I find myself at the bottom of a crate. My right hand and lower back are stinging, toxic pins and needles setting my skin aflame. I’m folded double, the cumulative weight of at least three people forcing the air out of my lungs. I try to keep my body tension, pushing every muscle to the maximum, so the little space I have for myself doesn’t collapse any further. In my right ear, someone is screaming she can’t breathe, her voice getting more panicked by the second. In my left ear, someone else, whispering “You can do this. You can do this. It’ll be fine.” On the outside, tormentors are kicking the box, pressing us further down. And in the back of my mind – a little voice, going “what if I would pass out now?”
This was somewhere vaguely in the middle of Cracked 5.0, this year’s rendition of the notoriously ruthless endurance horror experience by Faceless Ventures, where participants struggle through ordeals orchestrated by Blake Ciccone, the enigmatic mastermind behind the show. Clad in a white boiler suit, his face obscured by a gas mask, ever holding the cards close to his chest, but slowly revealing his intentions. I came face to face with him for the first time in Cracked 2.0 back in 2016, and it left me bruised and battered, aching for days. Yet, after a few days of reflection, I was intrigued, and wanted more. It had been brutal, but so much had not been told, so much felt hidden beneath the surface. So, I became a devotee, a member of Blake’s Club Reliquia. The two following years saw Blake facing off with Heretic, LA-based immersive horror icons, both in a brutal UK-based show, and for two very different nights in California – and it is here they fully found their stride. The constant back and forth between two horrific visions made for a streamlined version of Blake’s games, and the injection of variety, context and theatrics brought by this face-off made you wanting more, not ever thinking about quitting, no matter how hard it got. The Ciccone Tapes, a private show last year in June, saw Cracked going at it alone for the first time in two years – and they landed perfectly on their feet. A glimpse into the future, a cult massacre, leading us through the origins of the torturous games we had been playing for years. It was a stroke of genius – a new rendition of Cracked, more theatrical than ever, leading us deep into Blake’s psyche, what drove him, and why we were there with him.
This year however, I feel they lost their way, a bit. More than once, I thought about quitting. The original vision of Cracked was all about pushing your limits, finding your place of discomfort and rising up, enduring through it. The thing is, I already did that. I sat through all the meals they presented me. I have felt every fiber in my being burning and quivering under persisting stress. I had been questioned, and punished harshly for not knowing the answers. I know what they do, and I know these moments are a fundamental part of Cracked. This time though, for a large part, I felt a throwback to that first 2016 show. Enduring just because you think there might be a payoff. In Cracked 2.0, there was no reveal, but I was new to this cult. I still had to prove my worth. Just seeing Blake standing in front of you at the end, knowing you made it through, it was a reward in itself. Later years brought more context, more reason to keep pushing – and the ordeals always led to emotional, cathartic moments I will cherish forever. This year, Cracked 5.0 started with hints towards something important. A beautiful, candle-lit secret chapel. A baptism, something that felt like a true entrance into Blake’s close circle. The promise of clarity, of ascension. And then, mostly, the exact same games and ordeals of the previous years, in a way where endurance felt like the ultimate goal, instead of a way to immerse the players. Call it a best of selection, maybe, but it felt like lazy writing. A slightly awkward and anticlimactic pickup. The intense, punishing scenes almost being carbon copies of previous shows, often with a lack of relevant context. I was knocked back to where I started my search for answers. My own reasons for being there were crumbling. Why was I following along with this hazing ritual, again, still being treated the same, with no more wisdom imparted upon us?
Once again, like in our first encounter, it was Blake that made me push through. He had promised us a reveal, a next, grand step. By the end, we saw his shadow, his doubts, his voice distorting as his demons fought to take control, in a visually and auditory stunning scene. His own followers, obsessed and consumed, a step out of line, something that maybe first was hinted at during Unwrapped. Blind admiration and idolatry. We walked out, holding his fire close to us, as their voices whispered through the dark – echoing that same mantra, madness in their eyes. But there, our journey ended. A huge cliffhanger. That same promise of ascension, of clarity, still hanging in the air.
It will make me come back for more. I have been part of this for too long not to see where next year’s conclusion will lead us. But after how well thought out The Ciccone Tapes was, this felt like a significant step back. This show started off like we would finally be allowed to be a part of Blake’s circle, a promise that was held over our head for the full duration of the show. In a way, it is a close representation of religion. A trust, a belief, that when it is all over, you’ll be better off for it. That whatever you are suffering through is a test of character, something you will be rewarded for in some way at the end.
Now – I am well aware that I hold a high standard for them. Also, I can acknowledge that in part, my opinion is shaped by experiencing Cracked several times already, and by seeing the steady rise of their performance level. My own expectations made me enjoy the experience less than I otherwise would have. Judged on its own, this was far from a bad show, something I have to stress. As always, the crew can’t be faulted for their dedication, and especially the character of Blake himself keeps on mesmerizing. Next to that, the clever use of space stood out for me this year. There is no denying that Cracked has evolved and become a lot more well rounded than the endurance assault it once was, with a couple of very punishing, but also a few beautiful, theatrical scenes. And indeed, gauging the reaction of newcomers, they indeed appreciated their experience on a deep level. A lot of emotion, elation, happiness, shock and pride, and the reactions of everyone I talked to afterwards were unequivocally positive. But personally, I do feel they could have taken this show a lot further. The device used in the baptism, the chapel, the finale, the eyes of Blake’s circle burning with misguided obsession, I loved these moments, truly. Walking away, shielding my candle from the breeze, I felt what I had been looking for, the immersion finally rushed over me. But, it was a bit too late. All the elements had been there – ready to be woven into the fabric of the show, forming a cohesive whole with Cracked’s trademark brutality. This was, to me, the first time they really started playing with the religious and cult-like elements that have surrounded Blake from the very beginning. I wish they had taken that a lot further, instead of filling the middle part of the show with previous, well established tasks and punishments. The finale did hint at this intention, but the lack of further integration of the idea made Cracked 5.0 feel like a recycled show, filling the time, while the ideas they really want to work with are looming in the distance, being held back for next year.
It saddens me. More than once, Blake told me in the show – “I expect more of you.” And, I will follow him to the end, but this time, that sentiment was mutual.