I want to tell you about the time I actually got scared. It happened during a theatrical performance in an art center. It came out of nowhere, I had never felt something like it before, and no actual scare attraction has ever come close to getting me to that place. An exploration of expectations, and how they can affect your experience.
Working in the STUK art center gets you into peculiar situations sometimes. I’ve been blindfolded and led by the hand through hidden corridors of a theatre, ultimately ending up on stage. I have ridden huge metal rocking horses into a make-belief battle. I’ve gone through meditative but slightly MK ULTRA-esque visual and auditory experiments. One experience in particular is very relevant in the context of my writings on this site – and that would be Distant Voices, an experience combining theatre, motion and dance by the Fieldworks collective, headed by Heine Avdal and Yukiko Shinozaki. In my first encounter with their work, Borrowed Landscape, I wandered around a local supermarket wearing headphones, listening to eerie soundscapes and the voice of a child, left behind and forgotten somewhere in the store. One guy pushing a shopping trolley full of audio equipment, live programming the audio. Actors mingled with the normal (very confused) shopping crowd and suddenly burst into strange scenes, advertising random products to us in a strange dance, as slowly the story about the lost child unfolded. It was awesome, strange, bizarre, and memorable.
Distant Voices started in a big, sealed room, with a curtain on one side. Fifty-or-so audience members were herded inside and left in the empty room. No seats, some people hug the walls, others stay in the open. The lights are pulsing slowly. Then, from underneath the curtain, actors crawl into the room, pushing and shoving a huge number of small boxes along with them. I have no real clue what the intention of the entire spectacle was. For me, it was about the buildup and subsequent collapse of order, of civilization, of life perhaps. At first, actors were interacting with the boxes all by themselves, some sprinting through the room, almost colliding with audience members, others, lying around in contorted poses, uncomfortably balancing boxes on their body. Slowly however, you see cooperation happening, and boxes are being stacked more and more into orderly patterns. Near the end, a perfect square of ten by ten boxes is lying in the middle, with just one box remaining. Not able to fit in, calamity ensues, with blaring alarms and a total collapse of order. As the audience wandered freely, you could decide for yourself to be a spectator from afar, or to be close by the unfolding events. I wasn’t sure why, but I absolutely loved it.
One moment in particular stood out for me, as it was one of the most intense scares I have ever experienced. Halfway through the performance, actors seem to be building a big cylindrical structure together. A shelter, it soon appears to be – the light in the room grows dim, sounds of thunder approaching. In minutes, the room is pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The dimensions of the room are suddenly rendered irrelevant, the people that were standing just feet away a moment ago might still be there, might be miles away, might be just inches away. A roaring soundscape of thunder, trashing winds, howling screams carried by the storm. At first, it felt awesome – but very soon, a primal fear crept in. I felt like an animal, far from the herd, lost in the woods in a quickly deteriorating situation. Actual panic. Where is everyone? How do I get to the light? And then, the storm faded, the lights came on. I looked around. Some people had tears in their eyes. Someone got escorted out.
I had never felt anything like it. Some kind of inverse claustrophobia, where the space around you seems so vast you can’t even comprehend it. I could run for miles in each direction, but only dared to remain motionless, incapacitated by the darkness, the noise. A brilliant combination of visual deprivation, auditory overstimulation, fitting perfectly in the idea I had about the story.
And, maybe most importantly, I wasn’t expecting to get scared.
A number of other experiences come to mind – both Light Solos (by Ula Sickle and Yann Leguay) and Grind (by Jefta Van Dinther, Minna Tiikkainen and David Kiers) were movement studies where light and sound played the lead role in the performance. A circular suspension of strobe lights around the performer was rhythmically activated in different patterns, causing the illusion of motion, disorienting, confusing, and potentially nauseating the audience. Very, very dim pulsing light, just barely enough to see vague shapes caused my eyes to see performers as grotesque, inhuman shapes. Again, the space of the theatre became disproportionate by the sheer darkness, I forgot how far I was from the stage, couldn’t judge sizes and distances, actually got frightened by the performer, not being able to recognize him as a human shape. A long wire with a flashing light bulb and a speaker at the end was swung around in large circles – the Doppler effect of the sound and the flickering light swinging around caused me to feel almost hypnotized, numbed by this subtle auditory and visual stimulation, rendering the ultimate climax ridiculously intense. All these things, and the way they made me feel took me very much by surprise. It shows that your triggers, the things that affect you can be hidden away in the smallest details.
I had one of these moments in Cracked, a notorious UK endurance haunt. Apart from signing a waiver beforehand, you also need to sign this waiver again, during the experience. I had been transported, handled roughly, was out of breath, already aching, when I was pushed into a room and my hood was taken off. One bright light, blinding after being hooded for a while. A man in front of me, sitting at a desk (Someone real? A character? Not wearing a balaclava, or a gas mask? WHAT IS THIS?). He told me I was momentarily out of the experience. He checked whether I was doing okay, whether I remembered the safeword, whether I wanted to go through, had me read through and sign the waiver again. It was all in place to ensure my safety, but the rough transition from simulated danger into weird safety made this moment so surreal that I ultimately didn’t trust the situation at all. But, I really, really loved it, this confusion, this weird break.
That feeling, not knowing what to expect, of discovering a hidden gem, is a feeling I deeply cherish. It also is a feeling that is remarkable in its absence most of the time in scare experiences, regrettably. Most horror movies or haunted houses will boast that they are the scariest, that you really don’t want to do this, that you won’t make it through. And while they can be loads of fun, you expect you’re going to get scared, and most of the time, you even know exactly which way you’re going to get scared – an actor jumping out and shouting ‘boo’. It is safe, it is expected, it fits the norm. It is exactly this expectation that dulls the intensity of the raw emotions these experiences could potentially provoke. Even if an attraction dares to do something different, we appear to be living in an age where every plot twist needs to be spoiled – apparently experiencing something unique and not knowing the full step-by-step beforehand is a couple of steps too far out of most people’s comfort zone. A huge shame. Compare it to cinema – I’ll have an absolutely great time watching something like Transformers in a theatre, but I’ll always find more value in being confused or shook for days by a movie like Upstream Color, than in being blown away by visual grandeur for ninety ultimately quite forgettable minutes.
This is why I’m hugely excited about an upcoming wave of immersive, genre-defying shows washing over the US these recent years. You’ve got Alone, playing around with abstract ideas, like the different characteristics of light, wanting their patrons to feel confused, uncomfortable. Screenshot Productions selects very broad themes, like fear itself, or being born, and plays around with the feelings these can evoke, along with a meticulously designed soundtrack. This year, Creep LA places you in the hands of the followers of a controversial artist, long vanished, and leaves you to explore the darkness of his works, and the darkness that lies within you. At the same time, The Tension Experience puts you in the clutches of a cult recruiting new members, creating a highly personal experience with multiple paths, where your participation is paramount in the continuation of the story. You’ve got Delusion, Sleep No More, the Shine On collective, Fringe Immersive, … Tipping the scales heavily in favour of horror, ultimately you got houses like Heretic, with all conventions thrown out the window, delivering raw, bleak, terrifying experiences. All of them are situated somewhere along a vague, continuous scale between scary, confusing, artful and mysterious – and all of them are united by one big keyword: immersion. You aren’t spectating – you are right in the middle, and an essential part of the unfolding story. No chance to stay at the sidelines. You won’t ever know what to expect.
This is what I want. A big, blurry line with art at one end, and my worst nightmares at the other. As long as an experience is able to surprise me, to make me feel actual emotions – not by telling me to feel them or by making it blatantly obvious, but by making me experience scenes and letting me make up my own mind – I don’t care whether it’s a dance performance or a haunted house. It’s escapism at its very best. Art might be considered highbrow and elitist sometimes, while scare entertainment is often looked down upon and marginalized. Both statements can be very much true and false. It is the middle ground between the two, that huge, vast grey area, where the fun stuff happens.
The next Fieldworks show will be THE OTHER ROOM. You will enter a musical ritual, with a band that’s moving through the space, no fixed positions, elements of the room itself becoming part of the ritual. Apart from that, I have just secured my ticket for Cracked vs Heretic, which will happen in April 2017. They are on completely opposite sides of this big, blurry art/horror scale I love. And I have no idea what will happen in either of them. Perfect.
Special thanks to My Haunt Life, for proofreading and valuable insights.