Being kidnapped, buried alive, having your face duct taped and plastic wrapped, being caged, drenched in blood, blind folded, force fed cockroaches, tarred and glittered, choked, bound, gagged and held against your will.
All of this (and more) you can expect to happen to you when you walk into Russ McKamey’s extreme “haunted house” in Summertown, Tennessee. It’s bizarre. It’s kinky. And somehow it’s legal.
Known infamously as McKamey Manor, this year-round non-profit “interactive theatrical experience” exists in a legal grey area. Guests must get a doctor’s approval to enter and must sign a 50-page waiver, essentially forfeiting their freedom and turning their lives over to a man who has repeatedly and adamantly told them, “You really don’t want to do this.”
And he’s not lying. This is not a “haunted house” by any conventional definition — this is a legal torture room. An experience that can and has scarred people’s psyches. The videos that come out of this place look more like torture porn than any kind of “haunt entertainment.”
But, some people get off to torture porn; some people get off to actually being tortured; and, still others get off to the act of torturing someone else.
McKamey Manor satisfies all three of those kinky categories.
However, not everyone who ventures into The Manor expects the freak brutality they find in there. In fact, of the hundreds (thousands?) of people who have signed their lives away to Russ McKamey over the years, not a single one has made it through all 10 hours of his haunted house. Even with a $20,000 prize on the line.
Everybody taps out. And they’re lucky they can.
I stumbled upon McKamey Manor a week ago over breakfast when a friend pulled up videos of this place while I was trying to finish a plate of biscuits and gravy — videos of people having cockroaches forced down their throats; of people being buried alive in mud, drenched in blood, having drills run inside their mouths, unknown substances injected into their veins.
Needless to say, I could not finish my meal. Nor could I shake those images and a few lingering questions: who was this guy, this Russ McKamey? What kind of person would agree to do something like this? And what does McKamey get out of it? (Because it certainly isn’t money — the price of admission to McKamey Manor is just one 50-pound bag of dog food.)
The more I thought about it, the darker this story seemed to grow in my mind.
So when I found a number that was supposed to be McKamey’s and called it, I was very surprised by the jovial, friendly and nonchalant voice that answered on the other end.
“I really get a lot of enjoyment out of bringing people out and giving them the biggest show they have ever had in their life,” McKamey tells me. I can almost hear him smiling over the phone. “I'm living the dream. I’m able to relax and stay healthy and meanwhile I break people. So yeah, life is good.”
Yes, you read that right: he breaks people. It was strange to hear a person say something like that so casually. It was strange to hear the voice from those videos I’d watched, now sounding so relaxed and conversational — the same voice that had coaxed the McKamey Manor “safe phrase” out of so many shocked and terrified guests.
“Everybody's different, everybody has different fears and that's what’s kind of exciting to see, is: what's going to break them?” McKamey says. He tailors each and every show to the guest’s phobia’s and medical history, to achieve maximum terror, to make the experience as personally horrifying as possible.
McKamey used to be in the Navy. He tells me he was a military interrogator, which is where he learned many of the torture techniques that he uses on his guests. However, his military records suggest that his assigned duty was as a “recruiter.”
He served for 23 years. And he’s still a straight edge person to this day: he’s never been drunk, never smoked a cigarette or done illegal drugs. Hell, he’s never even had a cup of coffee, he says. And he doesn’t cuss. McKamey is about as sober and conservative as they come. So what does he do for fun?
“Fun is The Haunt,” he answers, when I ask him. “Fun is entertaining you folks.”
Even back in his military days, McKamey says he was pursuing his passion for “The Haunt,” building haunted houses on board the ships he was deployed on.
McKamey Manor, however, started on land, in San Diego, inside McKamey’s unassuming suburban home in Rancho Peñasquitos just north of the city. Neighbors reported hearing screams and cries for help issuing from the house while McKamey lived there. They’d routinely see people acting out scenes of abduction and assault in the driveway or backyard; scenes that looked very illegal and were very disturbing to the adjacent families. Police responded to many reports of kidnappings and abductions. They investigated the property twice based on local complaints. In one case a woman even reported to police that she’d been assaulted with a deadly weapon while inside the California McKamey Manor.
But the police never pressed criminal charges. In large part because, the “victims” had signed a legally binding waiver agreeing to pretty much anything. They’d given their consent to McKamey and so there was nothing they could do about the bizarre and legally questionable things going on inside his house.
Then, in 2017 McKamey decided to move. California had burned him out, apparently, so he pulled up stakes and took his show across the country, settling in a rural Tennessee community called Summertown.
“[The district attorney] was very upset that I had moved out here,” McKamey tells me. The DA was disturbed by what he’d seen in some McKamey’s Youtube videos and was threatening to have McKamey locked up for up to five years. “They tried everything: they tried to indicted me and tried to get me in front of a grand jury out here.”
(I tried contacting the local DA to confirm this, but they did not return my calls or emails.)
The DA wasn’t the only one in Tennessee giving McKamey trouble, though. He also had to deal with some disgruntled locals, who weren’t exactly excited to have the nation’s most extreme haunted house moving into the neighborhood.
“I've had major death threats,” Mckmay said. “I've been shot at, I've had firebombs thrown at me; you name it and it's happened out here.”
But, if the Navy taught McKamey anything (besides those alleged interrogation techniques) it was tenacity. He endured the death threats. He changed up some of the rules of McKamey Manor in order to appease the DA. He toned down some of the physical brutality and even went so far as to allow a “safe phrase” so people could actually quit when they wanted to.
“It's not like the old days where I would not let them out of here,” he says. “The old show used to have all these roughed up characters you know banging people around and yelling and screaming at them. But this new show is extremely psychological. Very quiet very subdued. But it's also very tough.”
And now, it’s just Russ McKamey and you, his guest. No one else is present during The Haunt. No one else will actually witness what McKamey does to you in there (except via the livestream cameras he’s installed on his property). For ten hours or more, you belong to him and the only way you’re walking out of there is if you say the magic words: “McKamey Manor ate my lunch, took my milk money, kicked my butt and I quit.”
“My favorite part, personally, is just filming everyone and wondering where those magic Kodak moments are going to be,” McKamey says, referring to these moments when people break and give up. “I'm always looking at it just like a director would and they're my stars for the day.”
You can tell a lot about a person from their hobbies. If someone has dedicated their life to building model ships, you can guess that they like boats, maybe they have experience sailing, they’re into arts and crafts and they probably don’t fuck all that often. If someone has devoted themselves to base jumping, you can infer they’re a crazy bastard, an adrenaline junkie, a gambler of sorts.
So, what does it mean when someone gets their kicks from torturing terrified people into submission? When that’s all a person does for fun?
And what does it say about the people who sign up for McKamey Manor, who jump through all the hoops and travel out to Tennessee just to let a stranger try and break their spirit? What does it say about them?
It says a lot. It says S&M. It says Kinky.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If a consenting adult wants to sign their life away to another, to torture them physically and psychologically, they should be legally allowed to do that. This is America, after all. We The People should have the freedom get as weird as we want, no matter how horrifying it might look. Some people are really into this stuff.
Here’s the rub, though: not everyone who enters the Manor understands what they’re getting themselves into. Not all of McKamey’s guests truly realize just how freaky and bizarre things are going to get after they sign that 50-page waiver (which McKamey refuses to let anyone see prior to their show). Those poor bastards are the real losers, here.
But, one can only have so much sympathy for them. When it comes right down to it, they got themselves into McKamey’s mess and if they don’t come out the other side psychologically intact, who’s fault is that really?
A fly can’t blame the spider, when it lands in its web.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked McKamey what he’d say to someone who was thinking about signing up for McKamey Manor. What should people know before they come to Tennessee?
His tone turned very serious for the first time since we started talking; became dark and solemn.
“They really don’t want to do this,” he said, repeating the line that has become McKamey Manor’s catchphrase.
I’d listen to him.