More than a month has passed since Halloween, and by now even the after season haunts have closed up. So, what better way to fill the post-Halloween void than what can maybe best be described as a virtual haunt experience? Welcome to Catatonic.
I had tried the Oculus Rift VR device before, twice in fact, and every time it really surprised me how fast you can get sucked into a virtual world. Almost immediately after starting my first simulation, I had felt like the virtual hands I saw resting on my knees were actually my own, and I had been momentarily confused to see that moving my own hands did not make the hands on screen move along. When a wooden beam I was standing on suddenly tipped, I experienced a very real physical reaction, like I was actually falling down, for a moment. I even had a moment of claustrophobia, something I have never encountered in real life, when the simulated room I was sitting in kept getting smaller and smaller every time I looked away. Interesting stuff. So, obviously, I have always been very interested in the use of these VR experiences in a more horror-based setting, if a pretty casual simulation can cause these kinds of effects and real feelings, just imagine how terrifying the experience can be when used to its maximum effect. So, I was pretty pleased to see the Oculus demonstration at the Short Film Festival at Stuk, Leuven included Catatonic, a 360 degree horror short, created by Guy Shelmerdine. Strap in.
A warning to watch the film while sitting down, and the scene opened in an elevator. Looking down, I see my hands, nervously twitching and tied down with big leather straps. I appear to be sitting in a wheelchair, and someone is talking to me, telling me they had found me a new home, and while I had been rejected from other places, this one would be right for me. The elevator doors open, and I’m being pushed out. To the left, I quickly catch a glimpse of an ominous silhouette, but I’m being steered to the right, past a reception desk manned by a 1940s style nurse. She walks along with us, towards a door with a big “Psychiatric Ward” sign. The nurse opens the door, and my caretaker wheels me inside. I glance backwards, just in time to see her flash me a creepy grin. The door closes, and we continue on through a dark, decrepit hallway. We pass several open doors, and grizzly scenes briefly reveal themselves. A patient trashing around on the floor, a hugely obese man, almost naked, strapped in a chair with his legs wide open, a deformed child, crawling around and trying to grab me. Needless to say, things did not get a lot better afterwards, and something was definitely off in this ward.
The entire experience was pretty unnerving, and accomplished this feeling without the use of cheap jump scares. The atmosphere is crafted to perfection, and a host of creepy characters make sure you’re never at ease. I had placed my hands on my knees, in the same position as my character in Catatonic, and one particular scene effectively drove me to the limit, and I really had to fight a natural urge to pull my hands back. Other scenes managed to put me on edge as wel, as a variety of freaks get up really, really close, and there is no safe place to turn to. Unlike normal movies, you can never just look away, you’re in the middle of the scene, and with a decent set of headphones you’re completely locked inside the experience, augmenting the realism and the feeling of terror.
With VR devices soon to be commercially available and with technology rapidly becoming more advanced, I’m really thrilled to see what developers will come up with next. Using smart editing and different special effects and techniques, VR horror will probably be able to show the audience things that would be nigh impossible to accomplish in real life horror attractions. And while these “virtual reality haunts” probably will never completely capture the exact same feel and realism you get by walking through a real life haunt, after Catatonic I actually felt a bit like I had just gone through a proper haunt. So, I’m really curious about what these experiences can bring to the table, and at the very least, it will hopefully make the months of haunt downtime a lot more bearable to pass in the future.