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.
Over the past month I’ve been indoctrinated into a cult, had my wife kidnapped by vampires, and been choked to the ground by a mad king while searching for a mystical land called Conscientia. And I did it all within a four-mile radius in Los Angeles.
For a city that’s rightly considered more of a home to film and television, Los Angeles has been making strides over the past five years, establishing itself as a fertile playground for artists interested in exploring the worlds of immersive horror and interactive theater. Fueled by Southern California’s active haunted house scene, they’re pushing storytelling in daring new directions — and are on the brink of bringing immersive entertainment mainstream.
It’s a tradition that actually dates back to the 1980s in LA, long before Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More began its iconic New York run. That’s when John Krizanc’s play Tamara took up shop at Hollywood’s American Legion Hall for a multi-year residency. Starring Anjelica Huston, Tamara was a groundbreaker, inviting audiences to move freely through a re-created Italian villa while the characters walked, talked, and interacted around them. Despite that head start, however, the immersive theater scene in Los Angeles stalled out, and it wasn’t until Jon Braver’s interactive horror play Delusion opened in 2011 — and the extreme haunted house Blackout came to town a year later — that the community began to develop newfound momentum.
"The scene was fairly anemic," says Noah Nelson, creator of No Proscenium, a newsletter and podcast devoted to chronicling immersive theater productions across the country. "There were a couple of companies here and there. There were people experimenting with the form, some of whom have walked away, but it’s not cheap to put these things on." In 2013 local upstarts like The Speakeasy Society began experimenting with small, personal shows staged in private homes, but for most audiences their first taste of immersive theater came from an entirely different avenue: haunted houses.
Southern California’s scare scene has been anchored for years by attractions like Knott’s Scary Farm and Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights, but shows like Delusion and Blackout incorporated real actors and a sense of narrative; they were interactive experiences, not just a parade past a series of expertly timed jump scares. "I attended Blackout the very first year that it was here in Los Angeles," says Russell Eaton, one half of My Haunt Life, a podcast that tracks Southern California "haunts" and immersive theater. "I’m a [film and TV] editor by trade, and it was such a unique form of storytelling. It was non-linear, it was a live event, and yet it didn’t tell a traditional story. You had to gain a lot from it through your own interpretation. You had to participate."
Eaton wasn’t alone in his fascination, as both fans and other creatives saw the introduction of live theater elements as the logical evolution of the horror scene. "The line is getting so blurred, because haunts are becoming more interactive," says Eaton’s co-host, Mike Fontaine. "You have things like The Tension Experience. You have things like Blackout, and Delusion, where you become a part of the story. You can actually interact, and that’s the biggest thing that has been happening, year after year."
One of the people that saw that early Blackout show was Nicholas Sherwin, Jr., who felt so impacted by the experience that he ended up working for the company behind the productions as a stage manager and production manager. In a trend of pay-it-forward inspiration that seems to repeat throughout the LA community, Sherwin eventually started his own immersive theater company, Screenshot Productions, which has been garnering attention for its unique shows that combine existential themes that expand well beyond Sherwin’s roots in immersive horror.
"This medium is a great conduit for imparting emotional knowledge to other people," Sherwin tells me from the art gallery that serves as the stage of Screenshot’s latest production, The Rope. The company’s previous shows have encouraged audience members to re-experience their own birth (Parturition) and death (Bardo Thodol), but The Rope uses a quest-based gaming dynamic to help players explore an immersive, Tolkien-esque fantasy world while trying to reach a magical land. It’s a unique experience with a breathtaking visual payoff at the end that left me utterly breathless, and an example of how richly varied the work in Los Angeles has become.
That’s been enabled by a number of environmental factors. Just from a pure talent side, the number of actors and would-be creators that move to Los Angeles, only to find themselves without work from traditional Hollywood sources, are legion. ("What this form calls for is for a kind of acting that is neither theater nor film, but somewhere in the middle," explains Nelson, "because you need the intimacy with the camera that a film actor has, but you also need the physical presence that a stage actor has.") But these are also productions that take place inside actual physical spaces that must be transformed and explored, and LA’s notorious sprawl provides a unique canvas of opportunity.
"In the first year, it was just like, ‘Oh this is going to be a panacea!’" says Nelson. "This is going to be better than New York, because there’s so much space. Things are cheaper than the [San Francisco] Bay Area, they’re cheaper than New York, and there’s all these actors!" And while that’s been true, Los Angeles is still a city with a mindset built around film production, and the expectations both of landlords looking to lease properties and the city’s permitting offices are not accustomed to theater shows that want to take over a space for months to put on an immersive horror or theater piece. It’s part of the reason why the scene, burgeoning though it is, has up until recently remained so seasonal — centered around the Halloween haunted houses that have helped give it life.
The strain is felt even by relative newcomers, like creator Justin Fix’s Creep LA. Only in its second year, Creep has already set itself apart by merging the more traditional, walk-through vibe of a haunted house with theatrical scene work and interactions, and while Fix acknowledges that things work well at the moment — "This business can be a really lucrative business," he admits — to truly expand to the kind of year-round installations that New York audiences enjoy with shows like Sleep No More and Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell is a different challenge.
"We would love to keep on pursuing this and really get some money behind us, so we can really be a company and a group of artists based on stability," he says, with shows in the fall and spring that would allow his troupe to expand beyond just horror. But it’s a way of thinking that the City of Los Angeles still hasn’t quite come around to. "For what we’re trying to do now, these short term, nine-week, 12-week runs, the City of Los Angeles calls them ‘ghost tours.’" It's a mischaracterization that reveals just how behind the curve the city's thinking can be, and would be outright hilarious if it weren't standing in the way of more ambitious productions.
That situation is slowly starting to change, however, as the mainstream visibility for immersive horror and theater shows becomes increasingly high. Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Tension Experience was a game-changer this year, not just because of its ambition and multi-platform narrative, but because the combination of a brand-name horror filmmaker working so effortlessly in immersive theater was able to bring a new level of attention to the medium and the LA scene itself. And when Tension closes on November 13th, Bousman and his team will shoot a movie on its sets — something that will undoubtedly bring even more attention before the immersive theater show returns next year with a new theme.
It’s a virtuous cycle; a creator like Bousman being inspired by a show like Then She Fell, and then making his own show that will go on to inspire others. "How many people are going to be creating things after going through The Tension Experience?" asks Fontaine. "Countless haunts in LA have been inspired by going through Blackout their first and second year. All of these things; it’s just one big circle."
2017 could be a race to LA's first year-round immersive show
And Tension isn’t the only show with big ambitions on the horizon. Sherwin tells me that Screenshot Productions is planning a new, large-scale show called How Should We Then Live for 2017, that will ideally be a year-round production. And when I spoke with Delusion creator Jon Braver earlier this month, he said that his intent was to move into a permanent, fixed location for his shows moving forward as well — something that would provide even more stability and opportunity to expand.
It's an inflection point waiting to hit, right alongside the emergence of a broader cultural awareness of immersive experiences that includes everything from virtual reality and augmented reality, to immersive theme parks like the upcoming Avatar and Star Wars lands. (It’s worth noting that Walt Disney Imagineering, which engineers the company’s various theme park attractions, is also located in Southern California.) And each of these art forms informs the other, creating an ecosystem of immersive entertainment where agency, presence, game mechanics, and storytelling meld to impact audiences in ways that passive mediums like film and television never can.
"When this stuff is working right, it’s a matter of co-creation," explains Nelson. "It’s the performer and the participant creating a moment. Even though it’s a make-believe moment, it still happened. It’s an actual memory." And for the time being, when we’re still far short of the Westworld-esque future where a bot can successfully replicate the sense of interacting with a human in real time, the best way to create those magic memories may just simply be in immersive theater. "The performer is not an algorithm. You don’t know what they’re going to do," he says. "That's the magic of theater."
The Rope runs through November 4th.
Creep LA runs through October 31st.
Read the rest of our adventures in the world of immersive horror in The Future of Fear.