Frightfully delightful: a talk with ‘Spookers’ filmmaker Florian Habicht

by Andrew Parker

For his latest documentary, Spookers, making its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this weekend, New Zealander Florian Habicht set his sights on something that has become an unlikely national institution in his country.

Just about 45 kilometers away from Aukland, Beth and Andy Watson have been running on of the most famous, notorious, and for some, terrifying, haunted amusement parks in the world. The titular Spookers is housed on somewhat innocuous looking farmland – yes, there is a corn maze – but the grounds and walls used to be home to the Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital, an institution that closed up decades ago, but for some still contains a lot of meaning and uneasy memories about time spent there.

Habicht (who most recently came to the festival with his films Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets in 2014) traces the history of Spookers and showcases the experience of being there, but the main focus of the documentary is the people who work there, and what the time spent there means to them. Outside of Beth and Andy’s loving relationship that keeps things going, many employees find the time they spend dressing up as zombies, ghouls, ghosts, goblins, monsters, killer clowns, and assorted psychos to be a form of catharsis. For many, Spookers is a side gig that allows for some stress relief, while others struggling with depression and feeling like they aren’t accepted for who they are find a sense of community among their fellow staff members.

We caught up with Habicht via email to ask him a few questions about Spookers in advance of the film’s premiere this Sunday.

You can check out more of Florian and his work over at his website and on his Instagram.

Florian Habicht (left) and friend

What was your first introduction to Spookers like, or when did you first hear about it? Were you the type of person who found haunted houses scary prior to making this film?

Florian Habicht: A friend of mine told me about her experience at Spookers. How she was chased by someone with a chainsaw, and then ended up hanging out with them at the Spookers bar afterwards. My first thought was, that place would make a great setting for a film!  But it sounded too scary for me to check out. Ten years later I got a phone call from the Madman Production company, to see if i wanted to direct a film about Spookers, and the rest is history.

What were your first interactions with Beth and Andy like? They seem like the exact opposite of the kinds of people who one would think would run a haunted house. Were they at all what you expected?

Florian Habicht: If I was casting for a Haunted Attraction drama, I would cast Beth to play the owner! In my eyes she’s the perfect person to run a haunted house. Beth is the most caring, intelligent lovely person, and she also takes great pleasure putting people through these horrific experiences! Andy reminds me of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, how Andy is the Mayor of Rangitikei by day, and a masked monster by night. Andy and Beth are also super-heroes, but I’m not allowed to talk about that.

Some of the people interviewed in the film are sharing deeply personal stories with you about how Spookers helps them through otherwise difficult lives. Was it easy to get people to open up about their experiences outside of the park?

Florian Habicht: It happened very naturally over time. I became friends with the performers, and they understood the kind of film we were making. Yeah, working at Spookers is a kind of therapy, and also a kind of religion for some of the performers.

There’s something great that the film says about how nothing – not even an elaborate haunted house – could be greater than our own fear of death. Was that something that you thought about prior to making Spookers or was that something that came about naturally from making the film and spending time talking to the people who worked there? It’s just fascinating that a place that can be seen by some as grotesque can be seen as something life affirming.

Florian Habicht: Those of us who are lucky not to live in a war zone, or around violence, get to experience the ‘fear of death’ in a simulated safe environment. Spookers is one of the only Haunted attractions where the actors are allowed to touch the punters. I’ve also seen people with trauma from their lives go to Spookers, and challenge themselves to try and get through the attraction as a form of therapy. What I saw was intense, and my gut reaction was to turn the camera off. The staff at Spookers were so caring to these people, and took their time to slowly guide them through. I heard that those who couldn’t do it, keep coming back to try again. The fact that Spookers is so life affirming to so many of its staff, is something I happily discovered through the making of this film.

I can understand why some people might see the idea of a haunted house on the site of a former mental hospital as being offensive or in poor taste, and the film addresses that. Has that topic been brought up frequently in the local media in the past or is it something that people seem to have moved on from?

Florian Habicht: It came up in the New Zealand media when Spookers first opened. Since then, I don’t think it’s been challenged in public, but everybody here is aware that Spookers is situated in a former psychiatric hospital. I met with someone who spent a huge chunk of their life at Kingseat, and will never forget that day & interview.

Does it take quite a bit of getting used to watching people with oozing head wounds and dressed in evil clown make-up talking nonchalantly about their day to day lives? Is it surreal at first, and how long into shooting did it take you to accept what a normal day is like behind the scenes at Spookers?

Florian Habicht: Well, after the first few days of filming, in the car on the way home, i would joke and say to my camera assistant:  ‘Another day at the office…’

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