House of Earthly Frights

Chicago-based serial killer H.H. Holmes plucked victims from the 1893 World’s Fair. Photos by Christopher Brielmaier

‘Killers’ mines terror from manmade evil

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  | There’s something morally dicey about the notion of getting recreational chills and thrills from visiting the splatter-filled workspaces of murderers, psychopaths and serial killers.

Go to a haunted house full of zombies and vampires, and the only ones being exploited are underpaid actors forced to cower in the shadows as they await the next unsuspecting group. But interact with Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper and John Wayne Gacy while wondering where your next giddy fright is coming from, and a persuasive argument can be made that the true crime titillation you’ve paid good money for is being had at the expense of very real, very innocent, victims.

That damning implication hovers in the stale, dead air throughout the cramped rooms and foreboding transition spaces of “Killers: A Nightmare Haunted House” — a dynamically executed stab at getting up close and personal with “monsters that walk among us…who are neither sexy or cool — but rather presented for what they are…scary as hell!”

You’ve got to hand it to the creative team for questioning the very appropriateness of their endeavor. Early on in the tour (after being forced to face the wall during an intimidating orientation), we’re ordered into a room where the grieving relative of a murder victim invades our personal space and demands to know: “Why are you here?”

Unexpectedly put on the defensive, my group of seven could only answer with nervous laughter and a few lame variations of, “To get scared.” Mission accomplished — again and again, over a nearly half-hour period which took us through a succession of lairs in which some of history’s most infamous sickos reveled in the violent, sexually charged fruits of their labors.

First things first, though: If you go, best to just bite the bullet and take them up on the offer to mark your forehead with an X — a sign that you’ve volunteered to be an active participant in the experience.

“Why are you here?” You’d better have a good answer for her.

Don’t worry. Nothing that’s going to be done to you by the Killers compares to how you’ll suffer at the hands of masked chaperones who repeatedly humiliate anyone cowardly enough to forego the interactive option.

Only one in my group took the mark. But that didn’t stop the rest of us from being rudely herded like cattle and, in one especially creepy room, aggressively propositioned. That Lady Bathory is no lady — her uninvited grinding and nipple-twisting is bound to give squeamish prudes some very bad memories to take home.

This being a haunted house (albeit one with a thoroughly unconventional narrative), it’s no spoiler to note there’s a high volume of moments built around the shock value of somebody jumping out at you — but “Killers” works this dusty trope with brilliance and flair. Less successful is the sound design, which is so over-the-top loud that it often cancels out the subtle parts (which this house has its share of, in the form of a few understated performances that are just as effective as the full-on histrionics).

Also packing a wallop is the level of verbal abuse from the supporting cast — a potty-mouthed crew who direct you through winding pathways by dispensing intimidating four-letter word motivation. The sadistic power trip they’re on doesn’t allow for social niceties. In fact, they seem to get a rise from the gasps of shock that greet each new act of cruelty and coercion.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere about the joy mankind takes when embracing his dark impulses…but this is a trip to hell and back, not a philosophical discourse. So by the time we made our final exit, a boast in the “Killers” promo material had come to an uneasy rest in the pit of our stomachs: “You are likely to be too busy screaming and averting your eyes to get any real understanding of the people you are seeing or their crimes.”

Safely back in the lobby (but still buzzed from the experience), The Mind of Madness Gallery attempts to fill in some of those blanks with an exhibit featuring memorabilia and personal effects from notorious serial killers. Reading song lyrics written by Charles Manson isn’t likely to make any light bulbs go off regarding the nature of evil, but it’s more than enough to send you into the night with an extra jolt of discomfort.

Balloon animal: John Wayne Gacy, prepped to pop the weasel. Photo by Christopher Brielmaier

KILLERS: A NIGHTMARE HAUNTED HOUSE

Through Sat., Nov. 3
Hours (6pm-1am) vary daily
Call 212-352-3101
Visit hauntedhousenyc.com
At Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center
107 Suffolk St. (btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.)
Tickets: $30 in advance
$35 at the door
Student Rush tickets: $20 (1 hour before, at the door)
VIP tickets: $60 (front of the line access)

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