I started out in a box with white walls, a low chair, and a locked cabinet — the world’s most ominous waiting room. A map of some territory I don’t remember was fixed to one wall, and a ring of keys — old, rusty cartoon-jailer keys — hung from another. While I waited, I wondered if I was supposed to do something with them. I wondered if somebody was secretly watching me. I wondered what was behind the door with the bright yellow CAUTION sign tacked to it — the door into the dark.
As I started to shoot pictures of the waiting room, the door cracked. I hastily packed away my camera, but it didn’t matter. The woman who walked in — the previous participant, I’d been told — had her face and eyes completely covered by some kind of white mask, attached to a hard hat and a pair of giant headphones. And behind her was my first glimpse of the void that I was about to enter.
Door into the Dark is a piece of theater where the stage is the only real character. After debuting at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival last year, it made another appearance last week as one of several interactive installations at New York’s TriBeCa Film Festival. Next to projects like the virtual reality-based Machine to be Another or a "personalized documentary" that mixes your own browsing habits into a web series, it’s the least obviously high-tech. But it’s unquestionably the most elaborate.
Over the course of a few days, Bristol-based creative studio Anagram turned a bare fifth-floor room in the film festival’s downtown hub into a labyrinth, which visitors explore almost entirely by touch. The term "immersion" is thrown around a lot in virtual reality. It refers to a sense of "being there," of having your senses hoodwinked by a powerful illusion. Door into the Dark is immersive in another way. For participants who are used to navigating by sight and sound, it can create a sense of being perpetually off-balance, limiting the world to an arm’s reach.
I wasn't sure which direction I was going, or how far I'd gone
In the waiting room, the woman helped prepare me for the trip, while I listened carefully — I’d been told to remember it for the person after me. I took off my shoes and put on the mask, trading my vision for an intimate familiarity with the floor. As I felt my way through the door, she put my hands around a thick, soft rope. From there, it was up to me.
There are two major electronic components to Door into the Dark: an optional heart rate monitor and a series of iBeacons that trigger slow, soothing narration in the headphones when you hit certain points. At first, the voices in my ear provided a kind of guided meditation, nudging me to sharpen my other senses in the absence of sight and hearing. I wasn’t sure if there were walls to the labyrinth, or just empty space. I wasn’t sure which direction I was going, or how far I’d gone. All I could do was focus on the feel of the rope and the floor under my feet.
Then, the rope ran out. I reached one arm ahead of me, hesitated, and stepped forward into nothing.
The beginning of Door into the Dark relies a lot on sensory deprivation, the monotony of following a twisting path through a place you can’t see or hear. But as the clear path ends, it slowly turns into an experience that’s about being lost, both literally and metaphorically. The maze starts to feel more like a forest. It starts to feel like it’s changing as you walk. The voices start telling stories about experiences that threw their world out of order. When I walked out, I looked at the sheet of paper on which I’d been asked to draw a map of the installation I had just walked through. I had no clue. Instead, I asked if I could come see behind the scenes.
I returned on a Saturday morning, while TriBeCa staff were still setting up for the day’s show. The windowless space that housed Door into the Dark — about the size of a small auditorium — was brightly lit. "What do you think?" asked co-director Amy Rose as I walked in. "It’s bigger than I expected," I answered. Knowing it couldn’t be as large as it seemed, I’d overcompensated, imagining that I was going in tiny circles. "A lot of people say that," said Rose.
Most people, it turned out, also had the same moment of fear that I did when they reached the end of the rope. The Harmony Institute research group is collecting biometric data from visitors who opted to put on a pulse tracker, creating a map of their reactions through the piece. Whatever happens later in the experience, that first moment of independence has turned out to be the most difficult.
"It's bigger than I expected."
In the light, the whole installation’s sleight of hand became obvious. As I left the waiting room, for example, I’d felt a sense of claustrophobia, like I was walking into a narrow corridor. But there weren’t any walls around that stretch of rope — I’d just never reached far enough to find out. Some of the tricks were more ambitious, but none of them were too complicated. Most of the build is simple, jury-rigged from wood, cloth, and rope. That’s partly to stay within Anagram’s budget, but partly an artistic statement. "All of this stuff, you can get it from any old building merchant," says Rose. "And that's really cool. It's not like a flashy Oculus Rift."
It also means that with some blueprints and a large space, anyone could make a version of Door into the Dark. Rose and her co-director, May Abdalla, say they’ve talked about releasing plans and audio files, like a haunted house tour that’s introspective instead of scary. Besides bringing the experience to more people, it could keep the project alive after Anagram has decided to move on. "We don't want to be building it for the next 10 years, you know what I mean?" Rose says. "It would be nice if sometime in the future we worked out a way of being like, ‘This is a pack. These are some instructions. Here are some ideas.’"
Looking at the blueprints, of course, would reveal the show’s secrets. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos past the waiting room, and I was asked not to speak about some specific twists in the experience (a request I have honored). It’s a magic trick that can only work perfectly once. But the best part wasn’t the surprise — it was realizing how little it takes to make some wood and fabric feel like an epic journey. The vast majority of my waking life is mediated purely by eyes and ears, unless you count the tactile feedback of using a keyboard. Door into the Dark was like encountering a foreign country, using a language I’ve lived with for years but will never quite understand.