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Paying For Torture: Unconventional Haunted Houses

Paying For Torture: Unconventional Haunted Houses
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Would you pay for a chance to be waterboarded? This could be the future of Halloween.

I can hear my heart beat pounding in my ears as I crawl on my hands and knees through darkness so dark that I can't see the floor. 

I start to feel self-conscious because the protective surgical mask I wear makes my breathing sound embarrassingly loud.  I signed up for this, but I'm starting to reevaluate my decision.  As the safe word lingers on my tongue I'm pulled off the ground and pushed towards the beginning of my own personal hell. 

That’s how BLACKOUT began.

BLACKOUT is an immersive horror-driven theater experience held in an abandoned building on East Houston Street.  The line outside the unmarked door, wrapping around the block, is full of nervous energy, speculation, and promises of a stiff drink afterwards. 

BLACKOUT is one of the New York City haunted houses changing the face of Halloween.  There are no undead creatures, ghouls, or actors jumping out yelling “Boo!”  It's less Walking Dead, more Law & Order: SVU.  The experience is designed to prey on our most basic fears.  Over the course of the show's life it has included imitated-waterboarding, sensory deprivation, near-suffocation, and a lot of screaming. 

Participants sign a lengthy “just-in-case” waiver before entering the building. 

What draws thousands to be psychologically tortured for a half hour?  It’s essentially a legal way to get high.  “When you encounter real threat your brain will prepare you for that pain.  So what it will do is release opioids.  We know opioids are rewarding.  But at the same time you’re your prefrontal cortex is saying ‘don’t worry about it, you’re safe,’” said Dr. Dean Mobbs, a professor and director of the Fear, Anxiety, and Biosocial Lab at Columbia University. “So what’s happening then is that you feel safe, but you get all the benefit of preparing for real threat.”  

Of course, not everybody will find the performance exciting and enjoyable. 

The show can be so intense for some audience members that the creators instituted a safe word that could be uttered at any time to stop the action.  Between 10 and 15 percent of attendees make use of the safe word.  What are people most afraid of?  Apparently it’s quite simple.  “The safety word is used generally in the dark rooms; people tend to be most afraid in the dark when nothing is happening to them.  I would probably say nine times out of ten that is the most consistent scare factor,” said Josh Randall, one of the co-creators of BLACKOUT.

BLACKOUT is not the only haunted house ushering in this new era of Halloween, there are other houses in New York City exploring realistic horror like Nightmare New York and Blood Manor.

As for me?  I think I’ll be keeping out of the New York horror scene for a while.  But I won’t be able to stay out for long.  The days of overpriced costumes and innocent trick-or-treating are numbered; Halloween is no longer for the faint of heart. 

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