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How director Darren Lynn Bousman created The Tension Experience

How to build your own personal Westworld

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Brennan Pierson

Last year in Los Angeles, a mysterious cult began recruiting people through emails, phone calls, and one-on-one consultations. For nine months individuals were drawn into the group’s web of intrigue, discovering that a young woman from Ohio had been taken in and brainwashed. In September, the cult finally opened its doors, and people had the chance to walk its halls and try to find the young woman inside — or die trying.

The only thing was, none of it was real.

The Tension Experience represented a key moment in the evolution of immersive entertainment. Combining alternate reality gaming, haunted house techniques, and a two-hour immersive theater show, it created what essentially amounted to a mini-Westworld: a persistent, fictional universe where the participant’s choices determined what happened next, and the line between reality and fantasy became so blurred it barely even existed at all.

At this year’s SXSW conference, I moderated a panel with the show’s creators: director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV), writer Clint Sears, producer Gordon Bijelonic, and actress Sabrina Kern. During Horror’s Immersive Future: The Tension Experience, we discussed the evolution of the show, the ramifications for experiential storytelling, and how mediums like immersive theater and virtual reality can impact audiences emotionally in ways that film and television simply can’t.

It’s exactly what you’d expect from a show that put hoods over people’s heads, kidnapped them, and asked them to kill other characters on-screen.

Photo by Laura Bousman

When you’re done listening, don’t forget to subscribe to Verge Extras on iTunes, along with our other great podcasts like Ctrl-Walt-Delete and The Vergecast. You might also want to check out Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, and Too Embarrassed to Ask, with The Verge’s own Lauren Goode. And don’t forget to let us know what you think about this episode of Verge Extras. Particularly if you end up joining a weird supernatural cult.