Before he gets started, the first thing Russ McKamey has to do is call the cops.
From the front porch of a trailer in Summertown, Tenn., he dials a number — “Lawrence County Dispatch,” the woman answers — and informs the operator he’s about to start his show.
“Please, if you get any crazy phone calls from the neighbors, don’t come out here guns a-blazin’,” says McKamey. “We had that happen once before. We don’t wanna do that again.”
The operator laughs.
“Yes, we were working that day,” she says.
McKamey has been in Summertown for less than a year, but local authorities are already very familiar with him. He’s the owner of McKamey Manor, an “extreme haunt” that dares adrenaline junkies to subject themselves to the wildest physical and emotional challenges he’s capable of conjuring. All it costs for the privilege is one 50-pound bag of dog food, which McKamey, a dog lover, donates to a local animal shelter.
One McKamey Manor promo video from 2013 — a supercut filmed at the manor’s previous location in San Diego — shows blood-covered horror-seekers eating cockroaches, vomiting and begging to be released from macabre contraptions that seem straight off the set of Saw. The clip has more than 14 million views. Another video with 2-million-plus views features a guy named Steve having what looks like a panic attack. “Nobody should fucking do, do this,” he stammers. “Nobody should do this. I just died!”
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.
After just a few weeks in his new home, during his second show in Tennessee, cops charged onto the property after a witness reported seeing a screaming woman being dragged from a vehicle. The woman was there consensually, and the cops left without incident, but McKamey now has an agreement with authorities: He’ll give them a heads-up whenever he’s scheduled to give a tour.
The dispatch operator thanks McKamey for calling and hangs up. Now the show can begin.
The “victim” on this rainy Saturday afternoon in February is 23-year-old Brian VanOver. He and his wife Stephanie drove roughly 11 hours from their home in Tampa so that VanOver could take a stab at the outrageous challenge, and maybe even win the $20,000 prize that comes with surviving all the manor’s obstacles.
And, my God, there are a lot of obstacles.
Between his two-acre lot in Summertown and a mysterious second location in Huntsville, Ala. — McKamey won’t say much about that one — McKamey says he owns all manner of courses and contraptions designed to push people to their breaking points.
Some visitors might have to swim through a 200-yard muddy trench that’s home to a few caimans, including a 2-and-a-half-foot male named Ralphie. “He’s a biter,” McKamey warns. Others might take a dip in a giant tank full of moray eels that “won’t bite you, but they will wrap around your face.”
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. But VanOver is enthusiastic, almost giddy.
Wearing a Rick and Morty onesie — everyone taking a McKamey Manor tour does so while wearing an adult onesie — VanOver reads and initials each item.
“No. 28,” VanOver says with a boastful tone. “Participant fully understands that by signing this waiver they are giving McKamey Manor permission to keep nothing off the table except sexual or inappropriate situations. Everything else imaginable can and will happen inside McKamey Manor.” Initialed.
“No. 29. Participant agrees to and has full knowledge that if selected to ‘visit the barber,’ participant may leave McKamey Manor completely bald, including eyebrows.” Initialed.
“No. 30. Participant agrees and acknowledges that mouse traps are used on the tour which may result in bruising or breaking of fingers.” Initialed.
VanOver’s job has prepared him for this. He’s in emergency mitigation, cleaning up everything from sewage and black mold to long-decayed bodies. He’s used to maneuvering through unsettling situations.
In the hours it takes to make it through the waiver, he agrees to exposure to extreme temperatures (No. 73), having plastic wrap tightly held over his face (No. 74), and having his hands and feet zip-tied (No. 75). The only thing VanOver won’t stand for — everyone gets to pick two “freebies” — is tooth-pulling and needles. McKamey hesitates to let VanOver call no needles, dramatically hemming and hawing about how it’ll mess up the show, but McKamey finally agrees, reassuring VanOver that he can just drug him orally if need be.
Every hour or so, McKamey pauses the contract reading — which lasts from 2 until 8 p.m. — to put on a show. With the help of his 19-year-old assistant Austin Graham, McKamey jumps onto a Facebook Live feed to post videos of VanOver getting covered in viscous fake blood, eating mysterious, stinky canned seafood and singing Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at the top of his lungs. Those watching, many of them past McKamey Manor participants themselves, cheer and jeer his efforts.
Even though VanOver is the one doing all the dirty work, McKamey, even from behind the camera, is the star of the show. He looks like a less-Hollywood Ron Perlman — he’s tall, maybe 6-foot-5, with a broad stance, and his straight silver hair is cut high and tight. He talks like a cross between Violet Beauregarde’s motor-mouthed car-salesman father in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Devil’s Rejects’ excitable Captain Spaulding. McKamey never curses — that’s one of his rules, no cursing. He’s at times comforting (“I can guarantee you will not be tortured”) and at times menacing (“I can get inside your noodle, I can make you hallucinate and do all kinds of crazy stuff”), toggling between the two moods with eerie but admittedly entertaining ease.
While the shocking video footage gets people’s attention, it’s McKamey’s charisma that has helped build his following of thousands of fans from all over the world. But in Summertown, the quiet unincorporated community that sits 70 miles south of Nashville, his big personality hasn’t won him quite as many fans.
Lawrence County officials have been getting complaints. Anti-McKamey Manor pages, videos and petitions have continued to pop up on Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube. And while McKamey sees many repeat visitors, not everyone who survives the manor leaves happy. Some say what they lived through was downright torture, a nightmare that included waterboarding, severe beatings, broken bones and being held captive long after they’d called out the agreed-upon “safe phrase.”
He might be trying to start anew in Tennessee, but McKamey’s past in San Diego still haunts him.
Summertown is small — very small. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, it had a population of just 866. But nontraditional lifestyles are nothing new to the unincorporated community. The Farm, a commune currently housing about 150 people, has existed in the area since the early ’70s. Just 20 minutes up the road in Hohenwald, there’s a 2,700-acre elephant sanctuary, home to dozens of Asian and African elephants that have been retired from zoos and circuses.
But amid its bucolic surroundings, McKamey Manor sticks out like a severed head on a stick.
Lawrence County District Attorney Brent Cooper says his office received dozens of complaints about McKamey in the manor’s first few months, and cops rushing to the property in response to a possible hostage situation … well, it wasn’t a great way to meet the neighbors.
“According to Mr. McKamey, they had the woman down in the storm shelter, and she was down there consensually, but the deputies didn’t know that,” Cooper tells the Scene. “The way he described the scene to us, if the deputies had gone down there to see what he had done to this woman, the deputies would have shot Mr. McKamey.”
Thankfully, the day didn’t end in tragedy. The battery died on McKamey’s camera — he films everything — and when he left the storm shelter to grab another, he encountered the officers and explained the situation. The woman confirmed she was voluntarily participating in the show.
“It really freaked them out,” says Cooper. “Before [the deputies] found Mr. McKamey, they found a lot of the props [in the barn], and some of those are pretty gory looking — they were really freaked out about what kind of activities were going on at this place.”
The fracas kicked off an online campaign to have McKamey Manor shut down. Lawrence County Commissioner Scott Franks posted about the incident on Facebook, writing, “Staged or not, this is simply something that none of us want anywhere near us.” The post was shared more than 200 times and received more than 500 comments before being pulled by Facebook, reportedly due to threats of violence being made by commenters. But according to The San Diego Union-Tribune — which started reporting on the manor when McKamey still lived in California, and ran a story about the manor’s new Tennessee location in June — Franks’ Facebook post also claimed that a number of officials in Lawrence County were working on “getting this operation shut down.”
McKamey claims that not long after that post went up, a bullet whizzed by his head while he was working outside in his yard, but he didn’t report it to police — he didn’t want to bring any more attention to himself.
Commissioner Franks declined to speak to the Scene on the record, saying he didn’t want to give any “free publicity” to McKamey Manor. But District Attorney Cooper says he’s not aware of any organized efforts to run McKamey out of town. What McKamey’s doing, as Cooper sees it, is legal. And he says he had a long conversation with McKamey to ensure it stays that way.
“It’s legal because basically the people that are subjecting themselves to the McKamey program, or whatever you want to call it, they’re doing so voluntarily,” he says. “That was one thing we went over at length with Mr. McKamey.
“Tennessee is a state where you can withdraw your consent at anytime,” he continues. “Even though someone may sign a really long consent form, if they ever indicate that they’re withdrawing consent, [McKamey] should take that seriously. Because if the person really has withdrawn consent, and [you] continue to confine the person against their will, then you’re actually committing a crime.”
McKamey likes to talk a big game. He repeatedly taunts visitors ahead of their arrival and makes outlandish claims, saying he’s capable of hypnosis and mind control. But he also admits the manor is safer than it may appear, and he’s aware of the laws he has to follow. He doesn’t want to seriously hurt anyone, he says. He just wants to get enough footage of what-the-fuck moments to make an exciting movie.
“Nobody’s ever been injured, ever,” McKamey says. “Nobody’s ever had any lawsuits, ever. I mean, there was a heart attack once, but that person’s OK now.”
He pauses to chuckle.
“People can get bumps, bruises, sprains and cuts,” he adds, “but you can die at Disneyland, too.”
In 2016, Laura Hertz Brotherton traveled from Colorado to San Diego to tour McKamey Manor. She says she left with more than just bumps and bruises — it nearly ruined her life.
A self-proclaimed “Halloween guru,” Brotherton first found out about the manor in San Diego when she was searching the internet for local haunted houses and happened across some of McKamey’s videos.
“I saw that it was interactive, the actors can touch you, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so up my alley,’ ” Brotherton tells the Scene. “Because regular haunted houses just don’t do it for me.”
She reached out to McKamey to learn more about the experience. After talking for about a month, she booked a date: Oct. 23, 2016. It just was a couple months away.
Leading up to the date, McKamey sent Brotherton tasks — homework assignments, basically — that she had to complete as evidence of loyalty to McKamey Manor. She had to do things like get a onesie to wear for her tour, or videotape a visit to a nearby Spirit Halloween store. Fun stuff, Brotherton says. She even got a McKamey Manor tattoo ahead of the trip. It reads “McKamey Manor, ‘The chamber,’ Oct 23rd 2016.” Drops of blood are dripping from the script letters.
While posting these assignments on Facebook, as McKamey requested, Brotherton, who was going through a separation with her husband, started to hit it off with another fan on the page. This man, who lived on the other side of the country, said he was experiencing something similar with his wife.
“It’s embarrassing to say, but it turned into an online romantic relationship,” Brotherton says.
October finally arrived, and Brotherton flew to San Diego. Her estranged husband traveled with her — their marriage was rocky, but he still wanted to make sure she was safe — and she had the support of her online boyfriend, too. But on the morning of her tour, McKamey found out about Brotherton’s online fling. McKamey outed the private relationship to everyone, including their families. While Brotherton’s husband knew about the relationship, the new guy’s wife didn’t. And the online boyfriend was allegedly lying about being separated.
All hell broke loose.
“He blew me off,” Brotherton says of her online boyfriend. “He didn’t even speak to me. The one guy that I was very interested in dropped me like a hot potato, and my then-separated husband tells me he wants a divorce, literally minutes before my tour.
“I was kind of emotionally numb, but at the same time I still wanted to do it,” she adds. “I came so far, doing all these challenges, and I had given up so much of my personal life to do this, I just [couldn’t] turn back.”
Brotherton believes McKamey was personally offended by her online relationship — “All he kept saying was, ‘I don’t believe in cheaters,’ ” she says — and it caused her tour to spiral into something far more sinister than the usual McKamey Manor experience. With McKamey manning the camera and calling the shots, the McKamey Manor “actors,” as he calls them — the staff who actually get physical with each participant — began the haunt. And it didn’t end for hours.
“I was waterboarded, I was Tased, I was whipped,” she says. “I still have scars of everything they did to me. I was repeatedly hit in my face, over and over and over again. Like, open-handed, as hard as a man could hit a woman in her face. … Even through them hitting me, I was just so numb by what had happened previous to that, I didn’t even make a sound, not even a grunt. Nothing. I didn’t cry, I didn’t scream, I didn’t say ‘ouch.’ ”
Brotherton says she was blindfolded with duct tape and submerged under water by her ankles for so long that her body started involuntarilty thrashing. They made her dig a shallow hole in a patch of dirt with her bare hands, then they made her lie in it while they covered her face with dirt, giving her only a straw to breathe through.
“[The dirt] started to go into my throat, and I started to swallow it,” she says. “I’m coughing and I keep saying, ‘I need water,’ and they would just splash water in my face. They wouldn’t actually give me water. That went on for, I want to say, 20 to 30 minutes.”
At one point, she says, they started scraping at her McKamey Manor tattoo with what felt like a file. She believes they used the same tool to scratch at her throat, and that’s when she broke.
“I didn’t panic, but I started to get a little bit emotional, and [one actor] is holding my throat, and at that point I just started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I started crying, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ whatever. But they don’t care if you cry. They don’t care if you pee or poop your pants, they don’t care because it’s all about the show. Not about a person’s safety.”
Brotherton says she repeated the safe phrase for several minutes before they finally stopped hurting her. They sprayed her down with a pressure washer, duct tape still over her eyes, and drove her back to the drop-off location.
“My arms and my hands were shaking so much from adrenaline, they thought I was seizing.”
Before she was allowed to leave, she says, she had to record an exit video. Everyone who visits the McKamey Manor does.
“Before Russ turned the camera on he said to me, if I do not say good things about McKamey Manor and I start telling what actually happened, he’s going to sue me for $50,000,” says Brotherton. “I signed a waiver saying this could happen. So Russ forced me into saying all these great things, like, ‘Oh my God, my tour was so amazing, it was exhilarating,’ blah, blah, blah.
“Like who is actually going to say that after getting hit in the face as many times as I did and going through what I did? At that point I was so distraught — emotionally, physically, mentally, psychologically. I mean, at that point I was just like, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to say.’ ”
Brotherton went back to her hotel room and took a shower. As the adrenaline wore off, she began to realize how much pain she was in. So she drove herself to the hospital. She also took photographs to document the injuries. In one photo, Brotherton is in a neck brace and a hospital gown and her face is markedly swollen. She has scrapes on her cheeks and a lump on her forehead, her lips are red and puffy, and there are small cuts at the corner of her mouth.
In another image, you can see a large, bloody wound on Brotherton’s left knee. She says that’s an old surgery scar that opened up after McKamey’s actors cut off her knee pads and made her crawl on the ground. Her legs are covered in scratches, and there’s a large purple bruise on top of her left foot. There are also two pictures of her torso, showing large purple bruises that stretch across her hip and stomach. She says X-rays showed a hairline fracture in her foot, and the inside of her mouth was so scratched up from the hitting and “fish-hooking” (“Where they take their two fingers and they put them inside your mouth and they stretch your mouth open”) that the hospital sent her home with medical mouthwash, which she had to use every two hours for three days.
When she refused to tell the hospital staff how she was injured — McKamey’s threats to sue echoing in her head — they called the police, but she was discharged and left before any authorities arrived. Brotherton said she tried to go to the San Diego police later, but they told her she didn’t have a criminal case because of the waiver she signed. All she wants now is an apology. She’s happy, she says, and she and her husband have worked things out. But she wants closure.
She’s also tried to warn others about her experience, but McKamey, she says, has turned her into an enemy among his fans.
“He made so many people hate me and said I was crazy, and that I’m a liar, this and that, and that’s when I started posting my pictures,” Brotherton says. “I’m like, if I’m such a liar, here’s the proof. The pictures are proof in the pudding.”
McKamey doesn’t deny any of it, though he doesn’t believe she had a fracture in her foot. The fish-hooking happened, and he says that’s what caused the lip swelling. He also admits to outing her relationship before the tour.
“I outed her cheating, yeah, because my [Facebook] group is not a place to go cheating with other people in my group. Any personal information we have, we’ll use it against you in the tour. And you know that.”
McKamey says relationship drama wasn’t a part of Brotherton’s tour, but he says it didn’t affect her tour, either — her experience, he says, was as rough and tumble as any other McKamey Manor tour at the time. He admits that the San Diego shows were much more physical than what he’s doing now in Tennessee.
In San Diego McKamey had an army of “actors,” folks who would do his bidding throughout the day. McKamey never touched Brotherton. It was all the actors. In Tennessee, he doesn’t have the same staff, nor does he have most of his props — his ex-girlfriend took them with her when she moved out of the house last year.
But he’s not fazed. McKamey Manor is always evolving, he says, so no one really knows what they’re going to get, and his latest haunt is more psychological than ever. Which isn’t to say you won’t leave Summertown with some injuries.
“You’re gonna get fish-hooked, you’re gonna get swollen lips, you can get black eyes — it’s all in the contract,” he says. “You’re agreeing to that. That’s what they’re signing up for … extreme physicality.”
No one who’s taken a McKamey Manor tour in Tennessee has walked away looking as beaten-up as Brotherton. At least not yet.
Brandon Vance has taken the tour twice since McKamey moved to Summertown, and he can’t wait to go again. He’s visited hundreds of haunted houses over the years — he and his friends tour them every weekend during Halloween season — and to get to McKamey’s, Vance has to drive from McKinney, Texas. That’s a 10-hour trip each way.
For Vance, touring McKamey Manor is about more than just being scared. He describes it as “therapeutic,” a way to cope with missing the adrenaline rush he felt during his time in the Army.
“I try to fill those gaps with some of the most extreme things,” Vance tells the Scene. “McKamey Manor, skydiving, bungee jumping, rock climbing — I’ve done everything. I don’t get that adrenaline rush from jumping out a plane anymore. It’s not the same as when you’re sitting in a Humvee, locked and loaded, you’ve said your last prayer and go outside the wire — it’s very hard to replicate that.
“With McKamey Manor,” he continues, “that’s the closest I’ve ever come. I get to experience that feeling again — it’s almost euphoric.”
Vance knows he’s not going to die in McKamey Manor, but “the illusion of being unsafe” gives him the thrill.
“The fear of the unknown in and of itself can be terrifying, and that’s part of it,” he says. “The whole thing is head games! That’s what’s great about it.”
Vance’s first trip through the manor didn’t last nearly as long as Brotherton’s. While McKamey says Brotherton’s ordeal went on for nearly two hours (Brotherton puts it closer to three), Vance — once he made it through the waiver process and into McKamey’s mysterious lair — lasted less than a minute.
He laughs when he admits how quickly he caved. The second time, Vance says, he lasted all of three minutes. He had to pull the plug when he found himself tied up in a straitjacket with duct tape over his face and some kind of fencing material constricting his entire body as he was lowered into a trench full of water.
“I have this thing with water, and it freaked me out,” he says. “I quit.”
Scott McNinch didn’t last long either. The married father of five and general manager of Folklore Haunted House in Atlanta drove four hours from his home in Dallas, Ga., to take a crack at McKamey’s $20,000 reward. McNinch bought an orange Charmander Pokémon onesie on Amazon and arrived at McKamey’s property at 2 p.m., prepared to give it his all. So how long was his tour?
“Oh, less than a minute,” he says with a laugh.
McNinch won’t say what happened in his brief McKamey Manor tour, but he is “definitely” going back. A few weeks after his trip, he got a large, colorful tattoo of the McKamey Manor logo on his right arm. Rivers of blood are pouring out out of a gagged man’s eyes, and silhouetted monsters are lurking in the background — “1.06.18” it says above the image, with “McKamey Manor” underneath in Friday the 13th-esque title font.
On this Saturday afternoon in February, VanOver says his goal is just to last longer than all the other guys. Five hours into the contract signing, despite occasionally burping up the taste of funky seafood, he’s still enthusiastic. At this point, his only complaint is that his leg keeps falling asleep and his hands are starting to go numb as he sits out on the hardwood floor of McKamey’s porch in the cold, rainy weather.
Finally, after dark, VanOver gets his first assignment.
McKamey wraps red duct tape around VanOver’s head and eyes. Then he fits VanOver with a water polo helmet, which has been outfitted to hold a walkie-talkie up to his ear. McKamey throws a duffel bag of bricks on VanOver’s back and tells him he has to run five laps around the yard, in the mud and rain, while carrying the 50-pound bag of dog food he brought as payment. VanOver can’t see, he can hardly hear, and he only has the chain-link fence and his wife to guide him.
Before he even completes two laps, VanOver drops the bag of Purina and gives up. But McKamey takes pity on him (this wasn’t a “breaker” challenge, after all), so even though VanOver quit in the middle of his first task, he’s still allowed to go back to the manor — that is, the big red barn and shipping containers standing in McKamey’s backyard. McKamey and Graham guide VanOver back off the porch, and they disappear into the rainy night.
Minutes later, while sitting in McKamey’s home, VanOver’s wife and I hear clanging metal in the distance. We peek out the blinds, but we can’t see anything. She seems nervous but happy for VanOver — whom she describes as an adrenaline junkie — to experience this thing he’s been excited about. Then, 45 minutes later, we hear laughing. But VanOver didn’t last 45 minutes. He lasted three seconds.
According to his exit interview, which streamed live on Facebook, VanOver quit the instant that cold water washed over him. McKamey says he tried to get him to continue with a different stunt — “The Rat Race” and “The Head Box” were mentioned — but VanOver passed. McKamey Manor kicked his ass (as VanOver had to admit in the safe phrase releasing him). In three seconds. His face wasn’t battered and bruised, his lips weren’t swollen. He said he’s looking forward to trying it again, perhaps in warmer weather.
The next day, on his drive home, VanOver logged back into Facebook to address everyone who watched the shows: “I had a great time yesterday,” he says. “It was a blast.”
He added: “It’s like they say: You really don’t want to do this. That’s actually really accurate, and it makes sense now. But I’ll definitely be returning to take a second tour. The matter is when.”
Here’s the thing: There is no $20,000.
There’s no caiman named Ralphie, there’s no quicksand-like mud that will swallow you whole, and McKamey will certainly never slather your body in flame-retardant gel and lock you in an incinerator somewhere in Huntsville, Ala. None of that is real.
What McKamey has is a story — a good one, fiendish and fascinating. It’s the promise of impossible adventure. It’s the opportunity to break free of your personal boundaries, your mundane day-to-day, and embrace the opportunity to surprise yourself by testing your limits. And all it costs is a bag of dog food and maybe your eyebrows.
But things can go wrong. Things have gone wrong. So why does McKamey do it?
“I do it for the fans,” he says. “I do it for guys like Brian [VanOver]. These are enthusiastic people who understand and appreciate the art form that we’re doing. This is an art form.”
No one has ever completed a full McKamey Manor tour. That’s not for lack of trying — it’s by design. A full stay lasts about 10 excruciating hours, McKamey says, and no one has even made it to the supposed Huntsville portion of the show. McKamey knows what will break people, and after stringing them along with some fake blood, gnarly props and a silly afternoon of wall sits and Elton John songs, he can simply pull out what’s needed to shut the show down when he’s ready for it to end. Which doesn’t take long — McKamey says the average time spent at the Summertown McKamey Manor location is just eight minutes.
I had to ask. “Has anyone gotten the $20,000 prize? Or any money?”
“Oh, Megan, surely you jest,” McKamey says with a laugh. “Of course not, and they never will! Because it’s so mentally and physically challenging. But it will be the most exciting thing you’ve ever done.”