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Arts and Entertainment

Go Behind The Scenes At SoCal's Craziest Amateur And Pro Haunted Houses

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Filmmaker Jon Schnitzer loved Halloween and haunted houses since he was a kid; he even remembers walking to Hebrew school carrying his books in a plastic Jack-o'-Lantern pail. And now, he's making a documentary about both the professional and DIY haunted houses and the people whose dream is to scare the crap out of us.

When you think of a Halloween haunt, you probably imagine walking through a dark maze while actors jump out at you and scream in your ears. In Los Angeles, we're spoiled with big budget haunts like Knott's Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal. But some of the scariest thrills we can get come from offbeat productions of psychological horror like Alone, Blackout and Delusion, or in the backyards of neighbors who spend all year working on their October surprise.

Schnitzer has been visiting haunts big, small and in between for his film HAUNTERS The Movie. He's been chased by zombies, clowns, ghosts and ghouls, and he's even spent time at San Diego's infamous McKamey Manor, which just might be the most intense haunt in America. The film features music from Ryan Gosling's creepy Halloween band Dead Man's Bones (yes, that Ryan Gosling), and Room 237 and Snakes on a Plane composer Jonathan Snipes. The Kickstarter even has 2015 Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris as a backer.

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We met Schnitzer on the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride in Griffith Park when he happened to sit next to us on the wagon as we waited with apprehension to meet our fates. But Schnitzer doesn't just visit the haunts and document the scares. He spends ample time with the people behind the haunts, those who work long hours on grisly scenery, horrifying costumes and learning how to most effectively terrify their guests.

"A lot of them have interior decorating backgrounds," he said. He mentions a haunt called Rotten Apple in Burbank, which has been popping up every October for 25 years, where the creators are meticulous about the atmosphere and detail of their home haunt. "People who grew up going to it now work on it."

Sometimes, these "home haunters" get into scuffles with neighbors who don't appreciate their macabre sensibilities or the shrieks emanating from their DIY labyrinths.

"It's very NIMBY," he said, "and it wouldn't be like that if it were the greatest nativity scene of all time."

Only a day after Schnitzer and I spoke on the phone, one such haunt, The House of Restless Spirits in Santa Monica, was forced to shut down by its neighbors after 17 years, Theme Park Adventures reports.

But even as home haunts get shut down or have to deal with uptight neighbors, Halloween is a huge booming business with haunts competing for the most extreme frights. And it's not just Halloween; Schnitzer's been to year-round and Christmas haunts, too. Schnitzer thinks it's human nature to love scaring others and being scared because it's a way to get out aggression and stress, or an excuse to not be brave. He calls it "scareapy."

"It's very therapeutic," he said. "There's an executive assistant who loves being a monster during Halloween. She can scream at the guests the way she wants to scream at the execs, and she says that it's great."

He also related a story of soldiers in Afghanistan who went to a haunt there after a firefight. "They get to go from being the heroes to acting like a kid again," he said. "Soldiers have to be a badass, but not in a haunt. It's lame if you're a badass in a haunt."

While Schnitzer's been trapped in rooms with monsters and had to solve riddles to get out, played paintball versus zombies and navigated through a maze of clowns in 3D, he says there is none more severe than what Schnizter calls "the Fight Club of haunts," The McKamey Manor, run by Russ McKamey of San Diego. Guests at his haunt receive anywhere from four to eight hours of torment in a full-contact experience where you must sign a waiver to begin. McKamey had initially wanted to run a professional haunted house, but as he encountered problems with the city, he began building his own.

With Russ, Schnitzer says, "There are times where his story is really heartwarming and there are times where it's heartbreaking, and there are times when it's shocking and hilarious."

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McKamey Manor currently has an epic waiting list, with clients from all over the world, including one English couple who plan to spend their honeymoon being covered in slime and tortured by McKamey's ghouls. Some who survive have even gotten tattoos to commemorate the time they paid to have a horrible day. And as the trailer reveals, things at McKamey don't always go according to plan.

Schnizter is continuing to get scared as he closes in on a completed film, with plans to appear on a SXSW panel with a roughcut of his film March 2015. A completed version of HAUNTERS The Movie is scheduled for next October. In the meantime, you can follow along via Facebook here.

You can watch the trailer below:

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