Russ McKamey just got back from McLeansboro, Illinois and things did not go well.
Earlier this summer, McKamey left $35,000 worth of equipment behind in a building at the corner of Cherry and Pearl but was only able to retrieve a fraction of it during his recent trip.
“They sold a lot of it, so we gotta do the lawsuit thing now and all that fun stuff,” McKamey says. “It’s a hassle and a half–everything is always a hassle.”
The source of the hassle and, coincidentally McKamey’s unrelenting passion, is his San Diego-based haunted house McKamey Manor.
However, McKamey Manor is far from your average “boo” haunt.
Before stepping foot inside, participants are required to sign a 10-page waiver, have notes from a doctor and a psychiatrist assuring peak physical and mental health, and they must go through a thorough background check. And even if someone successfully checks everything off McKamey’s laundry list, there’s still a slim-to-none chance that person will ever go through the manor because according to McKamey’s last count, the waiting list is 27,000-people deep.
What started 14 years ago in McKamey’s backyard has grown into one of the most renowned and controversial haunts in the U.S. The four-to-eight-hour experience subjects participants, who are only allowed to go through the haunt as a pair, to acts of extreme torture after they’re “kidnapped”–like being dunked in a tank full of eels while strapped in a straight jacket and being force-fed while tied up, all of which is filmed as your personal horror movie. But you don’t decide when it’s over because there’s no safety word as in other extreme haunts. The only way to end the nightmare is if McKamey deems you are physically and/or mentally unable to go on. If all of that sounds intense, it’s only a snippet of what McKamey says really goes on during the experience.
“The reason why the manor is so controversial is because nobody is saying what’s actually happening in here and that’s out of respect for the manor and myself and what we’re trying to produce here,” McKamey says. “If the people who go through the haunt want to spill all the beans and say everything that happens, they certainly could but they don’t and that make the haters crazy because they don’t know what’s happening. That’s why you hear all the insane rumors because they’re just making things up in their mind of what is happening.”
And it’s that ambiguity that possibly led to his swift boot out of McLeansboro.
Back in July, McKamey began the 2,000-mile trek from San Diego to McLeansboro as a cost-cutting measure. After serving in the Navy for 23 years, McKamey spent 13 years as a veteran’s advocate but recently lost that job due to downsizing. What’s more, for the past 14 years, McKamey’s only admission fee has been cans of dog food that go to local rescue shelters–everything to run what he estimates to be a $500,000-plus haunt has come out of pocket and San Diego was proving to be too expensive. Although Patricia Irvin, the owner of the building in McLeansboro, was initially welcoming of McKamey and his special brand of scare tactics, McKamey’s reputation, or at least what people think is his reputation, well preceded him and the locals weren’t having any of it.
“As soon as we moved in, the town went berserk,” McKamey says. “They shot out the windows, threatened to burn the building down, threatened to kill us.”
It didn’t take long for both Irvin and McKamey to nix the arrangement–but the split has been far from amicable. McKamey hauled his first load out to McLeansboro, the deal fizzled, and that’s how he found himself out $35,000-worth of high-end equipment.
“We caught wind that she was selling my stuff and I thought, this can’t be true and then I tried to get a hold of her so I could go and pick my stuff up and she kept ignoring me,” McKamey says. “Basically it was just a scam to get me out there and try to serve me with a lawsuit.”
A lawsuit that includes defamation of character, property damage, and unpaid rent–all of which McKamey believes won’t stick in court.
“Now I have to countersue for the stuff that she sold–it’s just a pain in the neck,” McKamey says. In the meantime, McKamey is eyeing a new location but he’s not ready to say where just yet out of the fear of reliving the McLeansboro incident.
Fast Company has tried to contact Irvin for comment.
So why would a man who makes zero money from a business endeavor that’s so controversial keep at it? To unpack McKamey’s madness, you have to dial back to his childhood.
“This all started when I was a little kid and I’d be trick-or-treating with my dad and there’d be somebody who built a cool little set on their yard,” McKamey says. “The one I really remember was this cardboard maze, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world and that got me hooked. Ever since then I was building haunted houses.”
And location was never an issue. McKamey built his haunts wherever he could, including on a ship out to sea when he was in the Navy. “It didn’t matter where I was–I was going to put together some kind of show for somebody,” he says.
That level of showmanship and creativity intensified over the years and eventually birthed what is now McKamey Manor. In its prime, McKamey Manor boasted five different locations (including one across the border in Tijuana), was regularly included in roundups of the best haunts, and bookers in Las Vegas even reached out to stream active runs through the manor and place bets on the action. For all the popularly McKamey Manor garnered, none of it turned into profit–not even from Vegas.
“I’ve never been there–I’ve never seen it. I’ve just seen photos of it. We don’t profit from it whatsoever,” McKamey says. “I don’t get a single penny from it because that’s totally illegal, but they were donating to various rescue societies so I was okay with that.”
Since losing his job, McKamey started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of his new location and will begin charging customers upwards of $200 in lieu of donating dog food cans. But even if he meets his $25,000 goal and admissions revenue starts coming in, the cost of upkeep alone, and the fact that he only allows two people in per run, will ensure that McKamey will always be in the red–and he’s okay with that.
“It’s all just drilling away out of the old savings account but it’s what I have to do. Once I sell the San Diego home, I’ll be fine,” he says. “I won’t have a lot left over as far as making any kinds of repairs. We won’t have anything left over to do new props and effects for a while–it’s not going to be a money-making thing ever.”
Outside of props, equipment, and other basic elements of a haunt, McKamey was shelling out $250-275 a night for an on-site EMT and somewhere between $15,000-20,000 per year on specialty insurance from Lloyd’s of London. McKamey estimates it costs him around $500 per haunt. One thing McKamey prides himself on are his original designs of what he calls “breakers,” nearly impossible traps peppered throughout the manor. It would seem like an ideal business opportunity, and a much-needed stream of revenue, if McKamey patented his designs and built his own line of equipment–but that’s not going to happen.
“Nobody would ever use them–they’re walking the edge of something that could go wrong,” he says. “Like the eel trap: You just can’t submerge somebody in eight feet of water unless you know how to get them out within a split second in case they panic–and they do. These are things that no one else is going to do. So there’s not a market for it. And I don’t want someone doing it because someone is going to get hurt. We do it in a very controlled fashion–somebody else does it and it’s not controlled, someone is going to die and we don’t want that to happen ever. Safety is always paramount for sure.”
The idea of burning through your savings on a business that’s hardly a business may sound like lunacy to most, and McKamey would agree. Yet, simply put: It’s his passion.
“I’m just so motivated about this stuff that it’s never been a thought ever to not do the haunt. It’s totally worth it. All the hardship and all the haters and the fussing–there are a lot of uphill battles,” he says. “That’s not part of the fun of it, but it’s part of it and that’s okay. There’s been a lot of negative things we’ve had to go through but never once have I ever felt that was going to stop me from continuing. The positive definitely outweighs the negative.”
Part of the negative, of course, comes from losing his job of 13 years, which, in effect, was bankrolling McKamey Manor. However, McKamey, ever the unlikely optimist given his chosen profession, took it as a blessing in disguise.
“In a way it’s good it happened now because I’m not a spring chicken now–I’m 56. If this happened when I was 60 or 65, that would be a really tough thing to start over again,” he says. “I love to create. I love to build. I love to entertain the folks–it keeps you young and I’m glad I still have several good years in front of me.”
Despite financial straits and the drama in McLeansboro, there are glimmers of hope for McKamey: He’s in the process of securing an interim location should his 29-acre, undisclosed spot falls through, and he’s currently in talks with a major TV network to develop a reality game show based on the manor.
He recently shot a sizzle reel, funded by the network, and he’s feeling hopeful that the show will be picked up–even though it’ll be a very diluted version of what McKamey Manor is really about.
“A TV show is kind of a tough thing for McKamey Manor because it’s going to be really hard to get what we do to the general public–it’s going to have to be a completely unique animal,” he says. “I don’t want people seeing that and go, ‘that’s McKamey Manor? All the hubbub and all the talk we’ve heard, that’s it?’”
It’s that “hubbub” and “talk” of what really goes on in McKamey Manor that will always be McKamey’s boon and bane.
“I’m not going to open it to the masses–I like keeping it a secret. I like the mystery of the manor. If you saw everything it’d be like any other haunted house,” McKamey says. “That’s my goal, even when I’m dead and gone, to make sure people are still talking about McKamey Manor. That’s why nobody is really going to ever see behind the wall.”
UPDATE (FRIDAY, 10/30/15, 12:47 PM): Irvin explained to Fast Company that she has documented messages with McKamey stating there was $15,000 worth of equipment in the her building–not $35,000. Irvin also says she had to damage her own property to let McKamey in to retrieve his equipment. “I had to pry the door open just to get into that room with police standing around me to show proof. I said, ‘look, I’m damaging my own property to get into this room for this man,’” Irvin says. “It’s a boldface lie that I sold any tiny piece of that.”