On October 31, 2018, I attended my first extreme haunt ever and for that festive occasion I chose Heretic Haunted House. Heretic was a group that I have been very interested in for a while and that is why, after going through their mini haunt at Scare LA, I chose to break my vow to never do an extreme haunt with them. Heretic Haunted House is the creation of Adrian Marcato and his wife, Jessica Murder. Those are not their real names, but they are fitting for the show. They mainly do horror themed shows as they are incredibly inspired by the horror genre but have done shows that have more of a science fiction story line.
I worked in one of the formative immersive shows in Los Angeles, Alone: an Existential Haunting and I am pretty familiar with most of the haunts that currently exist and those that are defunct. After hearing about and meeting some people, in and out of haunts, I had no interest in going to the most extreme haunts. The reason I chose Heretic is because I trusted them and I liked their ethos. Here is how I really feel about it: I would never attend a haunt or immersive show where I did not trust or, at least like, the creators. Extreme haunts call for a lot of trust and Heretic is the only one that passed my test.
For those of you who are not familiar with these types of haunts, usually you have to sign a waiver and you are informed that you will be touched by the actors and possibly handled aggressively by said actors. With Heretic, this can range anywhere from being having an actor drag you in and out of different scenarios to being pushed off a balcony (with an airbag below to break your fall – a lot like the concluding moments of David Fincher’s The Game). With this show by Heretic, there was also a medic to ask you questions about your health related to the show itself. He was pretty strict and thorough with me and asked me more than once about a specific issue.
So, this show, its creators, and actors are serious about what they are doing and they are willing to take precautions regarding your safety. Speaking of safety, most shows like this have a “safety word”, much like safety words in BDSM. If you are feeling like you can’t handle the show or it is getting too painful, emotionally or otherwise, you can safety out. As soon as you say the word, the show stops and you get to leave. There are, of course, no refunds, but at least you can stop whatever it is that is causing you a distress so harsh that you find it necessary to say uncle.
Immersive shows and extreme haunts have a few things in common, but the most important thing is creating a bubble of reality that is so convincing that you feel as if you are genuinely in peril or part of a different world. The illusion must be complete for it to work. In that, both types of shows are a lot like the movie The Game. It is a game, but meant to be so serious that you believe what is being shown and done to you is real. The most successful movies and standard theatre shows draw their viewers into the fantasy in the two dimensional level. Theatre, in particular, with the erection of the fourth wall, demands that the audience stay on their side of the wall and watch attentively and hopefully be drawn in by theatre arts. Immersive and extreme shows drag you into their world and keep you there for as long as the show is going and some particularly successful shows have made audience members unsure when the show actually stopped.
IAMHAUNTED is a show where the illusion was complete. Despite the fact that the medic essentially gave me a large hint, due to a physical issue I have, about what was going to happen; it didn’t matter. I don’t believe in spoilers. I think that the greatest stories cannot be spoiled. Everyone knows what is going to happen to Jesus, Romeo and Juliet, and Ebenezer Scrooge. The stories have been done and re-done, ad nauseum. People still watch because the stories are so good, if executed competently, and so universal that knowing the ending doesn’t change the journey that the viewer takes along with the tale.
Since Heretic actually posted the details of the show publicly, I can talk a little more about the show’s story here. When I finally said yes to the ticket, and after a bit of money related dithering, my mind started wondering exactly what I had gotten myself into. I was basically jumping into the deep end of the pool (which is fairly normal for me) and even though I know the machinery that goes on behind the scene at a show; the “factory of fear” that is my own body started in on me pretty quickly. I had faith in their ability to execute this show without incident, but there are always accidents. What if something went horribly wrong? Do I know these people that well? Perhaps I was, as was said about Tobe Hooper’s direction of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, going to be in the company of genuine lunatics. Then I remembered that I have actually been in the company of genuine lunatics before and that I already knew what it was like.
I was told to expect the aggressive handling, that I could wear a costume, and that my clothes would be destroyed. I responded to this news by buying a white Princess Leia outfit that I wanted to be turned into a bloody shambles. I thought this was a hilarious idea. I received my instructions on where to report and I actually knew the venue the show was going to be. This news suckered me into believing that I had a bit of an advantage and I was oh so wrong about that.
I arrived, waited for my time, and was greeted by a familiar face. The medic took over, asking me questions and a man with a camera sidled out and looked at me. This was somewhat disconcerting, since I wondered if this was part of the show starting already. It turned out to be a documentary film maker who was filming that night, but I didn’t know that at the time. After a bit of waiting after the medical questioning, a woman who I believe to be Jessica Murder came out and hustled me into an outdoor area through a door. There I was greeted by something that I had never experienced before: an AA style group where strange people talked about vaguely disturbing things and every once and a while Jessica would walk over to one of them and start to suffocate or strangle them.
The first time this happened, with a Mylar sheet, I looked over and I knew the person wasn’t going to die and that I was instructed not to challenge the actors. So I had to casually watch as someone gasped for air under that sheet. It was alarming and it took some self control to not do anything but make a sarcastic remark. Then when a woman had a belt placed around her neck and pulled tight, I watched again and did not really wonder who was next. The answer was that it was going to be me. The classic recipe as described by Alfred Hitchcock, is that you show the viewer exactly what terrible thing is going to happen and let their minds start to create the suspense. The crinkling of the Mylar sheet was the equivalent of the clock attached to a bomb underneath a table in a Hitchcock movie.
I had to sit there knowing exactly what was about to happen and that I could do nothing to stop it. Very diabolical, especially for a person like me who is used to not standing by bad things happening. When the sheet was placed over my head, I pulled a rookie mistake and took a deep breath which caused the sheet to cling to my nose and mouth. The factory of fear started producing product and I heard a voice whispering SAY THE WORD. SAY IT. It took a moment for me to grab control back, but it was my mind shouting above the fear HELL NO, I WILL NOT SAY THE SAFETY WORD IN THE FIRST MOTHERFUCKING SCENE, I’M NO WEAKLING that restored my composure.
The sheet came off and I was hustled into another large and dark room obscured by fog. I was left in a posture and was soon joined by a seemingly frightened and semi nude woman. She was whispering fearfully about another person and that she needed help and was asking me questions. I nodded my head and agreed with her and waited for her to leave. She was replaced by another more aggressive woman, the same woman who was in the encounter group who was choked. She made demands of me and looked angrily into my eyes. I responded that you never tell crazy people no, it’s not a really good idea. She looked into my eyes again as if she was taken aback by that answer.
The first woman came back and demanded that I give her my clothes, so I did. I was now only in my bra and panties and she was wearing the costume. I was again hustled out of the room and soon joined by another of the AA group, also consumed with fear who insisted on tying me to a wire out cropping from a wall in a squatting position. I crouched in the dark wondering what the fuck was about to happen and to my wondering ears, I realized it was the werewolf. The scene was entitled I am a monster. Aren’t we all.
I heard the shouts of the nervous AA man and he returned to untie me. Once I stepped out, the spoiler occurred. I knew from what the medic had said that I could expect to be lifted at some point, but I was totally not prepared to be tossed around like a twig. To be handled as if I was a doll that had displeased its owner and could be taken apart by cruel hands at any time. I won’t say how I coped with this, but there the werewolf let his rage be unleashed upon me. Claws raked over me and I was sniffed and checked for life. The total lack of control was appalling and quite exhilarating. As suddenly as he had appeared, the werewolf was gone and Jessica Murder was there again to guide me into the next room.
I was in no frame of mind to notice, but as I was being escorted by Murder, she saw my shoelace was untied and directed me to tie it. So I did.
The last room, called The Apple, contained the final member of the AA group, a single chair, and a fridge. The man asked me to get him an apple and as my mind had no yet returned to my skull, so I had great difficulty figuring out where the damn apple actually was. He had to tell me exactly where to find it. I gave it to him and he told me to sit down.
As he continued to speak, I heard crinkling again. Dammit, dammit, dammit. This time I was completely covered by a plastic sheet and despite my efforts to not panic breathe, my air was noticeably reduced. I tried to just let my hands sit on my thighs and listen. I told myself what I had told myself in terrible situations throughout my life. I only have to wait this out. If I wait, this will eventually end. I will be okay. The plastic was removed and a wet wash cloth was immediately slapped over my eyes and breathing holes and water was poured over it. The result was the same. I was trying to maintain and catch breath when I could, gambling that I could do without as much air as normal without panicking. I heard Adrian Marcato’s voice saying words, thanking me and he said IAMHAUNTED.
The cloth came off and he hugged me. He said some other more personal things and reality righted itself. I walked out into the well lit room where I started.
The medic took vitals after requesting that I give him my least bloody finger. I told him that my vitals were likely to be lower than your average human as I have a condition that gives me unusually low blood pressure/heart rate. I told him I was a lizard. I also noticed that my Leia costume was sitting on a chair, as pristine as when I pulled it out of the plastic wrapper. Haha, the joke’s on me.
The illusion was complete and I was back in the real world, away from the monsters and the damaged ones. Technically, I was safe. But I know that I am never safe really, none of us are, and that as Adrian Marcato said, IAMHAUNTED.
Addendum: I’ve heard some smack talk about the show in forums that Heretic is nothing but being “beaten up”. This is not true. While there is a lot of menacing in a physical way, I was never hurt or struck by anyone. I came out of the show with two small bruises, which just as easily could have been caused by my work in another haunt that ended a few days previous to the show and some slightly bloodied clothing. Make no mistake, Heretic is a challenging show meant for those who are brave, but unlike some shows I could name, they do not seek to or intentionally harm anyone physically. Most of the true horror is all in your mind and the “factory of fear” that is your meat wrapped being.