Haunted houses prove you're never too old for a good scare. And as Halloween's popularity continues to grow (watch out, Kris Kringle) so too does the scope of the American tradition of scaring the living beejesus out of anyone who dares to cross the threshold. But we're not talking about the cotton cobwebs and bowls of wet spaghetti of yesteryear. We're way beyond that. We're not even talking about the teenagers in Freddy Krueger masks and plastic hockey masks. That's so 1989. We're talking about the real stuff (or as near to real as legalities will allow).
The new documentary The Houses October Built from co-directors Bobby Roe and Jeff Larson attempts to explore the most extreme variety of haunted houses, the places where the faint of heart need not apply. Along with friends Brandy Schaefer, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson and their producer, Zack Andrews, the group rented an RV in October 2010 and embarked on a road trip across the south to check out the most notorious spook houses. And they filmed the whole experience, from the planning to research, rumors and interviews with the minds behind the most decadent houses.
FEARnet screened the doc at the 2011 Shockfest, where it wound up taking home the Grand Prize "Shocker Award." Houses offers a fun trip into this little known underground world even the most astute Halloween fanatic may know little about. From extreme houses that require a signed release before entry to stories of scarers that really did cross the line, Houses is rife with surprising and often unsettling tidbits. Did we mention that many of these houses don't run background checks on the kindly guys and gals jumping out at you with fake (you hope) knives?
More than a mere documentary, The Houses October Built features a few surprise jolts along the way, which we'll keep to ourselves for now. Roe and Larson definitely succeed in delivering a documentary for fans, by fans that is both interesting and, at times, unsettling and even scary.
As of now, Roe and Larson are still seeking distribution, but considering the Shockfest award and the continuing praise the film is receiving (word is, Eli Roth asked for a personal copy after Shockfest), we think chances are good fans will get a chance to check this one out by Halloween 2012.
For now, we've got an interview with co-director Bobby Roe followed by an exclusive clip from the film that gives you an idea of what Houses October Built is all about.
What first gave you the idea for this movie?
Roe: The evolvement of Halloween haunted houses fascinated me. From the small Ma and Pa ones to the big commercialized houses; the creativity and how resourceful these guys have become is amazing. But as we dug deeper, it's the scare actors that work inside these houses that are so captivating and, in some cases, a little suspect. After seeing the movie, you may think twice about going in the dark with some of these characters.
Did you grow up as a big fan of haunted houses?
Roe: Oh Yeah. I grew up in Dallas and even in our elementary schools we all worked together to build a haunted house for the school carnival each fall.
With the success of movies like Saw and Paranormal Activity how do you feel a documentary fits into the horror mix?
Roe: To me, fact is scarier than fiction. We interviewed guys that served their community service in haunted houses. That blows my mind. The guy running around a haunted house, in a latex mask, wielding what looks like a very sharp knife could be a convicted criminal? Look, supernatural movies will always work, but as audiences get smarter the filmmakers need to adapt. So showing the darker side of real people, real events, that sticks with you far after the movie.
What do you think it says about our culture that these houses are going more extreme and only growing in popularity as they do so?
Roe: The word that seemed to come up most while shooting is "desensitized." Just look at 3D. Movies were becoming too flat for an ADD society so Hollywood decided to virtually slap the audience in the face. Same can be said about horror. On film, the sight of blood, decapitation, even disembowelment doesn't make people cringe like it used to. Audiences are desensitized, so they look for something more hardcore to frighten them. They look for the tangible scare, the 4D experience. Smelling, touching, and in some houses we talked to, gagging and getting zip tied. Hopefully we give that feeling of realism to the audience on screen.
And people are actually willing to sign waivers so they can receive the more extreme treatment?
Roe: We interviewed many people that have signed waivers for these underground "extreme" haunted houses. I don't know how iron clad these waivers are, but they sure don't hold much accountability.
Would you consider signing one yourself?
Roe: Yes, I've signed one.
Were there other houses not mentioned in the movie you weren't able to make it to?
Roe: There were a couple houses we had to cut. We were surprised at how juicy the interviews became and that took up a lot of our time. Meeting so many interesting people along the way, we received some exciting haunt recommendations that we hope to visit very soon. We've also researched houses outside the country, but it seems that America has been the trendsetter in commercializing Halloween. But each year's showing a rise of Haunts in other countries. One guy we interviewed was recruited to go down to Guatemala to help them start a haunted house business. Halloween is definitely spreading.
This is a film that appeals to horror and Halloween fans both as a fun-spirited exploration of this little-known world and as a scary movie in and of itself. What was the reaction you were looking for from audiences?
Roe: Hopefully exactly what you just explained. Eye opening, informative entertainment that should run some chills down their spine. We stumbled on a couple things even 60 Minutes has never touched on. That will be shocking for some people.
You've been getting the word out on the film and receiving some very strong word of mouth from people like Eli Roth. You also received the Grand Prize award at Shockfest. What's the next step?
Roe: It really is a word of mouth film, which I am very proud of. Getting asked to open for Eli Roth meant a lot to all of us. It was a nice honor because he's the ringleader of the younger horror generation. We're a group that really wants to try innovative ways to strike fear in today's audiences.
And you've also mentioned you have an idea for a follow-up in mind. Is that dependent on landing a distribution deal for Houses October Built, or do you plan to shoot the follow-up soon either way?
Roe: The goal is for as many people to see it as possible. The festival route is our plan right now, and we have our fingers crossed for South by Southwest. I was astounded to find out that 30 million people a year go to Halloween haunted houses. That's the audience that will really enjoy it, and the fans so far have been great and very supportive. As for the follow-up, our plan is to shoot in different regions each October. Sequels gets redundant if you don't have a fresh approach so we feel if we explore different areas of the U.S. and even different countries, the environment alone will create a completely different setting and plot. You would be surprised where some people have built haunted houses.
Now that you've become kind of an expert, what will you be looking for the next time you step into a haunted house?
Roe: Background checks.