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Thrill-seekers go to extreme haunts to get a good scare

Participants are placed inside their own real-life horror film

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John Granillo, a cast member, on set of Heretic Horror House's show in Palmdale.

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Heretic Horror House founder Adrian Marcato

ON a recent Saturday night, 10 anxious individuals were blindfolded and taken to a desert 40 minutes outside Los Angeles. They were told that they would each be playing the part of a futuristic criminal who had been lobotomised and summoned to help investigators identify two bodies discovered on the grounds.

Upon arrival, Taylor Winters, 33, a research and development engineer from Santa Ana, California, was ushered into a dusty RV. After a quick examination by an on-site emergency medical technician, he disrobed and was placed in a contamination suit. A disembodied voice boomed through a walkie-talkie, instructing him to trek into a hazy compound, warning that "movement had been detected" and that he might not be alone.

For the next 45 minutes, a shaky Winters followed the voice's lead, eventually being advised to "take refuge" in a fog-filled tent. But there was little peace there. A creature stampeded through a cloud of dust: lifting and relentlessly tossing Mr Winters' helpless body. As he struggled to gain his bearings, hands enveloped his neck, squeezing tightly. He was stalked throughout the haze, knocked down, and stripped from his suit as claws raked across his skin.

The event concluded with Mr Winters stripped to his boxers and curled in a foetal position. His first words, once regaining composure, were: "That was awesome."

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This is the 44th time he has done something like this as a reprieve from his high-pressure job designing life-saving heart valves. While wiping fake blood from his eye, he said that this occasion, for which he'd paid US$150, was as petrifying as the first: "I was absolutely terrified!"

Every Halloween, theme parks like Universal Studios come alive with actors who are paid to startle attendees. But these seasonal events are merely child's play compared to what is happening year-round in the underground world of immersive horror.

Its leader might be Heretic, a Los Angeles-based experimental horror experience run by a man who goes by Adrian Marcato (a reference to the son-of-the-devil character in Rosemary's Baby, his real name is Guy Michael) and his wife, Jessica Catherine, aka Jessica Murder.

The company, which was in charge of Mr Winters' most recent experience, is part of a growing group of horror attractions known as extreme haunts. These shows put their participants, typically a single member at a time, in intense physical and psychological situations, placing them inside their own real-life horror film. A safe word is issued as their only means of opting out.

Heretic runs one to two shows per month in Los Angeles, and has recently expanded to host European ventures and "cannabis haunts", where marijuana consumption, which often has the side effect of paranoia, enhances an already chilling experience.

Each show is vastly different. Marcato has buried people alive, flipped guests upside down in immersion devices to witness simulated torture from "an art deco perspective", pushed people off balconies (they landed on an air bag hidden below), and tricked attendees into thinking their heads would be ignited in flames. "Everybody called the safe word on that," he said.

"Over the past 18 months, we've seen audience members march into the ocean in the middle of the night, have their heads locked in a box while music was created from their screams, and get lap dances from naked clowns," said Dustin Downing, 42, a photographer who, after witnessing a Heretic customer subject herself to her own murder in order to "feel alive", was inspired to begin filming Heretic's antics, with plans of turning the footage into a documentary.

His producing partner Jake Odenberg, 38, described the shows as "a delirious cross between David Lynch, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and William Burroughs".

To keep his scenes safe but immensely realistic, Marcato works with Hollywood stuntmen like Alex Hill, 36, a special effects coordinator on the hit NBC show The Good Place, who handles everything from staging a hanging to lighting actors on fire. "We are gearing up to a simulation where guests are trapped inside a car that gets lit on fire," he said.

Actors are crucial to the experience. John Granillo, 33, who has worked as a "scare actor" for the past 15 years, prides himself on his ability to size up a guest and play upon their individualised fear triggers. "I scope them out in the dark, see how they move, and decide if I should grab them from behind, from underneath, from on top," he said.

Mr Granillo has worked for other haunted ventures, but said Heretic is the most fulfilling, as Marcato allows him to completely improvise the guest experience. "The only rules are don't kill them and don't physically scar them."

Extreme haunts first became popular as Halloween events, but companies have begun offering them year-round. Even Hollywood moguls are getting into the game.

Theater Macabre, which opens in Los Angeles on Oct 11 and will run indefinitely, is a choose-your-own-fate immersive theatre experience by Clint Sears, Gordon Bijelonic and Darren Bousman, all mainstays of horror films.

"I've made 14 movies and I've never seen the reactions out of a Saw movie than I have with one of my immersive experiences," said Bousman, who worked on the second through fourth installments of that franchise.

His latest endeavour will have guests venturing between 27 rooms, their destinies determined by the decisions they make from the moment they walk in the door. His goal for this particular experience is to "make people tense" and "snap out of the zombified state that we all live in".

"For two hours, we own you and you will not have your cellphones. We will push you the entire time to do things that you consider dangerous, and when you leave, there is that rush of adrenaline that you feel because you have done something that is not every day in your life," he said.

Marcato said the super rich, some from as far away as Dubai, have hired him to put on US$20,000 private experiences. Celebrities and movie executives have also been known to participate - it's one place they can be humbled and (relatively) anonymous.

Some devoted fans, like Suchada Juntarakawe, 41, have gone so far as to tattoo company logos on their bodies. The casino accountant said the haunts have helped her to process an array of emotions and work through social anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

David Zald, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who studies sensation-seeking, warned: "If someone has a history of past trauma, exposing themselves to a plotline of that nature could actually set them up for re-experiencing that trauma." But other mental-health experts say there are potential benefits to undergoing extreme haunts.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies fear, spent two years monitoring participants of a Pittsburgh haunt, The Basement at ScareHouse. Her results, which will be published in the American Psychological Association's journal Emotion on Oct 11, showed that after completing an immersive horror experience, a person's mood significantly improved.

"There was a global decrease in brain reactivity to different cognitive and emotional stimuli," she said, theorising that these experiences may be functioning as a recalibration of a person's distress tolerance. Post-haunt, participants had a lower tendency to ruminate on things that were bothering them beforehand.

"People also feel like they are challenging their fears and learning about themselves, and that is inherently rewarding. NYTIMES