The craving for real haunts: A visit to Asylum 49

The haunted house Asylum 49 is built in a former hospital—like the one pictured—which for a time was so poorly funded, deceased patients were stacked in a stairwell for lack of a morgue. Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons by Frank Grace

The haunted house Asylum 49 is built in a former hospital—like the one pictured—which for a time was so poorly funded, deceased patients were stacked in a stairwell for lack of a morgue. Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons by Frank Grace

Outside Asylum 49, the self-described “full contact haunted house” built into the old Tooele hospital, a doctor in bloody scrubs challenges me to a game of rock-paper-scissors. I can tell right away by his maniacal stare that, even if I win, I’m going to lose.  

Sure enough, he shows scissors. I show scissors. Then someone unseen shows me the inside of a canvas bag, which is cinched around my neck as two strong men throw me on a gurney and strap me in place. I’ve been dragged into haunted houses before, but never so literally. I can’t help but think, “I should have used rock!”

The truth is I haven’t been scared from haunted house for a long time. Offended, maybe. Startled, sure—but any old animatronic vampire can catch you off guard. I want that bonafide, fight-or-flight flutter in my stomach—forget butterflies, I want bats.

But every autumn, I grow a little more steeled and a little less scared. By now, most of the actors with painted-on widow’s peaks springing out of their crannies feel about as intimidating as Justin Bieber circa 2008. I’ve just about thrown in the cape on the whole enterprise.

Yet, as I lay here strapped to a stretcher, part of me starts to hope.

The smell of gas seeps through the canvas. A scream is flung and seems to hang in the air. My heart begins thumping on as though it wants to be let out, like something locked in a cellar.  

Privately, I smile. It also makes we wonder why, exactly, is this fun?

“The natural high from the flight-or-fight response feels great,” said psychologist Dr. Margee Kerr in her book “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.”

“Fear causes a physiologically stimulating response,” she writes. “We want to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine.”

Kerr explains that people given to horror are likely given to dare-devil thrills like running with bulls and swimming with sharks. People who seek after scares have a “low base rate,” meaning they need more arousal than others to feel stimulated.  

In other words, having your head cinched in a bag isn’t everyone’s bag. But there’s an important caveat.

“The key is controllability,” Kerr wrote. “It’s about triggering the flight-or-fight response in a completely safe space...Our brains are lighting fast at processing the fact that the threats aren’t real.”

The fear disappears but the feel-good chemicals linger. It’s a manipulation of the brain.  And when you think of it that way, horror is a lot like a drug, and like a drug, it has side effects.

“When we’re afraid, we release hormones that amplify affection and make us feel emotionally closer to the people were with,” Kerr wrote.

Interesting to consider as the bag is pulled off my head and I move on through a meat freezer alone. All this adhesive and nothing to bond to, save these disfigured bodies strung up on hooks. Funny how it works out, though, because winding my way through the corpses is a girl who looks very intent. She has long auburn hair and a friend in tow.

“Did you get separated from your group?” she asked. “Don’t worry. Come with us.”

It’s a testament: I’m taken in hand by two pretty women and pulled from a freezer of gore. There’s more than entertainment at stake when deal in the frightening. Our humanity is on the line.

Asylum 49 is built in a former hospital, which for a time was so poorly funded, deceased patients were stacked in a stairwell for lack of a morgue. The stench of posthumous decay rose off the bodies and spread through the building. It made nurses nauseated and patients delusional.

Eventually, the bodies were buried in an abutting plot that’s now in a Tooele cemetery. But some of those people, lore holds, are still right where they took their last sentient breath.

Asylum 49 could very well be the best haunted house in the state. Which is too bad, because despite all that mojo, and its vigorous start, Asylum 49 fails to perform its promise to scare.

Perhaps, I’m just calloused and grown, or nostalgic for scares I can’t recreate.  

Nonetheless, if haunted houses want to stay relevant for people like me, they’re going to have to sharpen their teeth. The “full contact” vein is a lifeline. But this old vampire is going to need more blood than that.