The Untold Truth Of McKamey Manor, America's Most Controversial Haunted House

Both young and old alike get a kick out of a good haunted house attraction, especially during Halloween season. What better way to get the adrenaline pumping than walking (or being chased) through a maze of spooky fun? However, for some, jump scares, actors in frightening costumes, and special effects just aren't enough. To satisfy that hunger for more visceral fun, numerous haunts have popped up in recent years that go well beyond the usual scares of traditional attractions. One of these haunts is McKamey Manor, founded by Russ Mckamey, which since launching has generated considerable controversy for its incredibly violent nature. 

In fact, this particular haunted house is so extreme that participants must go through an intense screening process that includes signing a 40-page waiver. Apparently, those brave enough to go through with the experience are at risk of serious psychological suffering, physical injury, and even death. It's so extreme that those who make it through the hours-long duration will win $20,000. But what is McKamey Manor, exactly? Is it a barely legal way for its owner and employees to torture unwitting victims, or is it something else entirely?

No one has completed it

McKamey Manor is supposedly such a torturous experience that even the toughest military veterans and masochists are pushed well beyond their limits. Of course, according to McKamey Manor's founder, Russ McKamey, the attraction is designed to be impossible to finish. When Nashville Scene asked him if anyone had ever won the $20,000 grand prize, McKamey responded, "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."

Most sane people wouldn't call the haunted house exciting, and might regard a mere few minutes at McKamey Manor as more than enough. However, that still hasn't stopped some folks from becoming repeat customers, wanting to prove to themselves that they can last longer than their previous tries. Just ask Christina Buster, who told the Guardian just before subjecting herself to McKamey Manor a second time, "Last time was brutal. I've come back to test my limits, push myself further. I'm nervous and I'm scared. I'm expecting to be torn limb from limb, to get it worse. I'm probably going to regret it big time."

It's a nonprofit

With the right kind of gimmick, a haunted house attraction can attract a massive crowd, especially during the Halloween season. Of course, because McKamey Manor does pretty much everything it can to separate itself from the pack, it doesn't make money, operating instead as a nonprofit. Even with a purported 27,000-person waitlist, the experience doesn't take a single dollar from any participant.

So, if McKamey Manor is a nonprofit that doesn't accept monetary payment, what does it cost to get in? Just some dog food. "I've already put in well over a million dollars into the thing," Russ McKamey tells WFLA News Channel 8. "And I don't charge any money of course to get into it. A bag of dog food is the initial price. Which is crazy. I'm not a very good businessperson." He has five dogs, so at least participants will be able to rest easy knowing that all of the cuts and bruises they endured will ensure the pups won't go hungry.

A participant (supposedly) had a heart attack there

There was one life-threatening case that happened at McKamey Manor, according to owner Russ McKamey, who told Nashville Scene that, "Nobody's ever been injured, ever. Nobody's ever had any lawsuits, ever. I mean, there was a heart attack once, but that person's OK now." Even that is not enough for McKamey to tone down his attraction. "People can get bumps, bruises, sprains, and cuts, but you can die at Disneyland, too," he told the publication.

While McKamey may not have taken the heart attack incident particularly seriously, one person who did take it seriously was Chris Potter, who included it as part of his petition to shut down McKamey Manor. According to the petition: "[McKamey] should understand that putting people in danger is not something to play with. One participant suffered a heart attack in 2008 during the experience in California, he didn't care one bit about this participant. He just enjoyed watching the footage."

Participants are forced to record an exit video

Some haunted house attractions have photo booths so visitors can take home a snapshot of themselves, after experiencing thrilling yet tame special effects and actors in spooky costumes. McKamey Manor, on the other hand, lets participants record videos of themselves — bruised, bloodied, and battered — talking about how much they enjoyed the rush. According to some, however, the option to be recorded is not optional.

Take Laura Hertz Brotherton, for example, who in 2016, traveled from Colorado to the McKamey Manor's original location in San Diego, California, as part of her quest for a more extreme horror experience. According to her interview with Nashville Scene, she got far more than she bargained for in the form of waterboarding, tasing, whipping, and slapping. 

When she dropped out before the end, she said that Russ McKamey pointed a camera at her and stated, "... 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. 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." Brotherton explained that, because she was so tired and overwhelmed, she was willing to do almost anything just to get out of there, including giving a positive testimonial.

There are still some things that are too extreme even for McKamey Manor

Believe it or not, founder Russ McKamey has some surprising rules in place. McKamey told HowStuffWorks, "[there is] never anything sexual. No one's going to whisper anything inappropriate into your ear. No one's going to touch you in an inappropriate way." He also stated that the attraction has no religious references, nor is profanity allowed. That last rule is a big deal for McKamey: participants face a $500 deduction from their final prize for each violation. In fact, he considers McKamey Manor to be "PG-13."

These rules appear to stem from McKamey's personal values, who tells The Washington Post that "I'm like the most strait-laced guy you could think of, but here I run this crazy haunted house. And people twist it around in their little minds." He's confirmed that he doesn't use profanity in his personal life, nor does he smoke, or consume alcohol or even coffee.

It's got an intensive screening process

With a waitlist that supposedly consists of more than 27,000 people, Russ McKamey is naturally a bit choosy about who he admits to McKamey Manor. The official website lists what you'd expect for this type of attraction, requiring participants to be "21 and above, or 18-20 with parents approval. Completed 'Sports Physical' and Doctor's letter stating you are physically and mentally cleared. Pass a background check provided by MM ... Proof of medical insurance. Sign a detailed 40-page waiver. Pass a portable drug test on the day of the show."

But there's another box that participants must check before being subjected to McKamey Manor's horrors, which is watching a nearly two-hour documentary that features many of the attraction's previous participants. The purpose of this particular requirement does little to reveal the specifics of what they'll be subjected to as, according to the website's warning, participants must "Understand that each tour will be different based upon your personal fears," meaning no two experiences are the same.

It's being investigated by the Tennessee Attorney General's Office

Unsurprisingly, Mckamey Manor, a haunted house attraction with a reputation for subjecting visitors to extreme violence, has attracted the attention of the authorities. The release of Hulu's documentary "Monster Inside: America's Most Extreme Haunted House," which features interviews with Russ McKamey, as well as several of its participants, prompted the Tennessee Attorney General's Office to begin an investigation into the attraction's operations.

In October 2023, Tennessee's chief legal officer Jonathan Skrmetti tweeted: "Happy Halloween. Today @agtennessee sent a letter to the @McKameyManor raising serious concerns about its business practices in operating its 'extreme haunted attraction.' This office continues to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of all Tennesseans." Apparently, McKamey and his team weren't bothered by the investigation, as McKamey Manor's official X account responded: "Haters gonna hate," ending with a laughing emoji.

The documentary's director, Andrew Renzi, revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that, while it wasn't his intent to draw the attention of the authorities to McKamey Manor, he's glad the participants who were subjected to the excessive torture may finally see justice occur. "The Attorney General is taking notice, so maybe the way my team made the film, as a horror film, has sparked a more visceral reaction in people than if we'd followed a more straightforward true crime template," he told the publication.

It might not be as dangerous as it seems

The alleged injuries that participants have suffered are not for the fainthearted, and include all manner of torture just shy of acts that constitute war crimes. Among these rumored acts are being dunked repeatedly underwater, beating until bones break, and more. Laura Hertz Brotherton told Nashville Scene that during her time at McKamey Manor, "I was waterboarded, I was Tased, I was whipped. 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."

But are those kinds of things really happening at this attraction? Despite the wild stories that come out of the place, owner Russ McKamey insists that it's all theatrics. In a conversation with HowStuffWorks, he stated, "It's a very psychological experience that includes hypnosis, and once I hypnotize you, I can make you believe whatever I want. I can put you in a kiddie pool and tell you there's a great white shark in there, and you're going to freak out like there's a shark."

It's a nightmare for neighbors and locals

Even living in the same vicinity of McKamey Manor is quite hellish. Owner Russ McKamey has gotten quite used to having neighbors call the police on him, but the neighbors haven't gotten used to him in Summertown, Tennessee. Speaking to Fox 17, County Commissioner and public servant Scott Franks said that he's especially concerned with the fake kidnappings that play a frequent part in the attraction, saying, "Children saw this happening. Mr. McKamey claims it's all smoke and mirrors and it's staged, but to the people who saw it, it did not appear that way. That's when we realized something has got to be done about this. You can't be doing this kind of activity in a residential area."

The simulated hostages have not only alarmed neighbors but local law enforcement, as well. Lawrence County District Attorney Brent Cooper recounts to Nashville Scene the frightening way that McKamey Manor first made its presence known in the area, saying, "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. 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." It's become a habit for McKamey to notify the police whenever he's about to start a show to prevent potential misunderstandings.

It's based on very specific fears

The goings-on at McKamey Manor may seem like unadulterated brutality, but according to Russ McKamey, there's a method to the madness. As part of his intensive screening process, an in-depth exploration of prospective participants' lives is conducted to deliver a uniquely terrifying show. One of the first steps is answering a series of questions, such as your biggest fear, your favorite horror movies, and your reasons for signing up in the first place.

But this is just the start of McKamey's system of picking ideal candidates for the house. Once someone has delivered some good answers, they talk to McKamey personally, when he gets to know them even more deeply. He told HowStuffWorks, "It's definitely a personalized survival horror experience. We find out a lot of information about an individual, with information we gather from them, from their friends and family, all kinds of sources. We find out what really makes them tick, and then we build a show around their fears and phobias." Because those who decide to pursue the "tour" are generally thrill-seekers, they're quite open about what truly scares them as they want the most extreme interactions possible. And McKamey is more than happy to deliver.

It's still legal - for now

Even with the authorities breathing down the necks of those who operate McKamey Manor, there seems to be little they can legally do to intervene — for the time being, at least. Lawrence County District Attorney Brent Cooper told Nashville Scene that he's talked to owner Russ McKamey about doing everything by the book to avoid prosecution, saying, "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. That was one thing we went over at length with Mr. McKamey."

What's really keeping McKamey Manor out of trouble is the infamous 40-page waiver that participants must sign before their "tour." The massive document goes into great detail about the kinds of risks that visitors are knowingly subjecting themselves to, and so much so that it would be incredibly difficult — if not impossible — for them to hold the business accountable, should they endure any type of severe injury. 

According to the Campbell Law Observer, there may be some way to accuse McKamey of undue influence (which they define as "when an individual who holds real or apparent authority over another, uses the other individual's confidence to obtain an unfair advantage"). This is largely due to a petition to shut McKamey Manor down, which alleges that they purposefully target individuals who are more susceptible to actually signing up, though the Campbell Law Observer states that the evidence behind this is weak.

There've been multiple attempts to shut it down

McKamey Manor's alleged penchant for extreme torture has attracted plenty of criticism and multiple attempts to pressure Russ McKamey into closing up shop. This has largely taken the form of petitions, such as one which states: "[The attraction is] advertised as 'an extreme haunt' when in fact it is NOT a haunted house. It's a torture chamber under disguise. Reportedly, they do screenings to find the weakest, most easily manipulated people to do the 'haunt.' It's reported that if Russ doesn't think you're easily manipulated, you aren't allowed to go." The petition even got some press attention but, as of this writing, has yet to reach its goal of 200,000 signatures since launching in 2019.

Interestingly, another petition was started in 2022, featuring the exact same description as the aforementioned one, though with the following disclaimer: "The original petition owner had death threats by Russ so had to cease her work." Despite the backlash, however, McKamey remains undeterred, dismissing his critics as nothing more than "haters."

Some people actually enjoy it

It's hard to imagine anyone having a good time during a tour of McKamey Manor, but there's an audience for everything. Despite being unable to last throughout its entire duration, some attendees still managed to get some gratification out of it, such as Christina Buster, who signed up for a slot at the attraction when she was 44 years old. Buster told the Guardian, "I don't feel I was tortured or abused. It pushed me to my limits. I'm proud of myself. I still hold the record as the oldest person to go through." Buster even said that she would return for another try.

Then there's Brandon Vance, who not only endured the torments of McKamey Manor twice, but was actually looking forward to doing it again, according to Nashville Scene. For him, it was a means of returning to the intense emotional period he longed for since leaving the military. Vance told the publication that he's engaged in all manner of extreme activities, but added, "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, that's the closest I've ever come. I get to experience that feeling again — it's almost euphoric."

There's a final secret location that nobody has made it to

Most haunted house attractions take place in only one location, but McKamey Manor isn't like most haunted house attractions, and so its terror takes place across multiple cities — for a single experience. When moving from its original location in San Diego, California, to Tennessee, Russ McKamey decided to greatly expand its capabilities to push its visitors past their limits. The Southern California location largely took place in a house in a residential neighborhood, but the lower cost of living in Tennessee meant that McKamey could set the Manor on a large plot of land.

But that still wasn't enough space for the showman; the current version takes place in three phases, starting in Summertown, then to Nashville, before crossing state lines into Huntsville, Alabama. McKamey told News19, "In Alabama it's more of the fun stuff, if you call it fun. Some people call it fun. It's a friend of mine's property. I don't even know what you would call it. But it's way out in no man's land, super secluded." He also confirmed that no one had yet made it to the Huntsville location.