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Spookers at Sheffield Doc/Fest

Twelve years ago, I volunteered at Doc/Fest. It was my first ever film festival experience; I learned a lot, and it set me on a path to where I am now. Over the years, Doc/Fest has grown exponentially. It’s now the biggest documentary festival in the UK, with screenings and events happening all over the city. Despite my history with the festival (and the fact that it’s right here in Sheffield), I haven’t made it to that many screenings. However, when I found out that Spookers was screening as part of Doc/Fest, I couldn’t book it fast enough. Not only is Spookers a documentary about a scare attraction, but it had its own scare attraction to go with it!


The screening took place in the atmospheric and historic Abbeydale Picturehouse, the perfect venue for this event. It was really nice, if a little bizarre, to see familiar faces from my two separate worlds, film festivals and scare entertainment, under the same roof. Even in the horror sphere, where I basically live my entire life, the two don’t often mix. I was a little giddy to say the least.


Our scare experience came first. Produced by AtmosFEAR! Scare Entertainment, this mini attraction consisted of a simple but effective walkthrough, peppered with strategically positioned scareactors. The design was ideal for newcomers, featuring a line on the floor to follow, hands-on-shoulders, and a ‘host’ actor controlling things at the front. It worked well. Perhaps the best element of the experience didn’t become known until after the documentary – that the characters inside where based on the characters from the Spookers attraction. This was a lovely touch. After the scare experience, we took our seats in the auditorium. Two actors, one interactive and one writhing on the floor/generally upsetting people, entertained us as we waited for the film to start.


Spookers is about a New Zealand scare attraction of the same name. It’s open all year round, and housed in Kingseat, a former psychiatric hospital south of Auckland. The building itself is considered to be one of the most haunted in the country. It was in operation as a hospital from 1932 to 1999, and Spookers has been open there since 2005. The documentary takes us inside the world of Spookers, and introduces us to its creators and actors – ‘a family like no other’.


With a haunt on this scale, the creative and operational aspects alone could fill an entire documentary, so after briefly exploring these elements, Spookers focuses its attention elsewhere: the actors. They talk openly about their struggles in life; how the Spookers family has given them a sense of belonging and community, and helped them find their place in the world. Their remarkably honest, moving, and personal anecdotes are mostly delivered in full costume and makeup, which creates an interesting contrast: they appear inhuman, yet they are telling deeply human stories. This gives the film a surreal, dreamlike quality. The film is also interspersed with moments of visual fantasy – an unusual choice for a documentary – which depict the actors’ dreams, fantasies and memories. These add great deal of warmth and heart, and heighten the surrealism.


Actors’ stories aside, the documentary is about a haunted attraction, the expectation being at that some point we’ll see it in action. And the film delivers on this with gusto. The scenes inside the attraction are frenzied, energetic, loud and outrageously entertaining. Blood splatters, chainsaws roar, guests burst from doorways and run screaming into the night. We are treated to exquisite slow motion close-ups of guests’ faces as they are mercilessly terrorised by the actors, causing the audience to erupt with laughter. The chaotic fun of scare entertainment is portrayed perfectly in these scenes.


This documentary strikes a though-provoking balance. It presents us with the full horror of Spookers in all its gory glory. It explores the energy and creativity poured into it, and the human stories behind it. It examines what it means to express yourself creatively, and embrace who you really are. It’s a poignant celebration of the weird and wonderful. And it’s well worth a watch.