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Spookers: the terrifying New Zealand theme park with a cult following, and a big heart

The Guardian logo The Guardian 9/06/2017
David, who performs in the Spookers cast as zombie bride Zombina: ‘If my parents saw Zombina, I think my mum would go ballistic’: David performs in the Spookers cast as a zombie bride © Florian Habicht ‘If my parents saw Zombina, I think my mum would go ballistic’: David performs in the Spookers cast as a zombie bride

In a former psychiatric hospital, a 45-minute drive south of Auckland, lies New Zealand’s best and only haunted attraction theme park: Spookers. On its website it describes itself as a “live entertainment experience” in which “victims (you!)” move through a haunted house, forest, or cornfield to be scared by “live scare-actors”.

One customer, Tom B, called it “Hell on earth (in a good way)” in his glowing online review, which is almost word-for-word what you’d leave for a great restaurant: “This place was ridiculously good. I’ve never enjoyed being so terrified. All my friends came out raving about it. Would go back again in a heartbeat.”

Among New Zealanders, the place has a dedicated following, hooked on the risk-free adrenaline rush of a good fright. That’s not to say it’s not genuinely terrifying: really, it is. The R-16 rating for its flagship attractions like “CornEvil” and “Disturbia” belie how scary they are: when you’re being chased through a dark forest by a bloody man wielding a chainsaw, it doesn’t occur to you to check if the chain is on.

“I’ve always known about Spookers,” says filmmaker Florian Habicht, “and I’ve always told myself: ‘It’s too scary for me, it’s not my kind of thing’.”

After his 2014 documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, Habicht was ready to get back into writing a drama when he got a phone call from a production company asking if he would be interested in making a film about Spookers.

“In my mind I really didn’t want to do it ... but I thought: ‘Just so I know I can say no without regrets, I’ll go to Spookers with my camera and do a test’. When I got there, I was like: ‘S***. I’m in love with this place’.”

The result is Spookers – an 80-minute documentary about the close-knit community of the “scream park” and its 200-odd staff, with the tagline: “A family like no other”.

The trailer for Florian Habicht’s film Spookers.

Filmed using vintage Lomo Cinema lenses from the 1970s and 80s (“I bought them from someone in Russia over the internet”), Habicht focuses on those who have found freedom and belonging at Spookers – an unlikely harbour for their hopes, dreams and fears that are far more mundane than villainous clowns.

Bloody monsters and axe murderers – in costume but not character – talk earnestly about their lives, lending the film a sort of woozy quality, as though you’ve taken too many painkillers. “I’m bloodying up these two-headed babies to go into the incubator room,” the theme park director, Beth Watson, serenely explains, to the distant sound of muzak.

She runs the attraction with her daughter Julia Tukiri and her husband Andy, whose haunted expression as he responds to a “Code Brown” – the defecatory result of too-powerful a performance – is one of many moments of black comedy in the film. On one level, it’s a look inside an unlikely business, a well-oiled scream machine “run a bit like a theatre”, says Habicht.

“It’s been going for 12 years – that’s like a successful Broadway production. They’re really smart business people with social media, things like that.” The attraction has a sizeable following on both Facebook and Snapchat; a clip taken from inside the haunted house (“tag someone who couldn’t make it to the end of the hallway”) has been viewed 66m times since 26 May.

A video from inside Spookers posted on social media has been viewed 66m times since late May.

Habicht tells a story of Beth booking a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment flight to Los Angeles, driving through the desert to reach a manufacturer, and coming back to New Zealand with 300 sets of fake, scary teeth: “Isn’t that hardcore?”

Performers rotate across attractions, and learn to apply their own makeup and prosthetics. Particularly strong performances are recognised at the annual internal awards, the O’Scares. “Heaps of the staff go to Spookers on their night off and walk through it [as a visitor],” says Habicht. “It’s like a kind of cult thing for them.”

But at the film’s heart is the performers’ personal stories about their own struggles – with health, self-confidence, relationships, sexuality, mental illness – and the catharsis and connections they’ve found in their work. “There’s a lot that happens behind the makeup,” says one skeletal farmer, sombrely.

The inherent surrealism of the setup is made explicit in dreamlike, theatrical sequences of Habicht’s own devising – like one in which a zombie bride rages about being unable to land a date (“Most guys don’t find me too attractive, which is just crazy, because I’ve actually got the whole thing going on”).

Moments earlier, she’d been revealed as David – a young, private, man; a self-described people-pleaser – sitting cross-legged on his bed, patting his dog and fretting about what his parents would do if they caught him in character: “If they saw Zombina, I think my mum would go ballistic.”

‘There’s a lot that happens behind the makeup’: the cast of Spookers learn to apply their own prosthetics Photograph: Madman

David was one of a handful of performers who Habicht gravitated to on that first visit to Spookers, who make up the core cast of the film. He is now working as an airline steward.

“Zombina is such an incredible actor – I said to David a few times: ‘If you want me to write you a reference for drama schools or acting agents, I’d love to do it’, but he’s happy to keep working part-time at Spookers,” says Habicht. “This is the thing – for the actors, it is Hollywood.”

The building itself, Kingseat Hospital, is as much a presence in the film as any character. It was in operation as a psychiatric hospital from 1932, and by the late 1940s had 800 patients and 250 staff.

Kingseat eventually closed in July 1999, after government policy and cultural standards directed a shift away from institutionalisation of mental health patients in favour of community care and smaller rehabilitation units. Spookers opened in 2005.

Today the former psychiatric hospital is thought to be one of New Zealand’s “most haunted locations”, a reputation that presumably does Spookers no harm. But the building’s current application doesn’t sit easily with some of Kingseat’s former patients and mental health advocates – particularly given how heavily its performers lean on tropes of mental illness.

“I’ve never understood horror stories, probably because I’ve spent the bulk of my life ... living in fear,” says Deborah, a former Kingseat patient, in the documentary. Her parents were told by her doctor that their visits upset her; she did not see them for 18 years.

The film lingers without judgement on the uneasy juxtaposition of Kingseat’s past and present. Habicht says he was told “extreme” stories by ex-patients of their time in the institution that they did not want in the film; he intends to watch the film with Deborah in private. “I think that will be her experiencing Spookers for the first time – it will be really interesting to see what she makes of it.”

“I still can’t really comprehend what it would be like to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital,” he says. “But I can definitely tell that what Spookers is doing right now for mental health, for the people that work there, is really amazing.”

• Spookers screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival on 10 and 11 June, and in the Melbourne Film Festival in August. Its European premiere is at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest on Saturday 10 June, and it will screen as part of New Zealand film festival in July

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