Haunted house offers $20,000 to anyone who can finish it, but does it take fright too far?

As Halloween approaches, many people are looking to get their share of the scare by attending spooky attractions and harmless haunted houses.

But when do haunted houses take scaring people too far? Recently, one haunted house visitor in Fremont, Ohio, Haley Jones, was left unnerved when an actor at Haunted Hydro drew on her face with a Sharpie and rubbed a spit-covered toy on her face.

Besides unwanted physical contact, plot lines can also cross a line, such as the recent experience at Nightmare Vermont, which opened with an allusion to a school shooting. It included an actor named "Jake,” a student pulling a gun from a locker, and a mention of Fair Haven Union High School. The plot was similar to a terrifying real-life incident that occurred in 2018 when Jack Sawyer was arrested for allegedly planning to bring a firearm to Fair Haven Union High School and commit mass harm.

Brooke Olsen-Farrell, Slate Valley Unified Union School District superintendent, complained about the scene, which has since been removed from the show. Olsen-Farrell tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the incident "had a lasting impact on the community," and that the "plot line surrounding Nightmare Vermont has been a disappointing setback in the healing process for our community."

Frank T. McAndrew, a social psychologist and the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that, while the Nightmare Vermont plot is in poor taste, he does not expect such a storyline — or the physical interaction that Jones experienced — to lead to lingering trauma, especially since participants visited the haunted house willingly.

But is that the same case with the infamous McKamey Manor?

Some extreme thrill-seekers have found themselves signing a 40-page contract to (hopefully) experience 10 hours of psychological torture in order to win $20,000. However, not a single visitor of McKamey Manor in Summertown, Tenn., has completed the tour without calling it quits with the required safe word. In fact, some online communities question whether the prize money even really exists, or if McKamey Manor is just banking on torturing people to the breaking point every time.

Russ McKamey, the owner and operator of McKamey Manor, describes himself as a "happy-go-lucky kind of guy." He's charming and affable, but he also runs what is widely considered the world's scariest haunted house, where survivors are chained, buried alive, or are forced to face other types of torture in the "survival horror" haunt.

"The big misconception about me is I’m this crazy, psycho guy when in reality I’m a super conservative guy," McKamey tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "Never been drunk in my life, never had a cigarette in my entire life, never had a cup of coffee even. I don’t even cuss."

If a survivor does use profanity inside the attraction, which would be hard even for a nun to avoid if she were upside down in a cage surrounded by moray eels — an experience at McKamey Manor — then $500 would be deducted from their theoretically potential prize of $20,000.

According to McKamey, the Manor has been around, in one form or another, for 40 years, but he estimates it wasn't until around 2010 that it really started to take off when he opened the extreme haunt on his San Diego property. Eventually, the attraction moved to Summertown, Tenn.

"It didn’t matter if I was in the Navy on ships or in a one-bedroom apartment, I was always building a haunt someplace," McKamey says. "It escalated to all this craziness. It progressed to what it is now."

McKamey estimates he has put more than a million dollars into the Manor — and to visit, people only have to pay by bringing a bag of dog food, given to his five rescue dogs or the local shelter.

"I'm not a very good businessman," McKamey jokes.

But getting the chance to complete the haunt and come out $20,000 richer is not easy. McKamey estimates over 27,000 people are currently on the waiting list, with the number growing as the attraction gains in popularity. There aren't that many chances to experience the show, as McKamey puts on just one show each week due to the "demanding" nature of the performance.

The vetting process is also incredibly intense, according to McKamey.

Along with completing a sports physical, providing a doctor's letter stating you are physically and mentally cleared, proving you have medical insurance, and passing a drug test on the day of the show, a contestant must pass a background check.

"There’s a lot of knuckleheads out there. I need people who have good common sense... people that know that this is a game and it’s not worth getting hurt over," McKamey tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "Soon as you start offering money, then all the knuckleheads come out. They think, ‘Oh, this is my chance, I’m going to win $20,000.’ No, you’re not."

Part of the screening process of participants includes a detailed report on potential visitors. Beyond the participant being interviewed about their lives, fears, and phobias, McKamey contacts their family members and friends.

"They’re all willing to rat them out. Then you just customize it from there. It’s a piece of cake from that point," McKamey explains.

Also prior to participating, contestants must sign a 40-page waiver, which, according to a leaked portion of the alleged waiver, includes agreeing that the tour "may include the use of hypodermic needles, zappers, Tasers, or dog shock collars" that a "nail may pierce their hand," or "be smashed with tools," or that the "nails may be removed from their nail beds." Participants who sign the contract even agree to possibly receive a tattoo, and that they may "have a tooth extracted without Novocain."

"Nobody is ever going to win a penny, because the Manor is always going to win," McKamey says, adding that at least 10,000 people have tried and failed to complete the tour. "Some people just don’t understand that."

Yet, people continue to consent to what some online critics call "legal torture."

Although questionable, everything that occurs at McKamey Manor is legal, according to Tennessee’s district attorney general, Brent A. Cooper.

“It’s legal because basically the people that are subjecting themselves to the McKamey program, or whatever you want to call it — they’re doing so voluntarily,” Cooper, who did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment, told the Nashville Scene.

However, Cooper added: "Tennessee is a state where you can withdraw your consent at any time. Even though someone may sign a really long consent form, if they ever indicate that they’re withdrawing consent, [McKamey] should take that seriously. Because if the person really has withdrawn consent, and [you] continue to confine the person against their will, then you’re actually committing a crime."

But this certainly raises the question of where a line should be drawn.

McKamey films and shares every show in a private Facebook group, in which McKamey or a volunteer vets members before being accepted. The videos are for both viewers online and to protect himself in court should a participant say something happened that did not occur.

The graphic videos are difficult to watch. In one nearly two-hour-long movie, which McKamey requires all visitors to view, contestants from July 2017 to August 2019 are filmed quitting the show and uttering the required phrase, "You really don't want to do this." One contestant, appearing utterly terrified, says the words as wet mud is poured over him as he is being "buried alive." However, unedited shows are solely released in the private group.

The experience itself is extremely toll-taking, according to McKamey.

"You’re going to be inside an incinerator where there’s fire surrounding you. If you breathe, you’re going to burn your lungs — you could actually die," McKamey says.

He adds that contestants could be raised 150 feet in the air on the "Manorhorn," and that they may need to traverse a 200-yard, underwater haunted house, with Ralphie — a caiman, which he describes as a smaller alligator with razor-sharp teeth, who likes to bite. Ralphie is accompanied by snapping turtles and water moccasins, a type of venomous snake.

"[The water moccasins,] they’re the least of your worries. They don’t go after you, but the turtles, Ralphie, they will," McKamey says.

McKamey, who has a fear of bugs, spiders, snakes, and small spaces, admits that this may be his way of working through his fears, but he's glad when contestants, who are allowed to opt-out of two things written in the contract, choose to avoid the "creepy crawlies."

"I may have built the haunt around my fears," McKamey says. "All the things I don’t like, you’re going to find inside. All the things that scare me, you’re going to have to deal with yourself."

What lasting effect could this incredibly physical experience do to a person? According to McAndrew, so long as the safe word is respected, possibly not much.

"The fact that they have a 'safe word' that gives them a way out,” McAndrew tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It lets them know that they can escape at any time, which would take away some of the most extreme terror that might be experienced under these circumstances.”

He adds: “Since people know they are signing up for a pretty intense experience, and since they have the option of bailing out at any time, I would not expect most of the participants to experience any serious, lingering trauma. People who would be most vulnerable to this would not sign up for such a thing in the first place. The trauma would come from being subjected to this without having any control, and not knowing whether you will live or die."

However, some past participants disagree.

In 2015, Amy Milligan said that her experience at the Manor’s San Diego location, which has since been closed, was traumatic. Milligan claims that she was waterboarded and begged to be let go. She said she thought she was going to die. McKamey refuted Milligan’s claims. Yahoo Lifestyle was unable to locate Milligan for comment.

In 2016, Laura Hertz Brotherton, who declined to comment to Yahoo Lifestyle, voiced a similar story.

“I was waterboarded, I was Tased, I was whipped,” she told the Nashville Scene. “I still have scars of everything they did to me. I was repeatedly hit in my face, over and over and over again. Like, open-handed, as hard as a man could hit a woman in her face."

Brotherton went on to claim that she was blindfolded with duct tape and held underwater by her ankles for so long her body started to thrash involuntarily. According to Brotherton, she repeated the safe word for several minutes before the torture ended.

Others walk away feeling that it was precisely the experience they signed up for.

Jay Jahner said that his visit to the Manor was a "blast."

"[McKamey] only brought what I asked for... He offers true fear and delivers," Jahner wrote on Facebook. "I had an absolute blast being pushed as far as I was."

Brian VanOver, who took the tour in 2018, left McKamey Manor feeling the same way.

“I had a great time yesterday... It was a blast," VanOver said. "It’s like they say: You really don’t want to do this. That’s actually really accurate, and it makes sense now. But I’ll definitely be returning to take a second tour. The matter is when."

Jahner and VanOver did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment.

Many critics continue to voice their concerns regarding McKamey Manor. Change.org petitions have been started, calling for the shut down of the attraction, and YouTube viewers regularly leave comments describing McKamey as sadistic and questioning the safety of the Manor. A recent petition, started by Frankie Towery, calls for the closing of the Manor, describing it as “a torture chamber under disguise.” The petition was started three days ago and already has more than 45,000 signatures.

To the very vocal critics, McKamey says, "Take the tour."

"The reality is that it is all a game; it’s not real life,” he says. “It is real what you’re doing, but everyone is perfectly safe. People are monitored. No one is being held against their will. You have a safe phrase, so if you want out, all you have to say is, ‘I quit!’ It’s all over. We have multiple people coming back because it’s a fun experience."

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