It’s Saturday night, and I’m in Asylum 49’s basement. It’s actually an old hospital. Heavy metal is blasting from a loudspeaker. The basement’s pitch black except for a single, flickering strobe light.
Caden Myrick, a high school senior from Sandy, Utah, squirms as he’s held down by a guy named Dr. Fear. Then, a blood-soaked nurse takes a handheld shocker and zaps Myrick. He screams.
The shocker is low-voltage – the kind you would find at a gag store – but it’s not without some pain. He writhes again as the nurse traces it over his stomach. Believe it or not, Myrick paid $100 and signed a waiver to experience this so-called extreme haunt at Asylum 49 in Tooele, Utah.
But now he’s soaking wet and shivering. Before Myrick was shocked, Dr. Fear and a ghoulish punk named Spike had poured water from a hose over his bagged head to simulate drowning -- otherwise known as waterboarding. Myrick is also splattered with synthetic blood and chained up to a pipe. Now Dr. Fear is throwing him into a small, dark room for solitary confinement. The door slams.
Then he turns and stares at me. He’s a massive guy with a white, cataract eye peeking out from behind a blood-stained surgical mask.
“How you doing?” he asks me.
“Good, good,” I say.
“What do you think? Think we’re a little crazy?”
“Just a little bit crazy, yeah.”
“You think I enjoy this?”
“I think you do.”
“A little bit too much?”
“Maybe a little too much.”
This is a fully-immersive, full contact “extreme haunt” hosted by Asylum 49. As much as Dr. Fear loves torturing his victims, Myrick loves experiencing it. He’s done other extreme haunts where he was poked by needles and dropped into an ice bath.
“It just makes me feel alive, you know?” he says. “It’s hard for something to cause genuine fear within me and this does. And I just enjoy that feeling. I don’t know why.”
Myrick isn’t alone. According to an industry website, at least fifteen haunted houses across the country have begun hosting extreme nights. Asylum 49 sells a limited number of tickets to these special events a couple times a year. Founder Kimm Anderson says demand is increasing because, for some, traditional haunted houses just aren’t cutting it.
“People were like, ‘Oh, that’s not enough for me,’” Anderson says. “I was like, ‘Well, what do you want?’ ‘We want to be tortured.’ And at first I just took that as a…‘You’re crazy,’ but we’ve sold out every time.”
Anderson stresses that his extreme haunts are frightening but safe. They have 40 security cameras stationed in and around the building. Two police officers are outside. If things get too intense, guests can tap out. I even watched Anderson test the electric shocker on himself before it was used on a visitor. He says fear isn’t necessarily physical, that it’s mostly in the mind.
“Your brain will see what it wants to see and believe what it wants to believe,” Anderon says. “And I hate to say this, but it’s probably not as bad as you imagine.”
I’m not convinced of that, at least for me. I can’t even watch PG-13 horror movies. Still, for the folks who love extreme haunted house, it’s a rush.
“Quite simply, chasing fear is like a drug,” says Anu Asnaani, a University of Utah psychologist who studies fear. She says people react to horror on a spectrum. On one end, there are folks who avoid it at all costs. On the other end, there are those who run towards it, and for them getting scared delivers a kind of high.
“When you get that feeling—I like that my heart is pounding, I like that I don’t know what’s going to happen, right?” Asnaani says, speaking for someone like Myrick. “I like that feeling because it’s so different than how I feel on a daily basis. But now I need more and more and more to get me to that feeling.”
And that’s where extreme haunts like the one hosted by Asylum 49 come in.
People pay money to be tortured by the likes of Dr. Fear and his sidekick Spike.
I ask them if they’d pay for it.
“No, of course I wouldn’t do this!” Spike says. “I much prefer to torture them.”
As for Dr. Fear, “I live it every day, boy,” he says. “This is enjoyment.”
And now it’s time for me to get the heck out of here.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.