One of the longest lines at this year's Stanley Film Festival wasn't for a movie, per se. It was a line that queued, twelve hours a day, in the hotel lobby, full of people waiting to take a seat in a wheelchair, strap on a VR headset and be taken on a tour of a creepy, haunted asylum in fully immersive 3D.
Called Catatonic, Guy Shelmerdine's horror experience is a huge advertisement for the future of virtual reality. Shelmerdine is a filmmaker, and Catatonic is, essentially, a film that you experience in a very unique way. Shelmerdine set up 8 Go-Pro cameras on a wheelchair and then rolled that chair through an abandoned hospital in Pasadena, capturing 360 degrees of what is basically a haunted house experience. Stitched together and made stereo, the five minute film becomes a truly enveloping experience, showcasing just how effective VR is at scaring you.
What's cool about Catatonic is that Shelmerdine mostly eschews cheap jump scares, and he doesn't use the headphones to blast noise from behind. Instead he creates a deeply creepy and unsettling experience as you are taken off an elevator and wheeled through the most grotesuq and disturbing insane asylum you've ever imagined - one that gets weirder and more supernatural as you go along. From creeping deranged children to long haired women hovering against the wall to a circle of spooks and monsters that greet you at the end, Catatonic is a real horror experience, not a series of startling images.
The other cool thing: the Catatonic wheelchair has a vibrating device built in, but it isn't to shock you - it gives you the sensation of the wheelchair actually moving as you're wheeled along in VR. It's amazing, and one point where you're left at the edge of a staircase and pushed is so vertigo-inducing I broke a sweat.
Here's a quick video of me having the experience:
Others reacted differently - I saw people shriek and scream, and one woman tried so hard to escape the VR ghouls that she pushed the wheelchair all the way back into the wall. One woman screeched and wept throughout the experience, and when the goggles came off she smiled through her tears and said "That was AMAZING!"
Shelmerdine's Catatonic is an excellent horror short all on its own, but what really intrigues me is the way that he has tried to solve some of the problems of VR. He made the film a short because people seem to be able to handle about five minutes with the headset. Quick moves create disorientation in VR, so he set the whole thing in a gliding wheelchair to help our equilibrium. At the same time he fucks with us by dropping frames and doing jump cuts, which work way better in a VR setting than in a standard film because it is like our own vision is being effected. Shelmerdine also understands exactly how spatial relations work in VR, and I couldn't help myself from recoiling at certain parts, and moving my leg away from a ghostly child trying to grab it. The reaction was absolutely involuntary.
VR is still in its earliest stages, but Catatonic shows that its future is bright... or maybe totally dark and creepy.