If you can hang out with Russ McKamey at his house in Tennessee for 10 straight hours, he'll pay you $20,000. Lots of people have tried, but no one's ever claimed the prize. In fact, no one's ever even come close.
That's because McKamey Manor is the scariest haunted house in America. It's been repeatedly called a "torture chamber," and a Change.org petition asking the Tennessee state senate to shut it down has more than 183,000 signatures.
And yet, the manor's official Facebook group has 27,000-plus fans, and McKamey says there are thousands on the waiting list to experience the haunt. The lucky few — if you can call them that — who get to attempt it every weekend have to sign a 40-page waiver acknowledging that physical or psychological harm could befall them. They also have to pass a physical and a background check. There's no admission fee, though, other than a 50-pound (23-kilogram) bag of dog food. McKamey, an animal lover, says some of it goes to his five dogs, and the rest is donated to rescues.
McKamey has a flair for the dramatic. "I'm just an entertainer," he says, "whether it be the haunt or being in a band, playing guitar or singing, doing comedy. "It's all about bringing a smile to folks. It's all showbiz."
After 23 years in the Navy, McKamey says, he started creating haunted experiences in his backyard in San Diego. "Every year, things just kind of progressed. People really enjoyed all the interactivity of it and enjoyed all the audience participation aspects of it."
While the traditional Halloween haunted house relies on jump scares and eerie costumes to frighten, McKamey's experience was a lot more hands on. Participants might be bound, blindfolded or otherwise restrained. There may be bugs or snakes involved. McKamey has buried people alive, and lowered them into a tank full of eels.
There was so much demand for his extreme version of a haunted house, in fact, that eventually McKamey Manor had five locations. There were staff involved, plus EMTs standing by, and a special insurance policy. McKamey's reputation grew until his was one of the most recognizable names in the horror community. To some, he was an innovator. To others, a sociopath.
He doesn't really mind that people think he's "some kind of wild psychopath," but he does feel that's a mischaracterization. "If they only knew," he laughs. "I mean, for example, I've never been drunk in my life. I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a cup of coffee in my life or taken a drug. I'm the most clean-cut kind of guy you can think of."
But eventually, the criticism mounted and so did costs in San Diego. McKamey sold his property there and settled in Tennessee, where he reopened McKamey Manor as, he says, "a one-man show."
McKamey Manor: A Tailored Type of Terror
Once contestants pass the screening and are selected to attend the haunt, McKamey says that's when the "show" starts coming together. "It's definitely a personalized survival horror experience," he says. "We find out a lot of information about an individual, with information we gather from them, from their friends and family, all kinds of sources. We find out what really makes them tick, and then we build a show around their fears and phobias."
People tend to be pretty open about what scares them, McKamey adds, because "they want it to be as extreme as possible."
The haunt does have its limits, though. McKamey is clear that there's "never anything sexual. No one's going to whisper anything inappropriate into your ear. No one's going to touch you in an inappropriate way." There are also no religious references, and there's "no cussing allowed," McKamey says. "It's really very PG-13; like [Disney's] Indiana Jones ride on steroids."
But while it may not actually be as extreme as it's made out to be, McKamey says it feels over-the-top to the contestant, and that's the whole point. "I'm going to get inside your head, and that's what makes it scary. It's a very psychological experience that includes hypnosis, and once I hypnotize you, I can make you believe whatever I want. I can put you in a kiddie pool and tell you there's a great white shark in there, and you're going to freak out like there's a shark."
There's a distinction, McKamey insists, between what happens inside the manor and what people believe is happening. "I can make them believe that I'm ripping out their teeth, make them believe that I'm taking their fingernails off," he says. "But in reality, is that really happening? You have to put your logic cap on: Torture is not legal, no matter what happens and no matter what you sign."
But that hasn't stopped the negative press, which insists McKamey Manor is a nightmare that has no business continuing to operate.
"Let them think what they want," says McKamey. "I'm still in business. I'm not in jail."
McKamey Manor Taps Into Deep-seated Fears
"Frightening people really isn't hard to do," McKamey says. "There's like a top five or seven fears that everybody has." First is creepy crawlies. "It's going to be, you know, bugs, spiders and cockroaches and snakes and that type of thing," he says. Also high on the list are "claustrophobia, water; the fear of drowning, heights. All the basic things that people are uneasy about are the things I use at the show."
Personally, McKamey says he gets the creeps from snails ("I freaking hate those slimy things"), dislikes heights and is a little bit claustrophobic himself. "I kind of built the show around my fears," he says. "My fears are like everybody's fears."
Streaming the Scaring
Back in San Diego, McKamey started filming everything that happened inside McKamey Manor as an insurance policy, so he'd have proof of what really went down — and what didn't — anytime law enforcement came knocking. Now, each contestant's experience is livestreamed to a Facebook audience of close to 30,000.
"They have to do all kinds of crazy activities for the week before their tour — just fun and silly challenges," McKamey says. "The audience gets to know them and the contestant gets to know the audience. Everybody's really on their side. And then when it comes down to the real show, everybody's just really stoked about seeing what this person can do."
And what they can do is, according to McKamey, not a lot. Most people don't make it a half-hour into the experience before tapping out. Still, there's no shortage of people vying to visit McKamey Manor.
"They want to be here because they just don't get scared at normal haunted houses," he says. "They are adrenaline junkies, they're thrill seekers. They come to me to experience terror or to experience excitement or whatever."
And, he adds, even if they don't make it 10 hours or claim the prize, most contestants think it's worth the trip.
"They have to spend a lot of money to get here by flying or driving, get physicals and drug screenings. They're excited to be here. They've done their homework."
And the fact that it's "all smoke and mirrors, all just putting a big play on," as McKamey puts it, doesn't stop fans from making a return trip for more terror.
"People make multiple visits here," he says. "There's got to be a reason why people keep coming back time and time again. Surely, they had a good time."
Now That's Horrifying
According to a volunteer who worked remotely for McKamey, the 40-page waiver that participants sign includes the possible risks of having teeth removed, being tattooed and having fingernails extracted.
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