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Los Angeles - While excited children this week celebrated Halloween by going trick-or-treating or dressing up as zombies, one US theatre offered a distinctly more adults-only, dress-down experience.
Billed as “extreme theatre,” the Blackout Haunted House invites paying customers to walk alone, in the dark, into a series of scenarios that are certainly creepy, but not in a traditional ghosts 'n' monsters horror way.
“Do you have asthma, bitch? Epilepsy? Answer, son of a bitch!” yelled one of the actors who puts on the edgy show - some of them apparently near-naked - pointing a light directly into the eyes of a disoriented visitor.
If the answer is “No,” the customer - including this reporter - is pushed into a totally darkened room and, while desperately searching for the slightest source of light, is touched and pinched by hands that come and go.
You are dragged into a corner. “Get on your knees, bitch!” they shout in your ear, before tying your hands behind your back and putting a plastic bag over your head.
Perhaps inevitably the attraction - put on in New York before, and in Los Angeles this year - has sparked debate about the ethics of staging sexually abusive and violent scenarios - and indeed about why people pay for it.
Those behind the “show” are quite open about what participants face. Rules on its website begin with “YOU MUST WALK THROUGH ALONE” and that you must be over 18. Everyone is required to sign a legal waiver before entering.
“Stay on the marked path at all times. You will be prompted to do certain actions. Please do exactly as you're told. This is for your safety,” it says, noting that talking is forbidden, while you can “scream as loud as you'd like”.
It warns you will encounter fog, strobe lights, “complete darkness,” “crawling,” stairs, loud noises, water, “physical contact” and “sexual and violent situations.”
If a guest is too spooked, or has an “emergency,” they are told to shout the magic word “safety” as loud as possible. And then: “Stay where you are, remain calm, and someone will come to get you and bring you out.”
Customers who go through say that, while not terrifying in the traditional Halloween sense, it can be a disturbing experience.
“I almost died,” Athena Schindelheim, a 33-year-old marketing director said after the experience, put on in a downtown LA apartment. “I had the plastic bag over my head for like an hour.
“I was, like, 'This is not scary, this is actually dangerous.'“
The LA show is just one of some 2,000 places you can go for a Halloween thrill that generated some $500 million a year, according to the Haunted House Association.
These include traditional ones like the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Hollywood, or The Blumhouse of Horror, staged in an abandoned movie theatre by the producer of the Paranormal Activity movies Jason Blum.
Or, for $50 - more than some of the other attractions, it must be said - they can choose to be tied up, pretend sexually abused and tortured in a way that has nothing to do with the supernatural.
“It's all realistic, it's based on very realistic fears, that was always our goal: to create something that was real,” said Josh Randall, the 34-year-old creative director and co-founder of Blackout Haunted House.
“We wanted to create a very genuine fear response... Monsters, vampires, that's not real... We wanted to create something that people can actually be afraid of,” he said.
Needless to say, there are critics. “Since when is rape and torture 'Fun?'“ asked the online women's lifestyle journal xoJane.
“Is it cool to try these experiences on like you might a new shirt, to literally sell real-life horrors as a recreational good time? I don't know, but I'm inclining toward no,” wrote associate editor Lesley Kinzel.
But there are apparently plenty of people in search of the experience, presumably partly to do with getting an adrenalin rush in a way you can't in a normal haunted house, and all within the security of a stage performance.
“I think people crave affective experiences... it's similar to jumping out of the plane, a lot of people talk about the sort of adrenalin rush that they get after going through Blackout,” said Randall.
“So that's what they crave, in this age with the videogames and movies, we need to take it a little bit further than we normally do.
“What Blackout provides is a safe opportunity to face some of these fears. As dangerous as it may seem, it's actually a pretty safe experience. It's a safe way of facing some of that stuff with actually having to go through it.” - Sapa-AFP