‘Monster Inside’ Filmmaker Responds to McKamey Manor Probe (Exclusive)

‘Monster Inside’ Filmmaker Responds to McKamey Manor Probe (Exclusive)

A notorious and nightmarish “haunted house” in Tennessee has caught the attention of the state’s attorney general after being featured in a Hulu documentary.

Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House centers on McKamey Manor, a torture “tour” about 70 miles outside of Nashville. It merges “documentary storytelling with the visual and cinematic language of a horror film” and follows three participants to “explore why people make themselves vulnerable to harm,” according to Hulu’s synopsis. The film, which hit the streamer on Oct. 12, was in Hulu’s newly-launched Top 15 each day for the first week following its release.

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It’s also caught the attention of state’s attorney general — which is something director Andrew Renzi tells THR he didn’t see coming. “It definitely came as a shock that there was actually law enforcement taking notice,” Renzi says, adding that he knows people who felt “victimized” by the experience “have long wanted to see this happen, but have never had the resources or the outlets to get anyone’s attention.”

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti on Tuesday announced that his office is looking into McKamey Manor. “Happy Halloween,” he wrote on X. “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.” (The @McKameyManor account replied: “Haters gonna hate.”)

The Tennesseean on Thursday reported on the probe and posted the letter from Assistant Attorney General Kristine Knowles to Russ McKamey.

“It is our understanding that you own McKamey Manor and relocated from California to Summertown, Tennessee in 2017 following your San Diego operation being shut down due to public outcry,” Knowles writes. “A 2019 promotional video from McKamey Manor’s YouTube page depicts some of the horrors visitors are subjected to, which includes getting dragged via heavy chains or locked into confined spaces while water pours in.”

Knowles explains that their office has “concerns” and will be sending him a forma request for documents and information to determine whether McKamey Manor’s practices violate consumer protection laws.

“McKamey Manor either does not offer, or honor, a means for a participant to stop the tour,” she cites as one concern. “In Hulu’s 2023 documentary about McKamey Manor, you are quoted as saying, ‘we’re
known for no quitting and no safe wording.’”

She continues, “Participants do not have access to the lengthy waiver that describes the risks involved with a ‘tour’ before signing up, traveling long distances to Tennessee, or even before the tour begins. Former participants describe the adrenaline and pressure they felt when reviewing the waiver at the start of the tour. One interviewee from the Hulu documentary stated, ‘I had too much excitement going through my veins at the time. If (the waiver) would have said that a man is going to come out of the woods and murder you during this event, I would’ve signed it.’”

The last specific concern mentioned is about the alleged prize awarded to a theoretical survivor. “The supposed $20,000 prize offered to anyone who completes the McKamey Manor ‘challenge’ does not exist and/or is impossible to win,” Knowles writes. “When a journalist from the Nashville Scene asked you if anyone has won the challenge, you responded by saying, ‘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.’”

This afternoon Renzi reacted to the news and told THR where the idea for the project came from and how its storytelling approach may have help catch the state’s attention.

What was the inspiration for Monster Inside? How did you first hear about McKamey Manor?

I found my way to this project in a really atypical way for me. It’s almost always the story I find first, but this time I had been thinking quite a bit about the absence of the horror genre within the doc world. It’s pretty much a whitespace and a genre that doesn’t exist in non-fiction, and I thought that it would be a really fulfilling challenge as a director to try and find a story that could be a bit of a new thing, a true genre film that happens to be entirely real. I was getting a little frustrated, or maybe just jealous, by how loud, successful and artful the fiction genre films were becoming while the doc space seemed to be too preoccupied by true crime. The impact of those true crime docs was starting to wane for me because there’s just so many and we’re maybe becoming a bit desensitized to the actual crime of it all because of how consistently they are packaged and delivered to viewers.

There are so many aspects to real life that are way scarier than anything you could write in a script. That’s why the genre world has such a preoccupation with found footage. They’ve been trying to make horror films look like docs forever. So why hadn’t the doc world taken notice yet? To my surprise, Hulu had a project that was being billed as a true crime pitch but was absolutely horrifying and seemed like it could be a potential match. So, they introduced me to LionTV out of NYC who was sitting on a stockpile of development materials for a McKamey Manor story. When I dug in, it didn’t take me long to realize that what they had was a true story about people all around the world wanting to be the stars of their own real-life horror film. They seek out the most extreme experiences to satisfy this urge and McKamey Manor was where they all found themselves. That started this whole thing for me.

What were the most surprising things you learned while working on the project?

When I started watching the videos of McKamey Manor, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I thought that it had to be fake. It was some of the most horrific imagery I had ever seen in my life: people being tied up and tortured, waterboarded, locked in freezer boxes, bruised and bloodied beyond recognition — and there were thousands of people going through this experience from all around the world and millions of people tuning in to watch. I learned very quickly that it was all real. McKamey Manor had billed itself as “The World’s Most Extreme Haunted House” and all of these people were signing up to effectively get sent to hell and back — sometimes for up to eight hours. The kicker, though, is that everyone went there with the notion that they could stop at any time, (that) this was in their control at the end of the day, but that didn’t end up being the case.

While that was surprising enough for me, I became really curious to understand who on Earth the people were that would want to subject themselves to these experiences and why. That ended up being the most enlightening thing for me about the entire film, because at first I was pretty dismissive and thought that this was some bizarre niche thing and these people must all be insane thrill seekers. When I got into it and met Brandon, who had survivor’s guilt from his time in Afghanistan, and then Gabi, a queer woman who suffered from extreme anxiety because she’d grown up in a community that pushed conversion therapy and the idea that she’d burn in hell for her sins, and then Melissa, who had been orphaned as a child and was in a constant state of crippling fear of her surroundings — these were all people that were just trying to heal from their past traumas and wanted to push themselves to such extremes as a way to grow and conquer those fears that had consumed them for so much of their lives. I found this so relatable. We’re all trying to move on from the scars of our pasts and we’re not always presented with easy solutions to do that. I really connected with the “why” when I heard these stories, and no longer looked at them as outsiders at all, just people that maybe felt like they were out of options.

What do you think about the TN Attorney General contacting Russ McKamey with “concerns” that appear to have been sparked by Monster Inside and the awareness it created?

It definitely came as a shock that there was actually law enforcement taking notice. I didn’t go into the film with that explicit intention, if I’m being honest — but I know for a fact that the people who felt victimized by McKamey Manor did and have long wanted to see this happen, but have never had the resources or the outlets to get anyone’s attention. I can’t deny that it’s felt especially good seeing how much this means to people like Melissa, Brandon and Gabi. It’s also been rewarding because my goal from the start was to try to create a real separation from true crime and show something that is horrific (the way) a horror film would. 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. The fun of directing documentaries is that there’s really only one rule: Don’t make anything up that has to do with the story. It’s gotta be honest. Outside of that, we can use every cinematic technique available to every other filmmaker to make the doc in the most impactful way. It makes me happy to know that our role as filmmakers, and how we chose to lean into the genre world with this, has served the real story and the people who deserved to have their voices heard in the loudest possible way.

Is there anything else you especially want people to know about the project or the response to it?

Don’t watch it alone in the dark.

Interview edited for length and clarity.