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In the age of Instagram museums, what happens to haunted houses?

The Halloween experience in 2018 is less spooky and more selfies.

A visitor takes a selfie at the Nightmare Machine installation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Nightmare Machine
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

There is a place in the trendy part of Brooklyn where you can take a selfie with a cockroach. Technically you can do that in really any part of Brooklyn, although good luck getting it to stay still long enough for a decent photo. But at this one place, the cockroach selfie is like, the point.

That place is Nightmare Machine, an Instagram-optimized popup installation for the spookiest month of the year. Visitors can pose for a picture where it looks like they’re being sliced up by a maniacal butcher, pose for a picture in a decrepit laundromat, pose for a picture in “hell” (a red ball pit), and yes, pose for a picture next to a terrifyingly realistic mound of thousands of plastic cockroaches.

Nightmare Machine is part of a new-ish wave of temporary “museums” or “experiences” that exist pretty much specifically to be Instagrammed, and despite criticism (the New York Times called the trend an “existential void”) have seen massive success.

29Rooms, a pop-up installation by the website Refinery 29, regularly has lines that wrap around entire blocks; the Museum of Ice Cream’s San Francisco location was so beloved that it’s now permanent. And Dream Machine, the non-spooky, pastel-tinged foil to Nightmare Machine, saw 75,000 visitors during its run in the same space earlier this year. And at $38 a ticket, well, you can do the math.

For people looking for a festive thing to do, Nightmare Machine offers something that a haunted house does not: The opportunity to craft a perfectly stage-directed and envy-inducing photograph to share on social media. Other fall activities, like apple picking or hay rides, provide charming pastoral backdrops for the ’gram, but haunted houses? They’re dark and crowded, and if they’re any good, you’re probably too busy being terrified to get a decent photo.

So if your main goal with your autumnal activity is to get an Instagram out of it — which, no judgment — why bother with a haunted house? And if you live in a city big enough to have a rotating selection of social media pop-ups, do haunted houses even have a place in 2018?

According to Paige Solomon, the 27-year-old founder of Nightmare Machine, maybe not. “If you want to run and just like have the living shit — excuse my French — scared out of you, go to a haunted house. But if you want to just have a spooky night with friends before going out or something, and you just wanna laugh a little and get scared a little bit — the biggest separating point [between Nightmare Machine and a haunted house] is it’s really made for some great pictures to remember.”

She explains that Nightmare Machine does take some elements of traditional haunted houses: the idea of roaming from room to room, nervously anticipating what’s around the corner, for instance (and to be fair, the cockroaches are quite realistic), but she places it pretty squarely in the box of “pop-up Instagram experience” rather than a true haunted house.

It’s also optimized for the pop culture savvy urban young person — there’s a blood-spattered room that’s an homage to American Psycho, a Clockwork Orange-inspired tunnel, and a “millennial graveyard” where each tombstone says things like “Died from not forwarding that text message to 10 people.”

Nightmare Machine is also not the only “relevant” spooky experience in New York City. On October 18, I visited the L Train Shutdown Nightmare, a haunted house-slash-immersive theatre performance designed with the peculiarities of New Yorkers’ worst fears in mind. The name, of course, is a reference to the impending shutdown of the L train, a vital subway line that, come spring 2019, will be closed for repairs for over a year.

A fumigator at the L Train Shutdown Nightmare.
Rebecca Jennings

Like Nightmare Machine, the L Train Shutdown Nightmare is not a place where one can expect to hear a lot of screaming. For one, the haunted house tour starts inside a dance party, and despite the fact that it’s inside an enormous warehouse, the vibe is clearly one of fun, not terror. Visitors embark on the tour by walking down the street and into a different multi-level warehouse, where each floor contains things like a replica of a dirty subway car, a small tent city, and what I assumed were bed bug fumigators.

But despite its topicality, the L Train Shutdown Nightmare, tickets for which run between $20 and $35, does not cater to the ’gram in the same way the Nightmare Machine does. David Kirshoff, the artist who designed the space, said “the idea is to tap into a real fear that a great deal of the community is dealing with right now. My idea is to create an experience that is uncanny. It’s a shift from reality. It utilizes elements of the world that we know and live with every day as New Yorkers. It explores a much darker side to all of those things.”

And even though I was able to take photos on the tour, he also differentiated it from other pop-up experiences that are designed specifically for social media. “The thing about that is, I wanted to access something a lot deeper than I feel like those installations ever really get to, because they’re tailored for a surface level interaction, a photograph,” he explained.

He continued, adding that there’s a difference between the sort of experience you get at Instagram “experiences” and the one he created. “My experience with them is often they are not nearly as nice in person as they are on Instagram. They’re much shoddier, construction-wise. They feel maybe like you’re on a set of a cheap theater production. They don’t have any depth to them. That’s why they exist for photographs.”

But in the year 2018, paying a two-digit sum for an experience that isn’t Instagrammable is an increasingly uncommon concept, which is why the existence of Gravesend Inn, a traditional haunted house in the not-quite-so-trendy Downtown Brooklyn, feels somehow almost charming.

The Gravesend Inn Haunted Hotel, which has been running annually for 20 years, is built and operated by students at City Tech, who help work the complicated system of animatronic characters and motion sensors that trigger special effects. Though it welcomes photo-taking, like most haunted houses it is both dark and intentionally rather cramped, even though the technological elements are impressive and photo-worthy.

And ultimately, Gravesend Inn is a school project. “You can think of it kind as like a theater or film program with no actors, where all the students studying technologies go out and work for the different unions and local companies,” explained Sue Brandt, the general manager at Theatreworks City Tech.

A room at Gravesend Inn Haunted Hotel.
Tod Seelie

Tickets are just $5 for students and $10 for adults. “We just want to make it accessible for the whole community and make it fun,” she added. “So we keep the prices cheap and we get lots of people in and it’s fun. And for us, it’s also like an outreach to the community from City Tech.”

But if Gravesend Inn is any indication, traditional haunted houses aren’t in danger of being eclipsed by Instagram pop-ups, at least not yet. Brandt explained that visitors have risen steadily over the past few years, and that she hadn’t even heard of the sort of social media installations Iike Nightmare Machine.

I explained that they were similar to traditional art installations, but that they’re optimized for Instagram, and that they typically exist in locations with short-term leases and tend to be expensive. “Well yeah, because of their overhead because they’re renting space,” she said. By contrast, Gravesend Inn doesn’t have to worry about that — the haunted house takes place inside the school. “That’s why we’re lucky.”

She did, however, say that the idea of Instagram pop-ups sounded interesting. And as they get even more massively popular all over the country, we likely will see a lot more of them become permanent fixtures in cities.

As for Solomon, the founder of Nightmare Machine, she knows the social media-friendly museum isn’t going anywhere, but that it might take a new form. “They’re going to evolve. I don’t think that they’re gonna be this straightforward just purely for Instagram and for fun,” she said. “I think that there’s gonna be maybe more collaborations with charities and things like that. I know that that’s what I would love to do is bring different organizations in and foster creative youth or something like that.”

“But I don’t know. I think selfies are here for a really long time. So I would think that things of this nature will probably be, too.” Meaning that Halloween-themed Instagram pop-ups are likely just the tip of the iceberg — perhaps soon, every holiday will be enhanced with the experience of selfie-taking.