Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Extreme Haunt McKamey Manor To Leave San Diego

The self-proclaimed P.T. Barnum of the haunt world, Russ McKamey. Here he's trying to get me to take a spin on his wheel. July 19, 2015
Beth Accomando
The self-proclaimed P.T. Barnum of the haunt world, Russ McKamey. Here he's trying to get me to take a spin on his wheel. July 19, 2015

Russ McKamey has panel at Scare LA on Saturday and TV pilot in works

Extreme Haunt McKamey Manor To Leave San Diego

McKamey Manor has been listed on horror websites as one of the top extreme haunts in the world. Last October I was blindfolded and delivered to the North County haunt for a four-hour sissy tour. Now I return for a visit with owner Russ McKamey to discuss why the haunt is moving.

McKamey Manor isn’t so scary in the daylight.

In fact, when I drive up to the location – that actually has a homey, wood-carved sign out front stating that it’s McKamey Manor - I realize that it was only two blocks away from the location where I was “kidnapped” last October and blindfolded as I was driven to the “secret” extreme haunt location. It makes me feel a little embarrassed to know I was just driven around in circles and tricked into thinking I was being taken someplace miles away. But then that’s what McKamey does. He puts on a show and fools you into believing what he presents as real.

Russ McKamey is first and foremost a showman. He has been doing his home haunt (that’s right, McKamey Manor is not a professional haunt and the “cost” of getting in is dog food donated to a greyhound rescue) for 14 years and before that he was creating haunts on ships while he was in the Navy.

As I arrive at his home in the bright daylight of a Sunday afternoon, I realize just how much of a showman he is. His home is a tight maze of rooms that look like a patchwork mess from the outside but inside are carefully crafted horror sets that McKamey uses to fool people into thinking they are going through the elaborate McKamey Manor. But in reality people are going through 1,600 square feet of space in the backyard of his home, what McKamey refers to as "zone alpha," there are three other locations in San Diego he also uses — or so he says. Perhaps that’s a sleight of hand as well.

McKamey Manor closing

Things are different at the Manor and not just in the daylight. The Manor is being torn down and McKamey leads me through the backyard that is cluttered with rooms and props.

“This was the entrance, this is when we’d first bring you on in and tell you the rules and the story of McKamey Manor,” he said.

Oh yeah, I remember that room, where McKamey took my camera and audio gear away from me and wrapped my head in duct tape and a hood. I also remember being locked in a coffin, repeatedly covered in blood, and fed a questionable meal by Mother.

But a lot has changed since then.

“We’re dismantling the Manor because I lost my job of 13 years as a veterans advocate. It happens. Downsizing happens to even me," McKamey said. "And I can’t afford living in San Diego, so the goal is to get out of here, find a new location, sell this house, but we can’t sell it with a haunt inside of it.”

At least not one as elaborate as McKamey Manor, which includes dozens of horrific animatronic figures, coffins, a giant buzz saw blade, a Catherine’s wheel-style rig to spin people on and more. Then in addition to taking down the Manor, McKamey also has to find a new location to set up.

The 'Footloose' of the haunt world

“We are moving. I am not going to say exactly where because we don’t know,” McKamey said. "We’ve had a lot of offers, but the place that I thought was going to work for me turned out to be the ‘Footloose’ of the haunt world. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Footloose’ and Smalltown, USA, and how they don’t allow you to dance or to gather or anything else — this is what happened with this small town in Illinois. It’s called McLeansboro, Illinois.They are the footloose of the haunt world.”

According to McKamey, the mayor of the town initially welcomed him but then some of the 3,000 townsfolk decided that they didn’t want an extreme haunt in their backyard - even if it was going to generate business. The town turned against McKamey Manor in part because Russ and company do too good a job promoting it as extreme and making people believe that what goes on there is something to be scared of.

“We are showmen. I am the P.T. Barnum of the haunt world,” McKamey said with a grin. “People get upset but you have to remember I planned that from the get go. I’m the one who shoots all the movies. I’m the one who edits, who makes them look as scary as they are. I’m the one who shoots all the photographs. That’s all me. Obviously I know what I’m putting out there and I know how effective it is. That’s for a reason — to get people talking! So everything that happens is for a reason and it’s all well thought out and I think it’s very creative that we’ve been able to create this McKamey Manor brand out of basically a small Mom and Pop haunt that is now the most famous haunt in the world and we’re different than other haunts, people say 'oh it’s not real, no this is real.'”

And here’s the conundrum that McKamey gets caught in.

He wants you to believe that everything going on at McKamey Manor is real but he also wants to assure people that no one is really getting hurt or tortured so that he’s not going to get shut down. So the showman wants to say it’s absolutely real, but the home haunter who wants to stay open needs to say nothing bad is really happening.

But when critics – “haters” as McKamey always refers to them – will look at his videos and complain about what they see as torture. But McKamey is caught in a double bind of not wanting to reveal what may be just the illusion of torture and wanting to defend himself.

The McKamey family

But his critics tend to be people who have never been through his haunt and just want to shut him down. Most of the people who go through the haunt are Marines, law enforcement, extreme sports fanatics, and adrenaline junkies. And they love it. Well sort of.

Ryan Lawrence went through McKamey Manor with his brother but they had to call it quits like most people do before finishing a tour. He said he was looking for an adrenaline rush and got a little more than he bargained for.

“I wasn’t looking for something that would make me beg for my life,” Lawrence said with a big grin and laugh as he recalled the tour. “I don’t regret it at all but it was immediate. I remember when we got in the van my brother put his hand on my shoulder and I could feel him saying, ‘What have we done?’ And (it) got real quick. Immediately we knew we were in over our heads.”

Ryan Lawrence was helping tear down McKamey Manor. He went on a short tour of the extreme haunt and then became an actor. He's a nice guy... if you don't meet him inside McKamey Manor while he's working.
Beth Accomando
Ryan Lawrence was helping tear down McKamey Manor. He went on a short tour of the extreme haunt and then became an actor. He's a nice guy... if you don't meet him inside McKamey Manor while he's working.

But then Lawrence returned to be an actor in the haunt.

“Ninety-nine percent of folks who go through the haunt, they become huge fans and they become our actors. You gotta go through haunt to be an actor and they are our biggest fans because they understand the magic of it all and they are respectful of the haunt. That’s why nobody gives up secrets. I can’t make them not talk, they don’t talk because they know that that’s the mystery behind the Manor, that’s a pretty cool thing, that says a lot right there,” McKamey stated.

Lawrence was at the McKamey home to help with the dismantling of the Manor. There is a video of his tour and breakdown at McKamey Manor online so I asked him about the experience.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Lawrence said. “Everything is so intense you don’t really get to think - you kind of think that it’s real, I remember thinking to myself, I don’t even know these people, maybe they are really going to kill me, I mean they’re really going to hurt me. Of course it wasn’t going to happen but you don’t know that when you’re here because it’s so real and so intense and so in your face you just totally forget that it’s something you signed up for to go to for fun.”

The best way I can describe the experience is that it’s like boot camp or Navy SEAL training done as a horror haunt.

McKamey and company do everything to break you and test your physical and mental limits and then when you are done, you are part of an elite family. And that McKamey family was in full force that Sunday afternoon with kids and wives helping with the move. The thing that is difficult to come to terms with is that when you meet Russ and his "family," they all seem like the nicest people — just don't meet them inside McKamey Manor when they are working. That's a whole different story.

And even on this bright afternoon, McKamey — with a big grin — can't resist offering to strap me to a spinning wheel that wasn't available when I went on my sissy tour.

The future for McKamey Manor

McKamey Manor might be coming down but Russ’ spirits were high at the prospect of what’s to come.

“We have a television show in the works. We’ve signed a deal for a pilot episode, a McKamey Manor type of ‘Fear Factor’ challenge show but in the horror world. We’re gonna be in New York City for six shows. And this Saturday at an extreme haunt panel at ScareLA.”

The panel at ScareLA will be with two other extreme haunts, Blackout and Gates of Hell. Each haunt is bringing a “victim" that has been through their place. McKamey is bringing someone who is also a psychologist and who can talk about what the experience is like on that level.

The forced move is also opening up new possibilities for this P.T. Barnum of haunts.

“This gives me a clean slate to do whatever I want to do at a much larger location. These four locations [in San Diego] are homes that we were dealing with so when you are in homes it is limited. You give me a 10,000 square foot building and wow, watch out,” McKamey said.

I have to admit that I’m a little sad that San Diego is losing McKamey Manor and its flamboyant showman. But I have no doubt that he will be creating something new in the near future. He is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to help with the costs of relocating.

The shutting down of McKamey Manor also means that I can finally reveal who Mary is. Take a look:

McKamey Manor: Meet Mary