Exclusive Trailer: Inside Tension Experience, L.A.'s Most Ambitious Immersive Haunt
As some of you may recall, a few months ago I wrote about something called The Tension Experience after receiving a phone call instructing me to not write about The Tension Experience, or else. At that time, no one—myself included—knew what exactly the Tension Experience was. It had manifested as a website where you could solve a short puzzle and enter your email. Doing so would result in a series of emails from the mysterious O.O.A. Institute, a clandestine organization that sounded very much like a cult, always talking about bringing people to the light. Further puzzles led to deeper rabbit holes, and some of the people who followed them were directed to in-person interactions with both O.O.A. devotees and detractors in parks, bars and desolate warehouses. Participants discussed these interactions and their findings on a surprisingly active message board online. This went on for months, before it was finally revealed that it would culminate in The Tension Experience: Ascension, an intense immersive theater performance in a 45,000-square-foot warehouse located in Boyle Heights, starting September 8. It is the Halloween event of choice for people who have always wanted to star in their own disturbing psychological thriller.
The Tension Experience is more than immersive theater, though. It is also part-haunt, part-choose-your-own-adventure game, and part-escape room, while simultaneously being very much unlike anything else you've probably experienced. Participants will enter the warehouse in groups of 9, but will all have entirely unique experiences bases on the choices they make and the objects and clues they do or do not find. The simulation will go on for two and a half hours, and participants will encounter as many as 40 actors, who all have different scripts to follow based on what the participants do or say. The whole thing is, to say the least, extremely ambitious.
After that threatening phone call, which was, of course, just another part of Tension's world-building, I did not hear from Tension for several weeks. At ScareLA, a horror convention in August, the Tension Experience put on a fictitious panel about their upcoming show, during which panelists reacted with fury when the moderator called the O.O.A. a cult. It reminds me slightly of Hulu's The Path, where Hugh Dancy's character repeatedly tells people that he's not part of a cult, he's part of a movement. A few weeks later, it was revealed that Darren Lynn Bousman, a horror director who had helmed three of the Saw films, was the mastermind behind the whole thing. And yesterday, they invited me to come to the warehouse in Boyle Heights and peek behind the curtain myself.
I arrived at about 2 p.m. to a massive building that takes up an entire city block. I think my Lyft driver was uncomfortable.
"Here?" he said. He seemed unconvinced.
I took a walk around the building. I saw exactly one person, who appeared entirely unaffiliated with it all, lingering in the doorway of an RV parked against the curb.
Three minutes shy of my interview time slot, I stood in front of the door, not entirely sure if this was part of their game or not. I had received very little information about what I was doing here, apart from conducting an interview with Bousman and Tension's producer, Gordon Bijelonic.
That's the thing about Augmented Reality Games (ARG)—like The Institute, or the one played at horror festival StanleyFest, or the Michael Douglas movie The Game, or early iterations of The Tension Experience. They blur their narrative and your life together. For instance, after that threatening phone call, I had to wonder if there would be some sort of follow-through, perhaps in the form of a mysterious package or an unexpected guest to my apartment. Those things never came to me, though they did for other Tension followers, but it's that kind of intrusion into your daily lives that makes ARGs exciting. It's the idea that you could be asked to go to a park you've been to a dozen times, but this time your mission is to find an envelope stealthily hidden by a private investigator who is investigating the O.O.A. It's the idea that the sedan with tinted windows idling outside your work might be someone who is there for you. It's the confusion of not knowing what is real, and what is a game. So, as I stand in front of this door, I wonder if I am playing a game...or not.
I opened the door and it was immediately clear I had come to the right place. All of the O.O.A. propaganda I'd seen online was here, printed on their letter heads and pinned to corkboards alongside faded Christmas cards. I am standing in a waiting room, slightly shabby, where an empty desk hulks in one corner. There are old magazines to entertain myself with, should I choose to, and various medical texts. A poster on the wall displays a serene black and white image of clouds.
"The Institute knows better than your parents, your friends and even yourself. Let go and give in…," it reads.
Soon, the spell is broken. Bijelonic enters and introduces Bousman. Bijelonic is a film producer, and Bousman has a long background in horror. In addition to the Saw films (II, III and IV, to be clear), he has directed horror musicals, like 2008's Repo! The Genetic Opera, and 2012 The Devil's Carnival. His new film, Abattoir is about a man who builds a haunted house made out of rooms where actual deaths have occurred. The Tension Experience began as an idea for a film, but, with the help of co-writer Clint Sears (Crow's Blood), it has since spiraled into the beautiful monstrosity I now find myself following the pair through. Bijelonic explains that the labyrinth we're touring was once all one large building, a former mechanic's shop that took them six months to find, but which they ultimately acquired in June. Since July, they have been building out each room. It is full of secret passageways, like a video game. Even in the daylight, with actors in plain clothes, it is unsettling. It is easy to see how darkness, lighting, sound and special effects will transform the space into an encompassing and convoluted nightmare.
Bousman says that in the beginning, he never intended to reveal himself as Tension's creator, but it soon became apparent that he should. While he estimates about 98 percent of Tension's gathering fan base realized it was all fake, there were about 2 percent of the players who were getting too involved.
"Some people were taking it too seriously and making death threats, and trying to expose us by doing out-of-game things," he says.
"The more cloak and dagger we got, the more they wanted to know," Bijelonic confirms.
A pair of Tension fans once found an address that was tied to Tension's email and decided to go to the physical location. This was actually their business manager's office. The two fans walked in, saw a movie poster for 300 and came to the conclusion that the film's producer, Mark Canton, must be behind it. They then began telling all the other fans about their false conclusion. Someone else found Bousman's home address. Bousman, who lives with his wife and children, was not pleased. And it didn't stop there. While O.O.A. is a wholly fictitious cult, Bousman began receiving messages from people who were part of other, shall we say, movements.
"Not Satanism, I mean, people that were Thelemites, Aleister Crowley-educated people. They were sending me things that were codes from [Crowley's The Book of the Law], and it's like, 'This is fake. This is fake, and you're sending me real things.' So, I eventually decided to come out," Bousman says. Notably, early messages on the Tension website referenced Crowley, a well-known occultist.
Now that Bousman has broken the fourth wall and revealed himself, he is free to talk about the immersive experience as an immersive experience. He is a huge fan of things like Sleep No More, Then She Fell and Los Angeles' existential haunt, ALONE. His idea was to put guests in an immersive theater performance that was like living in their own movie with a traditional three-act structure, but in a way that also allowed them to make their own choices that would alter the outcome of the experience. Bijelonic said the script for Tension is 400 pages long, given all the variables.
One stark room, where guests are "processed" early on and where their paths began to diverge from those of who they came with, has 25 different experiences, based on which actor you wind up with and how you answer that actor's questions. The more you personally give to Tension as you continue the narrative, the more you will receive. Of the 24 rooms inside the warehouse, the average guest will see 20 of them. Some guests may, by paying attention and solving particular clues or finding certain objects, unlock secret rooms and have one-on-one scenes unavailable to anyone but a few of the night's 60 or so attendees. If no guest solves those puzzles, the actor will sit in that room alone for the night with nothing to do. Other sets of clues may lead to an offsite location, where the guest is removed from the warehouse and completes an entirely unique trajectory. This is part of Bousman's goal: to require guests to be completely detached from the rest of their life and totally present inside Tension's world. You could "walk through like a zombie," Bousman says, but then you'd really be depriving yourself.
It should be noted that unlike some full-contact extreme haunts that dump gallons of blood on your or have actors strangling you with plastic sheeting and nailing you in coffins, Tension will not physically hurt you. Don't expect to be roughly manhandled. Instead, expect the horror to be psychological. Expect your boundaries to be tested, for the scenarios to make you uncomfortable or vulnerable. For example, getting through some challenges require you to be very introspective, while others force you to answer very personal questions about yourself in front of strangers.
"We're not going to jump out and scream at you, and we are not going to put a knife to your throat and threaten to kill you," Bousman says. "It's more about getting you out of your comfort zone, putting you in a space you're not used to, and then you have to make decisions. I think when you leave here, it's going to be shocking, confusing and disturbing."
Which might not sound like your idea of a good time, but Bousman points out that Halloween is a $10 billion industry, and this type of scare may be preferential to some. "Do they like scares like Universal's Haunted Horror Nights where people in masks are jumping out at you, or do they like this, where we get inside your head and we fuck with you? It's fun, too. It isn't just sitting in a corner and crying. But it will affect some people differently."
After Tension's September through November run, Bijelonic said they will be using the space as a soundstage to produce a movie based on the narrative. After that, they intend to do two more shows. While the Tension Experience focuses on just that, tension, the next two shows aim to activate different emotions. Their names sum them up: Adrenaline, and Lust.
"We want to be the Cirque du Soleil of the theater world," Bijelonic says. "I think L.A. is ready for it. I think the next five years will be interesting. With a lot of the development that's been going on here, with all the hotels and restaurants and New York concepts coming here, I think the timing is perfect. And with the [immersive theater] veterans who have done a great job paving the road, you had a subculture that is now at a tipping point that's going mainstream."
The Tension Experience opens September 8 in Boyle Heights. The exact address will be revealed to ticket holders. Tickets are $125 and available here. You won't need to have prior knowledge of Tension's online activities to enjoy your experience, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to buy a ticket.