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You’re walking through darkness. Leaves crunch under your feet, and the chilled October air tickles threateningly around your shoulders. You can feel your heart pumping hard; your breath quickens. All of the sudden, it happens: a man leaps out, bloody chainsaw in hand, and chases you. You run as fast as you can, the world blurred around you. He’s gone. You feel your heartbeat in your face, and then… you start laughing.

That’s generally how it goes at haunted attractions. They pop up every year around Halloween, and we visit them with our friends for a dose of spooky adrenaline. They’re like the horror-themed roller coasters of the season. We go to them to get scared, but at the end of the day, they actually aren’t all that scary. If anything, they’re actually funny.

But the scariest haunted houses in America don’t much resemble the cheap thrills that you’re probably used to. Known as extreme haunts, these attractions (if I can even use that term) blur the line between good ol’ fashioned scaring and actual torture. And yes, people actually pay for these experiences. They pay good money.

If you’re a horror fan, you’re probably very intrigued. And you should be. These haunts are pushing the limits of storytelling in the genre, even if the experience is a bit much for the average fan of Paranormal Activity. If you’re like me, you would never stop foot in one. But we can’t deny that extreme haunts are rewriting the rulebook on interactive horror, for better or worse.

The History of Haunted Houses

I hardly need to tell you this, but let it be known: people like to be scared. There are plenty of reasons for that. It’s just built into our psychology, and it has been for quite some time. In all likelihood, this inherently human penchant for fear probably means that we have been going out of our way to experience frightful scenarios – like haunted houses – for quite some time.

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But in general, the modern idea of the haunted attraction can be traced back to the early 19th century. According to the Smithsonian, Marie Tussaud introduced her Chamber of Horrors to hordes of offended (and titillated) British folk back in 1802. The concept continued solidifying itself after that, and the early 1900s brought a few attractions that quite resembled the ones we know and love today.

Despite all of this development over the course of more than a century, it wasn’t really until the 1960s when haunted houses truly became known by the general public. Disney debuted the Haunted Mansion in 1969, and shrewd capitalists around the world realized that people really enjoyed paying money to have someone jump out and scare them. Go figure.

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The Haunted Mansion, 1969

All hell broke loose, so to say, and the rise of the slasher genre through the ‘70s and the ‘80s made the traditional haunted house aesthetic concrete. But it wasn’t until a bit later that the scariest haunted houses in America – the extreme haunts – would arise.

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One Haunt to Rule Them All

In most haunted houses, you know that you are not going to be touched. That’s what allows the scares to be so easy to laugh off. You know they aren’t real; the actors are literally duty-bound to never touch you. It’s like you have a forcefield around you.

But that isn’t the cause with extreme haunts. The entire concept behind them is that the actors can – and do – get physical with you. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly this idea came to fruition, but most people point to one attraction as being the pioneer – as well as setting a precedent for mayhem that no other haunt would be able to live up to. I am, of course, talking about McKamey Manor.

If you’re at all familiar with extreme haunts, it is probably because of McKamey Manor. You might have even seen their utterly horrifying YouTube channel (note: viewer discretion not only advised, but deeply encouraged). The images in the videos they post can’t be forgotten: human beings covered in (hopefully fake?) blood being subjected to unimaginable trials… and begging for it to stop. It stands far above the other scariest haunted houses in America.

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But here’s the twist: they arrived in that situation of their own volition, fully knowing what they were going to get into. Russ McKamey, the highly controversial owner of the haunt, even tries to talk visitors out of coming. They need to sign an infamous waiver and go through odd tests to get a shot at being one of the, uh, “lucky” visitors to the Manor. Once they’re there, they might be waterboarded, they might be forced to eat disgusting food, or they might even have their teeth pulled (or at least that’s what the waiver claims).

McKamey Manor has come under a ton of fire over the years, and it makes sense why. To watch their videos is to witness someone going through what appears to be serious torture. Any person in their right mind would object to it. But if the person wants the experience, are the shocked YouTube commenters any different than the shocked Londoners who fought back against the Chamber of Horrors in the 1800s?

A New Kind of Storytelling

In the end, our current feelings on McKamey Manor don’t matter too much. The controversy from a few years ago proved to be too much for the haunt to handle, and it has seemingly faded into an odd boot camp in Russ’ backyard. But other extreme haunts remain, and they do something that McKamey Manor was never interested in doing: they tell a story.

While many of the classic “boo” haunts that we are familiar with feature disconnected set pieces with no narratives, most of the extreme haunts out there present you with a well-thought out story. And, interestingly enough, you’re actually part of it.

Heretic, for instance, once debuted a haunt that took the classic “cabin the woods” story and placed you right into the middle of it. It went on for hours, making you really feel like you were living out a horror movie. The story that they told was made infinitely more real by the fact that the actors involved actually interacted with you (often on a quite rough basis).

Some of us don’t need to get shoved around by a guy pretending that he wants to murder us to get our kicks. But it’s a logical continuation of the horror experience, and it opens up the doors for all kinds of interesting storytelling tricks.

Here’s an example: an extreme haunt called Miasma put on a show inspired by the Salem witch trials, and it featured a high level of immersion. This forced the audience to not only consider what they would do in a stressful scenario, but to actually make the decision in real time. That’s a much greater level of involvement in a story, and it drives home the themes (which were, in the case of Miasma, centered around voyeurism and ethics) that much harder.

The Top Five Scariest Haunted Houses in America

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering what the scariest haunted houses in America actually are. In a sense, this is a subjective question. A haunt that features sexual situations might be far more stressful for some people than one that is based around, say, tight spaces.

With that said, it’s not unreasonable to suggest five extreme haunts that truly stand out in terms of just how terrifying they really are. Let’s take a look.

#5: The 17th Door

The 17th Door looks similar to a regular haunted house at first glance, but it is definitely a step above what you’re used to. They incorporate claustrophobia, grotesque scenarios, sexual content, and even bugs. Oh, and they can touch you, of course.

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#4: Blackout

Perhaps the most famous and well-respected of all the extreme haunts is Blackout. But just because it’s popular doesn’t mean that it’s an easy ride. You are typically completely alone, and there are stories of fully naked actors touching you. You might get gagged, you might have your clothes taken off, and you might be physically hit. The sets and stories are always wonderful… but that may be hard to appreciate in the midst of the chaos.

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#3: Miasma

Miasma tells great stories with deep implications, but you really need to be willing to go through some terrors to appreciate them. You’ll get shocked (literally) and beaten, but there aren’t any run-of-the-mill monsters that are going to jump out at you. It’s more like living through a real day, though it’s likely the worst day you’ll ever have.

#2: The Victim Experience

Details on The Victim Experience are sparse due to a strict “no spoilers” rule, but it may just be the most intense haunt that currently exists. It is given its name for a reason. It is the haunt’s goal to put you through an incredibly traumatic experience that will truly make you think you might die. Sounds fun, right? Hey, at least you get a T-shirt if you make it all the way through without crying out the safeword.

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#1: McKamey Manor

Could there be any haunt at number one aside from McKamey Manor? It may be past its peak in terms of physicality, but nothing else has really ever come close. It featured hours upon hours of maniacal torture. No one ever made it through to the end, and the person who got the closest was pulled out due to fear of hypothermia. Just check the YouTube channel if you need to be convinced that this one is the worst.

Last Updated on July 12, 2021.

Ben Mangelsdorf
Ben Mangelsdorf is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. He enjoys horror films, writing poetry, rock climbing, and the Beach Boys. He enjoys taking an analytical look at pop culture and believes that even the most mundane art has value.

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