Spookers is a documentary about the family-run haunted house attraction of the same name that operates on the site of Kingseat Hospital, a former psychiatric asylum outside of Auckland, New Zealand, told through the stories of its owners and performers.
Live action haunted houses haven’t yet made their way to the UK, so for us their appeal has been explored second hand in the likes of the excellent documentary The American Scream or the found footage garbage of The Houses October Built (aka The Houses of Halloween). Spookers provides some insight into their appeal and in particular how cathartic fear can be when you embrace the fun of being terrified in a safe environment, which is exactly why many of us watch horror movies in the first place.
The attraction’s performers discuss their characters and the different ways in which their nightly excursions into the weird have aided them, be it the escape from corporate drudgery, the ability to express themselves without judgement or the simple desire to meet new people. Despite the incongruity of people in horrific horror makeup holding perfectly ordinary conversations, the film mostly presents itself with affectionate seriousness with a few intentionally comical moments slipped in (it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what a radioed request to deal with a “code brown” refers to).
The film tells the details of the attraction’s development, interspersed with some history of the hospital itself and the treatment of the patients there, some of which was far worse than the imaginings of any horror film. The connotations of creating such a place on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital are not glossed over, acknowledging the fact that even in our supposedly enlightened times mental illness still remains heavily stigmatised, negative stereotypes riddling popular culture and adding to the lack of comprehension over the wide spectrum of conditions that constitutes it. Everyone is given the opportunity to put forward their view on the topic – in particular a former nurse-turned-performer and a former patient – with some believing the attraction to be harmless fun, while others think that perpetuating correlations between instability and violence can only serve to maintain people’s prejudices. There is no statement made of whose opinions carry more weight, instead leaving it to the viewers to make up their own minds.
An interesting stylistic choice comes from the re-enactments of the dreams and memories some of the interviewees relate, but after a while these interludes become intrusive, interrupting the anecdotes with unnecessary and intrusive artifice, and distracting from the straightforward fascination of simply listening to people talk. Aside from the serious discussion, the focus is mostly on the mismatched assortment of freaks (and we mean that in a positive sense) and the surrogate family they have found in each other.
Overall, Spookers is a film whose constituent parts don’t quite fit together, but nevertheless remains an eminently watchable piece of documentary filmmaking.
SPOOKERS/ CERTIFICATE: TBA / DIRECTOR: FLORIAN HABICHT / SCREENPLAY: VERONICA GLEESON, FLORIAN HABICHT / PETER O’DONOGHUE, SUZANNE WALKER / STARRING: BETH WATSON, ANDY WATSON, JULIA TUKIRI, DAVID PALU, HUIA APIATA, JUNEEN BORKENT / RELEASE DATE: TBA