"Do you want to run away -- or stay and play?" A man I can't see is pinning me down inside a large cardboard tube. He's been whispering words like "little piggy" in my ear as he holds down my shoulders, doing his best to channel the kind of creepy, toothless hick made famous in Deliverance. No, I am not being raped -- not quite. I'm being pretend raped. And I paid $50 for this.
This is not some strange underground gay sex club; this is a mainstream Halloween attraction in New York City called Blackout Haunted House. Since its debut in 2009, it has developed an ardent following by changing two well-known rules of most Halloween haunts: 1) In Blackout the actors will touch you, and 2) guests must go through the attraction alone. And it is truly horrifying. By stripping down the classic haunted-house attraction to its basic, most primal elements, they can induce maximum fear. Think less time dodging robotic vampires and more time sitting in complete darkness, screaming your head off.
I'll never forget that first experience with Blackout three years ago and what it taught me about fears. Of the dozen or so different rooms involved in the 30-minute attraction, two involved men forcing themselves on you. The creators of Blackout understood that without a girl clinging to his arm or a gaggle of bros to joke with, a guy -- typically harder to scare than a woman -- would be all the more vulnerable. And of all the things that scare a heterosexual man, an assault on his sexuality might just be at the top. Forget snakes, heights and clowns; gay rape is a straight man's biggest nightmare.
"Most straight guys don't like to look at or be around other naked guys," says Blackout founder Josh Randall, "so when we push the boundaries and actually make them interact with a naked guy, it totally puts them off-guard and can easily bring up some strong homophobic issues. Most 'safeties' [words that visitors use to signal that they want to be removed from the attraction] that we get during those scenes tend to be straight guys who don't want to interact in any way, shape or form with another naked man."
Blackout isn't an isolated experience. Of the slew of haunted houses I went to this year, almost all of them featured men being sexual in a queer way. Killers, a Nightmare Haunted House, has dedicated its entire haunt to real-life serial killers like John Wayne Gacy (who "masturbates" to gay porn before abducting one of your group's cuter boys) and features male actors physically molesting willing participants upon entry. "I don't know if guys or girls get more freaked out, but their reactions are certainly different," says Nightmare director John Harlacher. "Men tend to exist in a hierarchy, and that is often defined by how people use personal space. When the character in the opening room begins controlling people physically, it creates a bunch of thoughts in the mind for guys: 'Can I take this guy?' 'Well, I did agree to this.' 'What is he doing?' With women, it seems to be more gleeful; I think they buy into the theatricality of the experience more and can let it happen."
Haunted houses certainly aren't the only form of entertainment that takes advantage of straight men's fear of gay sex. In addition to Deliverance, which helped provoke the fear of sodomy and toothless hillbillies in a whole generation of dudes, pop culture is riddled with examples of homo horror. The climax of Spike Lee's The 25th Hour finds Edward Norton's Monty Brogan asking his best friends to disfigure his face in order to avoid being raped in prison. And the cultural significance of The Crying Game's penultimate scene -- in which Stephen Rae's disillusioned freedom fighter realizes his new lover is a transgender woman -- said more about the audience's fear of being "tricked" by a trans woman than director Neil Jordan's commentary on terrorism.
This perpetuated fear, says Blackout's Randall, is due to the realistic possibility of the act. "No matter how afraid of monsters or vampires you may be, chances are you can always rationalize that fear away because vampires and monsters don't exist," he explains. "So when you're faced with something that is intensely real and could potentially happen to you, it strikes a different nerve in people and triggers a more realistic response."
It's important to understand that Blackout, Nightmare and other haunts using aggressive sexuality are not necessarily homophobic; these aren't "Hell Houses," after all. Instead, their creators are just identifying irrational fears in their customers to do exactly what they are claiming to do: scare you like you haven't been scared before. "That's like a standing ovation for us," admits Nightmare's Harlacher about being able to scare the guy who says he can't be scared. "That guy came because he wanted to feel freaked out in a safe way but, for whatever personal reason, is not normally able to let himself go there. When that happens, we win -- and so does he."
And as a gay man, I can't judge straight guys for having this fear too much. After all, while my response to the attacker in that dark cardboard tube might not have been the response he was hoping for (I gleefully asked to "stay and play"), another part of the haunt sure did curl my bones: a sickly female reaching under her dress to wipe vaginal fluid on my face. Turns out there is something out there that scares all of us.