Audiences associate the word “horror” with scary movies or terrifying novels. But over the past half-decade, live theater and haunted house exhibits have merged, bringing new life to the genre with interactive, real-world experiences that let audiences step through the screen and into their own personal tales of terror. In The Future of Fear, we’re talking to the creators of some of the most striking, immersive horror experiences to see how they’re taking the genre in directions it’s never gone before.
It was a standoff.
I was in a decaying foyer, my siblings and I bathed in sunlight from the window above. That night we’d discovered our long-lost mother was actually one of the undead, and could still be found somewhere within this mansion’s crumbling walls. But our only path toward her was up the massive staircase ahead — where a pair of ghoulish, snarling vampires lurked in the shadows.
Suddenly day turned to night, moonlight spilling across the room, and the vampires emerged. Then I noticed it: music, building to a crescendo, and at the last possible moment one of our party stepped forward, blasting a shotgun at the head bloodsucker. One of the creatures scurried up the wall in panic, impossibly fast, and my group ran up the stairs, dodging the clutches of the undead from every side.
Welcome to the world of Delusion.
If extreme haunted houses are at one end of the immersive horror spectrum, then Delusion — now in its fifth season with the show His Crimson Queen — represents the polar opposite. There are no in-your-face psychological mind games or testing of one’s personal stamina. Instead, writer-director Jon Braver focuses on delivering a uniquely cinematic form of interactive theater, in which audience members walk, crawl, and puzzle their way through the story alongside the show’s cast. But even calling it theater doesn’t quite do the experience justice. Braver incorporates stunts, adventure game elements, and an expertly timed score that collectively do more than just heighten the journey: they wrap the audience in a living, breathing, interactive movie.
"I grew up with Dungeons and Dragons," Braver tells me over coffee a few days after the show's opening night. "When computer games started coming out like King’s Quest and Space Quest, I was heavily influenced by that. The whole idea of choose your own adventure; putting yourself in another world to really allow yourself to be completely immersed in it. That was the heart of it for me."
That love of gaming led a teenaged Braver to stage his own real-world adventure games in the gardens near his home in the suburbs of Chicago. When he was 22, he took it a step further, taking over his parent’s home to stage what would become the proto-Delusion — a narrative haunted house simply called A Haunted Play. Small groups of guests would enter the house and move room to room, interacting with the actors on their way to the show’s conclusion. "I wanted to take the role-playing games where you are a character and put it into a live space and say to people, ‘Okay, now you are this person.’"
The homegrown Halloween production was so successful that Braver put it on for two more years before he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in stunt work. But while he found success booking gigs on films like The Dark Knight Rises and Star Trek, the idea of the haunted play still called. "Finally, in 2011, I said ‘I can’t handle this anymore.’ This thing was bottling up inside me," he says. "I took my life savings, and I threw it into [the show], and I found an old house in the West Adams district."
At the time the immersive horror scene in Los Angeles was relatively serene — Blackout wouldn’t stage its first LA show until the following year — and Delusion’s blend of scares and interactivity became an underground phenomenon. (Neil Patrick Harris was an early fan, and went on to co-produce the 2012 show.) Braver and his troupe have continued with the formula, taking over different aging residences to stage their shows, and while past stories have focused on mad psychologists and sinister cults, the vampire tale of His Crimson Queen keeps things rooted firmly in the gothic.
The show is set in 1933, with the audience assuming the roles of the Sullivan children, who set out to find their missing mother in a dilapidated mansion. Standing in their way are warring sects of double-crossing vampires; creepy, elaborate puzzle rooms; and the constant threat of terror around every corner. I experienced moments of pure anxiety and adrenaline during Delusion, like the staircase standoff mentioned above, or the moment when my wife was kidnapped and whisked away in a coffin. (You haven’t truly felt relief until you’ve rescued someone from vampires after having convinced them that coming to a haunted play would be "fun.") But while the scares are very real, the playful performances and sense of adventure also give the production a sense of whimsy. If anything, Delusion: His Crimson Queen is like being inside a 1970s Hammer horror film, and that cinematic feel is due as much to the extensive work behind the scenes as it is to the performers themselves.
The production is a carefully orchestrated affair, with lighting, score, and sound effects all synced through a piece of software called VenueMagic. The actors often use the soundtrack as cues — Braver says there are melodic phrases within the music that let the actors know whether they should speed up or slow down their performances — and in other cases lighting or sound changes are triggered by the performers themselves via buttons hidden in the various sets.
"Like the foyer for example," Braver says. "When you’re in that, there’s the sunlight [coming in from the window], and then it changes to night time. That’s all programmed with music, sound effects, and lighting. You hit one button and it just happens." It’s remarkably seamless, and when the pieces come together Delusion delivers a true sense of cinematic verisimilitude. That feeling is only enhanced by the show’s liberal use of wirework and stunts, another Braver tradition.
"The first year there was a moment where this woman’s on the stairs," he says. "She’s talking to you, and then she just leaps up to the second floor, and nobody saw that coming. They’d never seen movie-quality stunt work right in front of their eyes." In the current production, characters fly up walls unexpectedly and scurry across ceilings; others are shoved back by supernatural forces, crashing through walls of stone. It’s an athletic and logistical dance, one that has more in common with a high-end theatrical production than what you’d expect to find in a seasonal haunted house.
Since Delusion first debuted in 2011, the Los Angeles immersive theater scene has exploded, with more interactive haunts emerging every year. And while people like The Tension Experience’s Darren Lynn Bousman are quick to namecheck Delusion as a formative influence, it’s also clear that interest in immersive experiences is part of a larger trend. "There’s definitely a backlash going on," Braver says. Concern over our cultural obsession with mobile devices and social media interaction is a common refrain, but Braver sees a legitimate movement of people looking for experiences that help them step away from the ever-present threat of online connectivity. "Physical connections, tangible connections with people," he says. "Either consciously or subconsciously, people want to reconnect with something visceral again. I think that’s there even if they don’t know it."
"People want to reconnect with something visceral again."
The irony, of course, is that success in real-world immersive entertainment seems to eventually lead to creators pondering digital immersive entertainment like virtual reality — and Braver is no exception. "I’m not opposed to the VR thing. I think in the right hands, it could do some good," he says. "My best friend and I talk about this all the time. We’re both very much about keeping people connected [to one another], because we’re losing that. Then he says, ‘You’re going to be a part of pulling people away from that connection with other humans. You’re going to be part of the problem, Jon.’"
But I mention that it could also go the opposite way. VR has the potential to introduce millions to the concepts of immersion and agency, elements that are also at the core of shows like Delusion. And once those appetites are whetted, having a physical experience without the distractions of screens and wires could become the next logical step. "I guess that’s about perspective," he says. "Because if you go into [VR] with that kind of mindset, then yes — you are in that moment, enjoying that experience."
"The big thing is, how do you tell a narrative story in a VR structure? How do you tell people where to look?" he asks. "There’s sound cues and lighting cues, but you’re not crafting the shots. I go in [the Delusion mansion] and look at certain angles; how it looks. How I want people to see a moment down the hallway, with the lighting, and a character coming around the corner. I see Delusion as a film."
Delusion: His Crimson Queen is running in Los Angeles through November 13th.