In 2011, Scott Griffin bought a ticket to the Haunted Hotel in San Diego, which includes an attraction called the Haunted Trail. While he was approaching the exit, a chainsaw-wielding character jumped out in front of him and Griffin took off running. He fell and injured his wrist.
Here's where it gets interesting: Griffin filed a lawsuit against the Haunted Hotel saying that the attraction shouldn't be scaring people beyond the marked exit because the visitors may perceive the fake antics as real danger. For its part, Haunted Hotel said the marked exit is not real — it's part of the experience, so they can throw in another thrill just when you think you're safe. There's actually a name for this — the "Carrie" effect, after the horror movie of the same name. Further, the hotel's website warns patrons not to run (which might be easier said than done) and also notes no one will be grabbing or pushing them [source: Theme Park University].
Griffin sued for negligence, improper training and supervision, and assault but lost the case. He appealed and lost again. The appeals court said in 2015, "The risk inherent in the Haunted Trail's Carrie effect ending ... is exactly the risk Griffin experienced" [source: Gardner].
Clearly Griffin would disagree. And every year, people take issue with haunted houses that they think have gone too far. Whether it's that the experience is too scary, or makes fun of the mentally ill, or causes injury or even death, there is plenty of outrage — and lawsuits — to go around.
Here are nine Halloween-type attractions that have been the subject of controversy. Decide for yourself whether the complaints have merit.
It seemed like a great virtual reality attraction for the 2016 Halloween season. At least to its creators, anyway. Participants in FearVR: 5150 donned a pair of virtual reality goggles and earphones and were strapped into a wheelchair. The goggles made itappear as though they were taken to Meadowbrook, a hospital for the mentally ill. Once they arrived, they were terrorized and threatened by a patient who had escaped from her room. Those who found the experience too intense could push a panic button to end it.
Soon after its unveiling at two California theme parks — Knott's Berry Farm and Great America — there was a public outcry. FearVR was offensive to those who struggled with mental illness, people said. The attraction "adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness," wrote John Leyerle, president of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in his letter to the president of Cedar Fair Entertainment, the company behind the attractions. Kay Warren, a mental health advocate and wife of Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" posted on her Facebook page to her 149,000 followers that the ride needed to come down [sources: Bowerman, Zavoral].
The theme parks quickly responded, changing the attraction's name to simply FearVR, as "5150" is a code for someone who is possibly disturbed and may be a danger to himself or others. But the protests continued, so Cedar Fair Entertainment closed the attraction prematurely and apologized for any offense [sources: Bowerman, Zavoral].
Cedar Fair Entertainment Company wasn't the only theme park chain that tried to turn mental illness into a Halloween nightmare. For its annual Fright Fest 2016, Six Flags debuted a new haunted house experience that involved thrill-seekers bumbling through the haunted hallways of places such as Dark Oaks Asylum (Six Flags in Vallejo) and PSYCHO-PATH Haunted Asylum (Six Flags New England). As they made their way through the supposedly abandoned asylum's maze of corridors, "maniacal inmates" and "deranged guards" taunted, raved and grabbed at them at every turn.
As with FearVR: 5150, shortly after the asylums' opening, mental health advocacy groups unleashed a torrent of protests against the stigmatization of those with mental illness. Six Flags apologized and revamped its horrifying Halloween attraction to be one involving zombies, not people struggling with mental illness [source: Rogers].
McKamey Manor is not just a Halloween attraction. Open year-round and run by Navy vet Russ McKamey, it's billed as a terror attraction. Past guests report that during their "adventure" they've undergone fake abductions, been tied up, blindfolded, gagged, slapped, held under water and force-fed. Some have been stuffed into freezers or placed in coffins crawling with cockroaches. Others have had their heads placed in cages filled with snakes. Some have had their hair cut off. Most, if not all, emerge covered in scrapes, bruises, cuts and scratches. Oh, and there's no "safe word," although staff will pull you if they think you've had enough. Reportedly, no one has made it the full eight-hour tour [sources: Carroll and Ryan, Moss].
Entrance into McKamey Manor simply requires a donation of dog food to Operation Greyhound, although participants have to be at least 21 years old, sign liability waivers, receive physical and mental releases from their doctors, and be Skype-screened by McKamey. The Navy vet told The Guardian that the purpose of the experience is to break people through physical and psychological stress. Detractors say the attraction is abusive, and those involved in its operation are sadistic. Still, there are reportedly 27,000 people on a waiting list to get in [sources: Accomando, Carroll and Ryan].
In 2015, McKamey tried to move the San Diego attraction to a more affordable place, like McLeansboro, Illinois. But some citizens in the town (population 3,000) got a look at the YouTube videos of the experience, featuring torture and mayhem, and complained loudly on Facebook. Someone even threw a rock at the building McKamey planned to lease, cracking a window and causing him to change his mind. So for now, the place that's repeatedly named America's most extreme experience has stayed put in its hometown [source: Cook].
Sherri Turner got more than she bargained for when she stepped into Pontiac, Michigan's four-story Erebus Haunted Attraction in 2014. Once inside its dark corridors, Turner alleges, a moving wall knocked into her, causing her to slip and fall down. The result? Several severe fractures to her left leg, soft tissue injuries to her back and spine, and various other afflictions [sources: Turk, Young].
Turner sued, alleging unsafe operating conditions in the 100,000-square-foot (9,290-square-meter) haunted house, inadequate floor and aisle lighting, and other unsafe conditions. The lawsuit also alleged the attraction — for five seasons named the world's largest haunted house by the Guinness World Records — caused injuries not only to Turner, but to other customers. Two years later, the lawsuit was settled for $125,000, possibly because Erebus Haunted House didn't require customers to sign a release. Instead, it only printed a disclaimer on the back of each ticket, in addition to warning signs. Owners Jim and Ed Terebus say their haunted attraction, open nearly two decades, is safe [sources: Phillips, Khoury, Young].
In perhaps one of the most gruesome Halloween attraction incidents, an employee at Creepyworld, a haunted "screampark" in suburban St. Louis, accidentally hanged herself from a noose in 2011 during one of her shifts. Unfortunately, the visitors thought it was part of the experience and ignored her.
Jessica Rue, then 18 years old, was in one of the haunted house's rooms — a gruesome, blood-drenched bathroom — when she slipped off a tub as she was trying to scare visitors. As she fell, she got her neck stuck in a noose that was part of the scene. It allegedly took somewhere between two and 10 minutes before a co-worker found her and cut her down. By then she had stopped breathing. Rue was in a coma for three days [source: Claims Journal].
The day after the accident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated and found three serious safety violations, after which OSHA penalized Creepyworld parent company Halloween Productions Inc. $10,500 [source: Claims Journal].
Post-coma, Rue began suffering from short-term memory loss, headaches, blackouts and heart palpitations. Relatives said she got easily frustrated, struggled to find her way home and basically had a changed personality. In 2012, Rue sued Halloween Productions Inc. and its owner, Larry Kirchner, for negligence and dangerous working conditions. Relatives say the noose, for one thing, should have been a break-away prop and not bolted to the ceiling [source: Claims Journal].
The Pennhurst Asylum attraction in Philadelphia, opened in 2010, and faced controversy from the get-go. It's housed in a former mental facility, originally named the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, that first opened in the early 1900s. Its patients were people who suffered from mental illness or were physically disabled. But the place was shut down in the 1980s after reports of patient abuse, mistreatment and filthy conditions — all of which led to one of America's first abuse-related class-action lawsuits. Some people said it was inappropriate to house an amusement-focused attraction at the site [source: Campisi].
And then things got more intense. In 2011, Steven Chrzanowski got several leg injuries after two employees somehow caused a hospital bed to smack him in the knee while he was standing in line at the Halloween attraction [source: Campisi].
Chrzanowski, whose injuries necessitated surgery, sued Pennhurst's operators for what he described as the negligent, careless and reckless act of the employees that resulted in his ruined knee. He asked for compensatory damages of more than $75,000 plus other associated costs [source: Campisi].
People know they may be scared to death at a haunted house, but they don't expect to actually die. Nevertheless, a haunted house was implicated in the death of 15-year-old Brittney Holmes. During Halloween 2009, Holmes visited The Darkness, a haunted house in Soulard, a historic French neighborhood in St. Louis. As she walked through the attraction, the asthmatic teen was forced to inhale its artificial fog and various other scents. On the way home, Holmes had breathing problems. By the time she reached a hospital, her brain hadn't had oxygen for at least seven minutes. Holmes died a year later, after being in a vegetative state the entire time. Her medical bills topped $1 million [source: Hahn].
The Darkness had posted several signs warning away people with respiratory problems. Holmes had been asthmatic since the age of 4 and was allergic to a variety of things, including grass, dust and mildew. However, Holmes' parents, who do not live together, each sued Halloween Productions Inc., which operated The Darkness [source: Hahn]. Halloween Productions also operates Creepyworld, site of the lawsuit we mentioned on page 5.
Regina Janito, her 17-year-old daughter and three of her daughter's friends planned to walk through the Massacre Haunted House, often rated Illinois' scariest haunted house, in 2014. But their adventure was cut short after she and her daughter were assaulted and verbally harassed in the attraction's parking lot by two men dressed as clowns wielding sex toys. According to Jacinto, the men poked her daughter with a sex toy and also used the toy to simulate a sex act. One of the clowns, Robert Keller, repeatedly made lascivious remarks to the two women. They left without going inside the haunted house [source: Keller].
Afterward, traumatized by their experience, Janito and her daughter filed suit, alleging the intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and negligence. Keller eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was fined $500 and placed on probation for one year. He was also ordered to perform 30 hours of community service. Massacre Haunted House reached a confidential settlement with Jacinto and her daughter. The only thing known about it is that Massacre did not admit wrongdoing [source: Hitzeman].
Hopefully people are not using real corpses as Halloween décor. But sometimes corpses end up out in the open for passersby to see. And when this happens around Halloween, people may unfortunately assume it's just a really good prop.
In October 2005, residents of Frederica, Delaware, noticed a woman's body hanging from a tree about 15 feet (4.5 meters) above the ground alongside a moderately busy road. It took three hours before someone called police; most people assumed it was a Halloween joke. It wasn't. The corpse was a 42-year-old woman who apparently committed suicide [source: NBC News].
Similarly, four years later in October 2009, a California man killed himself on his apartment balcony, police believe, by shooting himself through the eye. His lifeless body then slumped over his patio furniture. Those who spied the man thought it was a dummy set out for Halloween. It was five days before people realized the "dummy" was a corpse [source: Cathcart].
More recently, in October 2015, a Chillicothe, Ohio, woman was murdered and left hanging on a chain-link fence, her left hand sticking up. A neighbor who spotted the body thought it was a holiday decoration — a zombie. Luckily she took a closer look and discovered the chilling truth [source: ABC13].
This Halloween, pay close attention to any corpse you spot.
Are you the ringleader, the offerer or the fifth wheel? HowStuffWorks Now talks with some haunted house experts on how to scare each one.
Author's Note: 10 Halloween Attractions That Went Too Far
As someone who hates scary movies and haunted houses, and who has the world's strongest startle reflex, this article further confirms my aversion to everything and anything scary. And to wandering around in dark, confined spaces, where you can get hurt in any number of ways.
But the most chilling part of researching this story was finding out about the existence of such places as McKamey Manor. With all of the people in the world suffering from PTSD, why in the world would people voluntarily subject themselves to this? The people behind the creation of these "attractions" freely admit they love scaring people senseless — it gives them a rush. That, alone, is creepy enough for me.
More Great Links
- ABC 13. "Dead Ohio Woman's Body Mistaken for Halloween Decoration." Oct. 16, 2015. (Oct. 12, 2016) http://abc13.com/news/dead-womans-body-mistaken-for-halloween-decoration/1035630/
- Accomondo, Beth. "Not A Haunted House: This Haunted Experience Terrorizes For Hours." NPR. Oct. 30, 2014. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.npr.org/2014/10/30/360019747/not-a-haunted-house-this-haunted-experience-terrorizes-for-hours
- Benefield, Chadwick. "McKamey Manor Presents The Chamber: A New Interactive Horror Experience (Video)." WBKR. Sept. 19, 2016. (Oct. 12, 2016) http://wbkr.com/mckamey-manor-presents-the-chamber-a-new-interactive-horror-experience-video/
- Bowerman, Mary. "Calif. theme park pulls Halloween VR experience amid outrage." USA Today. Sept. 29, 2016. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/09/29/california-amusement-park-attraction-virtual-reality-slammed-mental-illness-insecurity/91272812/
- Brown, Adam Tod. "7 Insane Moments in the World's Most Hardcore Haunted House." Cracked. Oct. 28, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2016) http://www.cracked.com/blog/7-insane-moments-in-worlds-most-hardcore-haunted-house/
- Campisi, Jon. "N.J. man sues Pennhurst haunted house, site of landmark 'Halderman' U.S. Supreme Court Decision." Penn Record. May 23, 2013. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://pennrecord.com/stories/510553094-n-j-man-sues-pennhurst-haunted-house-site-of-landmark-lsquo-halderman-rsquo-u-s-supreme-court-decision
- Cathcart, Rebecca. "Body Is Mistaken for a Halloween Display." The New York Times. Oct. 17, 2009. (Oct. 12, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/us/18body.html?_r=2
- Claims Journal. "Year Later, Haunted House Accident Problems Linger." Oct. 18, 2012. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.claimsjournal.com/news/midwest/2012/10/18/215624.htm
- Cook, Morgan. "Infamous haunted house is back in San Diego." The San Diego Union-Tribune. Oct. 28, 2015. (Oct. 7, 2016) http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/watchdog/sdut-mckamey-returns-2015oct28-htmlstory.html
- Facebook. "The Truth About McKamey Manor." (Oct. 5, 2016) https://www.facebook.com/thetruthaboutmckameymanor/
- Hahn, Valerie Schremp. "Soulard haunted house sued over death of teen." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dec. 9, 2010. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/soulard-haunted-house-sued-over-death-of-teen/article_ed90877e-8c0d-5dc5-bcc6-75bead55defe.html
- Haunted House Association. "Haunted Fast Facts." (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.hauntedhouseassociation.org/haunted_attraction_information?
- Hitzeman, Harry. "End to Montgomery haunted house sex-toy lawsuit." Daily Herald. April 7, 2016. (Oct. 7, 2016) http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20160407/news/160409067/
- Keller, Robert. "Lawsuit: Mom, daughter assaulted by clowns with sex toys at haunted house." Daily Herald. Oct. 23, 2014. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141021/news/141029593/
- Khoury, George. "Haunted House Injury Lawsuit Settles for $125K." Find Law. Sept. 27, 2016. (Oct. 10, 2016) http://blogs.findlaw.com/injured/2016/09/haunted-house-injury-lawsuit-settles-for-125k.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Injured+%28Injured%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher
- Moss, Charles. "Extreme haunted houses: Inside Halloween's most terrifying new trend." The Week. Oct. 24, 2014. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://theweek.com/articles/442834/extreme-haunted-houses-inside-halloweens-most-terrifying-new-trend
- NBC News. "Corpse mistaken for Halloween decoration." Oct. 27, 2005. (Oct. 12, 2016) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9841877/ns/us_news-life/t/corpse-mistaken-halloween-decoration/#.V_6GF-UrKUl
- Opfer, Chris. "Yes, Real Human Corpses Have Been Mistaken for Halloween Décor." How Stuff Works. Oct. 30, 2015. (Oct. 5, 2016) https://now.howstuffworks.com/2015/10/30/yes-real-human-corpses-have-been-mistaken-halloween-décor
- Phillips, Dave. "Roseville woman files lawsuit against Erebus after falling at facility." The Oakland Press. Oct. 13, 2015. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.theoaklandpress.com/article/OP/20151013/NEWS/151019825
- Rogers, Susan. "Powerful Advocacy Has Shut Down Halloween 'Attractions' That Ramp Up Prejudice." National Alliance on Mental Illness. Sept. 30, 2016. (Oct. 12, 2016) http://namivalleyofthesun.org/powerful-advocacy-has-shut-down-halloween-attractions-that-ramp-up-prejudice/
- Turk, John. "Injury lawsuit involving Pontiac's Erebus haunted house settled for $125k." The Oakland Press. Sept. 16, 2016. (Oct. 5, 2016) http://www.theoaklandpress.com/general-news/20160916/injury-lawsuit-involving-pontiacs-erebus-haunted-house-settled-for-125k
- Young, Josh. "Erebus Haunted House In Michigan Is One Of The World's Largest." Theme Park University. Oct. 24, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2016) http://themeparkuniversity.com/haunted-attractions/erebus-haunted-house-michigan-one-worlds-largest/
- Zavoral, Linda. "Great America pulls plug on Halloween 'FearVR' attraction." The Mercury News. Sept. 27, 2016. (Oct. 7, 2016) http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/09/27/great-america-knotts-berry-farm-pull-plug-on-fearvr-for-halloween/