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 inventing a new artistic medium to take the genre in directions it’s never gone before.
The phone calls started around 2:30 in the morning.
There were just noises on the other end at first: the lurching, churning sounds of distant machinery. But the next night there were screams, terrified and raw. As another day ticked by, more calls followed — and graphic, horrific emails appeared in my inbox. I reminded myself that they couldn't possibly be real, but I nevertheless began to feel that I was wrapped up in something more than I could handle. A situation where lives could hang in the balance, and where the shadowy group behind it all might actually show up at my front door, and wreak whatever havoc they wanted.
Did I mention I was paying for this?
I’d become wrapped up in the first chapter of Twenty One, an "online virtual horror experience" from the creators of the "extreme" haunted house, Blackout. An ongoing series that first premiered at the end of last year, Twenty One is essentially designed to induce a state of paranoid terror in the player. Cryptic texts, interactive requests, and profoundly disturbing calls and videos manipulate you over several days into feeling like you’re being watched and are in danger at literally every moment. (How effective is it? I bought a baseball bat on my second day "just to be safe." How addictive is it for horror fans? I’m now in the middle of chapter three.)
"That is our version of an alternate augmented reality [game]," Blackout co-creator Kristjan Thor tells me over the phone. "There’s a lot of people doing extreme haunts. Now we’re saying: with all this technology, how can you re-think it in a way that anybody can [experience] it with their own phone and text messages and things like that?"
It sounds like a simple enough proposition, until you dive into how visceral and physical a real-life Blackout show actually is. When the first production debuted in 2009 as A Midsummer Nightmare Haunted House, the scene was filled with jump-scare fests that simply lined audiences up and ran them through as quickly as possible. Whether a home-grown local haunt or a theme park riff like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, they were largely passive, with participants able to keep the scares comfortably at arm’s length. But Thor and co-creator Josh Randall, who’d previously worked together creating immersive theater productions of Shakespeare and musicals, wanted to elicit a different set of emotional responses. "Blackout was really our first time very specifically specifying that we were trying to do something fear-based," Randall says. "Within two weeks, there was a line around the block for it."
In Blackout shows, audience members must sign a waiver absolving the production of any responsibility, are given a safe word, and then sent through the production totally alone. There they can be subjected to scenes of extreme horror and violence, can be touched and shoved around by actors, and in some cases have even been waterboarded — an experience that director Rich Fox captured in his unnerving Sundance documentary The Blackout Experiments. It’s about crossing a line and getting into somebody’s head on a psychological level, and despite — or perhaps because — of its nefarious reputation, the show has become a name brand in the community, with Blackout spreading to Los Angeles and San Francisco. (There was even an invite-only event at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.)
The popularity of Blackout has led other attractions to pick up the gauntlet of the "extreme haunted house," to the point where shows that test one’s sanity and endurance have become a subgenre in their own right. There are plenty of examples to pick from across the US, peaking with the infamous McKamey Manor in San Diego — an 8-hour endurance test with no safe word that has been accused of intentionally putting people’s safety at risk.
"What’s the next thing that nobody’s doing now with immersive horror?"
But while that may be the cottage industry that Blackout helped build, it’s clear that neither Randall nor Thor are particularly enamored of the brute force tactics those kind of shows employ — and Blackout productions have evolved appropriately. "We’ve been pushing into a little bit more of a psychological experience," Randall says, "and potentially trying to move away from the reputation we have as more of a torture porn environment." This October, the duo are actually building upon some of the more game-oriented elements in their shows for a Blackout escape room experience taking place at San Francisco landmark — and Kink.com headquarters — The Armory.
"It was fun when we started because we were doing something new," Thor says of the way the scene has evolved, but now that other productions have played catch-up their focus has turned toward expanding Blackout’s reach through new mediums. "It’s time for us to keep pushing, and think, ‘What’s the next thing that nobody’s doing now with immersive horror?’ This cross-platform methodology is our way into that."
Yes, we’re still just talking about a couple of guys that really like to get into people’s heads, but the business aspirations here are undeniable. They’re essentially setting out to create a Blackout mini-empire of terror experiences — from in-person installations, to headtrip phone and email games, to an in-the-works VR series — that are designed to reach people across multiple platforms, no matter where they live. "It’s always going to be rooted in the live performance and that thing that we’ve been doing that has worked so well," Thor says, "but I think the most exciting stuff for us right now is how to also get it out to more people, yet still maintain the same core of what the experience is about."
For a medium like virtual reality, which the duo are exploring with Toronto-based production studio Secret Location, holding onto that core might seem a little more straightforward simply because it can replicate the experience of a show. "You have this ability to really immerse people within an environment," Randall says, "and the one thing that we’ve always learned with Blackout and all the other theater stuff we did is it’s all about the environment that you’re in."
But a project like Twenty One requires an entirely different set of machinations. Gone are the convenient visuals or the ability to create an entire environment for people to step it into. Instead, the project relies almost entirely on the power of suggestion — "you in your own house, scaring yourself," as Randall puts it — and it's shocking how much it can do with so little. Even the simple act of posting on Facebook (you'll understand if you try Twenty One) can become an act of vulnerability, triggering an emotional response by taking away the sense of power and control we maintain by carefully curating our own social media profiles. It's Blackout once again getting up close and personal, but instead of doing it inside of an installation where you'll eventually be able to escape, it's with your phone and your online footprint, key parts of our modern digital identities that we can simply never walk away from.
Along with a certain relentless tone, the thing that binds all of the various Blackout experiences together is one simple concept: immersion. The idea of turning an audience member’s walking, daily life into the canvas for an extraordinary experience is undeniably at the core of everything the Blackout team works on. And dragging audiences away from complacency and forcing them to be present in the moment, no matter the means, is one of the reasons why their work has spawned such a legion of passionate devotees — and continues to be a driving factor for the creators themselves.
"We spent so much time in the New York theater [scene], seeing people walk into a play, go into a daze and nap for an hour and a half, and then leave like, ‘Oh, that was lovely,’" Thor says. "That was really tiresome, boring, and annoying to us. All of this stuff that we’re doing is to combat that. The second that you feel at rest, the second that any of these stories or art forms or platforms or anything start to feel stagnant, that’s when we want to kick the hornet’s nest or jab a spoon in its ribs."
The first three chapters of Blackout: Twenty One are available now. Proceed at your own risk. (I’m not joking.)