Review: SPOOKERS Gives You a Glimpse into the Power of Community

It’s always funny to talk about the “horror industry”. There really isn’t another genre of entertainment that has quite the same communal feel as the artists that explore fear, with the exception of, say, comedy which already has strong structural similarities to horror. And like the genre, there are a myriad of sub-levels of the industry. Simply by the nature of me writing this and someone out there reading this, I’m part of the industry as small of a contribution that I am. And it trickles down from there to spaces of the industry that may not typically pop immediately to mind. Spookers takes a microscopic look at a facet of our “horror industry” that typically doesn’t pull focus: the independent haunted attraction.

If you look at the how a lot of people enter this industry, for good reason, it’s predominately from the film world. Be it a strong love of cinema as a kid, to attending University for Film or Cinema Studies, but my path wasn’t typical. While my childhood was centered around film as a home school for the wider world—I was 12 when I saw Night of the Living Dead and realized horror, like sugar for medicine, can say speak about our society in ways I hadn’t seen before—I took a lifelong detour into acting and musical theatre. From children’s theatre to university, and then eventually professional roles the community that live performance builds has shaped much of my personality and how I carry myself in life. It’s really a difficult thing to convey to someone who hasn’t experienced how arts education can affect a young person, but frankly...it all does kind of feel like a feel-good movie or after school special. The group of misfits coming together to put on a show, but, it really is what a lot of community theatre is like. A place for people to discover who they are. Friendships, love, heartbreaks, first time experiences—if it sounds like it’s a story arc for the second season of Fame, well, it kinda is. We analyze the structure of story in film, television, and literature so much we need to be reminded that reality is terrifying powerful in its simplicity. At its core, that is what Spookers is trying to convey: that in this quiet patch of land in New Zealand, that just so happens to house an abandoned psychiatric hospital with rumors of haunting, there exists a community of misfits, social outcasts, people that remind you of you, understanding who they are by scaring people!

While Michael Stephenson’s excellent documentary The American Scream focused on the haunted attraction as much as the people behind it, Spookers approaches its cast as if it’s a slice of life film. I was having the same emotional connection that I’d get from True Stories or Waking Ned Devine, these small stories about small communities with big aspirations but from a group of haunt actors. A lot of these haunted attractions are so local, rough and tumble that many can dehumanize the employees behind the mask, but this documentary helps give a peek into the very human stories of the diverse cast of the Spookers haunted attraction. It’s the power of the documentary to remind us time and again that real life will always be more powerful than fiction.

This is also the high school experience we see in films for these teens. This is where they find who they are, even if they don't know that yet. Take Cameron for example, a young actor new to the Haunt Wondering aloud if they are being disrespectful to the people that were abused in the hospital where the attraction takes place. But they also show him with a huge grin on his face talking about this straight jacket he bought from America for the haunt, and talking about his character in a multi-layered way like you’d hear any number of actors here in New York speak about a role in a play. His high school experience of being called names and bullied in high school mirror what many in the horror industry have experienced in their youth, but Cameron also nails why communities like this are so integral, “Working here has helped me become less shy, and feels like it’s reversing the damage [of high school]”.

I dare anyone to walk away from Spookers not recognizing yourself in one person you meet in this documentary. It’s warm, charming, and very inspirational, especially if you ever felt like you were in a shell and wanted to break out. It’s a testament to the power of community and theatre and storytelling. And in a rocky geopolitical climate, we all deserve a moment to recognize the good that is happening even in the remotest of places.

Jacob Trussell