— This review is for the 2016 version of Snuffhouse After Dark. There were still a couple of teething problems in this version, which were addressed in later shows. The review for the 2017 event is right here. —
Back in 2015, a haunting image of a man, shushing us, suddenly popped up. A brand new extreme UK attraction, like no other, looking for willing participants. Snuffhouse. Intrigued, I obediently followed their instructions, as they promised to be ‘always watching’. Suddenly however, the stream of information stopped, and it seemed Snuffhouse was dead and buried. Months later, rumours started flying around of a collaboration between US and UK haunts, involving the amazing NY based Fringe Immersive, and the notorious Russ McKamey. The bombshell dropped at ScareCON – AtmosFEAR was going ahead with Snuffhouse: After Dark, hosted by Mr. McKamey himself. The latest in a relatively short line of UK extreme attractions, lasting four hours. Of course we had to experience this – even though ominously being reminded that “we really don’t want to do this”.
Information remained sparse. One interview on Horrorbox mentioned they were “working with psychologists, hypnotherapists and other experts of the human mind to assist in the writing of the scripts to ensure that each word spoken by the characters causes a conscious (and subconscious) response in the participants.” We received an email with questions we had to fill out. Personal questions, digging deep. I answered as honestly as I could, truly fascinated by how my answers would be reflected in the experience, whether this would eventually stab me in the back. And then, silence. No more buildup, no teasing, to the point I actually got worried the entire event had been scrapped. Finally, a couple of days before the first night of Snuffhouse would go through, they resurfaced. A live stream was shown, where the fate of one participant was decided by the public. My excitement levels returned back to their normal high. Not too long now.
A week later, we arrived at the site of Scare Kingdom Scream Park. Due to an early flight, we had been up for 22 hours already. A weak state of mind, ready to be broken. The car park was pitch black, and a small group of people had already collected, laughing nervously. Ten more minutes to go before our experience was scheduled to begin. Would Snuffhouse deliver on its promises?
Expecting a sudden, shock opening to the event, we were instead greeted by a cheerful team of Scare Kingdom assistants, who handed us our waivers to sign and double checked for allergies or intolerances. Their friendly demeanor did break the tension somewhat, but surely that would change soon enough. Little after, we were instructed to line up and face a hedge, and all cheerfulness disappeared, as the tormentors showed up behind us, barking orders. I was hooded, and we walked blindly in a single file to where our torment would begin. On our knees. Hoods off. The room is dark. A threatening, industrial soundscape is playing. Figures, masked figures. A grainy video starts playing – it’s Russ, introducing the night, mocking us for having come here. Each tormentor quickly flicks on a torch, their masks are coloured in the way we are to address them. Blue, Yellow, Black, Green, Red, White. Everything is in place to make this hard on us. Let the night begin.
Four hours later, we are standing in the car park again. Up and awake for twenty six hours, by now. And as much as I had wanted to like Snuffhouse, I just didn’t. The reason why isn’t explained in just one sentence – most different aspects of the event were, at least for me, lacking something. Nothing deal breaking on their own, but as the points of critique started adding up, the whole event suffered. One of my main annoyances was the sheer amount of time that was lost. Before every game, a tedious video of Russ was played, instructing the tormentors to pick numbers, to divide our group into teams. Every single time. After that, the long hooded single file walk to the location. Tormentors pushing and shoving you, in an attempt to make the umpthieth walk more eventful, but ultimately acting more like a kindergarten boy having a crush on someone than actually being terrifying. Finally, the hoods go off, the game is played. Hoods on again, and we’re walking blindly again, in order to hear Russ instruct his gang to separate us, again, using the same prerecorded video, again, and again. This mindless repetitive pattern, apart from being plain annoying always gave you periods of respite, where you could take a breath, where nothing would happen except a push or shove every now and then. It took the little tension that they were able to create away. In the end, 75 percent of the event was walking through a farm with a hood on and listening to prerecorded videos of Russ droning on. The only bumps and bruises I have were caused by blindly walking into obstacles. I have felt a wide array of emotions in the scare attractions I have visited, but this was the first time I was just plain bored.
In an attempt to make things more interesting, I started talking back to the tormentors. When refusing to admit that a certain drink was delicious (I MADE THIS DRINK MYSELF, AND YOU DARE SAY YOU DON’T LIKE IT??), I was punished, and refusing to give in, finally separated from the group. I got to meet Purple, another tormentor that had been in the background, but had not directly interacted with us. Threatening me, asking me whether I could hear the rest of the sufferers in the distance, pointing out how it was just me and him, I only felt relief that something interesting would finally happen. Hooded, we walked through the fields, Purple handling me more forcibly than any of the others had done before. Again, he mentioned that I was all alone, how all the rest was far off by this time. And we walked. And then, with a blunt ‘On your knees’ I got to rejoin the group. Just like that. We were being sorted out by that Russ video again. The anticipation that suddenly had reappeared, gone again. Where was the consequence of my disobedience, why did nothing happen? My little bit of backtalk did cause Blue and Yellow to pay more attention to me, mocking me, pushing me further. I did start to enjoy dealing with these two, after having spent more time with them than with the other tormentors – it got a bit more personal. During a more physical section, their moment came. Evidently, holding certain stress positions for extended periods of time, your muscles give in. More ridicule. Not such a big man now, number 8, you weak idiot. I got to play along, sing to the rest of the sufferers about how I was dumb and worthless. At least something was happening, so I really took to it and gladly sung on, enjoying myself and the silly situation I found myself in.
It was here, and only here, that one of the actors showed his teeth, and caused the most memorable moment of the night. As I finished singing, still hooded, I feel someone coming up close to my ear. He whispers. “I am not like the others. I know what you are doing. Using humour as an escape mechanism. Are you a waste of breath?” Being in the habit of insulting myself by then, I gladly answered that yes, I was indeed a waste of breath. His reaction was immediate, cupping his hand across my mouth and nose, preventing me from breathing. “Oh, so you are a waste of breath? Then why the hell should you be breathing?”. The first, and only moment of the night where I felt threatened and vulnerable, where the intensity level was where I wanted it to be. I don’t know which actor did this, but, kudos.
The games itself were fine, but a bit uninspired, and nothing out of the ordinary. Starting out as activities where the group suffered together, gradually elements were introduced to plant seeds of distrust and friction between the different sufferers. Varying in effectiveness, as the execution wasn’t always like it probably was intended, but I get the idea, and on paper, I see it working. The issue is, just being told to feel distrust for your other participants isn’t enough, if there is no reason to. There weren’t any consequences, the element of being played out against each other remained superficial at best. Now, I have only experienced half of the possible activities, as we were divided into two groups most of the times. Maybe I got unlucky? Near the end, the games got more and more psychological and personal, starting out from interesting ideas, but partly due to the execution, and partly because I just wasn’t that interested anymore, they failed to drag me in. Too little, too late. What I regret the most is never having been chosen for solitary torture. In the Horrorbox review of Snuffhouse, dentist tools and the likes were mentioned – it does sound like the intensity was picked up during these sessions.
Maybe the very first mistake Snuffhouse made, was incorporating Russ as the main villain. Everyone who has dipped half a toe in the world of scare entertainment knows the man loves to talk, and we have all heard him do so for way too long during Youtube videos of McKamey Manor. But the fact remains that during the event, he is half the world away. The only interaction you get with the host, the main villain, is through prerecorded videos. No room for improvisation, for personal touches. No chance of an actual encounter with the main man. And, also, the occasional technical hiccup where the wrong video is played – more minutes wasted listening to Russ talk away. As a promotional decision, it made perfect sense, but during the experience itself, only having his lackeys present to torture us maybe wasn’t enough.
In conclusion, as an extreme attraction, Snuffhouse just wasn’t extreme enough. I did not feel in danger, did not fear the tormentors. As a normal attraction, there wasn’t enough story, the characters were too flimsy (their dialog consisted mainly of “Hoods on”, “Hoods off”, “On your knees” and “Against the wall”, with no real distinction between the six tormentors), the plot was predictable from the very beginning, and the finale was severely underwhelming. I cannot fault the actors, they absolutely did what they could do within the confines they were given. The questionary that was sent to us before the event appeared to be of no use whatsoever. And all the advice from psychologists and hypnotherapists on writing the scripts apparently had been scrapped. Each of these faults on their own aren’t too bad. A less extreme attraction can be phenomenal if the atmosphere is built up correctly. In a truly extreme attraction, you might not even notice niggles about story and theming. But as a whole, it just wasn’t strong enough. I could forgive a beginning company, but for AtmosFEAR and Scare Kingdom, the minds that brought us the sick Psychomanteum, having all the resources, all the props, all the acting skills, all the locations, all the experience – the event just wasn’t up to snuff, if you’ll pardon the lame pun. It’s a shame that one of the few extreme experiences the UK has to offer was this tame, this uninspired – and this similar, but vastly inferior to one of the other few. Now, this is just my opinion, several other people did enjoy the experience, maybe I had unfair expectations, maybe I had a completely different experience in mind beforehand. Maybe my critiques of there not being enough flesh, set dressing and theatrics can be countered by saying that it was meant as a bleak, minimalistic experience. Fair enough, but minimalistic is not synonymous with boring. I just wasn’t impressed, although there is potential in the concept. In the end, I am glad I experienced it though – if only to soothe my curiosity.
The big question now though is how Snuffhouse will be transformed into a five minute experience this Halloween. Maybe the solitary torture stuff will play a prominent role? And in five minutes, without any buildup, the actors might be a lot more brutal to really get the shock across. Scare Kingdom, we are coming over on the 24th of October. Please, kindly turn it up to a 10, because last Saturday was barely a 4, and we know you can do a lot better.