Written by: Florian Habicht, Veronica Gleeson, Brita McVeigh, Peter O'Donoghue, Suzanne Walker
Directed by: Florian Habicht
Starring: Claudia Aiono, Huia Apiata, and Barbara Armstrong
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A family like no other.
One of my favorite October “traditions” really hasn’t been much of one at all for the past decade or so. Because time is so scarce now, I might make it to a haunt once every few years, which is especially galling considering there’s one less than five minutes from my house. Somehow, though, this is almost fitting because I never got to experience them when I was younger, either, even though—again—there was one less than five minutes away. For whatever reason, my parents—who had no problem with me renting just about anything from the video store—thought I was too young for Nightmare on 221, the annual haunt that popped up at a local fire department each fall. By the time I was a teenager, it went defunct, meaning the horrors of Nightmare on 221 have been the stuff of my imagination for nearly 30 years now.
But this disappointment also ignited a lifelong fascination with these haunts (or “spook trails,” as we called them), and, to be fair, my family did make it up to me by letting me stage my own makeshift trails at our Halloween parties. In another life, I’d like to think I somehow made a career out of this sort of thing, so it’s easy to see why a documentary like Spookers would appeal to me. A surface level glance leads you to believe it’ll be an informative, behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s most popular haunted attraction. And while it is that, it proves to be so much more because Florian Habicht hasn’t just crafted a tribute to a tourist attraction—he’s captured the heart and soul of a place that’s become a haven for the lonely, the outcast, and the misunderstood. Less a travelogue and more a poignant human interest story, Spookers is a touching testament to humanity’s innate ability to form communities and families, no matter how unconventional they might be.
Habicht lures the audience in with the story of Andy and Beth Watson, the husband-and-wife duo who opened Spookers in the late-90s. While neither has ever been much of a horror fan (they couldn’t even make it through a stack of VHS tapes they once rented for inspiration), something compelled them to build a haunted attraction at Kingseat Asylum, an abandoned asylum that felt like a natural staging ground for a house of horrors. Audiences are treated to archive footage and vintage still pictures of the haunt’s earliest days, providing a glimpse of the makeshift nature of it all. As someone who once played Freddy and Jason in my backyard haunt, I especially appreciated the knock-off costumes of horror icons that appear throughout, emphasizing how homespun this venture was.
Contemporary footage of Spookers—complete with elaborate staging rooms, ornate costumes, and long lines of eager patrons—paints a much more robust picture. Again, this is the stuff you expect to find: behind-the-scenes peeks and interviews with the haunt’s crew to give the audience an idea of what it’s like to be a part of something like this. Anecdotes range from harmless fun (stories involving patrons fleeing for their cars in terror) to downright disgusting (a patron who literally scared the crap out of themselves, leaving behind a nasty clean-up in the bathroom). Crew members also explain the inspiration behind the costumes and characters, allowing viewers to also glimpse the haunt’s gruesome assortment of demented nurses, killer clowns, and deranged “mental patients.” You’re left with the feeling that customers get their money’s worth from such an elaborately orchestrated haunt, which boasts an outdoor haunted maze in addition to the old hospital grounds.
Had Habicht been content to simply dwell on this, Spookers would have been a delightful look at one of the world’s foremost haunts. He’s interested in much more than this, though, as it becomes clear that this documentary is really an in-road to explore the people behind the haunt, particularly those who see it as a form of salvation for their lives. Many of its actors come from troubled backgrounds, each of them misfits in their own way. One kid has struggled with learning disabilities for his entire life but finds an outlet in playing a psychopath; others who have spent their entire life closeting their queerness are able to truly be themselves while in costume; a survivor of depression and suicidal thoughts reveals how far she’s come after finding solace at the haunt; an HIV-positive man relays his journey towards finding acceptance from his co-workers. As more details emerge, it becomes clear that these people aren’t employees—they’re survivors, each of them bound by a tacit agreement to look out for each other.
Habicht even goes a step further by addressing the controversy surrounding the Watsons’ choice to stage their haunt at a notorious asylum that was shut down as part of the country’s mental health reforms. Some rightfully questioned the tact of such a move, and Habicht gives voice to them by actually including a formal patient to demystify some of the wrong-headed stigmas attached to mental illness. She’s not at all hostile towards Spookers existing on these grounds; rather, she seems somewhat bemused and comforted by how the site has been transformed into a site that now delivers harmless thrills. Her inclusion is another example of Habicht’s aim to give voice to the voiceless: it would have been much easier to just paper over Kingseat’s controversial history, but he rightfully understands how crucial it is to here from those who found comfort in the site before it became a popular attraction. To this day, some patrons swap grisly and sordid urban tales about the place that have endured over the years, but Spookers looks to cut through that and reveal Kingseat for what it was: a place of therapy that was once populated by actual patients and live-in nurses.
It continues to be so as Spookers, even if it looks like the inmates are running the asylum now. As Habicht continues to capture the employees’ stories, the documentary starts to double as a rallying cry for the cathartic power of art and performance. Putting on costumes and masks allows these folks to become different people, if only for a couple nights each weekend. It’s an opportunity for them to find themselves, a notion that Habicht visually creates with dream sequence interludes that attempt to capture the employees’ hopes, dreams, and fears. By the end, it obvious that these people aren’t just mere “subjects” to the cast and crew; rather, there’s a palpable affection and sympathy that shines through the grease paint and gore-gags that lured audiences into the door. You come to Spookers expecting vicarious thrills; you leave it with the sensation that you’ve just met one of the most unconventional family’s you’ll ever see.
Ultimately, Spookers is a call for empathy. As one participant notes, “there are so many lonely people out there” who could survive if they could “only find each other,” reminding us that there are so many lost, wayward souls out there who deserve to find the kind of comfort on display here. There’s a place for everyone: the weirdos, the freaks, the misunderstood, a sentiment that’s downright germane to the horror genre, which has routinely provided a haven to such outcasts. I am grateful that my experience in this regard has been fairly mild: no, my parents didn’t allow me to go to that haunted trail when I was a kid, but they were otherwise pretty encouraging of my hobby. With the exception of a few very concerned adults in my life (this was the tail end of the satanic panic era after all, in the southeast no less), I never felt significantly outcast. Some people—like the subjects here—have endured so much worse, and it’s comforting to know that horror is serving its most primal function for both the patrons and the crew members of Spookers. Just as the former come to the haunt looking to horror as an escape, so too does the latter. For them, it’s not just a costume—it’s a means of survival and a way of life.
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