Why Would Anyone Go To “Extreme” Haunted Houses?

I am not averse to horror, but riddle me this: Why is our culture all right with “extreme” haunted houses like McKamey Manor and Blackout, where you sign yourself into letting complete strangers rough you up, bind you, gag you, strip you, and force-feed you for upwards of four hours, when we’re still iffy on BDSM that practices complete and clear consent with someone you do know ahead of time?

That’s my first reaction when I hear about these haunted houses, anyway. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or perverse to enjoy being roughed up or spat on or bound and gagged, that being terrified isn’t sometimes both rewarding and entertaining. McKamey Manor, by its own accounts, has a waiting list that stretches out to 17,000 people. That no doubt has something to do with the fact that admission costs all of a donation of dog food to a greyhound rescue, but that can’t account for all 17,000 of those, um, “thrill”-seekers.

I have a feeling that wanting to have these experiences has less to do with loving horror and more to do with something more abstract, that this isn’t so much of a haunted house or a terror experience as it is a way to act out a deeper desire that’s been packaged in horror tropes to give it a sort of raison d’etre.

And, speaking of BDSM, I’d argue it’s the same thing that makes people buy, read, and defend Fifty Shades of Grey over and over despite the fact that actual BDSM practitioners are horrified by a plot in which Ana signs away her consent. We still struggle to persuade the book’s fans that E.L. James depicted a relationship that looks nothing like the real BDSM best practices that call for thorough communication about both parties’ limits before the scene takes place, or why we’re afraid of the precedent the book sets for newbie submissives, in particular. For that matter, we still struggle to teach kids that it doesn’t have to “ruin the mood” to have clear communication about consent before any sexual interaction takes place.

As a culture, it seems like we’re resistant to consent, and not just other people’s – our own, too. We’re fascinated with experiences in which we don’t get to change our minds, or that simulate a lack of that freedom. Novels and movies about dangerously consent-free BDSM are one example, “extreme” haunted houses that make you beg to get out is another; but on a more everyday basis, take even roller coasters – once you strap in and the car is moving, you’re in for the ride, and you will not be able to get off. Or take tattoos: Sure, you can ask the tattooer to stop, but what’s already there is there for life.

We buy Fifty Shades in droves – over 100 million copies – and join the Fifty Shades fandom. We get ourselves on a 17,000-person waiting list to get roughed up by a bunch of strangers for hours at a time. We wait in line for hours to ride a roller coaster for thirty seconds. We spend hundreds of dollars on tattoos and talk about it like it’s an addiction. And why? Well, take the way NPR host David Greene explained it:

“McKamey Manor is like going through horror boot camp. Many of the actors are Marines, and McKamey spent 23 years in the Navy. They do everything they can to break you down mentally and physically, but once you emerge, you’re part of an elite group.”

“You’re part of an elite group.” I think we want to have these simulations of a lack of consent, these un-free experiences, because it’s a way to give yourself over to something bigger, to deprive yourself of choice in a culture in which we are flooded with choice, to be part of a group of people with a set of extra-ordinary shared experiences. David Foster Wallace spoke to this point when he talked about Infinite Jest almost twenty years ago, in 1996:

“Some of the sadness that it seems to me infuses the culture right now has to do with this sense of a loss of a sense of purpose or organizing principles – something you’re willing to give yourself away to, basically. And that the addictive impulse, which is very much kind of in the cultural air right now, is interesting and powerful only because it’s kind of an obvious distortion of a religious impulse, or an impulse to be part of something bigger.”

Right now, in American culture, we have reached a zenith of freedom of choice such that we’re starting to tinker with the idea that we have too much freedom of choice. We’re starting to talk about limiting choice in order to be more productive, less stressed out. There are Americans, right now, who are happy to call themselves “anti-choice” despite the fact that the American identity is supposed to extol freedom. It’s like we’re asking if “freedom” is just too big and too vague and too subjective to be a guiding principle for this country.

Of course, I say no, that freedom is hard work, that it’s difficult but worthwhile to maintain respect for everyone’s autonomy and choices. Although if anyone wants to get some kind of cathartic release from an overwhelming freedom of choice by going to a haunted house and getting bound with tape, I mean, more power to you.

[National Coalition for Sexual Freedom]
[Huffington Post]
[TED (1), (2)]

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