I have many fantasies. Rape is not one of them. Being molested by a naked zombie, not so much. So, I definitely didn’t expect to feel so close to either of those nightmares when I entered a Pittsburgh haunted house earlier this month. (They don’t actually rape you or get completely naked. But it gets way too close for comfort, even if you know what’s coming.)
It all went down at The Basement, this year’s addition to ScareHouse, a traditional zombies-jumping-out-of-the-dark haunted house. Travel Channel says ScareHouse is one of the best in the country. The Basement is separate – its own $35 ticket – and takes it from spooky to psychological thriller – like going from Scream to Se7en (I’ve never seen Se7en, but IMDb assures me it’s the scariest).
I’m not someone who likes haunted houses. I couldn’t even watch the trailer to Shutter Island without hiding under a blanket. You catch my drift.
When I pitched a story on the science of fear, I wanted to understand why people enjoy being terrified. My editors wanted a haunted house and footage of screaming people. The Basement was perfect combination of the two: it has a resident sociologist, Dr. Margee Kerr, who spends her days figuring out what scares people.
She tries to trigger fear without traumatizing anyone. But after my experience, I think it could leave plenty of people traumatized – actually, 36 guests screamed the safe word, the ticket to escape, in the first two weeks.
I had no intention of going through, but my friend convinced me that I couldn’t accurately report on the haunt if I didn’t know what it was like. I made her come with me. (No more than 2 people can go at a time.) The waiver should’ve been my first clue that this really, really wasn’t something for me.
“I have been advised and acknowledge that graphic scenes of simulated extreme horror, adult sexual content, tight spaces, darkness, fog, strobe light effects, exposure to water, physical contact, and crawling are an integral part of the experience of “The Basement,”” it reads.
As I signed, I wondered about the adult sexual content, but I decided to just go along with it. There was no turning back. We’d go through at 11pm. I ran to the bathroom at least three times in the half hour before we went in. I picked my nails down to mere nubs.
A SWAT officer greeted us at the door. “You will have to crawl,” she barked. “Are you able to do that?” Before I could answer, she went on. “Of course you can. You’re clearly a woman who has spent some time on her knees.” Here we go.
Door opens, my friend goes first. We walk down a pitch-black staircase. I think I was hiding against the wall – I was expecting things to jump out. This was a haunted house, right?
Instead, a slow-moving actor dressed as what I guess was a zombie crawled up and pulled us through a curtain. That first room wasn’t so bad – he just put a curse on us. Pressed ashes into a cross on our foreheads. I guess if you have a religion phobia, it’d be weird. I don’t exactly praise the Lord everyday, so I laughed it off as I continued to clench my fists and hide behind my friend.
The next room was more of the same – zombies pulling on us – until suddenly one had me up against the wall. He was breathing on my neck, whispering in my ear. His tongue was way too close to my mouth.
All I could think about was being attacked. It wasn’t going that far, not at all, but I felt completely violated. I wanted to push him off me, but I’d signed a paper saying I couldn’t fight back. I felt trapped. Why would anyone pay to have this nasty actor pressing his body up against you?? What if you’d been raped, or attacked, or abused?
(Kerr says the goal is NOT to feel like it’s an attack. “The Basement does contain (as you saw) sexualized content but none of it is meant to simulate or even come close to sexual assault. The goal is to push you outside of your comfort zone and for a lot of people that means confronting sexual content in a new or unaccustomed way,” she told me.)
Goal or not, it felt that way to me. You’re supposed to get a rush of adrenaline and dopamine as you get away from a scary experience, a self-esteem boost because you escaped. But there were no happy juices flowing for me. I couldn’t have been happier when the next zombie summoned us to her little hallway.
Then it just got weirder. In one room, they pulled us away from each other and threw us each into bathroom stalls, then a big old guy stood right over me, leaning as close to my face as he could, screaming. I don’t remember exactly what he screamed, but it referenced things I never want to experience. Again, had I been abused, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.
There were a few more traditionally horrifying rooms, then back to the sexual phobias. The kicker was when my friend and I were thrown into separate rooms again. I had a bag thrown over my head, and they “slit” my throat with the frozen tip of a knife, as my hands were cuffed behind my back. It was sort of fun – the kind of thing I’d been expecting — you have no sense of control, and in the back of your mind you know they can’t actually cut you because they’re actors.
It was when I saw the footage of what was happening in the other room, at the same time, that I was really freaked out. My friend was shoved into a closet-sized room, where a tall skinny guy was sitting in his underwear. Just tightywhities.
He sat there in a yoga pose for about 20 seconds, then slowly started stroking her face. Then he jumped up, pressing his body against her with her back to the wall. He licked her neck at one point. Then he pushed her onto the ledge where he’d been sitting, and proceeded to stand right over her, again getting his face right up against her neck and cheeks, whispering in her ears. I was disturbed just watching the footage.
We went through a few more rooms, and it ended with a grand finale of a guy singing “Happy Birthday” to himself as I was pressed against a wall and he – what else? – leaned against me. He kissed my cheek, brushing way too close to my lips. I again just wanted to push him off me and get the hell out.
Afterwards, Kerr explained why she chose these scenes: “Americans are very uptight about sex and sexuality, they are even frightened of it, so including scenes that put people in sexualized situations is going to really push them to think about their own boundaries (one of the goals of the Basement is that people will learn more about themselves)”.
I guess what I learned about myself is that it wasn’t scary. It wasn’t fun. It was just disturbing.
She added that violence and sex were always kept separate – if you were being groped, you weren’t being cut or treated too aggressively.
“We really tried to keep those two things separate because we didn’t want to cross that line. Sexual assault is not the ‘fun’ kind of scare, it’s just scary. Also in the basement there are no female victims (seen commonly elsewhere). All of our female characters are strong and in control in their scenes, again this was really very important to us."
Honestly, I didn’t notice that difference while I was inside. I can see it in hindsight, but I still cannot wrap my head around why anyone wants to be on the brink of assault.
I much prefer the traditional ScareHouse. I walked out of that on a natural high, loving that for almost 30 minutes, actors managed to make me jump and scream – without ever licking my face, or stripping down to their tightywhities. I loved some rooms in The Basement – but when it comes to borderline sexual assault – even if that wasn’t the intent — it’s gone too far —- at least, for me.
Danielle Elliot is a freelance writer and videographer based in New York. Lately, she's covering science for CBS. She's produced features for NBC, ESPN, and Huffington Post, and her writing is published in TheAtlantic.com, NationalGeographic.com, Narrative.ly and others. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and her very own website.