Culture

“The Perfect Place To Murder Someone”: Inside Australia’s Novelty Horror Boom

Why do we pay people to do this to us?

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All I want is a quick wee. But in order to reach the portoloos ahead, I must first brave a labyrinth of smoke-filled tunnels, in the dark, in the middle of the woods. I hear the screams before I even begin. Bladder full, I fumble along past the groping hands, past a mannequin, past the severed limbs. A wrong turn. A dead end. And then the chainsaw roars to life behind me.

Such are the delights of the Dunny Death Chamber Maze, which all the sadomasochists with a ticket to Horror Movie Campout have to face. It’s enough to make you strategically soil yourself. But in Australia, when it comes to scaring punters witless, business is booming.

Camp Fear: A Night At The Horror Movie Campout 

This overnight foray into the dark Mt Penang Parklands near Gosford is Australia’s first overnight outdoor cinema frightfest: a strange occasion in which 1,000 horror fans pitch their tents, and hope to make it through the night.

“We’ve all got a little something wrong with us,” the event’s organiser Amy Booth tells me. “There’s something in us that just loves to be scared.”

I guess that’s why us campers have subjected ourselves to constant stalking and pestering by Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Frownz The Clown, and Saw — the chainsaw-wielding lumberjack in an ice-hockey mask I met on the way to the loo. In total, there are 15 live actors and volunteers (plus a stuntman) whose sole purpose is to have you looking over your shoulder the whole night. By far the creepiest of them all is Skipping Girl, played by actor Ebony North: a sweet, pig-tailed young woman in a bloodstained kabuki mask, swinging a crowbar.

“It’s the atmosphere and the adrenaline that does it,” North says. “It’s one thing to watch scary movies in the middle of the forest. But to know there’s a bunch of us waiting to get you? That’s pretty unsettling.”

clown2

Yes. Yes, it is.

Almost all the punters have dressed up on the night: there’s the glow-in-the-dark corpse bride and groom; the girl with the melted face lining up for sliders; Leatherface feeding a beer under his mask; the pig-man, the scarecrow and the pumpkin-head propping up the bar. It gets to the point where you can’t really tell who’s an actor or who’s a camper. And it would, of course, make for a great horror film: deranged killer stalks campers dressed like deranged killers in remote woodland. Aren’t the organisers worried their clientele might get carried away?

“We get that quite a bit,” says Booth. “Yes, it would be the perfect place to murder someone. And no, we haven’t had anybody try. That’d be pretty bad for business. We probably wouldn’t encourage that.”

Reducing the chances of a bloodbath, however, is the general cheery nature of everybody here. Killer clowns might creep up on you but they’ll pose for a photo afterwards, giving you a thumbs up before slinking off into the night.

In the middle of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a fight erupts and a man is set on fire. He runs around a bit, screaming expletives, before somebody has the good sense to hose him down. You assume it’s all part of the show but with all the fake blood and open wounds on display, it’d be a real nightmare for roaming paramedics.

A Growing Fear

Scaring ourselves on purpose is hardly a new concept. From Halloween parties to ghost-trains, we’ve been wired for fright since we were kids. But more recently, event organisers have spotted a huge market for grown-ups who never quite grew out of being spooked; punters who’ll happily be chased by zombies, or haunted by ghouls, or locked up in terrifying puzzle games.

The fright industry has become big business as companies continue to reinvent the ghost-train in this way. It’s created a worldwide niche industry of adult-only scares, starting with late-night Halloween entry to theme parks (such as Knott’s Scary Farm at California’s Knotts Berry Farm) and morphing into specially-designed scare factories. In Australia, there are now more options than ever.

Fancy a spot of cardio with your terror? Try Running Scared, an 8km nighttime obstacle course in Sydney with 100 or so zombies in hot pursuit. People will pay upwards of $65 for the privilege of racing through an obstacle course in the dark, while more than 100 actors — including vampires, werewolves, hillbillies and slashers — lurk in the shadows prepped to raise your pulse even more. Now in its second year, more than 1,700 brave souls have signed up to the challenge.

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“Ha ha, I’m having such a good time!” (Photo via Running Scared)

Likewise, interactive horror theatre company Hunted has staged a variety of shuddersome outdoor performances in mystery locations around the country since 2013. Calling for those with “good mobility, good night vision and a good strong heart,” the interactive shows are veiled in secrecy, but recent reviews of their latest, Dark Lake, drop hints of a creek in the woods, rusty music boxes, a dominatrix and shrouded spectres with a blatant disregard for personal space. Hecklers beware.

Originating in either Hungary or Japan (depending on who you talk to) there’s also been a rise of the “escape room”. More than 10 rooms — where punters must solve problems to earn their freedom — have popped up in Sydney alone. But are you trapped in a real-life Saw?

“It’s an immersive atmosphere, so the idea can be terrifying to some,” says co-founder and lead game designer, Matthew Lee from Sydney’s Enigma Room. “You are stuck in a room. So if you happen to be scared of confined spaces, or of being trapped, that can be a little confronting. But, generally, [escape rooms] are a puzzle-solving experience with some surprise elements. We’re not all schlocky.”

Hungarian-expat and director of ParaPark Sydney, Noemi Agocs, agrees. “It has to have a creepy feel to make you want to escape, sure, but we see it more as ‘brain fitness’ than a horror house.” Their Crime Scene ‘95 room, for instance, locks you inside a “bone-chilling” investigation in which you must “stop the murderer before he comes back and stops you”.

Other rooms do however ramp up the fright factor. For example, PaniqRoom will handcuff and march you, in darkness, to their prison-style Supercell 117. Mission Sydney will force you deep into a medieval vampire’s lair. And at The Butcher’s Burrow (part of Strike Bowling’s Exitus) you’ll be blindfolded, “kidnapped” and then chained up.

Of course, if you’re into “being abducted” there are companies that can provide such a service, but they tend to specialise in bucks parties, and may or may not include topless waitresses.

Gluttons For Punishment

Back at the campout, I find Catherine Leygo — a blood specialist from Sydney — dressed as Samara, the creepy limp-haired little girl from The Ring.

“Nothing is more invigorating than a good old-fashioned jump,” she says. “I’ve loved these films since I was a nipper but, over the years, you could say I’ve become a bit desensitised, a little ‘scare-weary’. But [the campout] is hectic, aye? It’s fun!”

She’s not alone in feeling this way. Fear can be a natural high, as it triggers our “flight or fight” response to danger — a potent cocktail of hormones courses through our bloodstream including adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. Our heart-rate spikes, our legs get shaky, but as soon as the brain realises the threat isn’t real, the immediate reaction is nervous laughter.

The key is having a controlled setting — such as a funfair haunted house — where the jump can then make way for the relief, and eventually the triumph, of making it through unscathed. Although pleasurable for some, it remains bowel-emptyingly terrifying for others.

scare

Pictured (L-R): you mid-panic attack, everyone else having a nice time.

So, are the people doing the scaring a bunch of sadists?

“A little bit, sure,” Skipping Girl tells me. “When you get a good scare, like a group of big tough guys, it just gets better. So you double your efforts and get increasingly creepier and creepier. You get into a certain mindset: fearless, strong and a little bit insane.”

Her “worst scare”, however, saw her chase down a camper fresh from the lavatory. “But what I couldn’t tell, what with all the smoke and my mask on, was that this poor girl had fallen down, and was curled up, and in a ball crying. I felt terrible. But of course I couldn’t say anything so I just slunk off into the darkness.”

Is Skipping Girl a horror movie fanatic herself? “Oddly, no. They’re not my favourite. I scare far too easily. I’m still scared of the dark! It’s a little inconvenient, working at the Horror Movie Campout, I know. Especially when I have to go skulking around at night. I really have to psych myself up: ‘It’s fine, Ebony. You’re here to scare other people.’”

And so with one eye open, the campers zip up their tents, ready for the sleepless night ahead. Many, including myself, have pitched up uncomfortably close to the shrubs so we can answer the call of nature with relatively little molestation from nightstalkers.

But alas, barely a chainsaw is heard.

“Maniacs need their sleep too, y’know,” Skipping Girl says.

All photos unless otherwise specified are the writer’s own.

Richard Scott is a writer of English blood based on the Gold Coast. His name has appeared in The Times, FourFourTwo, Australian Geographic, Money and, the now defunct, Cleo and FHM. He takes no responsibility for their demise.