Extreme haunts aren’t for the faint of heart. Over the years, these gonzo attractions have developed a reputation for roughing up their brave visitors and subjecting them to disgusting and depraved acts. From eating cockroaches to being nailed shut in a coffin, guests are practically tortured before they can exit. Yet despite their notorious practices, an extreme haunt obviously isn’t going to kill anyone, no matter how real or dangerous everything might seem, or how far they go with a scenario. That’s of course where horror movies take over; they defy reality and fulfill the audience’s expectations. And like those that came before it, Haunt wants to make sure its patrons have a hell of a story to tell — so long as they can make it out alive.
Harper (Katie Stevens), the central character of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ 2019 movie Haunt, only begins to examine the effects of her traumatic upbringing after she enters an extreme haunted house on Halloween night. Until then, Harper’s main concern is her abusive boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt); he’s given her a black eye since they last met. Concerned roommate Bailey (Lauryn McClain) encourages Harper to end things with Sam, however it’s going to take more than one “it’s over” text message to make Sam or these constant ill feelings go away.
Before stepping foot inside the ill-fated haunt, Harper and Bailey (Lauryn McClain) meet up with friends both old and new. Harper catches the eye of Nathan (Will Brittain), whose flirtatious icebreaker takes her by surprise. “Nothing scary ever happened to you?” he asks after describing the injury that caused him to quit baseball. Like other folks who grew up in dysfunction and/or abuse, Harper instinctively lies — “I had a really great childhood” — before slightly adjusting her answer without being too forthcoming. There’s always that fear of scaring new people away before they get to really know you and see you as more than your scars.
Once inside the movie’s main venue, Harper and her pals are split up into two groups of three; one half takes the maze route marked as “safe” while the other follows the “not safe” route. Regardless of direction, each path is full of unavoidable obstacles and dangers. The antagonists — a traveling clan of themed “actors” whose grotesque faces are hidden behind masks — don’t initially interact with their guests too much, but that’s only because they’re biding their time and letting the haunt do its job first. This current batch of prey is nicked, tormented and broken down, then lulled into a sense of false security as one of the performers, The Ghost (Chaney Morrow), ingratiates himself with Harper and the others.
Many people go to extreme haunts because they want to be challenged and pushed to their limits. They want to feel unsafe in a way that horror movies and static haunted houses can’t fully satisfy. These active, elaborate and hands-on attractions are designed to pull guests out of their comfort zones. For someone like Harper, though, she left her comfort zone ages ago. She has built a few safe spaces here and there to keep herself going when life starts to get out of control and become too much to handle. Harper’s circumstances and past have naturally caused her to be more wary than others, yet it’s her life experience that makes her better prepared for what comes next. After all, she herself said she grew up in a haunted house.
Extreme haunts work by evoking intense emotions, with fear being the primary target. Hit someone with enough menacing and adrenaline-inducing stimuli in a short amount of time, while also stranding them in the dark, and they’re bound to be frightened and vulnerable. Harper is by no means alone as she succumbs to the haunt’s tactics; no one here gets out unscathed, if they even get out at all. Yet it is Harper who’s the most emotionally charged by her immediate environment. As the other characters deal with their own hellish journeys and attempts at escape, Harper eventually finds herself trapped in what looks to be a kid’s bedroom. Her hiding under the bed to evade one of the haunt’s murderous performers incidentally brings up bad memories of her childhood; she recalls witnessing her father abuse her mother from the exact same viewpoint.
From here on out, Haunt becomes a sort of fantasy for anyone who has ever felt powerless to stop the hurtful people in their life. The red killer, The Devil (Damian Maffei), thinks Harper has been weakened enough to where he can finally move in for the kill. She’s been intimidated, injured and isolated from everyone else. Just the opposite, though, Harper suddenly finds the strength to stand up for both herself and, in a way, her mother. For the remainder of the movie, Harper aggressively unpacks years of frustration, dismay and anger as she takes down her attackers, one by one.
Haunt is by and large a slasher, but the movie doesn’t forget to study its protagonist on a psychological level. Supplementing the measured violence is a backstory that neither feels exploitative nor unnatural. Giving Harper something tangible to fight, while also acknowledging what she’s been battling on the inside all her life, improves the overall story. There is more than the fundamental desire to survive a grave situation playing out here; there is a visible attempt at creating change and growth in Harper, as seen in her dreams and the movie’s conclusion.
The outcome of Haunt feels almost surreal once Harper and her fellow survivor escape their long ordeal. Shockingly there’s none of the standard open-endedness often seen in these kinds of horror movies; it’s a hard-and-fast finish that, once again, feeds into the story’s fantasy appeal. A survivor of various abuses successfully defeats her personal demons. The third act comes across as a touch too rushed and cleanly wrapped up, but to those people who hope to escape their own haunted houses — literal or metaphorical — it’s surely the type of ending they can take delight in.
Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.
The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.