When I was seven or eight years old, I was inexplicably terrified of a vampire inside a haunted mansion attraction at an amusement park (Funtown USA in Saco, Maine if anyone's curious - though the mansion ride is now gone), absolutely refusing to walk past him until my friend's dad actually carried me. I'm not sure why he scared me so much; not only was I already watching horror movies, but I had been on the ride before - my only guess is that it was a different actor this time around and he had a je ne sais quoi that proved too much for my young, still impressionable mind. On subsequent trips I'd even feel embarrassed about my one-time terror at this particular spot, though it always sticks in my mind when I go on these things - what if they find the right combination of elements that can leave adult me petrified? Or even properly jolted?
If anything had the chance, it was The Tension Experience: Ascension, which has just opened here in LA and will be running for the rest of October. But this is no normal "Halloween Haunt" kind of thing - it's actually the culmination of an ARG (Advanced Reality Game - think Fincher's The Game) that's been going on for months. It began on Facebook with a simple puzzle game that, when solved, would give you a phone number to call, and your journey began there; creepy phone calls, mysterious late night dropoffs (i.e. "Go here and wait for a package" kind of stuff), people who would show up at public events and say cryptic things to you, etc. would follow. I unfortunately (or fortunately?) didn't take part of that, but two friends of mine did and spoke very highly of their unnerving experience, to the point where I wished I had gotten on board (though ultimately I probably wouldn't, given their penchant for late night calls and other creepy "personal" touches - my wife has no patience for this sort of stuff and would find it far too intrusive). But the Ascension experience (which, it should be noted, requires no knowledge of the ARG element) was too intriguing to pass up, especially once I knew it was largely the brainchild of Darren Bousman, who has taken some big risks in his post-Saw days and, love or hate his work (like Repo and Devil's Carnival), can be counted on to deliver something way unlike everything else that's out there.
Because in some ways I wish I could be that 7 year old again, legitimately terrified by a performer in a haunted maze. Instead, I sleepwalk through the ones I go through at Knott's or Universal Studios when they open for this time of the year. Guys jump out at me with chainsaws and such and I usually just laugh, or even politely nod at them while admiring the production design or something. It's not that I'm not having fun, but most of my entertainment comes from seeing other people get scared, slightly jealous that they're not so numb to this stuff by now. But there is a new trend of more immersive terror experiences cropping up (Blackout and Delusion being two others) that seem designed specifically for folks like me who need something a little more hardcore to get that same kind of terror, and so I made The Tension Experience my virgin dive into such fare. I hope I didn't ruin the others for myself should I try them out, since Tension goes beyond those with a much longer show (over two hours long) that differs for each participant depending on how they react to certain things, answer questions, etc. The basic plot is that you're one of new recruits for the OOA (The Oracular Order of Anoch), and being processed for your induction into their numbers - naturally, the group is more sinister and terrifying than anything one would willingly sign up for. Focusing more on psychological trauma than physical interactions (at least in my version), it's certainly not for the type of person who has trouble getting through the mazes at Universal Horror Nights - you have to be dead serious about wanting to be unsettled.
Since the way it plays out is A) different for everyone and B) part of the surprise, I will refrain from saying too much about my exact experience. I can tell you that once you sign up you will get a few cryptic emails, largely warning you away because "these people are not who they say they are" and the like. The mysterious nature carries through the whole thing - you are told exactly where to go only 48 hours before your selected timeslot (they do four shows a night), though it's in Boyle Heights if you want to roughly plan out your commute time in advance. But the address they give you is just for a parking lot - once everyone's there you will be forced to don a hood and take a shuttle van to the actual location, where your true initiation process will begin. A creepy form will be filled out ("Who knows you are here?"), an oddly gentle and quiet man will take your picture, and... well after this point it's probably best not to do a play by play. But in general, my journey ranged from events that were almost comical (sitting on another player's lap for several minutes) to alluring (a sexy demon woman separated me from my group and rubbed my back while whispering into my ear) to, naturally, downright scary.
Thankfully, they avoided those sort of traditional haunted house scares that have long since failed to work on me - these are more subtle and unsettling than obvious jolts. I'll completely avoid specifics for the scarier parts, except to say if you don't like wearing a hood over your entire head, I would steer clear of this experience, as it felt like I spent nearly half of it in such a state. I think there were four separate times where I was told to put one on (including the shuttle), often then being led (or pushed) down hallways and through rooms hoping like hell the actors and/or my fellow players were enough of a guide to keep from stumbling or hitting my head. I am not claustrophobic myself, but I can imagine it would be torturous for those who are - I never felt like I was in a confined space or anything, but having your head contained like that for long periods of time must trigger the same kind of symptoms. I read one report of someone being removed from the group almost instantly for trying to take the hood off, so I didn't dare adjust it when it was placed on kind of awkwardly, but man oh man, I did not miss that thing when it was taken off for the final time.
I know you're probably wondering, "If you're not claustrophobic, why did the hood bother you so much?" One word: allergies. I am allergic to only two things: smoke and dust, and this week I had more than enough of both - the human chimneys greeting me outside of every Fantastic Fest screening loaded me up with the former, and a new computer in my office meant pulling out a lot of the latter when the old one was removed. I cleared all that crap out of my nose and throat right before we got on the shuttle, but I managed to get a hair in my eye during the process and, again, fearing dismissal for messing with the hood, had to deal with it until it was time to take it off 20 minutes later. The eye trauma didn't exactly help my nasal issues, however, and I doubt you'd be surprised to learn they didn't have any bathroom breaks or helpful boxes of Kleenex during the event. So I had a blocked nose (and itchy eye) with no way of relieving it half the time due to the hood, so I grew to hate that thing quickly. Plus, early on we strip to our underwear and put on these one-piece scrubs kinda uniforms, and unless she was mistaken (or purposely messing with me) I got the biggest sized one they had - which was too small. Standing was fine, but sitting down, kneeling, or running was a bit too tight in spots, and I'm sure I ripped the stupid thing (the bottom of the pants leg nearly came up to my knee when I sat down); I had to laugh later that this experience, which requires waivers and invokes severe trauma for many punters, never made me more uncomfortable than my own allergies and size did.
That's not to say I wasn't affected by it at all - there were parts that genuinely creeped me out, and I was continually worried about my friend, who I was split from probably about halfway through and had no idea if she was just seeing other rooms or actually "voted off the island", so to speak (they took her out during a particular "scene" where we had to keep staring at the person across from us - we had different partners so for all I knew she blinked, "failed", and was taken back to her car). And of course even if my nose was perfectly clear it's impossible to not be unnerved when wearing a hood and being led to parts unknown. But throughout the experience I felt myself somewhat at arm's length due to a hangup I had, which is that I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be playing along and assuming the role of an actual dummy who'd sign up for a Scientology-esque cult, or if I was just plain ol' me, a smartass guy who was looking for something fun to do around Halloween time. There's an innate instinct to sort of "game" the system to ensure you're getting the full experience, not unlike a role-playing game where you might respond in a certain way because you know it will trigger a better ending or unlock an Achievement/Trophy. However, I'm also a shitty actor, so creating any sort of character to play and inform my choices would likely fall apart anyway. So when they asked things like "Do you have a child?", I wasn't sure what the best way to respond was, because I knew that they already knew the answer from my questionnaire - do I lie and say no, just to see what happens? Or do I tell the truth, hoping that they'd somehow manage to invoke him and increase the terror I signed up for?
Ironically, it's this sort of thing that the show's creators, Bousman and Clint Sears, were actively challenging with their design. Regardless of what the show was about, they want people to completely immerse themselves in the moment, drop their smartphones for a lengthy amount of time (in one interview, Bousman asked how many people are able to even get through a single TV show without checking some social media feed - and I realized I probably don't), and really live in an experience. Indeed, the most fun I had was when I had no choice but to just go along with what they had in store - the sensory deprivation part, even with my allergies, was suitably awesome and thrilling, as was a "twist" of sorts that occurred shortly after it. But during those more game-y parts, I got taken out of it a bit, because I was always torn between being honest (what they continually ask for) and lying to see if they knew that (with my info on file, finding my facebook feed or Twitter wouldn't have been hard) and get "punished" in some way. My advice? Don't think, just do whatever pops in your head - there's a "no right or wrong" effect in place, and as long as you follow their basic rules (don't take the hood off, don't touch the actors, etc.) I sincerely doubt they will cut someone's (paid) experience short because you lied about being married or whatever.
Plus, getting separated and going on a different journey is part of the fun, I think. It was quite revealing when I compared notes with my friend after we finished up and were safely back at our cars, because what she described was hardly a minor variation from what I did. She had to take a mysterious pill at one point, which I didn't get at all, but she missed out on that "twist" part I mentioned earlier, and seemed disappointed that whatever she did prevented her from following that path. Tickets for the experience are 125 dollars, and it's well justified (I can't imagine how much this thing costs to run, with dozens of actors inside a massive compound), but it's not like I can keep going back over and over to see what other things they have. And even if I did, I don't know exactly what I did or didn't do "right" to get the path I got - for all I know I was singled out for this or that thing because I was the tallest of the group, and thus would get the same thing every time no matter what I said. And I love that, for the record - while I may have missed out on a scene that would have left me as unsettled as I was in that Funtown ride, knowing nothing about the machinations of how the scenarios play out kept me from ever feeling as superior as I did when I went on that ride again, easily walking past that vampire with my newfound bravery. I may not have been ever tempted to use the safeword they provided, but I never once felt like I was in any sort of control - and that's the key to The Tension Experience's success.
The Tension Experience: Ascension (other installments are in the planning stages) runs throughout October - tickets and more info are available here.