The Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital outside of Auckland was active from 1932 to 1999, and was home to 800 patients and 250 staff at its peak before it was shut down by the New Zealand government. It then stood deserted until it was spotted by Beth and Andy Watson, who were looking for a sprawling location to expand their haunted house business. Now, the building is occupied nightly by ghouls, demons and monsters - and people pay for the privilege to get the life scared out of them. A new documentary ’Spookers’ looks at the extraordinary group of people who work here, and tries to uncover why they do it.
The actors at Spookers come from a varied range of backgrounds. There are supermarket employees, chefs, flight attendants and even students, who all love the time they spend in costume and make-up trying to terrify visitors. They take their jobs very seriously; we see the preparation rituals as they get into character, but also the dances, songs and build-up before the crowd arrives. This is a community of committed to the art of scaring.
People come from far and wide to be frightened by the things that go bump in the night. Busloads of crowds turn up and line up for their chance to be scared witless, from age eight to 98. When we actually go inside the hospital with them, and witness what has been awaiting us, it’s a truly terrifying spectacle: murderous maniacs, chainsaw-wielding clowns and possessed phantasms. It’s a confronting experience, with an impressive sound design for the documentary viewer.
The heart of the film, however, looks at the relationships between the people who work at Spookers. It’s no surprise - Beth and Andy have been married for 40 years, and are such remarkably ordinary and loveable couple, who unbelievably have never seen a horror film in their lives. All of their employees are of a similarly sweet demeanour; as clichéd as it sounds, it truly is like a big family - there’s even essentially a mother/son relationship between Juneen and David. The employees use Spookers as a coping mechanism or an escape from stress or a place to gain confidence, but they come together to bond and escape the outside world.
When we actually go inside the hospital with them, and witness what has been awaiting us, it’s a truly terrifying spectacle: murderous maniacs, chainsaw-wielding clowns and possessed phantasms.
What could be a somewhat superficial story is fleshed out by delving into a number of serious topics. Quite a reasonable portion of the documentary deals with whether it is appropriate to turn a former psychiatric hospital into a haunted house, and whether it’s stigmatising to mental health. Former nurses and patients of the hospital are interviewed, with viewers left to make up their minds.
For a documentary, the cinematography is quite slick. The film has a grunge horror look, from the ‘Evil Dead’ era. It’s littered with trippy vignettes, reenacted actors' dreams, a mixture of spooky and surreal. The interviews are shot largely with the actors in make-up, and it’s not until very late in the piece that we see the true people who lie under the masks.
In a place where the most horrific and bizarre characters from your darkest, deepest nightmares come to life, Kingseat has actually become a sanctuary for a group of unconventional people. "Here at Spookers you're allowed to be a freak,” one employee tells us. It’s a place where they can be themselves, without fear of disdain or scorn. ‘Spookers’ interweaves a lot of different stories into one entertaining piece, but it’s not the horror that truly mesmerises - it’s the people.