We Were Inducted Into A Creepy Cult At This Weird, Two-Hour Haunted House
I would be lying to you if I said this was the first time I'd gone to a random address only to have someone put a black hood over my head. As someone who does a lot of immersive theater and haunts, this actually happens to me quite a bit. So, there I sat on a Friday night, in the back of an unmarked black van with a black hood over my head…again. Vivaldi crackled over the public radio station, as the van began to move. I tried to memorize each turn, the way kidnapped heroes do in novels, as the driver took me from the parking lot in Boyle Heights where we'd met to my next location. When the van came to a stop, I heard the door open. A man swiftly removed the hood and pointed to a large, white building with a tan, metal door.
"Wait three seconds. Then knock on that door as loud as you can."
When I was a kid and my mom would agree to take me to a haunted house, it was a pretty simple affair. We'd wind through darkened halls made of plywood, decorated with skulls and bats from the dollar store, while actors dressed like killer clowns and ravenous werewolves popped out and tried to startle us. Ten minutes or so later, we were back in the real world. Since then, haunted houses have changed a lot. Sure, you've got your monster labyrinths and your corn mazes, but there is also a completely new genre, a place where haunted houses and theater have merged to form a strange interactive space. That's the space where The Tension Experience exists.
The Tension Experience is an immersive theater production that takes place over the course of two and a half hours in a massive 24-room warehouse in Boyle Heights. It employs over 40 actors, all of whom have numerous scripts depending on how guests react. It comes from the minds of horror director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, IV) and writer Clint Sears. What it is exactly is hard to describe. It's not quite a horror experience, and it's not quite not a horror experience. It's kind of like how Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't The Silence of the Lambs. Sure, both have a character that eats people and at least one scene where he wears someone's face like a mask, but one's a horror slasher and the other is an Academy Award-winning psychological thriller.
The story of the Tension Experience revolves around the O.O.A. Institute. From an outsider's perspective, they appear to be a cult. They popped up on a website and a few social media platforms several months ago, slyly recruiting new members via a series of online puzzles. Those puzzles led to phone numbers. Phone numbers led to in-person consultations. Tension fans soon began to converge via an online forum, where they discussed their various interactions with the O.O.A. These consisted of ominous late-night phone calls, strange social media posts and the occasional real-life encounter. When I responded positively to an email from a PR company pitching the show to me, I was met with a pair of phone calls warning me to back off.
It all came to a head in August, when Bousman revealed himself as the creator and ticket sales for their show, titled The Tension Experience: Ascension, went into effect. All of that world-building had culminated in a single event, in which guests would enter the warehouse nine at a time for a unique experience like nothing else—at least in scope—in town. Bousman emphasized that the purpose of the show was not just to tell a story, but to force people out of their comfort zones while also demanding that they be present—every guest would have their phone taken towards the beginning of the show and only returned at the end.
On Friday, I personally agreed to be inducted into the cult and to learn what it really meant to "ascend." I'd been following Tension Experience for a while, and now it was my turn to fully immerse myself into their peculiar milieu. I was instructed to show up at a parking lot at a specific time, where I introduced myself to the eight other patrons who would be entering the experience with me. Soon, the van arrived and we were asked to sign a waiver. We all did, resigning ourselves to our fates.
I don't want to spoil anything, so I will be purposefully vague. If you don't want to know anything at all, then stop reading now. Otherwise, the story begins as you prepare to become a member of the O.O.A., an organization that has ancient and mystical origins, like all good cults do. The first character you meet after knocking on the door is a brusk, but seemingly well-intentioned woman who asks you to fill out a form in a cluttered waiting area. It is from this point that your grip on normalcy deteriorates. While the experience begins like a trip to the doctor's office or—perhaps more accurately, given the cloak and dagger nature of it all—to renew your medical marijuana card, there are subtle clues indicating you're in for a real ordeal. It's not too late to turn back, a kindly man tells you, before providing you with a specific word that you can say if you want your experience to end. It is not particularly uncommon for events such as these to come with a safe word, and frankly, it's relaxing to know that there is one. Just in case.
From there, the intake is similar to getting booked for a crime you didn't commit. Your things are taken from you. You're put in a uniform. You have no idea what's going on. Everyone is as curt as they are courteous. You're one of many people who will be processed, and whether you succeed or fail is of no consequence to any of the people doing the processing. Yet what ultimately happens to you will vary greatly from one guest to the next. You will be asked numerous questions, and your answers to those questions will impact what scenes you are permitted to enjoy (or endure). No one guest will experience every scene. If you came with a friend, you will likely be separated from them.
I spent a considerable amount of time with only actors, or with only one other member of my group. It was easier to disconnect from my real life and submit to the show without anyone outside of it around. In one scene, I quietly knelt in the dark with a single actor, an unreliable narrator who solemnly told me his story. It was oddly relaxing to be so isolated. At other times, I was blindfolded and led in so many different directions that I lost track of where I was or who else was nearby. I was often unsure if I was dealing with a friend or a foe. One of the most reassuring figures I met seemed to have my best interests in mind when he emerged, standing serenely under a spotlight and offering me a new pathway. Later, however, he revealed other, more sinister intentions.
I quickly learned that being observant was key. The more I could remember, the better I did when navigating this world and its characters. The more I was able to find (there were many hidden objects), the more I knew about the overall story, the O.O.A. and what was to come. Submission saved me from verbal abuse in some scenes, but in others, it felt like doing what the O.O.A. wanted was only robbing me of more intimate scenes. I found myself wishing later that I had been more resistant, but at the same time, not regretting the things that unfolded for me on the path I had unwittingly selected. I contemplated the possibility of returning as someone completely different and wondering what I might see then.
When I was reunited with the people I had met in the parking lot, I was keen on learning what happened to them. We found ourselves milling about discussing our experiences for so long that one of us finally suggested we leave the parking lot and go get a drink. I had been so detached from reality that it took me several minutes of being seated at a packed Arts District pub to realize some of us were still splattered with fake blood. As we all ruminated over our individual experiences, we learned that each one of us had taken a different trajectory. Some had witnessed scenes I had no idea were even happening, and I had met a character no one else encountered at all. And later, I learned that it wasn't contained to just our group: Bousman told me a few days after my experience that things not only change for each guest in a single show, but each show also changes.
"This is kind of taking on a sense of this living, breathing thing, and as such, it's constantly being adjusted," he said. "So from the first weekend to now, every week, we remove scenes and add new scenes. What's cool is that we're not rewriting scenes to make them better, we're furthering the story."
Some changes occur because of decisions guests make while inside. Before entering, guests are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their lives: where they work, who they love, how they feel about topics such as public nudity. Bousman said that one guest in an earlier show chose to lie about her real-life vocation during the show, and that they decided to change the script while the show was happening to reflect on her deceit. In the show I attended, our group decided at one point to revolt against a directive. This was a decision that surprised our overlords, and changes have apparently been made because of our rebellious actions.
There are also certain scenes and tracks, Bousman said, that have yet to be unlocked. Due to hidden objects that have not been unearthed and clues that have yet to be solved, pieces of the script remain completely unperformed for a live audience. "We have a bunch of Easter eggs in there," he said.
So, will you enjoy Tension Experience, or will it terrify you? Bousman has seemed somewhat hesitant to call the Tension Experience a haunt, and he shies away from the "horror" label. As a director closely tied to a so-called "torture porn" franchise, he seems worried that guests won't come because they're worried they'll have to, say, stab themselves in the eye with a scalpel to find a key. (That's a Saw thing.) Bousman says that while "haunted house" may be a good way to convey what The Tension Experience is to a mainstream audience, he thinks of it more as "a macabre art installation that you have to interact with."
If you're on the fence, let me put it this way: Tension is uncomfortable, but it is also beautiful, funny and engaging. You may be lightly struck, forcefully moved, asked to eat or smell objects that you may not enjoy, and asked uncomfortable questions about yourself and even your sexual habits. It is not, however, particularly violent or aggressive. One of the experience's most intense "torments" you may later recognize as something you have to pay extra for at the spa. Veterans of haunts like Victim Experience, Blackout or Heretic House will find it very mild, while those who have enjoyed Screenshot Productions' various shows or ALONE will find it about par for the course. If you are anxious about being touched at all or not being able to see for periods of time, then this will either be horrific for you or a good way to get out of your comfort zone. It's somewhat of a leap of faith to agree to do it: it's $125 a ticket, and there are no refunds if you decide you want to use the safe word. But Tension is, if anything, an ambitious piece that is constantly reworking itself, and as such, one that I can only hope is a catalyst for Los Angeles to get its own Sleep No More or Then She Fell.
Here are some pointers for the brave: wear modest, comfy undergarments and shoes that are comfortable and easy to slip on and off; if you have a choice between contacts and glasses, choose contacts; allow yourself to totally give in to the experience. Once you're in Tension Experience, that's just where you are.
The Tension Experience is located at a secret address in Boyle Heights. Tickets are available here. You won't need 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.