At the center of a stark Waynesville, Ohio, field you can see a circle of excited faces surrounding a large fire. There’s a farmhouse that’s supposed to really be haunted on one side and a theatrical haunt on the other, the latter a barn containing scenes of murder and sadism, real things that are said to have happened in the farmhouse. The visitors discuss what they’ve seen so far. Some are trying to convince timid friends to tour the Devil House, as the farmhouse has been dubbed.
An acquaintance of mine despises haunts. She considers Halloween itself to be ugly and horror entertainment in general to be a symptom of first-world mental illness. If she knew the details of Waynesville’s new haunt ScareDown, she’d probably have additional objections. ScareDown is a haunted house, but it’s also a haunted house and touring it means trodding on some ground that’s different than a lot of other Halloween attractions. ScareDown walks a fine line, combining the Waynesville legend of a 19th century family that was murdered by their father on the property with dramatic imaginings of these terrors.
“For me it’s more of a creative thing; I don’t think of it as exploitation,” says Josh Hasty, the filmmaker who dreamed up and built ScareDown. Hasty has worked with Rob Zombie and is fanatically obsessed with the horror genre. He even lives in the loft of the barn in which the theatrics take place. No joke. We spoke about this — the sticky, weird ethical framework of his haunt — and came to the conclusion that because the murders happened in the deep past, there’s some sort of temporal firewall that insulates it from being some god-awfully bad idea. No one bats an eye at a Jack the Ripper themed haunt and, in a cultural framework that allows for continual reenactments of Civil War battles, perhaps Hasty’s project is almost tame. It will make you feel uncomfortable, whatever your point of view.
“Most people don’t say, ‘Hey, can you find me a haunted house to live in,’ ” Hasty says. “They don’t realize when you say ‘haunted attraction,’ how seriously people like us take it.”
Inside the barn are some very confrontational actors. Ironic music plays in the background. The happy love songs on the radio make the ball gags and tied down girls and sweaty men whose hands are soaked in blood, and even the body swinging at the end of a rope in the church, seem so much more sinister than they would be otherwise. Looking on, it seems that these really are the farmhands who helped the crazed owner of the farm erase his own family. It’s the stuff of low-budget horror, but with attention to detail. The period furniture and old steel beer cans might not be accurate to when the atrocities really happened, but they sure do give one the feeling of stepping through a broken looking glass.
Hasty says the theatrical haunt is lined with cameras and peepholes. He’ll personally track the progress of groups winding through the maze, encouraging his cast to fine tune the experience and keep his prey on edge.
“Depending on their energy or how they’re acting … the haunt really starts to amp up,” Hasty says. “I pretty much run around like a madman. I took some of my friends to check out what I do and they were out of breath. Because I want to make sure every person is experiencing it, I’m constantly running back and forth and I’m in constant communication with my actors.”
The Devil House is presented to visitors on a flashlight tour. Oddities, such as the closet that locks from the inside are offered for inspection along with tales of doors opening on their own, strange noises and reports of people being pushed by invisible forces. It’s ideal for visitors to experience the Devil House first and then the barn where, behind the scenes, is Hasty, a sort of man behind the curtains.
“I guess that comes from doing filmmaking,” he says. “If they come through and weren’t completely impressed with the first two scenes, it’s my job to make sure the next scene really sweeps them off their feet, so I guess it is kind of like a wicked wizard of Oz. The thing I hear the most is it’s like walking through a horror movie; a Heavy Metal horror show is the best way I can describe it. I want to make sure that people get that. So, I make it a point to gauge exactly how they’re feeling.”
SCAREDOWN's 2012 fall season runs Thursday-Sunday evenings, with an additional date Oct. 31, through Nov. 4. More information: scaredown.com.