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Cults, chaos, and community: how The Tension Experience rewrote the rules of storytelling

The future of immersive entertainment is here, and it is bloody

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Derrick Hinman

Last week I stood in front of a warehouse outside downtown Los Angeles, its exterior lit by errant street lamps and the glow of a supermoon. It was my fifth trip to the place, and over the past two months I’d been able to sit down for lengthy conversations with the alleged cult members inside. Some were people I was on a first-name basis with; others I’d chatted with on the phone, or taken brief rides with in their cars. I guess I considered them friends.

The front door opened and I stepped forward, passing a group of young women to my right — splattered with blood from head to toe. As I would soon find out, all of my friends inside were dead.

When I first visited The Tension Experience: Ascension last September, I approached it as part of the immersive horror scene in Los Angeles: shows that combined interactive theater and haunted house techniques to create a living, breathing world that audiences can roam and explore. And while I knew that director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer Clint Sears had conducted a 7-month alternate reality game that led up to the live show, I still assumed my visit would be a one-time thing. But in the weeks after that initial visit, I returned multiple times, engaged with the community that had sprung up around the show, and found myself enveloped in a multi-platform, fractured narrative that unfurled beneath my feet with every step.

The Tension Experience was more than an ARG, and it was more than a haunted house. A dramatically engaging, layered story experience that breathed new life into the ideas of transmedia storytelling, it raised the bar for the kind of emotional experiences that people can expect from the world of immersive theater — and it pulled it all off by making the audience part of the storytelling itself.

“I’m going to regret saying this at some point, but fuck it: I’m doubling down,” Darren Lynn Bousman tells me over lunch, two days after Ascension’s final performance. The director of films including Saw II through IV occasionally removes his glasses to rub his eyes, but given his exuberance you wouldn’t otherwise know he’d just wrapped a grueling 9-month creative stretch. (The coffee he’s drinking probably helps.) “The smart thing to do would be to walk away for a few years, and then pop back up a few years later. We're not. We're saying, ‘Let's go again.’”

“The smart thing would be to walk away for a few years. We’re saying, ‘Let’s go again.’”

He’s talking about Lust, the sequel to The Tension Experience that’s already being teased on Facebook, and that’s to say nothing of the movie script that inspired Tension in the first place. The story of a heist that happens in the middle of an immersive theater production, the script Tension was Bousman’s original way of bringing attention to a medium he’d fallen in love with after seeing productions like Sleep No More and Then She Fell. But after discussing immersive theater with producer Gordon Bijelonic, Bousman hatched the idea to create an actual immersive production as a precursor to the film. Ascension didn’t just serve as a standalone experience; it’s where the Tension movie will actually be shot next year.

The narrative of The Tension Experience dates back to February, when Bousman launched an alternate reality game dubbed Indoctrination to raise awareness ahead of the immersive show’s September debut. Participants solved riddles on the Tension website, met characters during sinister, in-person “consultations,” and answered hundreds of incredibly invasive questions as part of the experience, and over time the larger narrative began to take shape.

Sabrina Kern as Addison Barrow
Sabrina Kern as Addison Barrow
Derrick Hinman

Tension told the story of Addison Barrow (Sabrina Kern), an aspiring actress who moved to Los Angeles only to quickly find herself seduced by an organization called The O.O.A. Institute. A sinister cult with religious overtones, The O.O.A. became the setting for a series of power plays and reversals, with different cult leaders — referred to as “Gatekeepers” — vying for control. Those playing the ARG got caught in the middle, often in extremely uncomfortable ways. One player watched in person as Addison slit a Gatekeeper’s throat just inches from her face; another was seen on-camera choking a different leader to death with their own hands. An Anonymous-style resistance group appeared, with players forced to choose sides as the intensity of the interactions increased — and all of it was strategically streamed and shared with the community, furthering the overarching storyline.

Using different mediums to tell a larger story isn’t a particularly new idea, and alternate reality games have been used to market everything from movies to albums for years. But what was consistently unique in The Tension Experience was the focus on driving one cohesive narrative; Indoctrination wasn’t a marketing tie-in, and it wasn’t backstory. It was the main story, fractured across different platforms, with each offering the audience different ways to dive in.

“It’s another way to engage an audience, because it forces you to find the story and piece it together.”

“We're in this restaurant together,” Bousman says, pointing to various tables. “They've having a conversation, they're having a conversation, we are. Tension is a restaurant, and this is one side of it. Now, you don't know the full restaurant's story until you hear from everyone's side.” Taking the metaphor to its logical conclusion, one table’s conversation might represent the story of Addison; another the story of The O.O.A.; yet another the tale of the shadowy organization that is pulling their strings. “Each one of these ideas we carry out in a different medium within the Tension universe. The idea is Lust will have the same thing. So if you live in New York and can't get out to LA [for the immersive theater show], then you miss that part of the storyline — but you can pick up where the movie is, you can pick up in the ARG. It's another way to engage an audience because it forces you to find the story and piece it together, and come up with your own interpretations of it.”

Given the unconventional nature of the storytelling, Bousman and his collaborators fought to keep their identities hidden from the public, to the point of introducing a fictional “creator” named Ellis Gordon at a horror convention in August. The layer of secrecy extended to the cast as well. When Kern first spoke with Bousman in early 2016, he actually introduced himself on the phone as Gordon. Actor Damien Gerard, whose performance as a drill sergeant-esque character was an Ascension highlight, was told he was auditioning for something called Bingo Game Night.

Clint Sears and Darren Lynn Bousman
Clint Sears and Darren Lynn Bousman

Bousman and writer Clint Sears would monitor players on the Tension forums, gauging their suitability for various one-on-one breakout moments that could be used to introduce major plot points to the audience, as well as tracking what was connecting from a story perspective. “We had the beats, and a lot of it was just playing by ear,” Sears tells me over Skype. “That's when it clicked for me, too, with the story: this is a TV show, but you can hear the audience's thoughts in real time.”

That running feedback turned the ARG portion of Tension — and, later, sections of the immersive theater show — into a piece of constant, on-the-fly improvisation. Members of the Tension forums noticing a typo in an email could turn into a plot point; a participant not picking up on the subtleties in a one-on-one scene could lead to a story thread being abandoned. “One thing that I've learned is that the only thing that's different between immersive theater and any kind of good storytelling is that you can be a little more on-the-nose,” explains Sears, noting that the medium’s “live” nature adds an extra layer of verisimilitude. “When you're there, there is no ‘on-the-nose,’ because it's real.”

“This is a TV show, but you can hear the audience’s thoughts in real time.”

The give-and-take worked for the actors as well: when Kern had to head back to her native Switzerland to finalize a work visa issue, her character suddenly decided to flee the country, leaving a series of international Periscope broadcasts in her wake. “It was so insane. Part of me was like, ‘My God, what if people think it's real?” says Kern. “Everybody at home did not understand what the hell was going on. I had to tell my mother to stay in her room while I'm Periscoping.”

“I think in every sense the fans made it better,” Bousman says, and there is no better example of that influence than in Tension’s immersive theater production itself. Originally the character of Addison was meant to be nothing more than an Easter egg for ARG players to discover. But the reaction to Kern’s performance was too good to pass up, Sears says, and the character’s storyline was threaded throughout the show. In my first time through Ascension, I was introduced to the philosophy of The O.O.A. Institute, where Addison now ruled and human sacrifices were conducted every night. I was poked and prodded, pushed out of my comfort zone, all in the name of discovering whether I was worthy to join the highest ranks of the cult.

On my second trip, the narrative folded in on itself, as Addison took me behind the scenes to reveal that The Tension Experience was actually just a front; an immersive theater show designed to introduce the cult’s message to the masses. Helping the character — who ARG players had been interacting with for half a year — became the primary concern for the active Tension fan community. That only intensified in the final weeks of the show as the lines between fantasy and reality blurred, with Bousman, Sears, and the actor Sabrina Kern herself all introduced as characters (and potential pawns) within the larger storyline.

Damien Gerard as Simon
Damien Gerard as Simon
Derrick Hinman

That sounds like a crackpot mindtrip, but the echoes of David Fincher’s The Game — where Michael Douglas’ character is tricked into self-examination by having his reality swept out from underneath him — are one of the core things Bousman and Sears were going after in the first place. And experiencing those kinds of story moments as part of an immersive theater show this ambitious was engrossing; the combination of cinematic flair, involved storyline, and skilled improvisation from the actors triggering a sense of immediacy and presence. Even coming to Tension long after the ARG was over, as I did, it was easy to dive in and invest emotionally in Addison’s storyline. For me it was proof that the interactive nature of immersive storytelling can affect audiences emotionally in ways that other mediums can’t.

“One of them sucker punched me twice.”

But for those who are expecting immersive shows like Tension to be a standard haunted house scarefest, the rules of the game can be confusing. Gerard’s character Simon was so effective at getting under people’s skin early in Ascension — ”I see myself as the meat tenderizer,” he says — that two guests actually punched him. “One of them sucker punched me twice, which I thought was a little bit low of him. I think what it was for them, they hadn't read the documentation, so they didn't understand the fact that [the actors] can touch you, but you cannot touch us.”

The notion of explaining rules is thorny: there needs to be a baseline safety requirement so audiences can know what to expect when they step inside a show, but diving down too deeply into mechanics and expectations can ruin the entire illusion of being inside a fictional sandbox. “One of the things that's always been very important to me: no hand-holding,” says Bousman. “I refused to do it in the ARG, I refused to do it through Ascension, I will refuse to do it onwards. The idea is this is a world that you're walking into that you have to explore, and you have to figure out the rules.” The flip side of that approach is that some secret scenes or Easter eggs could remain undiscovered throughout the entire run of the show, which did happen during Ascension, but that’s something Bousman seems more than fine with.

“You could have altered the ending. You could have stopped the killings [at the end of each show] from happening,” he says, explaining that a series of notes existed in Ascension that relayed a secret Latin phrase that would have dropped cult members to the ground during the show’s climactic sacrifice. But throughout the show’s run, not a single person took advantage. “One person found it and tried to do it, but he was so meek in his approach that he just muttered it. Everybody turned and looked at him, but he didn't say anything else again. If he would have said it again, it all would have happened.”

As Sears frames it, that feeling of “what might have been” — particularly when audiences got together at the end of Ascension and compared notes — was perhaps the most vital moment of all. “Everyone walks away like, ‘What could I have done? Oh man!’" Sears says. “That's amazing that you still walk away with mystery and wonder! That makes that place magic.”

What seems likely is that when Bousman, Sears, and Bijelonic unleash Lust, they won’t face the same uphill climb from audiences trying to understand what is and isn’t possible. Awareness of Tension swelled in its final weeks, with everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to Vanessa Hudgens singing the show’s praises, and the team will also be releasing a Tension Experience book providing a behind-the-scenes look at how the ARG and show came together. If that didn’t sound ambitious enough, Bijelonic says that both a VR series and reality show spinoff are also in the works — and the original Tension movie script is being rewritten to directly tie into the O.O.A. mythology that Sears and Bousman created over the past nine months.

As for the next immersive theater production itself, Bousman and Sears are clearly hoping to keep Lust under wraps for as long as possible, but they do admit a few things. The show will feature an ARG component to set the stage (though Bousman adds cryptically that the “fantasy universe that exists within our own will be much bigger now,” and that the ARG could extend to cities beyond Los Angeles). And while he won’t go into specifics, the director acknowledges that Lust — as well as additional planned follow-ups like Nefarious and Adrenaline — does take place inside the same general universe.

“Maybe in the same way that American Horror Story does, in that every season is a new season, but there's small threads that carry over and characters carry over to an extent, even though they play new roles,” he says. “To the percentage? You're going to have to wait on what that actually is.”

The final performance of The Tension Experience: Ascension.
The final performance of The Tension Experience: Ascension.

Bousman won't say what Lust is about, but promises a different show than the name suggests. “Don't let the name fool you,” he said. “This will be soul-crushing. Lust also can be about destroying your heart, as well. This is all about making you feel, and at the end of the day all of these theatrics, and smoke and mirrors, are about one thing: eliciting a reaction. To actually connect with the audience. That's what it's always been about; connecting with somebody.”

“All of these theatrics, and smoke and mirrors, are about one thing: eliciting a reaction.”

Walking through Ascension for that final time last week, seeing the characters I’d spent so much time with laid out in pools of blood, connecting was exactly what was on my mind. I didn’t realize how much I cared until I saw them murdered. How much I’d connected with the ongoing story of Addison Barrow as it leapt from platform to platform — so much so that during one previous visit I had literally been dragged out of a room, shouting that I’d be back to help her. Or how connected I felt to the community that sprung up around the show, as online communities often do, and had welcomed me into its ranks when I decided to jump into the world of Tension itself.

And I thought about the ability of immersive storytelling to be a communal event, one that we experience with groups of different people whose perspectives vary wildly from our own, and how that experience will always be richer and more rewarding than just sucking down content from a video screen in the darkness.