How a SF Haunted House is Teaching the Rules of Consent

A San Francisco spook factory lets participants choose their preferred level of interaction with performers.

Haunted houses haven’t always given you a lot of options. You’re typically thrown in with little information in mind, led down a terrifying path, and the only way out… is through. That’s part of the nature of wanting a fear-based experience. 

But when it comes to consenting to touch, which can either make or break somebody’s experience, haunted houses haven’t always had the clearest of guidelines — or choices — on how to still feel scared and safe.

But if you enter the Terror Vault, you’ll be asked to make a decision: Opt in or opt out to interactivity in Into the Dark’s tour of the San Francisco Mint building, a 45-minute experience that takes you through gruesome stories and frightening actors, much like a haunted house. 

Opting in means you’re agreeing to a more interactive experience. Actors may touch you, feed you, draw on you, or pull you away from the group for a temporary detour. You’ll be handed a red glow-in-the-dark necklace to wear throughout the haunt, signifying your agreement. 

Opting out is just as easy. Simply take off the necklace, and actors will know to not touch you. While these necklaces aren’t new, they are rather unique in the world of haunts. Joshua Grannell, also known as drag queen Peaches Christ, is a producer for Into the Dark. Grannell and David Flower, a production designer, first encountered these necklaces at a haunt convention in St. Louis called Transworld. There, they learned about them while attending a workshop on interactivity hosted by Amy Hollaman, who works as the creative director of Terror Behind the Walls, a haunt located in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.

“They talked about this concept about wearing a glow necklace, and choosing to wear a glow necklace so you’re opting in for interactivity,” Grannell says. The two thought it was an excellent idea — these necklaces mimic the rules of consent in that you can choose to give or to remove your agreement to interactivity at any time.

It’s something that diverges away from traditional rules at other haunts, which tend to fall into two categories. 

One, there are no options for varying levels of interaction. Once you step in, you’re agreeing to anything the producers might have planned for you. This could involve touch, or the haunt might follow a general rule of “Don’t touch the actors, and they won’t touch you.” Sometimes the expectations are listed on the haunt’s website. Other times, you may have to call or arrive at the haunt itself to get more information.

Two, you have the choice to opt in or opt out of touch at the start of the haunt. However, whatever decision you make is final, with no ability to opt out during the experience.

Not all haunts are too cognizant about the boundaries of touch. But Grannell and Flower have both realized that by making consent a part of the process, participants and actors have actually been able to push their limitations while knowing they have a kind of safe word — necklaces — if things get too intense. Grannell describes one scene with a cannibal grandmother that particularly stuck out to him as an example of actors pushing the limits consensually.

“Grandma walked up to a guest, and sort of stuck her tongue out and touched this person’s cheek with her tongue,” Grannell says. “That table erupted. They applauded.”

“We’re really playing with boundaries,” Grannell adds. “But it is only when consent has been given.”

Flower estimates over 80 percent of people choose to wear the necklaces and opt in for full interactivity. (Some participants from the previous year even said that they wished that there was more touch involved.) For the other 20 percent, the comfort in knowing that they won’t be touched is integral for a scary but safe experience.

“For the folks who don’t want to be touched, this is awesome because they know they won’t, because they have the necklaces on,” Flower says. “For them it’s immediate relief on the other side of the coin.”

When I went to the Terror Vault, I opted out and left my necklace behind. Opting out still made for an intensely terrifying and wonderfully immersive tour — you’re still very much an active participant, with actors dressed in gory costumes jumping out and screaming at you from the darkness, and others speaking with you while in character. You still get to participate in games embedded into the experience. The main rule is that the actors cannot touch you.

I found this to be mostly true, save for one moment when an actor held my arm to gesture me to the next door. It wasn’t meant to be a fear-inducing touch — nothing like when some characters grabbed necklace-wearing participants’ shoulders or stroked their faces. But know that the absence of a necklace, at least for me, wasn’t like an invisible shield that blocked me from any physical interaction.

The actors are trained on what sort of touch and how much of it is deemed “okay,” according to Grannell.

“No one is going to get hurt. We don’t allow any touching in traditional bathing suits areas,” Grannell says. “We have actors who are nonbinary and trans, so bathing suit areas are the same across the board.”

“Into the Dark: Terror Vault”

Through Nov. 3 at The San Francisco Mint, 88 5th St., $62; intothedark.com.

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