NOTE: This opinion piece is just that; an opinion piece. It in no way reflects the views of the HorrorBuzz staff, writers, editors, or site overall. Again, this is just one writer’s opinion on the matter. This piece was also written back in January 2018, but we held off on publishing it until we felt a respectable amount of time had passed from the film’s release. We also gave Jon Schnitzer a chance to read what was written last week before publication, in the interest of being fair and because he is our friend. We have allowed him the opportunity to offer a rebuttal, if he so desires. 

Russ McKamey is a sociopath.

Is that libel? Maybe. But I am not alone in thinking this. First, it was just the rumors and stories that were being discussed. Then it was becoming friends with someone and hearing, years later, that they had gone through McKamey Manor and seeing first-hand how much it affected them. Finally, it was meeting McKamey in person, quite a few times, and the feeling just got worse after every interaction & encounter with the man.

Those feelings came to a head when I finally sat down to watch HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE from start to finish, and saw how it glorified a man whom so many feels is a determent to the haunt community.

But let’s backtrack, shall we?

I first moved to California five years ago. Coming from New Jersey, where the Halloween haunt options were limited to a few local home haunts and Six Flags Great Adventure’s Fright Fest, my eyes were opened to a whole other world here in SoCal. Not only does the area have the granddaddy of all haunts, Knott’s Scary Farm, but also Universal Halloween Horror Nights, Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor, tons of immersive experiences, and more impressive home haunts than I can even begin to name. Just visit Midsummer Scream’s Hall of Shadows, and you can clearly see that this state has its fair share of incredible talent.

I remember standing in line for Sinister Pointe’s BEYOND THE MIRROR years back, and watching the big screen set up to entertain those waiting to enter. In between clips from horror films and trailers, there was a short segment that stood out: a ‘teaser’ for HAUNTERS, a film that was being made by Jon Schnitzer. While the look was incredibly brief, it showed quick glimpses of some incredible home haunts, shots of immersive experiences I had done, and interviews with the people who made them come to life (like Josh Randall and Jon Braver). I was intrigued. I was hooked. I wanted more.

Like most people who are fans of the haunt industry, I had seen THE AMERICAN SCREAM and absolutely loved it. This look at people who dedicate their lives, their money, and their souls to doing something they love (and sometimes for only one day a year) is absolutely fascinating to me. So, of course, HAUNTERS appealed to me. I was the target audience. It promised to look behind the curtain of not only the things I loved but things I myself had experienced.

I followed the progress of the film with interest. It wasn’t long after that that a Kickstarter was launched to help it along. The list of interviewees and topics (McKamey and his Manor included) that Schnitzer planned on covering was impressive, and made our collective mouths water. Rewards promised that full-length interviews with some of these creators would be forthcoming, and that was enough to make everyone more excited (and to be fair, said interviews are included as bonus footage, so it’s not like they aren’t available).

Flash forward to ScareLA a year later, where Schnitzer was on-hand to show a rough, 45-minute cut of the film. While it wasn’t perfect, it was a rough edit, and it showcased more of what we were all looking for. Sure, it featured McKamey, but it didn’t seem like he was the focal point. Schnitzer got feedback from the audience that weekend and kept editing.

And editing. And editing some more. We all patiently waited. We had been waiting for years at that point, and we were content to wait for more.

But then…something shifted with the film. Norman Gidney, the creator of HorrorBuzz, was offered a look at the new, final cut prior to release and came back with some concerns. While the focus still seemed to be on the haunt community, and while he did give a favorable write up to an early cut of the first 39 minutes that he saw a year before,  I remember one of Norm’s comments being that there was a little too much McKamey in the version he saw of the film.

And now here we are, years later, and HAUNTERS: THE ART OF THE SCARE has been released. I was anxious to see it when it was released unto the world, but held off because of the reviews. These reviews were from sources & websites I know and trust, and they were unfavorable. Word of mouth from the local SoCal haunters community wasn’t too great, either, despite the film’s “100% Fresh Rating” on Rotten Tomatoes.

Much of what I heard mentioned how heavily the film focused on Russ McKamey. I caught the film in bits and pieces at friend’s houses and gatherings. It wasn’t long before I had seen most of the film, in parts, and was discouraged. But perhaps I was wrong?

Recently, a group of us sat down to watch the film, from start to finish, for the first time. It now being on Netflix made it easier. Two members of the group had already seen it; one watched it all the way through, while the other stopped half-way due to the exploitative nature that McKamey portrayed. But, we soldiered on anyway.

At the end of its hour and a half run time, I couldn’t help but feel…disappointed. Shocked. And if I’m being honest, a little angry.

Somewhere along the way, I feel Schnizter got lost in what other people wanted. He is a fine and competent filmmaker. In fact, the way he pulled together HAUNTERS is an incredible feat, and I feel he did a masterful job of that. However, when he shifted his focus on showcasing the love people have for haunting onto a man who gets off on the torture of others, that is where I feel he went wrong.

HAUNTERS was somehow turned into the Russ McKamey show, and it does not do the film any good. Perhaps it was the ‘shock’ value that Schnizter was going for, hoping that people would be drawn in by the SAW-like nature of McKamey’s torture porn. But for 75% of the film, I, and the others I watched it with, felt uncomfortable anytime McKamey was on screen. (By the way, that percentage is a guesstimate. Do I know the exact percent? No. I’ll let someone else do the math, but the fact remains that Russ McKamey gets significantly more screen time than anyone else.)

It’s not a surprise to anyone that the haunt community has a massive problem with Russ McKamey. Many of us don’t even consider him a real haunter; what he does is nothing at all like the things we know and love. However, he seems to be a problem we can’t seem to shake.

The film dives a bit deeper than most ever have when it comes to McKamey. We know what the surface level is (how he ran an extreme haunt in his backyard that is borderline, if not actually, torture), but the film, at moments, tries to paint him in a sympathetic light. There is a moment where Russ talks about his losing his father, and how the two of them loved to scare people together. While of course it pulls on the heart strings a bit, it tries to position this as the reason that McKamey does what he does; because his father would have loved it.

I’m sorry, but no amount of sympathy about a parent passing can make me feel okay with someone forcing people to endure hours upon hours of torture.

I think what struck me the most was the story of one of McKamey’s neighbors who experienced what McKamey puts people through. In the film, this woman decides to try it out, after years of watching people go through it and hearing their screams from up on the hill above the McKamey home. However, once her day arrived, she decided to back out of it; she wasn’t feeling up to the task and decided to go home. So, like any sane person, she ran far, far away from it.

However, McKamey’s domestic partner quite literally chased this person down in her car, and forced her back to the house to go through it. They even showcase parts of the footage from her visit within the film, and it clearly shows a woman who has been broken down to the point that her ‘flight or fight’ has kicked in, when she tries to steal an actor’s ax and violently fight her way out of it.

“I tricked her into coming back two more times,” McKamey joked at one point after this was shown, talking about how he was able to get her back into his clutches by deceiving her.

There were a few others shown in the film, via McKamey’s constantly running video camera, that had mentally checked out; they no longer respond to verbal or physical actions. Their eyes were vacant, as their experience within the Manor had broken them. One man even blacked out completely…and why a medic was not called (or even on hand) is unknown.

That’s not to say that there are people out there that enjoy this type of thing; the waiting list for McKamey Manor is, according to Russ McKamey, thousands long. Some former participants have come back to be actors. But the actors were another point of contention for me, as well.

I don’t mind that McKamey uses ex-cons or former military personnel to populate his home. Sure, the line gets a bit sketchy there as to if they are getting some sick kicks from doing this, but that didn’t strike a nerve nearly as much as his employment of underage, neighborhood kids.

I do a lot of experiences here in Southern California, but I do them because I know I will be safe, no matter how ‘unsafe’ the subject matter may be. The actors and staff are properly trained for almost every instance and know how to handle a situation. I’m no stranger to ‘extreme’ haunts. I’m a massive fan of BLACKOUT, but I trust Josh and Kris to do what they do and do it right. I cannot extend that trust to Russ McKamey.

I would never, ever go to something that uses underage children, especially in an ‘extreme’ situation such as McKamey Manor. Not only is it incredibly unsafe, but it also puts these kids in a bad position as well. While the film did make it clear that he no longer uses underage kids in McKamey Manor, it still struck a bad nerve.

McKamy’s constant following of his victims, and filming their every move within his walls, only showcases more of something that is just not right about the situation. Hunched over his computer, editing said footage for hours on end, McKamey was asked why he does the things he does.

“It makes for great footage!” he laughed with sadistic glee.

Something is not right there.

Because of its focus on this, the film does not paint the haunt community in a good light whatsoever. While it was great to see so many familiar faces in there talking about why they do what they do, it was oft overshadowed by the looming presence of a man who is clearly not in it for the love, but for the kicks.

When other, independent haunts are the focus, the film shines. It’s great to see the love and dedication these people throw into their work. But when they are questioned about McKamey’s use of extreme measures, it takes away from the work they have done and instead places the spotlight back on McKamey.

I wanted to love HAUNTERS so, so much. I wanted it to be the film we were promised so many years ago. Instead, we got a lovefest for McKamey Manor. Again, the problem is not Schnitzer’s filmmaking prowess, as he is clearly able to make a good film; we’ve seen it before in previous incarnations of this film. He knows how to put a film together. We also like and respect Jon not just as a filmmaker, but also as a friend. But this final version is nothing more than giving more spotlight to a man who is not an ambassador for the community.

We know he isn’t, but for every person who happens to pick this up at random at their local Best Buy or watch it out of sheer curiosity because it’s on Netflix, HAUNTERS will not endure the haunt community to anyone. With the increasing amount of regulation being placed upon our haunters, and especially our local scene, this puts us all in a bad place. Boney Island had to close down this past year due to permitting issues. Many immersive experiences have been shut down or faced issues due to city regulations. With McKamey at the forefront, due to this film, we’re cast as a bunch of sadistic weirdos who love to torture people. That’s not the type of representation we want, or need, especially right now.

Sure, McKamey has since moved elsewhere to another state and is no longer a physical thorn in the side of the SoCal community, but the impression, and scars, that he left behind are long-lasting.

I really wish Schnitzer would go back to his hours of footage and find the true heart of the story that he shifted away from. Show more of the people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into this, simply for the love of the scare; not for the sadistic kicks. Yes, we get small glimpses of that during the film, but it’s nowhere near showing the heart of it. Instead, the focal point is on a man and attraction that many of us consider dangerous to our industry.

About the Author: Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff Heimbuch writes. A lot. On a variety of things and in different mediums. He also created the fiction podcasts LIGHT HOUSE and RETURN HOME (of which you can find both on all podcasting platforms), loves all things horror, works in social media, and is probably writing something right now. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok at @jeffheimbuch.