prepares you for a loud and aggressive show benefiting from very accomplished makeup work and puppetry.


“Nightmare” loses steam, however, when it leans too heavily on expository monologues. Like the most frightening horror movies, the most compelling stories in haunted houses are told through images. (A sequence with monks is particularly clever.) It could also use some more quiet moments, to provide contrast and to set up the scares. The source of the shocks is essentially the same as in “Blood Manor”: a loud surprise from a monster around the corner, behind the curtain, behind the asylum door.


In terms of design and production, the Vortex’s “NYC Halloween Haunted House” — from the creators Joshua Randall and Kristjan Thor (he staged the imaginative downtown drama “Artifacts of Consequence”) — is far simpler and yet also scarier. It benefits from several smart dramatic ideas, like having an actress playing a mental patient remove just one of your shoes. It turns out that there’s something deeply unsettling about hobbling around with one bare foot.


But its greatest accomplishment is that most of the shocks take place inside your head. Giving away too much would ruin the fun, but imagine a Pinter pause dragging on for minutes, but instead of watching it from the comfort of your seat, you are living it. It’s an eerily quiet show with few costumes or props, although you do wear a mask.


Actors invade your personal space and treat you with barely more concern than a jailer would grant a prisoner. (There is, indeed, a jailer-prisoner scene.) But the most disturbing and truly thrilling moments come when you are alone completely, still and in the dark. It’s not merely a cheap trick. This production has a fairly consistent narrative and the way it evokes dread is more psychologically perceptive than most shows on Broadway.


These intense, lovingly designed productions raise the question of whether haunted houses for adults could join video games and comic books as one of those lowbrow entertainments that slowly begin to earn respect. The potential is there, especially if they continue to experiment with, and take advantage of, the conventions of the form. In particular, the interactive elements remain too crude.


By giving the player more choice, video games introduced increasing complexity. If the makers of these scary shows could figure out a way to give visitors more autonomy within the maze, without sacrificing the timing of the scares, the modern haunted house could become more intellectually stimulating, distinct from traditional theater and, most important, scary. Choosing your fate can often, although not always, be far more upsetting than being doomed to it.

Edited by robbalvey
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Awesome article. Thanks.


This is what I'm talking about, haunted houses taking it the next level. It's just really hard to truly be scared after going through so many where there's some cool looking prop to "distract" you when someone jumps out and "startles" you. More of them should mess with your head like this. I think BGT charging $35 to go through a maze alone is very insulting. Why not just wait longer?

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I honestly think that would be scary as hell, because there is nothing else like it. Its not what your expecting to see in a happen in a haunted house, which automatically brings your guard way up. Its a taboo, its something you know you're not supposed to see, and his anger makes it more scary and more realistic. That is an entire new take on ultra realism in a haunted house, which is an awesome concept IMO!

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