I went on a trip to San Francisco's Hell in the Armory, an "an adult-themed haunted house" in the basement of the world's largest porn mansion.
"The safe word is Red." That's not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear before entering a haunted house. But this is no ordinary horror show: This is Hell in the Armory, in the basement of the world's largest porn mansion, and I was there to experience it in all it's disturbing, naked glory.
I heard about Hell in the Armory from Danielle Walker, one of the show's tour guides, who sold it as "an adult-themed haunted house." In fact, Hell in the Armory is the bastard child of an ongoing relationship between Kink.com-a porn production company that specializes in BDSM and bondage-and Vau de Vire Society, a circus and theatre troupe from San Francisco. The spectacle, which only began this year, is set inside the San Francisco Armory, a 200,000-square-foot reproduction of a Moorish castle that was acquired by Kink in 2006. Its massive porn headquarters had all the lighting, sets, and ambience needed for Mike Gaines, co-founder of Vau de Vire, to create what he calls "an immersive theatrical experience."
Grappling with my conflicting interest in fetish porn and aversion to all things horror, I entered Hell in the Armory with apprehension and my boyfriend in tow. It turns out I would need both: Within minutes of our descent into the basement, I was hooded and roped together with my tour group. Our unseeing party was pulled through a narrow hallway, single-file and fumbling, into a dark, damp dungeon where we were quickly unmasked. Pressed up against the chamber's walls, we were casually inspected by a tall, blonde dominatrix who whispered, "Will you get naked for me?" Undeterred by the head shakes and shivers, the dom eventually came to the young lady next to me, who gave a tentative nod and stepped forward. Then, before our now-adjusted-to-the-dim-light eyes, the woman was stripped, gagged, and bound by the dom. I would be lying if I said this light BDSM scene wasn't sexy. And judging by my partner's face, and the other patrons' gasps (was that disgust or delight I heard in their voices?), I wasn't the only one paying attention. But it wasn't over yet: As the dominatrix locked the final chain, the dungeon door flew open, a frothing werewolf crawled menacingly towards the restrained volunteer, and the last thing we saw before the lights flashed was the beast's mouth on her body and a gush of blood from between her legs.
Just to be clear, the "volunteer" was an actor and the entire scene was both staged and consensual. This seemed obvious to me, but apparently the performers have had visitors fooled: "That first scene is really profoundly affecting people," Gaines would tell me later, "when people truly believe that somebody is in danger." Apparently, at least a few people come to the defense of the planted actress every night, claiming they heard her say the safe word and pleading with the dominatrix to stop the scene-I guess our group was heartless. On the flip side, Gaines mentioned that the dom "has to deal with a lot of yeses" from kinky attendees who want to get more involved-I guess our group was also lame. In the end, he rationalizes starting with the controversial scene "because it's a haunted house; you're supposed to be fucking scared."
This first vignette was arguably the scariest portion of the entire tour and I was left with the lingering sensation that things could get weird, and this feeling had me nervous for the entire time (just ask my boyfriend; I don't think I let go of his hand except when I was forced to). Just like a good horror movie, Hell in the Armory used a combination of shock and suspense, bolstered by Vau de Vire's high production value, to keep visitors on edge. Take for example the interaction between the deranged doctor and his pliable patient, played by a world-class contortionist. Herded into a viewing gallery, I flinched as her limbs twisted and stretched in response to the surgeon's scalpel and cleaver. A self-diagnosed hemophobe, I was at once repulsed and mesmerized by the bloody, bendy scene.
Then our group of 28 was split up by the commanding voice of our guide ("You, get the fuck in there," Walker snarled at me when I hesitated). I found myself with just a few others in a padded room with a mirror. A strobe light started flashing, and I came to the uncomfortable realization that we were not alone. With us was a distraught, disheveled young woman in a dirty gown; on the other side of the mirror was a ghoulish child, only visible in the pulses of the light. As the former woman darted around the cell, I tried to place myself between the other patrons-my tactic for minimizing contact with creepy-crawly characters-but found it difficult with only ten other people (read: human shields) in the room. The young woman was begging us to help her when a booming voice stopped her short. It was the doctor from the previous scene, carrying a heavy chain that, despite my best attempts at invisibility, found itself wrapped tightly around my neck. "Is this your boyfriend?" he sneered before wrenching us apart, adding, "I like your hair, boyfriend," as he shoved me out of the room.
Dragged by the heavy leash, I was followed by the rest of our small group to a set of enormous French doors. "Look at my wife!" the doctor ordered. I looked through the panes of glass to see a naked vampire writhing below the severed body of a man, his torso dripping blood, his face frozen in ecstasy. I wrinkled my nose, partially because, as stated above, I don't like blood, but also because I could feel moisture coming off the actor onto my back. Please be sweat, I thought.
If that scene sounded disturbing, then our next stop was even more gross: A meat locker, complete with dangling slabs of decaying meat and a Jesus figure nailed to a cross. From the crucifix, he encouraged us to "read the books" and find the clue-at his feet were a collection of Bibles. Having already been choked out by the doc, I let others distract themselves while my eyes darted around the room waiting for the next surprise that I knew would come. Then a maniacal butcher with a chainsaw rushed in and proceeded to sink his tool into the body of the Christ. This is the one installment that had me cringing for the wrong reasons: The act was more gratuitous than gruesome, and I ended up with fake Jesus blood on my dress.
But it wasn't all blood and gore in Hell. Less gruesome scenes included a visit to a spooky speakeasy, a humorous vaudeville routine put on by a trio of zombies in various states of decay, and a clown masturbating in a phone booth. "We do 14 tours a night; that's four hours of staying hard [for the actor]," Gaines reflected. "That's a fucking task." It was also the first time my boyfriend had seen an erect penis in the flesh.
The most memorable scene took place in the eerie haunted garden. Led by a towering queen played by Shannon Gaines, co-founder of the Vau de Vire Society, our group took part in a seance that culminated in the resurrection of the queen's lover, Svetlana. Again, as I stood in our defenseless circle, I felt uneasy and unprotected, a testament to the performers' ability. It didn't matter that I knew it was a show; the sets, actors, and stories had me distracted enough to forget it was fake.
It is these overlapping elements of fantasy and performance that naturally link sex, role play, and Halloween. Hell in the Armory had the campy feel of a theatrical and perverse adult theme park (Gaines even called the Kink building's basement "an abandoned Disneyland"). This form of deliberate, calculated deviancy is characteristic of the practice of BDSM as well, where consent, respect, and safety are necessary in order to remain sex-positive (and legal).
Now sold out for its final runs, Kink.com and Vau de Vire's erotic fear experiment has proved successful with San Francisco's dedicated kink crowd as well as what Gaines describes as "bridge and tunnel people that come into the city and want to be titillated and scared." Whether you'll find Hell in the Armory titillating or terrifying depends on your fetish, but those who can stomach counterfeit carnage and live sexual interactions will leave entertained. Just don't forget the safe word.
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