In late October 2019, a number of news organizations ran stories essentially advertising an “extreme haunted house” known as McKamey Manor, widely reporting that anyone who successfully endured the attraction would be awarded $20,000 by its proprietors.
An aggregated Associated Press item claimed:
WFLA-TV reports that owner Russ McKamey offers thousands of dollars to anyone who completes the tour, but says no one ever has. He records each tour on video — for his own protection he says — and then posts them online, showing them quitting in humiliation.
Associated Press seemed to have gathered all its information from an October 21 2019 WFLA-TV story headlined “Scariest haunted house in U.S. requires 40-page waiver, doctor’s note, safe word.”
That headline made Russ McKamey’s McKamey Manor sound like a well-organized endeavor with numerous safeguards, promising horror enthusiasts a fantastic adventure. It, like many similar articles, emphasized a supposed $20,000 prize—- which likely played a role in driving interest into the purported horror attraction:
Think you have what it takes to tour the Manor? If you do, it only costs a bag of dog food– Russ has five dogs. And if you complete the tour, Russ will hand you $20,000.
So why wouldn’t you want to do this?
It’s not as easy as just a bag of dog food, as you’ve probably gathered by now. The Manor’s website lists seven must-do items before the tour can begin.
Russ says he doesn’t curse and doesn’t allow cursing during the haunted tours. If you do, and many obviously can’t help themselves, he deducts cash from your potential $20,000 prize.
WFLA-TV took McKamey’s word for much of what he was claiming, including assertions that he is capable of “hypnotizing” guests to make them believe preposterous things. One such example, according to McKamey and WFLA, involved a children’s pool with less than half a foot of water and the suggestion that it contained a “great white shark”:
How is Russ so good at playing make-believe? He says hypnosis is a great tool.
“When I use the hypnosis I can put you in a [kiddie] pool with a couple inches of water and tell you there’s a great white shark in there, and you’re gonna think there’s a shark in there,” he said. “And so, when you have that kind of power over people, and have them do and see things that you want them to see, then they can leave here thinking it really happened, and they’ll go to the authorities and say, ‘oh, whatever,’ and I have to come back and show the footage and say, ‘it didn’t go that way at all.’
“It’s saved me a thousand times.”
Notably, McKamey Manor’s FAQ makes no mention of the $20,000 prize so prominently mentioned in national coverage of McKamey’s “haunt.” Even more interesting is that a site-wide search on mckameymanor.com on October 28 2019 returned no results for any permutation of $20,000. If mention of the “prize” existed, it was very well hidden. (Using the same functionality did return results for terms such as “waiver” and “drug test” on mckameymanor.com.)
McKamey Manor was not new to reporters on the seasonal news beat in 2019, but claims about a $20,000 prize seemed to pop up at some point in 2018. An October 2015 Fast Company article about the project (“Running A Haunted House Is Scarier Than You Think”), which carried the subheading “Lawsuits, drained finances, and death threats: Inside the real terrors of Russ McKamey’s notorious McKamey Manor,” similarly leaned on claims from the same source as 2019 coverage, McKamey himself:
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.
Another aspect of the 2015 piece was about money as McKamey’s motivator, as he had lost his job that year:
Russ McKamey just got back from McLeansboro, Illinois and things did not go well.
Earlier this summer [of 2015], 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 … 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.
Fast Company reported that McKamey was seeking a way to fund his ongoing endeavor, launching a since-deactivated GoFundMe page and discussing plans to charge $200 to raise admissions revenue:
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.
Other coverage from that time mentioned the GoFundMe, adding that McKamey Manor was “indefinitely out of business.” By 2016, blog posts about McKamey Manor claimed that it had cost McKamey $500,000 to build and a waiting list had “grown to over 24,000 and the owners currently charge over $1,000 per guest, making it one of the most expensive haunted houses in the world.” In contrast, 2015 pieces quoted McKamey about a waiting list of over 27,000 people. And in 2014, the Daily Mail referenced many of the same figures about $500,000 invested to create it and the same 24,000 person waiting list repeated years later.
The first mentions of “20,000” we came across were in February and March 2018, before the annual Halloween coverage of whatever McKamey happened to be claiming that year came around. In that iteration, McKamey mentioned a waiting list of 20,000 people, without elaborating what happened to the 4,000 to 7,000 eager waiters from prior years. By October of that year, the $20,000 prize money claim appeared in one article we found.
That coverage also seemed to lean heavily on two unverified, recursive sources: Once again, McKamey himself, and also previous media reports based — once again — on his own statements:
People from all 50 states — and others from as far away as Europe and Kuwait — have traveled to experience McKamey Manor, which came to Summertown after spending more than a decade in San Diego. The house of horrors has been profiled by the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and the New York Daily News, and it’s been featured on the Travel Channel’s Halloween Craziest and in a full-length documentary, Haunters: The Art of the Scare (currently available on Netflix). But no one in Summertown seemed to know what the manor was when McKamey moved to town in the spring.
Another element frequently referenced alongside McKamey’s “haunted house” is a purported waiver. That issue arose during an October 2017 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” hosted by a filmmaker who in part portrayed the project in the a film called HAUNTERS: The Art Of The Scare. Incidentally, amid extensive discussion of McKamey Manor, no one mentioned a prize of $20,000 or any other amount, but aspects of the waiver were often disputed.
A February 2018 Nashville Scene story referenced the waiver and prize together:
You may be exposed to mind-altering drugs or weapons like whips, paintball guns and Tasers. McKamey also apparently has a vast assortment of bugs, including cockroaches, bees, crickets and mosquitos, all waiting to eat and/or be eaten.
But before a contestant makes it through McKamey Manor’s door, he or she must go through the tedious process of reading aloud and signing a 20-plus-page legal waiver that lists more than 100 disgusting, dangerous and disturbing scenarios they may face. The contract itself is so daunting that some people quit right then.
Reddit was a major source of promotion for McKamey Manor and its many articles. Posts appeared on r/todayilearned (TIL), and r/horror (quite frequently.) An October 2019 post to the latter subreddit purported to show screenshots of some of the pages in the McKamey Manor waiver:
Although the main post linked to partial pages, one person linked to a purported McKamey Manor full waiver on Google Drive [PDF]. That document (if authentic) was dated 2017, and did not include any mention of a prize of $20,000 or any other amount. A portion called “Non-Disparage Agreement” said that “Participant understands that if they violate this Agreement that Participant agrees to pay McKamey Manor $50,000 as damages.”
McKamey and McKamey Manor have made the Halloween “weird news” rounds annually since at least 2014, with various claims featured with the stories in an apparent attempt to enhance its virality. Early coverage maintained a tenor of financial distress on McKamey’s part; a possibly-linked Instagram account still promoted a GoFundMe page for the attraction. At some point in 2018, claims of a 20,000-27,000 person waiting list (still unverified) seemed to collide with claims of a haunted house so scary anyone who completed it would receive a $20,000 prize. Many major news outlets reiterated that claim, but we were unable to verify whether any prize money was actually available.
We contacted Russ McKamey to ask if he was able to verify the $20,000 prize’s existence, and we will update with his comments when we hear back.