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.
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
In a perceptive look at the trend, Wall Street Journal writer Merissa Marr recently suggested that this kind of extreme performance is merely a logical offering by live theater to a generation weaned on a cultural diet of interactive virtual entertainments. Extreme theater, the piece says, addresses a burgeoning hunger of screen-jaded sensation seekers for “a world where we can't see the edges.”
That is precisely the case of Blackout Haunted House, whose creators quite literally make those edges disappear. Seventy-five percent of Blackout occurs in total darkness. In fact, the show expertly flirts with the kind of psychological sensory deprivation and humiliation techniques perfected at Abu Ghraib (but without the waterboarding). The only other real-world experience to which the show might be compared it is that of being arrested and spending a weekend in, say, county lockup.
This is not for the claustrophobic or the control freak. Blackout cuts to the disturbingly powerful core of the “live theatrical event” in part by breaking most of the physical taboos of the performer-audience divide. These include being manhandled by performers in erotically charged acts of physical domination and verbal abuse, all set within the dramatic context of a Gothic torture narrative.
It is a show that demands the complete submission and surrender of the audience member, who is at the total mercy of the actors as he or she is forced across the line that separates the purely intellectual terror of mere anticipation from the much more profoundly visceral, primal and psychologically immediate phenomenon of in-the-moment horror. (Audience members must be at least 18 and are required to go through alone. If the experience becomes too unbearable, Blackout also provides a get-out-of-jail-free password.)
Prospective participants must sign a waiver indemnifying the company from any responsibility for “personal injury, property damage or loss, emotional or mental distress.” The waiver, of course, is part William Castle hokum, part a legitimate legal release and, above all, a promise. What Blackout strives for first and foremost is eliciting a genuine and physically palpable response.
“For us any reaction is a good reaction,” says co-creator Josh Randall. “We strive to be effective and we recognize that fear in and of itself is subjective and so everybody comes in and responds in a completely different way.” And in extreme theater, audience reactions tend to be, well, extreme. “A lot of people,” he says, “are completely shaken by it and they come out sweating and, you know, no blood in their face, [but] they're sort of freaking out. A lot of people come out laughing hysterically. Some people come out crying.”
The power of Blackout is rooted in the decade-long experience Randall and partner Kris Thor had with immersive site-specifics while running NYC's Vortex Theatre Company. “Our big thing was trying to reformat classical plays for a contemporary audience,” Randall recalls. “And usually Kris and I would always skew towards more of an experimental, avant-garde slant.”
Typical of Vortex's offerings was their 2005 production of Maurice Maeterlinck's 1890 work of experimental naturalism, The Blind. “We did it in the hull of a boat in the middle of the Hudson River in the middle of winter,” Randall says. “And it's a classic play; it was just a regular classical play. But, you know, you put it in that setting, and it completely changes it and it just made it a very immersive environment. So I think everything we had done together was really trying to push the envelope in terms of including the audience in the action, and trying to have a really strong effect on them. And really that's where the impulse of Blackout came about.”
For his part, Randall is somewhat bemused to find Blackout Haunted House being touted as an avatar of a “brand new” movement in theater. “There has always been this movement,” he says. “It's been there. I remember going to college sixteen years ago and seeing shows that affected me that were very immersive. So I don't think this is really brand new. I just think it's coming to the forefront in a way that it hasn't before.”
Hell Break L.A. closes October 31; Blumhouse of Horors runs through November 3; and Blackout Haunted House runs through November 10.