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Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

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How the Overlook Film Festival turned itself into a living, breathing horror movie

Chasing a serial killer in the hotel from The Shining

I’d gone to bed just past 2AM, desperate for sleep after a day of travel. There had barely been a moment to pass out when I heard a knock at my hotel room door: seven strangers informed me that I’d been chosen for a secret meeting. The next thing I knew, I was outside in the snow and whipping wind. We met with a man named Mark, who warned us that a nefarious organization might be behind a series of murders that had started in the area. We would help him uncover those responsible, he said, but first we had to perform a ritual. One that would bind us together as members of an order so secret I can’t even reveal its name here.

It was just your typical Thursday night at the Overlook Film Festival.

Film festivals have been stretching themselves beyond programming movies for decades, but the Overlook Film Festival — which wrapped its inaugural run this past weekend at the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon — offered another proposition entirely. A four-day event devoted not just to scary movies but scary immersive experiences, the festival was a genre playground, one that wrapped attendees in its creepy, interactive vibe, and never let them go.

The intent was clear from the venue itself: the Timberline is better known as the exterior of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a vast and imposing structure that was buried deep in snow, as if to echo that film’s terrifying third act. There were the usual festival trappings of debut screenings (Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night) and filmmaker parties, but Overlook’s secret was that it offered something more: the chance for visitors to step inside their own living, breathing horror movie, where nearly anything was possible.

Remains found in the immersive horror game.
Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

“It is meant to be a site-specific experience from the moment that you arrive until you leave,” festival co-director Landon Zakheim tells me on the festival’s closing day. “We want to celebrate everything the genre can offer.” Overlook has its roots in the Stanley Film Festival, another event that Zakheim and festival co-director Michael Lerman took part in that ran in Colorado for three years. The Stanley Festival went on hiatus last year, and Overlook represents a soft reboot of the core concept, with an increased focus on Zakheim’s programming of interactive and immersive theater events.

“While primarily we're a film festival, and our goal is to get the best horror films of the year, the real beating heart of the festival is in extra live experiences,” he says. “Horror in music, horror in storytelling shows, in live performance, in immersive experiences and activities. And bringing a lot of those artists into the fold so that they can meet and collaborate much like filmmakers can at film festivals already.”

A performance of Blackout.
Photo: Overlook Film Festival

Two of the tentpole immersive pieces were Blackout, the extreme haunted house created by Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, and The Chalet, an intimate, 10-minute immersive theater piece from Los Angeles-based playwright and director Annie Lesser. Both took place in hotel rooms just off the hotel’s main hub, creating a dynamic where the shows themselves became part of the texture of the festival. Someone on their way to dinner might randomly come across a pale, slack-jawed audience member recovering from one of the productions, giving the impression that terrifying things were always happening, just out of sight of the hotel’s long hallways.

“I have always found that it's hard to explain an immersive experience and really do it justice,” says Zakheim. “But if you can show it to someone, or have them go through it, they'll see what makes it so gripping and vital.” In Blackout, that meant being lured alone into a fog-drenched hotel room, and having all sense of control and agency (and clothing) stripped away as I witnessed horrific acts of violence. It’s something that in different hands could play as cheap theater, but Blackout is a psychological experience, able to worm its way into your head and unleash your own feelings of insecurity and fear. (I’ve been writing about Blackout since last year, but hadn’t actually tried a theatrical show until Overlook. It took three hours for my hands to stop shaking.)

In contrast, The Chalet offered an emotionally challenging piece of immersive theater. It was an adaptation of Apartment 8, the first chapter of Lesser’s multi-part The ABC Project, which will ultimately be made up of 26 immersive shows set in 26 unique locations. Apartment 8 is about to kick off a run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, so I’ll keep my descriptions vague, but it’s a show that uses horror trappings to put the lone audience member inside a situation where they’re forced to grapple with their own darker impulses, to heartbreaking effect.

“This piece in particular is about facing stuff about yourself that you might not want to see, and your own personal inner demons, versus any demons that are externalized,” Lesser tells me on the phone. The result is a fearless exploration of internal horror, driven by Keight Leighn’s bold performance, which I found to be profoundly moving and the emotional highlight of the entire festival.

Trudging through the woods in search of clues.
Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

The morning after our indoctrination, I was pulled into the interrogation room of Cascade Enforcement, the local security company hired to protect festivalgoers. Another body had been found overnight, and my secret group had been spotted traipsing through the snow the same time the killer struck. I was asked if I had a tendency to see puzzles or grand conspiracies everywhere, something I admitted to thanks to a healthy dose of alternate reality games, and by the time the conversation ended one thing was obvious: I wasn’t just a person of interest, I was a suspect.

If The Chalet and Blackout set the tone of the Overlook Film Festival as an interactive world, the thing that tied it all together was the four-day “immersive horror game.” Produced by Portland’s Bottleneck Immersive, the game was an expansive journey that permeated every single facet of the event, stretching from the Timberline Lodge itself, the grounds outside, and all the way to the nearby town of Government Camp. Placing incognito characters alongside participants, all in the name of stopping a series of ritualistic murders, it blurred the lines until it wasn’t clear what was fantasy and what was real.

While most attendees started the game upon arriving at the Timberline, for others it actually started last year, through a series of strange emails that picked up the storyline of the games Bottleneck had previously produced for the Stanley Film Festival. Those like myself that signed up for the top-level “Hunter” tier gave the creators permission to enter our rooms and mess with items inside them (it seemed like a good idea at the time), introducing an added layer of paranoia every time I went to bed. Fragments of clues appeared in the rooms of some participants, leading to collaboration across groups of people, and as the bodies piled up players could align themselves with various characters or simply watch the action unfold around them.

“Some people just wanted to text back and forth with the killer all day, some people were really excited about the sit-down puzzles, and some people just wanted to talk to [the character] ‘Party Pat’ and hang out and hear stories,” the game’s architect Dylan Reiff explains. “One thing I'm trying to push is opening up the audience. Anybody can come find something they really enjoy inside of it — and it is personal. You're touching someone. They are touching you. You are having real conversations. Even with the thin veil of narrative over it, it's still about conversations and having connections.”

I found myself misleading friends to hide the movements of the secret group I was part of, and as paranoia took hold, players began holding secret hotel room meetings to plan and organize. Accusations flew that a participant could be the real killer, with an unscripted showdown breaking out between players in a hotel hallway. On the surface, it was not dissimilar to the puzzles and fractured narratives found in classic ARGs like I Love Bees or ARG / immersive hybrids like The Tension Experience. But the compressed time frame, centralized location, and round-the-clock immersion gave it the feel of a live-action role-playing game, where the only characters we were playing were ourselves.

“When you're doing it as either staff or as a player, it's all happening for the first time. So it comes with its own set of hurdles and challenges that a lot of other formats or experiences don't,” Reiff says. “Which is what's exciting and what's dangerous, but also what gives it some of that energy. It's palpable; you can feel it, and I think it's because we all know that nothing like this moment has happened before, and nothing like this moment will happen again.”

Characters like Pat hung out (and passed out) around the hotel.
Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

It was the morning after the killer had been unmasked. Players hadn’t been able to stop him from claiming his final victim, and while his capture should have put an end to things, he was now in the hands of “Sanity October” — the same mysterious organization my group had been warned about since the beginning.

Just past 6:30AM, three people slipped quietly into my hotel room while I slept. I awoke to see them standing above me, a light shining brightly into my face. They stuck a swab in my mouth, collecting DNA for reasons unknown. “Sanity October needs this,” one of them said, and then they were gone.

From Sundance to Toronto, film festivals understand the need to expand beyond their core offerings. We’re in a changing media environment, and discovering the next great wave of artists means looking ahead to what the next great art forms may be. But the Overlook Film Festival’s specific focus on immersive entertainment — from the game and Blackout, to Dark Corner Studios’ Mule VR installation — made its inaugural year a unique event, a forward-thinking festival embracing and highlighting immersive mediums just as they are beginning to work their way into the mainstream.

“I think it's really important for people who don't know about it be exposed to it,” Lesser says about immersive theater. “People who may have certain biases against it — this is a theater thing, or this is a larpers thing, or this is a 'this type of person' thing — can realize that I try to make it as universal as possible.” Like any medium, immersive works can only be truly understood when they’re experienced, and the festival offered an opportunity for audiences that might never otherwise seek out a Chalet or Blackout to understand what it’s like to step inside another world.

But the festival’s success was due to more than just programming decisions. Zakheim describes the goal as “summer camp” for horror fans — a phrase I’d actually scribbled down myself before our conversation — and as the festival moves forward, he describes that as the one immutable element that must always be present.

“If you take the time to make the journey all the way up here,” he says, “and go up that long road up to The Shining hotel on the side of a mountain, and you don't have an opportunity to experience a dark carnival of various events and activities and experiences, then we're not doing our jobs.”

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