What is something that all humankind can equally recognise across all cultures? A negative unifier, if you will: fear. Children grow up loving scary campfire stories, where they can deal with their anxiety with a sense of controlled fear. Alone or with others, they know how to play with their fears in a game of mastery and symbolisation reminiscent of the Freudian Fort-Da. Scaring oneself and others triggers emotion and dysregulation; this is also what we sometimes find with adults liking horror films. Speech has considerable power. Anxiety and fear are not in the same register. We can speak of fear but not of anxiety, which can only be experienced in the body.
Recently, a new horrifyingly theatrical trend has arisen, one that people have voluntarily seemed to turn into their own type of exposure therapy. Each year at Halloween, in the underground Los Angeles ‘haunt’ scene, are some of these intense immersive theatre pieces; however these are not your average haunted houses. Prior to going in, you must not have certain psychological or medical ailments, sign a medical waiver, and being in this experience, where they cannot only touch you, aggressively, but psychologically torture you. According to the spearheading-haunt’s, Blackout, self-description:
Is it theatre, performance art, mixed media set design or just a dastardly escalation of Halloween thrill seeking? All of these… as demented theatrical thrills go, they’re virtuosic ally unsettling… Without giving anything away, and Blackout is in many ways a haunted house in reverse. Much of the scariest time in there is spent alone, in the dark, while nothing happens. It’s a kind of horror-jujitsu; the venue turns your mind against you. Whatever you walk in there being afraid of – that’s what’s lurking in the house’s imagined dark recesses.
Blackout aims to prey on your fears: you walk through halls made all from black trash bags, specifically placed floor to ceiling to act as Freud’s tabula rasa; each victim to walk through the haunt alone, left to project whatever boils up for them while subjected to dire and extreme experiences. The NY Times says: ‘It’s not merely a cheap trick.
This production has a fairly consistent narrative and the way it evokes dread is more psychologically perceptive than most shows on Broadway‘. In particular, Vanhoutte and Wynants’ argument was that:
In its use of new immersive technologies in the context of a live stage, gives rise to a dialectics between an embodied and a disembodied perspective towards the perceived world… This intermedial experience brings a classic dichotomist perception of space to falter: material reality as a ‘live’ condition can no longer be opposed to a virtual mediated reality. The perception of the body is pushed to the extreme, causing a most confusing corporal awareness, a condition that intensifies the experience and causes an altered sense of presence. In a dynamic cognitive negotiation, one tends, however, to unify the divergent ontologies of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ to a meaningful experience.
Why do people continue to put themselves through such traumatic episodes, placing themselves metaphorically in Daedalus’ labyrinth, projecting the fears and traumas of the possibility of the Minotaur being around each corner, and the only ball of yarn you possess to find your way out of your tailored hell is by yelling a safety word? It is the experiences of these individuals that attend the Blackout immersive haunt report a range of results in regards to their fears post-attendance.
Blackout can be visceral and ugly, traumatic and terrible. But it does have meaning. And for many: therapeutic catharsis. Some have discussed the everyday man and the concept of soul murder, with an underlying punishable offence, highlights that there is a possible reconciliation to be made within the self. Theilgaard actually discusses the ‘projective possibilities present in the performance of Shakespearean tragedies in a psychiatric hospital…and how the many facets of projection were woven into the pattern of performance’ Whereas Hassija and Gray state: ‘Exposure-based interventions have consistently been shown to promote superior posttraumatic adjustment relative to alternate treatment approaches’.
I feel that immersive haunts are what we project into them. I find it empowering that as a petite woman I have and still can tolerate the horrors most cannot. This was not a gift, but it has become resilience and humility. It challenges my fears; it keeps me level-headed in crisis situations. I will disclose that I also do have fun, yet, each time I do leave with a much greater perspective and a deeper understanding of self.
Allison Fogarty works as a therapist at California Department of Health Care Services and she is currently doing her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Allison owns Inner Source Solutions, a mental health and substance abuse centre. She previously worked for the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition and Alliance for Consumer Education. You can connect with her on Twitter @AllisonMFogarty