Halloween is my favorite time of year. And I love to be scared. Over the years, I've been through my fair share of theme park mazes, independent haunted attractions and backyard spookfests.
I even dress up every Halloween as a chainsaw-wielding maniac in a hockey mask and scare the neighborhood kids at the haunted house on our block.
So I like to think I’ve seen it all — from the mundane to the extreme. But I've never experienced anything like McKamey Manor.
On Friday night I went through the backyard haunt tucked behind the three-bedroom, brick-and-stucco home of Russ and Carol McKamey in an otherwise ordinary San Diego subdivision near Poway. And I can safely say I'll never forget the experience. McKamey Manor is unlike any other haunted house I've ever seen — amateur or professional.
Featured twice on the Travel Channel as well as in countless stories by haunted attraction publications over the past decade, McKamey Manor has built up a sordid reputation as one of the most extreme home haunts anywhere. And each year they up the ante. Like most people, I stumbled upon McKarney Manor via YouTube.
This Halloween marks the end of an era for McKamey Manor. On Nov. 1, Russ will start the arduous task of disassembling the backyard maze for the last time as he and Carol prepare to turn pro. But more on that in a moment.
What separates the Manor from every other backyard haunt is what they do and what they don't do.
A typical McKamey experience lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. My visit clocked in at 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Russ and Carol let in only three small groups per night — usually with a maximum of four people per party. That means only 10 or 12 people get into McKamey Manor each night it operates in September and October.
Combine that exclusivity with McKamey Manor’s reputation and you get people traveling from far and wide that show up hours early for the first-come, first-served event. One group had been waiting since 7:30 a.m. on Friday when I went through the maze, with the group behind them showing up at 11 a.m. On Friday night, the groups hailed from Orange County and Long Beach, but others have traveled from as far away as Illinois and Florida just to walk through Russ and Carol’s backyard.
I hooked up at McKamey Manor with a trio of friends from the Middle East studying in the United States. Hazal Aysa, a 26-year-old MBA student from Turkey, spoke very little English but would soon demonstrate a proficiency in the universal language of fear. Poor little Line (pronounced Lynn) Hariri, an 18-year-old psychology student at Irvine Valley College, was about to get a firsthand dissertation in her chosen field of study. And 21-year-old Khodor Hariri of Lebanon, brother of Line and friend of Hazal, was expected to protect the two women, who were already nervously shaking before we entered the Manor. None of them would look the same — or ever be the same — when we were done.
After the four of us signed liability waivers, Carol warned us with a self-penned poem of the bodily harm we were about to endure. We would be touched, grabbed, bumped, bruised and possibly even cut. And scared out of our minds.
The scares started as soon we stepped foot inside McKamey Manor. The backyard haunt had the quality of a madman's dungeon, a bit like navigating the subterranean warrens of cannibalistic serial killer Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs." The maze stays up year-round, with Russ tinkering in one room or another until 2 a.m. virtually every night, adding animatronic props, perfecting physical gags and installing high-tech video screens that tell the backstory of the haunt.
The narrow hallways and stuffed labyrinths, none bigger than your average bathroom, made for tight confines — particularly when you crammed four victims and up to five monsters into a single room. Add puppet-master Russ with a constant video camera filming all the action and you get instantly claustrophobic.
The rooms were filled with the typical mishmash of Halloween props you’d find at any serious haunted attractions trade show — bloody animatronic figures convulsing to life, quivering killers frying in electric chairs, endless severed body parts stowed everywhere.
But mixed in with the seasonal ephemera were old household items like sinks, stoves, freezers and clothes dryers that had been modified to conceal monsters who would pop out and grab us again and again.
If there’s one thing McKamey Manor is known for, it's water. They like to blast you with misters, douse you with garden hoses and push you into kiddie pools. And then they dump gallons of blood on you. You spend the night soaking wet and emerge looking like a cross between "Carrie" and a wet puppy. Knowing this, I brought a change of clothes. (When I got home later that night I had "blood" in my ears and my contact lens were dyed pink).
And then comes the rough stuff. The McKamey monsters push you to your knees, shove your face in putrid toilets (more water) and drag you around by the hair. But that’s just the beginning. At various times throughout the night I had duct tape over my eyes, my wrists bound together and a nasty burlap sack over my head that smelled like fresh grass clippings.
Possibly the most amazing part about McKamey Manor is that all this torture is done by four or five monsters, each playing a series of roles throughout the night. That small group of monsters basically follows around the small group of victims all night long through the maze. That explains why the Manor can accommodate so few people each night: The rest of the maze is void of monsters.
Throughout the ordeal, Russ videotapes and photographs every single moment, all the while choreographing and directing each scene like a twisted puppeteer.
At various times, the monsters wear rubber masks, ski masks and appear just as themselves, adding a quality to the experience of a crazed lunatic family terrorizing unsuspecting visitors who accidentally stumbled into their home. And since there's only four us, they call each of us by name. The entire scenario, though clearly staged, feels very real. And very unlike a bunch of guys in Halloween costumes trying to scare you.
And, boy, did they ever treat us badly.
Forcing Khodor to climb into a freezer, they shut the lid and proceeded to violently shake the household appliance with him screaming inside.
At one point, poor little Line was instructed to sit on a ratty old couch with a false bottom that literally swallowed her whole — like some nightmare scene out of "Pee Wee’s Playhouse." Later, she was stuffed in a real coffin only to discover after the lid was closed that a monster was hidden inside with her. When we finally pulled Line out, the terrified young woman could barely stand she was shaking so violently.
But if it seemed like Line got the worst of it, Hazal somehow managed to get double. For what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes we were forced to watch as Hazal was subjected to one terror after another in the cage room. Strapped to a chair with her head in a padlocked cage, the monsters took turns dumping water (cold), blood (fake), snakes (rubber) and spiders (plastic) on her head before making her eat the green and purple yolk of some nasty egg. By the time they let Hazal out, she was screaming for her mommy (I kid you not).
The look of unadulterated fear in my fellow victims' eyes was very real and their pleas for escape truly genuine. More than once I had to quietly walk both Hazal and Line back from the edge — only to get my hair yanked for offering comfort to the afflicted. On more than one occasion I had to remind myself that I was not on the set of some low-budget horror movie.
One hour and 45 minutes later, when two guys with actual chainsaws finally chased us out of the backyard, we were covered in blood and soaked to the skin. Hazal was shaking and sputtering. Khodor had collapsed on the front lawn in utter exhaustion. And Line was found a few doors down lying in the fetal position screaming and crying with relief.
As a final tableau, Russ recorded breathless video testimonials from each of us attesting to the awesomeness of McKamey Manor — all while the next people in line wondered aloud whether they could survive this legendary backyard haunt, despite waiting more than 12 hours for the experience.
Once the adrenaline subsided, my trio of fellow victims sat on the driveway with Hazal trying to free a plastic spider knotted in her hair, Line hopelessly attempting to remove duct tape entwined in her own hair and Khodor taking photos of the two of them with his smartphone.
As you might suspect, Russ and Carol turn out to be two of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Both are in their 50s, she a legal secretary, he retired Navy working for a veterans organization. Carol cares for sick and abused greyhound dogs from Mexico. Russ edits each of the McKamey Manor videos and mails DVDs to some of his favorite participants as a surprise reminder of their visit. Admission to the maze costs each person only two canned goods, which the McKameys donate to a local charity that feeds the hungry.
After nearly a decade of the McKamey Manor backyard haunt, the husband-and-wife team are turning pro in 2013. That means Halloween night will mark the close of an era for those lucky enough to make the final trek through Russ and Carol’s backyard.
Next September, the couple plan to open a paid-admission version of McKamey Manor at Hazy Meadow Ranch, a themed event location about 30 miles to the southeast in Lakeside.
Of course, things will never be the same. Those who survived the backyard haunt will always remember the original. And while everything is going to change, it will be interesting to see how much of McKamey Manor stays the same.
Naturally, the McKameys will have to meet city codes and deal with the necessary lawyers and insurance companies. Russ expects to hire 40 to 60 high school kids to staff the new haunt, allowing him to put up to 10 people per group through a toned-down PG-13 maze every few minutes with no touching but plenty of water for about $15 per person.
Still, the puppet-master hopes to offer an 18-and-over late-night version of McKamey Manor where the monsters can touch you for about $25 per person - for those longing for the good old days of uncompromising terror and uncontrollable fear.