It’s late afternoon on Halloween when I meet Adrian Marcato in a small makeup trailer behind Griffith Park’s Haunted Hayride. Standing in the tight quarters amid props and residual straw, Marcato (a pseudonym plucked from Rosemary’s Baby) is perched over Hayride’s creative director, Justin Meyer, blotting a piece of latex on the right side of Meyer’s face with colors that evoke blood and rotting flesh, creating a startling illusion of flayed, peeling skin.
“This is Jekyll and Hyde,” Marcato says. “Tonight I’m also doing Kurt Cobain, which is awesome, for a scene that has a lot of dead celebrities. The girl who plays [Cobain] tells me that guests get really disturbed by the makeup.”
Marcato has been a special effects makeup artist at Hayride for the past seven years. In the span of just two hours, he’ll create looks for seven more actors, wrapping up just in time for the commencement of Hayride’s final night. But he won’t be around to enjoy it. After the sun goes down, Marcato will depart the family-friendly Hayride for a more sinister scene: Heretic Horror House, his underground, interactive haunt, which essentially puts participants inside their very own horror movie.
“At Heretic I get to really manipulate time and mess with [clients’] heads a little more than I would a general audience,” Marcato says without an ounce of menace. “We have the capability of providing a very, very boutique experience where you can be in a burning house if you want to. If you’re like: ‘I want the end to be a burning house and I gotta escape,’ we can create that for you.”
Heretic is one of a handful of companies paving the way in the emerging world of year-round immersive horror, where guests interact with disturbing storylines in ways that are often uncharacteristic and, enthusiasts claim, life-changing. Clients sign up for grueling theatrical simulations that can last for hours, in which the night’s festivities might include being blindfolded, bound, mock-strangled, or pushed off of buildings as part of elaborate horror-centric narratives. The trend is national; New York’s pioneering show Blackout draws crowds for its avant-garde productions and San Diego’s McKamey Manor generates a lot of chatter, often for various safety controversies. Underground horror even has it’s own Yelp equivalent: Haunting.net.
At Heretic, a standard experience costs from $120 to $150, although the word “standard” might be a bit of a misnomer; Marcato rents new spaces and writes fresh scripts for every event. But for guests interested in exorcising fears of the burning-house variety, there are the private VIP experiences, which allow participants the opportunity to mold the show around their own fears. VIPs can expect tailored storylines, Hollywood-level stunts, and astounding $5,000 to $20,000 price tags—nearly all of which goes right back into covering production costs.
“They all want to be, like, not tortured, but put in really vulnerable positions,” Marcato says. “So if somebody’s claustrophobic they want to be taken to the limit, to see how far they can go.”
Many of Marcato’s private clients work high-powered jobs in the entertainment industry, so the bar is high for creating elaborate (and safe) stunt work. Marcato enlists the help of professional special effects technician Alex Hill, whose laundry list of film and TV credits includes The Good Place and 2016’s The Perfect Weapon. Sometimes all that effort means the scenarios get a little too convincing.
“Every time there’s fire elements it always scares people,” Marcato says. “Pushing people off of a balcony is another one. We have professional rigging, but a lot of the transitions are done without them seeing, through blindfolding, covering their eyes, so they can’t see when we’re setting something up.”
Leo Mörö, a 22-year-old patient transporter at a hospital, became a Heretic devotee last October after he attended a show in Switzerland.
“The first experience I had with Heretic I was literally scared for my life,” Mörö says. “You hear stories, but no one really tells you what happens inside. It really is a weird state that you end up in while you are doing an extreme haunt or show that has extreme elements. I don’t know if you could say you feel like a superhero, but it is similar to that. You’ll do things that you would never believe that you would do.”
Mörö, who is based in Finland, has since attended nearly ten Heretic shows in both Los Angeles and Europe, a burgeoning market that Marcato began exploring last year. Mörö says that he is drawn to Heretic’s creativity; the show’s simulated violence is often laced with literary or philosophical references that Mörö says take on a new kind of profundity when a body is pushed to its physical limitations.
“One of the things I absolutely love about Heretic is that every time is so different, every story is different,” Mörö says. “And that’s what it’s all about, the story.”
As a general rule, the best shows use horror and simulated abuse to empower guests, not hurt or degrade them. Heretic is built around a central pillar of safety; there is always a medic on site, psychological and medical evaluations conducted following a show, and a safe word. Marcato says that he specifically hires actors fit enough to maintain control of a scene’s physicality, which often includes performers who have BDSM show backgrounds and are trained to maneuver bodies in unusual ways.
Marcato is quick to point out that other than the casting crossover and the fact that both BDSM and immersive horror bring gratification through pushing physical boundaries, there is little overlap between the two. Horror, he explains, is more about adrenaline and release of tension; Heretic events don’t incorporate sexually fetishistic elements.
For performers, working with a revolving set of characters and plotlines can pose challenges, but it’s also highly unique. “I [have] enjoyed being able to be unfiltered and self-expressive in a way that I would not have the opportunity to be in other performance spaces,” says Erica Burns, who has acted twice for Heretic, most recently as a serial killer in a show called Midnight Killer. “This has served as an empowering experience for me more than anything, as both a transgender woman and simply as a woman.”
“It’s usually the unknown that terrifies the majority [of guests],” says John Granillo, a scare actor who has been working for Heretic since its inception. “What lurks in the shadows, and what lays beyond their sight.”
Although the rise of immersive horror as a pleasure-seeking activity might seem odd, emerging research can help explain the draw. Margee Kerr, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied fear and haunted houses for years. In her book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, she discusses how haunted houses may theoretically help participants increase their ability to engage in cognitive reappraisal, or the practice of redefining an experience and attaching new meaning to it.
“The theory […] is not just that we are getting a natural high and shutting down our executive functioning but that our stress tolerance undergoes a kind of recalibration,” she writes. “When we push ourselves to the extreme, the everyday things that used to bother us just don’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.”
Similarly, NYU psychology professor Catherine A. Hartley and her research team have found that control is critical in a subject’s experience of trauma. When their test subjects experienced a fear-inducing stimulus, the researchers found that the test group given an expressed opportunity to escape was more likely than the group in an inescapable situation to show greater resiliency and a stronger ability to extinguish fear. Having a sense of control in a potentially traumatizing situation helps participants learn how to manage stress; forcing them to undergo fearful situations has the opposite effect. Extreme haunts aren’t for everyone—not everyone can afford them, for one thing—but research has begun to indicate that fear can be used to instruct the brain to react to trauma, which could be useful far outside horror’s niche.
Immersive horror guarantees a great adrenaline rush, but perhaps the cult-like appeal lies more in its compelling ability to help participants experience radical self-possession and resiliency that extends beyond the boundaries of their show.
“I know [there are] some horror movies and shows I have been traumatized by after watching, but have been subsequently inspired by deeply,” Burns says. “If immersive horror is able to get under someone’s skin in that sense and touch on the sensitivities we have as humans, and then bring us back to the less horrifying realities of our actual lives, I say: go for it.”
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