Fire walk with me

What happens in Nightmare, New York's first (and greatest) haunted house thrill ride?

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For Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Chucky creator Don Mancini. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

I get scared so easily that sometimes daily necessities are trying. I don’t like when the door closes to the garbage disposal room when I’m there alone. I don't like closing the door to the bathroom at night. I’m not really worried about ghosts, but when I’m walking outside late at night I often look back every few steps, sometimes even doing an awkward sidestep so I can attempt to see in front of and behind me at the same time. I constantly anticipate someone following me, touching me, popping out from behind, but the anticipation is meaningless. If it ever actually happens, I’m terrified. 

If you’re a 45-year-old strapping leader of industry, having the opportunity to be a nine-year-old girl is kind of liberating

So offering to walk through a haunted house two nights before Halloween seemed like a great idea. I might be scared, but I try new things. After frantically texting friends to make sure I could find at least one person to join me, I picked up my ticket for Nightmare, the first haunted house in New York City. Since 2003, Nightmare has changed themes every year: it's covered superstitions, fairy tales and last year, serial killers. Since famous murderers proved so popular, and there were more to go around, 2013 is the first year Nightmare has repeated a theme. I was about to walk into a house filled with murderers, both real and fictional. 

“It’s the anatomy of the scare,” Paul Smithyman, the set designer, told me the morning after I walked through Nightmare, explaining how to best design and direct a haunted house. “We began with storytelling, but then discovered that what you really need to do is create the scares and then tell the story.” While still in line to enter, someone with a mask came up behind me. It was about to be all scares, no story. 

Nightmare NYC
A courtroom set from last year's Nightmare

The house takes between 20 and 30 minutes to walk through. About seven minutes in, after the first three rooms, I felt like I'd been there for hours. I wouldn’t walk anywhere without one had in front of me and one hand tightly squeezing the one friend I had peer-pressured into coming with me. I was not following any hint of a story. I was just crouching, in constant fear of what would come next. 

It started when we were pushed inside and told to stand against the wall as an actor shone a spotlight on us, banged against the wall and said there were murderers on the loose inside. He pushed us along to the next room. This one had red walls with framed paintings, where we were confronted with Slender Man, who jumped out of the frame and into the room with us, pushing us into a third, pitch-black room where we were forced to crouch and kneel by what seemed like giant airbags extending beyond the walls and ceiling.

Disorientation is something that we rely on to get you out of your regular way of perception, Smithyman explains

“Disorientation is something that we rely on to get you out of your regular way of perception. Not looking and walking and listening the way you would normally because you’re scared shitless,” Smithyman explains. “The adrenaline starts going and you’re grabbing onto your friends and loved ones.”

Or random people whom you happen to be pushed into the experience with. The thing about haunted houses, and in general Halloween (with the trick or treating and group costumes), is the camaraderie it creates. In times of fear we need each other.

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John Wayne Gacy makes an appearance at Nightmare

In the blacked-out airbag room I couldn’t tell who was still around me and who was being “kidnapped” by the actors (yes, they actually separated people from the group), but I gripped my friend's arm and reached out to grab onto the jackets of the others – anything I could squeeze. Above the hushed shrieks and screaming, I heard a loud “Where are the girls!” from a fellow visitor. I knew he was talking about us. I knew then we were safe. Sort of.

A weight lifted, a team formed, and we walked together through rooms with John Wayne Gracy in a clown suit, a coked-out Patrick Bateman and a ranting Charles Manson, but the scariest by far was Ed Gein. Already sweating through my shirt and breathing heavily, we crowded into a bedroom where Gein sat next to a TV wearing a mask apparently made from human skin. There was a bed in front of him with a huge bump in the middle and it was obvious someone sat under the sheets. No matter. Gain invited someone in through the window who creepily walked around us, still ignoring the bed.

If you’re scared, you’re still alive. If you’re not scared, you’re dead

Then came a loud scream, the lights started flashing and someone jumped out of the bed and ran up to me with a chainsaw. I shrieked and ran to the corner, yelling “GET AWAY FROM ME!”, only to be trapped in the corner with a chainsaw in my face. “That’s a good old fashioned pop scare,” says Smithyman. It didn’t even matter than the chainsaw was fake.  

“If you’re a 45-year-old strapping leader of industry, having the opportunity to be a nine-year-old girl is kind of liberating,” says Smithyman, who’s obviously spent time dissecting why people want to scare themselves. “It’s liberating to be scared and scream and be a little girl when you’re not.”

It’s the miracle of Halloween, the pleasures of a haunted house. Forget who you are, who you’re supposed to be and allow yourself to shriek and be scared shitless by a life-sized Cookie Monster, who teams up with a girl with glow-in-the-dark eyes to push you into a room filled with skeletons.

After what felt like three hours later, I was spooked one last time and ran out of the house into the line of waiting visitors with terrified faces. The group split up, with everyone walking off in their own direction; fear subsiding, the camaraderie dissipated.

“We all like to be scared,” Smithyman says. “If you’re scared, you’re still alive. If you’re not scared, you’re dead,” he laughs.

Happy Halloween, you’re still alive.

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