Documentary Review: Spookers



Screenshot of a heavy set man dressed like a clown under heavy make up.  It is a closeup from the neck up.  He is smiling maniacally into the camera.   He has a mouth full of sharpened teeth and what appears to be blood spattered on his face.
via Madman Films


Spookers is a 2017 documentary by Florian Habicht following the daily lives of the actors and owners of the renowned haunted attraction of the same name in the Auckland area of New Zealand.  A surprisingly candid, heartfelt, and emotional look at the cast of social outcasts who make up the ghouls tasked with scaring the literal crap out of people for a living.  The film also exposes some of the controversy surrounding Spookers, whose site, the Kingseat Hospital, is a former psychiatric hospital closed down in 1999.

The first act centers on the cast of monsters made up in near movie-quality prosthetics to truly horrifying effect, their skills on the job, as well as the daily ins and outs of running a massive haunted attraction.  We're introduced to a diverse mixture of "everyday folk", students, flight attendants, insurance adjusters, etc, all of whom look forward to shedding their mortal flesh in time for their weekend work at Spookers, which they view as a satisfying (if unconventional) release from the drudgery of their day jobs.  Throughout the first portion of the movie, the monsters rarely break character.  Fittingly enough, the film's exposure of who they are as people is a slow one, like strips of flesh slowly being peeled away.


Screenshot of a young blonde woman, dressed in a white gown.  She appears to be laughing at something that was said.  She is made up to look deathly pale, and the left side of her face appears to be melted away.
via Madman Films


This film goes beyond the attraction itself, and also explores how those in the community feel about Spookers, particularly former employees of the hospital, many of whom have a positive attitude towards how owner Beth Watson and her husband Andy have continued using the hospital as a source of gainful employment for many, and one that no doubt sparks growth in the local economy.  

It would have been easy for Habicht to fall down the rabbit hole many documentarians do, that of exploring only one side of a particular issue and carrying on a one-sided conversation with the audience, resulting in what would essentially just be promotional material for the Spookers park.  Don't get me wrong, in many ways, this film is exactly that (and effective promotion to boot, it's a stop I'll definitely be making should I ever find myself in the area), but Habicht doesn't shy away from exploring some of the controversy surrounding the attraction.  Particularly, interviews with former staff and patients of the Kingseat Hospital who express concern with how the attraction further stigmatizes the issue of mental health, and in particular, how it promotes a false narrative that the former patients of the hospital were violent and/or homicidal.  An exceptionally poignant criticism to make, especially as we come to learn about the mental health issues that some of the Spookers actors are themselves coping with.    


Screenshot showing a normal looking couple in their fifties.  They are both smiling, and wearing black sweat shirts with the "Spookers" logo on them, written in red horror-esque stylized writing
via Madman Films


On the flip side of that argument though, the film showcases how their work at Spookers provides a kind cathartic release that helps several of the actors cope with their various mental health issues, physical illnesses, and/or deep seeded insecurities.  Essentially making the argument that, in some ways, the Spookers scream park is providing a similar service to its employees that the hospital was to its patients.  Throughout the last half of the film, this becomes the film's main focus.  A strongly religious actor rationalizes the apparent contrast between his faith and his work at Spookers by pointing out the sense of community and belonging that comes from working at the attraction, and how that parallels the same sense of community that plays such a prominent role in any organized religion.  

From a technical aspect, "Spookers" is a visually engaging documentary in addition to an emotionally compelling one.  On top of the footage showing the actors on the job (which at times is downright chilling), Habicht includes artfully executed sequences in which the cast, in ghoulish character, reenact several thoughts, dreams, and nightmares of their human counterparts.  Giving this documentary a sense of cinematic narrative that would have been lost in a simple string of interviews.  


Screenshot of 7 Spookers cast members in character, sitting in the grass on a sunny day, all are smiling at the camera.  At the front of the group is a young man made up to look like a zombie, he is wearing a white wedding gown and veil.
via Madman Films


One complaint I had throughout was how the film didn't seem to focus on any one person.  Often times a documentarian will choose to follow the journey of one central figure, with everyone else filling the role of "supporting cast", but with Spookers, we jump around from one person of the next, which left me with the impression of a film which lacked focus.  That is until the film's final minutes brought everything around and forced my opinion on the matter to do a 180. 

The central theme of the movie is how several of these social outcasts (what some would call "freaks") would have had a hard go of it on their own, both in their own lives and in this film.  But Spookers has given them a sense of familial connection that might have otherwise been lacking in their lives.  Alone, they might have been considered freaks, but together they've found a sense of belonging, and a calling to embrace their inner freaks as a way of bringing joy (in the form of fear) to so many people.  In that respect, giving the film a central figure to focus on would have been counter to the spirit of the tale being told here. 

In summary, for the most part, Spookers is a fair, balanced, and visually engaging documentary.  A candid look at a unique makeshift family that is full of heart, humor, emotion, and yes, spooks aplenty. 


8 / 10