For the last seven years, around Halloween, the business team of John Harlacher and Timothy Haskell has unveiled a different flavor of haunted house at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Suffolk Street. Each one has been a smash success. “Last year’s theme was fairy tales. It was very abstract from real fears,” Harlacher explained on Friday night, as he stood near the entranceway of the cavernous former public school, watching his mostly teen audience pony up $35 each ($60 if you want to skip the line!) in the hopes of a good old fashioned carnival scare.
This time around, this loyal customer base, who Harlacher polls every year, “demanded something more true to life—they wanted something serial killer related,” he explained. The resulting effort, entitled “Killers” —a series of installations featuring ripped-from-the-headlines antics by actors playing human monsters like H.H. Holmes, John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein—has predictably ginned up instant internet buzz and controversy. A spokesman for the show claims that at least three to five audience members “suffer a panic attack per night.”
Harlacher is quick to tell reporters that the duo worked hard not to “glorify” the mass murderers: “we wanted to rip them down to the disgusting examples of humanity they are right away.” But it doesn’t take the most sensitive soul to understand that a relative of one of the victims of the killers depicted here (some of the ghouls, like Jeffrey Dahmer, are relatively contemporary) might shudder at the whole enterprise. When informed about “Killers,” Dorothy Straughter, the mother of one of Dahmer’s victims, told the Daily News that “its insensitive to victims and survivors of these horrendous crimes.” At least one person who went through the house on Friday night agreed. “If I was the family member of one of the victims I would go through there with my toughest cousins and rip down the walls,” he could be heard saying, feeling his way out of the exit into the calm night air.
Disturbingly, “Killers” can be seen as part of a larger trend—noted recently by business blogs—of a thriving sub-economy based on the buying and selling of serial killer related objects. Websites like serialkillersink.net and murderauction.com—whose tagline (attributed to serial killer and Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspiration Ed Gein) is “Every man has to have a hobby”—are devoted to such morbid transactions, while the Museum of Death, located in Hollywood, boasts of the “world’s largest collection of Serial Murderer Artwork.” Not to mention Hollywood’s ever-increasing production of aesthetically valueless horror franchises like Saw. (Along with the dramatic depictions of serial killers as isolated drifters found in countless films, from Natural Born Killers to Minus Man.)
Is America’s ever increasing collective fascination with serial killers (which dates at least back to the 1890’s and the famous folk rhyme about Lizzie Borden, the “Killers'” subject who “took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks,”) a deep commentary on the underside of the American myth of self-reliance, as Harlacher theorizes? Or is it just proof that decades of violent trash culture–shoot ’em up TV, slasher flicks, gangsta rap and first-person shooter video games–has numbed Americans to all but the grizzliest displays of psychopathy? Whatever the answer, tickets for “Killers” will be selling fast until it closes on November 3rd.
(Photos: Haunted House NYC)