There are many ways to reach the darkest corners of the human mind. Violence, fear, suffering and loss can all lead to traumatic experiences. Naturally, there are plenty of people who want to go to those dark corners in the guise of tourists and return to the light without the burden of long term or permanent psychological issues — perhaps even with a souvenir T-shirt to remind them of their experience.
Virtual reality allows you to do just that. While horror books, comics and films have all been scapegoats for society’s problems, Emmy Award-winning producer/director Robert J. Sexton has been a pioneer in the next dimension of horror-themed entertainment: virtual horror experiences. To learn more about this state-of-the-art, immersive, terror platform, we sought out Sexton at this year’s VRLA (Virtual Reality Los Angeles — the world’s largest immersive technology festival), but before we reached him, our eyes were opened as to just how impactful the VR industry is becoming.
During the convention’s opening remarks and keynote speeches, Gary Radburn, Dell’s director of virtual and augmented reality, provided an overview of the current applications of virtual and augmented reality. These included: entertainment content, interactive marketing campaigns, automotive design and engineering, life skills training for autistic people and exposure therapy for PTSD sufferers.
Radburn projected that by 2021 annual global sales of VR/AR headsets will reach 49 million units for consumers and 18 million for commercial use. With applications like these and the likelihood of a steep increase in demand (from 2016’s 7.4 million for consumers and 1.84 million for commercial), it is clear that virtual and augmented reality industries are on course to profoundly impact science and industry in the very near future.
After the speeches, the exhibition doors opened, and the consumers and tradespeople flooded the exhibition hall to network, shop, and play. The interactive displays of the approximately 200 companies in the hall ranged from humble mom and pop stands to mobile VR studios to enormous AR art installations.
For readers who don’t know the difference between VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), here’s the breakdown: both involve using a headset which typically includes a viewer and headphones; however, while AR programs project interactive elements onto real world environments, VR programs simulate a complete, 360 degree environment for the user. The experiences, particularly for VR, also incorporate haptic controllers (think video game controllers that sync up with the user’s movement in the virtual world).
Some of the more impressive displays included an Intel / Dell virtual classroom, where “students” sat at their desks and interacted with educational programs; a LACMA art installation that allowed users to walk into and explore a virtual forest; warzones wherein several gamers could gear up and fight off an onslaught of virtual enemies using haptic weapons; and Red Frog Digital’s AR haunted attraction, which consisted of a minimalist maze that came alive with trap doors and ghouls that reached through virtual windows (with the aid of a trusty headset).
The AR haunted maze was just the tip of the iceberg as far as horror entertainment was concerned, as there were a number of exhibitors providing demonstrations of a variety of interactive horror games and experiences. These ranged from VR experiences branded with popular horror franchises, like The Exorcist: Legion VR and Sonny Boy Entertainment’s IT: Float (based off of Stephen King’s It) to the short VR horror films of Dark Corner, to the completely immersive haunted house story/experience of Another World VR’s Kobold and the choose-your-own-adventure-style satanic campsite story of Light Sail VR’s Speak of the Devil.
Finally, we reached the exhibition zone for Sexton’s production company Hollywood Asylum. Through his company, Sexton has produced and directed numerous music videos and short films that typically feature startling horroresque imagery. As far as his role in the development of VR in general and within this context, he created the first live heavy metal 360° video (for Soulfly) and the first 360° narrative-driven heavy metal video (for Incite), which featured a horror scenario.
When asked about his first steps into the realm of VR, Sexton recalls the experience of shooting Soulfly’s video. “I was shooting a traditional 2D music video, and I had access to one of these [360°] cameras,” he says. “We stole it and flew to Washington state and dropped the camera in the middle of a mosh pit.” Watching the video with a headset, the viewer can turn and tilt his head this way and that to experience the sensation of being surrounded by an audience of head-thrashing metal fans.
For the horror-centric Incite video, the camera/viewer is located in the center of a table, surrounded by cultists performing a ritual. As the viewer looks around, he can witness a number of characters performing various aspects of the rite. Sexton explains what made this video unique was the degree to which it contained scripted elements. It was distinct in that, “it wasn't salacious or the obvious, like video tourism, or a 360 VR journalist would do,” he distinguishes. “It wasn't just documenting a situation; there was a motivation for the camera, there were things going on; there were things you were supposed to look at; there was a direction and a misdirection that I was trying to achieve.”
His newest experience is called Psycho City, TX. The storyline of this VR experience takes place at a secret lab in Galveston, Texas, during an apocalyptic super virus scenario. The appeal of this technology, for Sexton, involves the depth to which VR experiences affect users. He elaborates, “Your brain thinks it's a real event that's happening and remembers it as something real. It's not like watching a TV screen or a movie screen. You're in there, you know, it's a hot environment; your brain is thinking this is real.” Thusly, is goes beyond voyeurism; it's traumatic tourism.
“There's a responsibility of the filmmaker, but there's also a responsibility of the person viewing it,” says Sexton of the disturbing content. There will always be people who are bothered by horror entertainment, be it movies, VR, whatever, but there is nothing deceptive about the marketing of virtual reality horror, so if would-be users don’t want a frightening trip, they shouldn’t buy the ticket.
Still, they might still be getting into more than they bargained for. Viewers go in prepared to witness the most horrific scenarios that content creators can whip up these days but in an environment so subjective, Sexton says, their minds could actually record what they see as memory, as if it were really happening. But at least, he adds, it's a 'look Ma, no scars!' experience.