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Arts and Entertainment

There's Now An Extreme, Overnight Haunted House At A Cabin In The Woods

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If you've ever wanted to star in your own horror movie, now's your chance. L.A. haunt Heretic House has a new overnight horror simulation guaranteed to creep you out. You've seen this before. A group of people leave the city hustle for a relaxing getaway in the woods, venturing along a bucolic, tree-lined path to a secluded cabin. Things start out very mundane, but certain things seem amiss. Perhaps a shadowy figure appears, but the witness to the intrusion convinces herself that it's merely her tired brain playing tricks on her. Or maybe it's the sense that one is being surreptitiously watched by a stranger. Was that door always closed? Are we truly alone out here? The car was working just fine before. A gentle trickle of uneasiness pervades the cabin and its inhabitants, until that trickle becomes a deluge of mayhem when someone, or something, proves to have been there all along—maybe just waiting for a naive group of vacationers to disturb the peace.

This trope is one that the masterminds of Heretic House—Los Angeles' underground, year-round haunt—are currently playing with in their new show, The Cabin. While previous Heretic shows have involved snatching guests off the street or asking them to enter a mysterious location in clothes they don't mind getting ruined, The Cabin asks its participants—groups of five or six—to leave the city and drive two hours away to the eponymous cabin, located near Big Bear. The horror scenario plays out over the course of hours, rather than minutes, in a long, slow burn of increasing terror and macabre performance.

The Cabin's story, only partially revealed until one is actually inside of it, is that acts of great violence once occurred there. Unseen predators are in close proximity, perhaps even squatting there when no one else is around. It's not clear if the tormentors are just deranged maniacs who lurk in the woods, desperate criminals on the lam, or something beyond the stretches of our perceived reality. The only known fact is that the vacationers are in danger. Prior to their arrival, guests have been provided links to actual home invasions and past crimes on similar terrain. Each guest will ultimately have their own unique experience, depending on who they encounter and what they do. It is described as spending one night fully within a horror movie where you may be touched, bound or otherwise manipulated through an immersive performance.

Jessica Murder, as she calls herself when dealing with Heretic matters, is the owner of Heretic Haunted House. She works closely with her husband, Adrian Marcato (yes, a Rosemary's Baby reference) and Naomi, an FX specialist and the haunt's manager, to create the kind of intense, terrifying immersions Heretic's fans have grown to love and fear. While Adrian often appears as the face of Heretic, Jessica tends to stay in the shadows, partially because she appears in some of the scenes. Naomi, too, has acted in some of the shows.

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The first time I encountered Heretic was back around Halloween. It was my last haunt of the season. Unlike other Halloween attractions, this wasn't just a maze where monsters popped out and said 'Boo!' Similar to Blackout or Alone, the monsters in this haunt were free to touch you, tie you up, ask you disturbing questions and thrash you about. The show, Hex, took place in a nondescript location in Koreatown. It was based on a dream Adrian had once had, and was also about sleep paralysis. After writing an account of the show for LAist here, a commenter suggested all parties be monitored by authorities. But, I went back again, this time to their December show, Isolation & Dread.

In the middle of a particularly cold night, one of the nights that falls between Christmas and New Year's Eve, I arrived to an address in Pasadena. I saw nothing and no one around. Just me, slightly shivering, alone. Several moments passed before a woman, her arm in a sling, silently approached and motioned for me to follow her. As we walked, she handed me a clipboard with a waiver to fill out and sign. I tried to make small talk, but she remained tight-lipped and emotionless. This woman was Jessica, though I didn't know that yet, and wouldn't get a slice of her true, more engaging personality until months later.

What would follow was about 40 minutes or so of being roughly manhandled and forced into several increasingly smaller spaces. First a fort of plastic sheeting, then a small shack, then a coffin, then an impossibly small coffin, then a body bag. Finally, I was left in a bathtub full of cold water for several moments before a tormentor greatly impeded my ability to breathe several times with a thick sheet of plastic. Beyond the violence, the haunt was about claustrophobia.

Jessica, Adrian and Naomi all met through the haunt industry, working in haunted houses or writing horror screenplays. While they'd started Heretic by putting on smaller shows for other horror enthusiasts, their first performance for paid customers came in November of 2013.

Heretic pushes a nightmarish series of narratives, often pulled from true crime or the creators' real experiences. The central storyline—the Heretic narrative, if you will—revolves around a cult where everyone worships an evil entity, sometimes by exposing themselves to disease. That show, Paratoxic, apparently involved a lot of liquids and slime, which is harder to work with, Jessica assures me, than one might think. Other shows—Hex, The Cabin, Isolation & Dread, and the slasher story Midnight Killer—are off-shoots unrelated to the Heretic mythos. A show in November, Vanish, took participants out to the middle of the desert for a bizarre journey through motels and open terrain. Adrian supplies many of the ideas: Heretic was based on the actual unsolved murder of a former friend, while Hex was based on a dream he once had. There are shows where, unlike most horror, the tormenters are all women. Some stories change depending on what moral choices the guest makes. A future show draws inspiration from riots. Their Facebook feed is full of twisted and grotesque images.

"The first show for actual paid patrons was based more in surrealism," Jessica recalls. "So, we had a scene on the street and an actual van. You were whisked away into a little building and immediately switched into different scenes right away—whiplashed through these scenes. That's still one of our most surreal shows. We are heavily influenced by David Lynch, so we've definitely tried to capture that."

The dynamic between the husband-and-wife team may have carried over from earlier work, where the pair labored over short films together. Adrian then, too, was the ideas guy, while Jessica was the editor. With Heretic, Jessica also acts as an editor, with a keen sense for what works and what won't. Scenes are meticulously rehearsed and tested.

"We test on friends and past patrons who donate their time to us," Jessica said. "We have a couple that have volunteered their time for the rehearsal of The Cabin."

Jessica then makes necessary changes to the shows as they evolve. She said safety is the number one reason why she might choose to remove a scene, but she also cuts scenes and gags if they're beyond the group's budget, or if she finds them too cheesy or cliche.

"We try to keep it—as much as we go for the surreal and supernatural—grounded in reality," Jessica. said. "If it's hokey, we cut it."

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You might be wondering why someone would volunteer or pay for Heretic to torment them in the first place, let alone become a repeat customer. Heretic superfans buy what the haunt affectionately calls a 'deathpass,' which gets them into every show.

"It's cathartic for some people," Adrian said. "It's challenging them in ways they don't normally get challenged. It's adrenaline. They're addicted to that feeling of being scared."

Jessica likens it to 'existential testing.' People get to learn, in a relatively safe way, what they might do in a strange or seemingly violent situation. She said a man who suffered from claustrophobia went to the same show as me to challenge his fears, though he didn't make it through. And by didn't make it through, she meant he called the safe word. Each performance comes with a word that you can say if you decide you're no longer comfortable with the experience. With The Cabin, guests have two safe words. One can be said to slow or lighten up whatever is happening, and the other is a full stop.

"I think our early reputation was it's game on, and we come through and it's whatever," Adrian said. "But, we have people's safety in mind always. We don't want to hurt people and we don't want to get sued."

"If someone calls safety, I'm there to really be there and understand," Jessica said. "[The performances] bring up actual vulnerabilities. When someone calls safety, you have to talk them down and get them in a better headspace. I take that vey seriously."

Naomi once mentioned an incident where someone called safety and then wanted to see the same actors that had previously been tormenting him for himself.

"I think this guy wanted to make sure they were really people, and not monsters," Naomi said.

Jessica said she has never been into hazing or seeing people in pain, and that in the beginning, this empathy made the haunt difficult for her.

"It was excruciating for me to have to deal with the emotional aspect of people getting freaked out. I told Adrian once, I don't want people to think I'm some kind for deviant. I didn't want to be put in that position. But then I got used to it as it went along," she said. "It's [the guest's] own reasoning. They're still coming [to shows] to work through or approach something. Whatever they come here for, they're coming. We're not dragging them in. And then I became comfortable."

Jessica thinks this might also be why she's one of the few female extreme haunt owners around. Adrian said he's been unable to find many other women in the largely male-dominated extreme haunt business, and that one woman he did find who runs a haunt in the U.K. had a fake persona where she acted as a man, telling him she didn't feel comfortable breaking into the industry as a woman.

"Women, if they're doing a services, are to help somebody out—like an esthetician," she laughs. "But this is the opposite. It's facing deep-rooted fears and emotional trauma. It always goes back to a psychological thing, for the most part. Anyone can hire a few actors. It's not that [other] women couldn't do this, but I think it's the psychological aspect of it."

The Cabin will run from now until indefinitely. Unlike other Heretic experiences, The Cabin is a bit more bespoke. Groups will talk with Adrian and the team before their event, and can indicate what kind of experience they're looking for, and what things are absolute no-nos.

Heretic will also have a presence this weekend's horror con Days of the Dead and Off Sunset—the leather pride festival that bills itself as 'L.A.'s perverted little street festival'—this Sunday, at the conclusion of L.A. Leather Pride Week.

"We're trying to appeal to the leather community because I think they would understand and accept us, because they're open to different things," Jessica said. "We'd like to create haunts for that clientele without being cliche."

If you think you'd like to spend a night being tormented in Heretic's cabin, you can check out their website here. The inaugural Cabin show took place last month, and was, according to Adrian, "a long night with an overture and an intermission," drawing inspiration from Last House on the Left and Last House on Dead End Street. Without giving much away, Adrian said they managed to somehow incorporate jump cuts into a live performance, someone got lit on fire, and no one was hurt.

"Working in the film industry, we have professionals that are very talented and contributed to that climax, which originally was going to be a car on fire, as well as people surrounding the car in a nightmarish barrage. There are no camp or cheesy elements within this simulator. It's very real," he said.

Heretic is hoping their creepy cabin can continue for a long time, with plans for a new Cabin story floating around in their spooky heads.