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Halloween

A Look Inside Blackout, L.A.'s Most Extreme Haunted House

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Tue, Oct 30, 2012 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Entering the Blackout experience - COURTESY OF BLACKOUT HAUNTED HOUSE
  • Courtesy of Blackout Haunted House
  • Entering the Blackout experience

Imagine (1) somehow finding yourself among a group of apprehensive "fresh fish" being badgered and browbeaten by a brutal prison guard as he processes you through a penitentiary populated by Hannibal Lecter-esque psychotics and the lobotomized victims of grizzly, Mengele-like inmate experiments.

Or perhaps (2) on your way to the Magic Castle, you took the wrong freeway exit and ended up at its downtown, Twilight Zoned twin, a long-abandoned vaudeville complex of dank, subterranean dressing rooms and eerily empty theaters featuring performers with homicidal, hair-trigger tempers performing ghastly renditions of sleight-of-hand standards such as sawing a woman in half -- but without the sleight of hand.

Or maybe (3) the downtown elevator you're on makes an unexpected stop on a dimly lit lobby decked out in black tarpaulin and roaring with a menacingly throbbing machine hum. Your desperate search for an exit only takes you deeper into a labyrinthine, sensual inferno in which you fall under the absolute control of mostly unseen sadistic psychotics, who bind and blind you while running, pushing and prodding you through a harrowing gauntlet of sexual abasement and humiliating physical and psychic tortures.

Now imagine paying for the privilege.

click to enlarge A typical inmate of Hell Break - COURTESY OF HELL BREAK L.A.
  • Courtesy of Hell Break L.A.
  • A typical inmate of Hell Break

If that notion whets your appetite, consider yourself among the target audience of what is emerging across the country as a new breed of live theatrical entertainment -- the extreme haunted house.

For Los Angeles thrill-seekers, this year's Halloween season has been offering three notable examples, as described above, respectively: (1) Hell Break L.A.'s "post-apocalyptic-esque" penitentiary, which has set up shop in the old Hollywood Sears store; (2) Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum's magician madhouse, the Blumhouse of Horrors, at downtown's venerable Variety Arts Center; and (3) the Los Angeles edition of New York-based creators Josh Randall and Kristian Thor's Blackout Haunted House, a probing, psychosexual thrill ride of the soul that is by far the most profoundly radical and devastating of the extreme onslaught.

What separates extreme from conventional amusement park haunts of darkened halls, hoary Gothic animatronics and corny audience-ambush shock effects is a new sophistication in staging, replete with professional actors, elaborately art-directed immersive environments and a move to audience-inclusive narratives drawn from torture-horror cinema hits like the Saw and Hostel franchises.

The gold standard of such stagings might be New York's non-Halloween production Sleep No More. The wildly hallucinatory and meticulously staged, audience-immersive environmental adaptation of Macbeth by Britain's Punchdrunk theater company opened two years ago in the old Twilo dance club in Chelsea and has been packing them in ever since. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the show -- and extreme theater in general -- has been its unprecedented success at attracting that most desirable of arts org demographics -- the young and affluent gallery-and-nightclub set whose hipster radar doesn't seem to register the more traditional regional theater or Off-Broadway play.

Up next: We chat with a creator of Blackout

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