Equal parts Broadway, theme park, circus, video game, extreme sport and cinema, haunted houses are a strange beast of entertainment. Say what you will about the tack and kitsch, the appeal of their spectacle and the opportunity to physically place yourself in the way of terror, is expansive enough to support the thousands of haunts which throw open their bloody and cobwebbed doors across suburban America each Fall — as well as the handful that reside in New York City.
So this Halloween, while some flock to Netflix and Shudder to scare the shit out of themselves from the comfort of their couch, we headed to a New York City haunted house ourselves to get some insight into the art of creating immersive, IRL horror.
In downtown Tribeca, on the same Broadway block as a Crunch Fitness, a synagogue, an AT&T store, an art gallery, and a smattering of bodegas, sits Blood Manor: "New York City's Premier Haunted Attraction."
Two trips through the haunt and many delightful conversation with actors, make-up artists, costume designers, casting directors and stage managers revealed that the art of a haunted house's horror lies in a full-throttle, maximalist sensory cacophony — brought to life through endless layers of detail and a resourceful team of creatives.
The art of a haunted house's horror lies in a full-throttle, maximalist sensory cacophony — brought to life through endless layers of detail and a resourceful team of creatives.
Haunted houses don't have CGI magic or hours of character development and subtle, psyche-invading plot lines to make jaded New Yorkers walking in off the grimy, bustling cinéma vérité city streets lose themselves. Instead, haunts have 15 minutes, a few thousand square feet, around 50 actors, and a whole lot of latex and fake blood to make you forget yourself. So, the key is to throw everything they have at you, as quickly as possible.
Blood Manor's method is a scene-by-scene phantasmagoric sensory assault. The immaculately (or rather desecratedly) made up and costumed characters are blurry pastiche of tropes: a Buffalo Bill-style serial killer, an eye-ringed Ring-esque Samara, a cannibal doctor gobbling guts on an operating table, chained beasts rattling their locks, aproned butchers, bloodied women who hysterically beg you to run because "he's coming," satanic nuns, vampires, werewolves, crooked-walking zombies with their brains peeking out in every flavor (military, stripper, orange-jumpsuited convicts) and taunting clowns in every shade of neon (all chainsaw-wielding, skeletal, psychedelic). None of them are exactly pulled straight off the screen, (copyright, you know), but the cinematic schemas are an efficient way to pack in a storyline when you only have 20 seconds to tell it.
The macabre and grotesque scenes are constructed through layers upon layers of immersive detail. Aside from the actors, the props are carefully arranged to tell a story during the quick glance a visitor gets as they jerk their head around, scanning the room for clowns and zombies. The scientist's cabinets are full of beakers and brains in jars; bloodied torsos, ribcages, severed heads and limbs hang litter a torture dungeon; IV drips sit beside dentist chairs; Buffalo Bill's walls are papered with a detective's yarn-connected news clippings; bagged bodies hang in the butcher's hallway like a meat locker; birds, rats, snakes, skulls and bones are draped in witchier areas; and gothic motorcycle graffiti covers walls and floors in a haunted strip club/dive bar.
There are also those layers of detail you won't even register, but the absence of which would be conspicuous. Coating every wall, floor and surface is a blanket of general clutter and detritus: candle wax dripping down cabinets, blood spatters and handprints, dirt, grime, dust, cobwebs, mold and unidentifiable fluids, making the rooms authentic and transportive.
By itself, no scene, prop or actor is unimaginably shocking or sadistically intense. Blood Manor employs a few technological accessories, like animatronic creatures which claw at you as you walk past, machine guns and tanks which shoot bullet-like puffs of air and digital screens disguised as mirrors. You're offered 3D glasses for maximum disorientation as you tiptoe through a carnivalesque maze painted with fluorescent UV painted designs that pop out, escorted by clowns, spider-girls and zombie strippers wearing glow in the dark contacts and lingerie. Mostly though, it's classic, old-fashioned guts and gore. It's the rapid-fire transitions between each stuffed, overblown scene of mayhem, bursting with motion, that keep you terrified about what could crawl out of the clutter or be waiting around the corner. Not every scare are will land — rather, the haunt's artistry can be found in the volume and chaos, which creates something that will get to everyone.
The other great force behind the art of experiential horror are the talented and zealous actors and artists who bring the fleshy, bloody, burnt, smelly and shrieking life to the scenes. I met teachers, students and 9-5 office folks, but most, Blood Manor's cast is made up of professional or semi-professional dancers, actors, models, painters, circus performers, filmmakers, screenwriters, production assistants, playwrights and poets. They're creatives who don't just come to the haunt because the pay is better than their local café, but because it's also an artistic outlet into which they pour skill, passion and vision.
Their vision is crucial. The actors and designers are ultimately responsible for fleshing out what the characters play and create: imagining the brutal deaths they fell victim to or the childhood traumas that turned them into killers. A generic serial slasher sitting in the makeup chair informs me that although he's technically meant to just be some dude who chops up women, his character is actually a cannibal voodoo priest from New Orleans who speaks in tongues. Another dark-faced ghoul says he brings his own specially-made vampire teeth to work, which he also wears to clubs and raves on weekends. A third actor tells me he loves performing his drag characters most in order to play with people's horror at gender nonconformity.
Others purchase extra elements of their costumes not provided by Blood Manor — like false eyelashes and teeth, special contacts and jewelry to augment the vintage store frocks, polyester capes and corsets and masks they're given — to help them feel fully absorbed in their characters. The make-up and airbrush artists too invent complex backstories for the grotesque gashes, third degree burns, dislocated jaws and missing eyes they design in order to execute truly terrifying looks — so that someone can see and imagine the violence and horror that lead to them.
The art of a haunted house — instead of a fussy, meticulous auteur's vision — is all about visual and narrative layers, collaboration, and maximalist abundance that creates flexibility in experience and might feel different on any given tour.
Although there's no one mastermind, Jim Lorenzo co-owns Blood Manor along with Mike Rodriguez. He's an immersive entertainment expert who has kept Blood Manor's the scariest haunt in New York City for the last 15 years.
PAPER sat down with him to lean more about what makes a haunt tick, the challenges of scaring New Yorkers, and how clowns are always king.
What is the origin story of Blood Manor?
I was in the entertainment and production business. I owned an event company and produced all types of corporate and experiential events, sporting events, all different types of events. I used to have a client that loved to do enormous, over-the-top Halloween parties at their home, which I would produce. They would move out for a few days and we would take over and spook out the whole house, and they would do a huge party for a couple hundred of people. We would create a haunted maze in the basement, the whole first floor of the house would be all done up, the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, with Psycho scenes, stuff like that. When the parties ended six years later, I was I was running a space on 27th street, and we decided to start Blood Manor in that property.
When was that?
That was 14-15 years ago. This is our 15th season, so you do the math. It was two home haunters, Jim Faro and Mike Rodriguez and myself, who created Blood Manor. They used to decorate their house on Halloween intensely over the top, and we were the team that first produced Blood Manor. The building we're in now on Broadway was built in 1852 and the present landlord has as it in his family since the 70s. They just sold the air rights for major dollars so the building can't really change. So the place you came to visit will be our permanent home.
What is the process of creating the room themes and developing the house's narrative like? Do you storyboard?
In Blood Manor, although we're in a city building floor, we simulate a traditional mansion. So we have an entryway, a garden which is our cemetery and a jungle area where the werewolves are. And then we have the interior of a mansion: a parlor, a living room, kitchen. This year we didn't do a dining room because we wanted to accentuate some other things. Every year we rotate and do different things.
We go to trade shows and see what new products are out there. We'll come up with some conceptual ideas and do some storyboards on each room. I bring in different artists and creatives for each thing — the fella that does all my 3D flies in all the way from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's done 3D all over the world, that's his thing. I have another fella that we buy a lot of props and masks from and another fella that does the wall panels. A lot of the panels that you see that are a wooden wall are really made out of a plastic material and they go into a vacuum mold and they press it, we paint it. We come up with the designs of the molds. There's a lot that goes into design of each room. It has to look great, has to be functional, has to last, and comply to all the fire codes.
Do you ever draw specifically on horror movies?
Not really, there are too many licenses that are out there, we don't do any copyrighted characters. You won't see a Freddy Cougar or a Chucky. We develop our own characters.
Will they be inspired by what's trending in pop culture? A couple of actors I talked to said there's a bunch of American Horror Story.
Yeah, some of it definitely. Like zombies are very popular, and some of the different features from American Horror Story. What's trending in the market certainly will dictate some of the performers and the costuming and the make-up that we do. But it's still blood, cuts, and gore bottom-line. It's always going to be blood, guts and gore.
Like extreme haunts?
Well they're not even extreme — they're actually illegal. It has to be one hundred percent ADA compliant. Whatever you do, somebody in a wheelchair or somebody that is handicapped has to have the same experience. When you go out to different parts of the country where the guidelines aren't nearly as stringent, people do strange stuff. They put people in boxes, they make them crawl under things. That's all well and good, but it's not legal. The most important thing is that people have fun and be safe.
It's crucial that haunts are accessible. When other haunts don't comply, it's a slap in the face to people and that's not what we're about. I had a fella there last week that was 19-years-old, was in the Bahamas eight months ago, fell off the boat and broke his neck with a wheelchair and was paralyzed, could only use his hands and he went to Blood Manor and it was the best thing he done in eight months. He said it to me with tears in his eyes. That's what it's about.
Being a house where there's no physical touch creates an extra challenge, it has to be all about mental emotional tension and the threat of touch.
Exactly, like if I decide to grab you and shake you, you're going to be scared, but it's a different fear factor. That's going to conjure up different feelings in different people, depending on what their life experiences have been and that's not what we're about. We're about good fun and creating horror, creating darkness in other ways. It's all mental, and we feel that our actors are as good as it gets. Our make-up team, they're over the top. We're going to be on Good Morning America on Monday, showing how we create some of the different prosthetics, how we make it look like your head is cut wide open and your brains are falling out. You saw how they were doing it, they're making it with oatmeal and cotton and organic materials to make these really cool looks and feelings.
What scares people the most? Are people more scared by the original monsters or movie monsters?
What scares people the most is definitely the actor popping out at them. And people are scared of the dark. People also love the 3D, even though it's not really scary. But there are still pop scares going on.
The thing that scares them the most are the actors. And always, always, always, always: clowns.
Really? You find year after year, clowns are the (least) favorite?
The most. People's phobias are the clowns. The biggest phobias that we hear about are clowns. There's always going to be clowns at Blood Manor, one way or another.
"The things that scares them the most are the actors. And always, always, always, always: clowns."
How is it different having a haunt in New York City versus a rural area?
If you go to an outdoor haunt, it's pitch black out, the winds howling, you walk through the woods, mother nature scares you on her own. When you're in Blood Manor, you're in New York City. You were just standing on the street in Manhattan so we start with creepy monsters outside to get you jacked up. We set the tone so that once you get into the first room, you don't remember where you are. Be prepared because it's all coming at you. And we come at you fast and furious because we have a limited amount of space and a limited amount of time to touch every one of your senses.
Do you think it's more challenging to create a haunt in New York City?
Is it harder? I don't know if it's harder. But I think you have to be on your game. You have to be top notch because it is in a New York City client. It's terrible, I mean, what we are experiencing right now, there's bomb threats and this and that. People are jaded.
Where are the costumes from?
Some of them are made by our creative team, our costume designers. Some of them are purchased from vintage stores, some of them are pieces of clothing that you have from your own wardrobe.
So there's a certain amount of agency that you give to the actors and designers.
More and more, they will buy little things to add to the costume that they feel is important and it becomes theirs. We don't write a script. There's an overall theme but the actors get to create their character in their room and work and help each other from room to room. Veteran actors help the newbies. Newbies see that they're game has to be very good, or they won't feel adequate to stick around. We'll know if they have it or if they can't handle it. But they're excellent, I have from 10-20 actors who are on and off Broadway, many who have gone on to careers in theatre. Occasionally ones who have gone on in their careers will get in touch with me and say "Do you mind if I do a night?" And I'll be like, "Of course you can." It's a very high level in the production value and the entertainment value that they bring at a high level. And they all help each other. It's definitely a family.
Photos courtesy of Blood Manor