There are those for whom the warmth, kindness and general festivity of Christmas is not something they desire only once a year, who wish that they could carry that feeling with them all the time, the joyous sense of family and celebration and togetherness. And there are some who instead, more correctly, feel that way about Hallowe’en.
Forty five kilometres outside Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, on the tip of the northern island, sits rural Karaka, which from 1932 to 1999 was the site of Kingseat Hospital, a mental institution which was home to over eight hundred patients and which, perhaps through the stigma associated with such establishments, is regarded by some as one of the most haunted locations in New Zealand.
Since 2005, however, the buildings and the surrounding grounds have played host to Spookers, a family-run haunted house theme park which employs local talent to scare tourists who travel from across the country and the world with their antics and shenanigans which take place in the darkened corridors and the fields beyond.
The subject of documentary filmmaker Florian Habicht’s latest project, Spookers received its Scottish premiere at the Dead by Dawn Film Horror Festival, and from the moment the opening credits roll it is clear that the film is in the spirit of Hallowe’en fun times as the players assemble in costume and dance under the darkening sky, preparing to welcome their audience.
Jake and David apply their makeup and gowns: “Tonight I’m a zombie bride. Can you be a zombie bride in your work?” Juneen used to work in insurance and considered herself shy. “You have to be nice to people,” she recalls, preparing to spend the night terrifying paying customers as a blood-drenched nurse.
“Not so shy any more,” she confesses, and nor is Huia, who used to be scared of clowns and now performs as one, the confidence which has come from the support of their peers in the madhouse endemic across all the performers, to say nothing of the performance itself, liberating them to become as outrageous as deranged as they wish two nights a week, every Friday and Saturday, plus special occasions.
Habicht also examining the history of the former mental institution, the irony of the site now playing host to what serves as a form of therapy for many is not lost on the cast, one explaining how he was labelled a “bad kid” at school because he was withdrawn because of his ADHD and dyslexia, leaving him open to bullying, another how she has suffered from depression and how Spookers has helped her cope.
Run by the Watson family, matriarch Beth started the venture after recovering from her own long-term serious illness during which her business folded, their success is reflected in the focus and purpose of those who have come to be an extended family even as they develop new skills and earn wages while drawing vast crowds to an area which would otherwise have little to offer.
That success does not mean there is not work involved, nor that there has not been a learning curve, initially finding they were losing too many people in the car park before they passed the gates so changing the setup so the real scares now don’t begin until after they have paid; conversely, some repeat visitors have yet to make it to the end without begging to be taken out the side door in tears or worse.
With little narrative, like the attraction itself, Spookers is not sophisticated and is carried largely by the exuberance of the performers and may have little appeal beyond those to whom the premise does not immediately sell itself, but it should reassuring to those concerned that even within the walls there is consideration of what is “too much,” the line drawn at a pan of sizzling bacon providing olfactory enhancement to the execution chamber complete with electric chair…
Spookers is currently playing the festival circuit