Why you should care
Because there are haunted houses, and then there are “experiences” that throw you into a real-life horror movie.
The waiver asked me for the names, addresses and phone numbers of close members of my family and whether I had told anyone that I was there. It asked whether I was comfortable with public nudity (part a, somebody else’s; part b, my own) and whether I had life insurance. My full legal name and date of birth were already printed at the top of the form — they had done their homework.
Unlike your typical haunted house, the actors could touch me — everything on a scale from creepy sensual caresses and licks to manhandling and light hitting. I love a good scary movie once in a while, but I’m no creepy horror junkie, so thankfully I had a safe word if it ever got too much (“coward”).
We were instructed to show up in a deserted parking lot off an alleyway in a desolate area of L.A. It was dark and — unusually for Southern California — spitting rain. The only light? A flickering neon bug zapper on the roof of a nearby warehouse. My fellow participants (or stooges there to mess with me? I was already getting paranoid) and I made conversation, minimal and nervous. A black van pulled up. Moments later, the driver screeched off, driving aggressively and erratically toward goodness knows where. We certainly didn’t know, since there were black bags on our heads.
The van careened to a stop, and I was bundled out. Bag yanked off my head, flashlight in my face. My next instructions: Bang on a corrugated iron warehouse door until somebody answered. When the door opened, it just got weirder. An older woman in 1960s-style costume sensually fed me a caramel. I spotted a photo of a girl with her eyes scratched out propped up on her desk and thought, Well, here goes.
The Tension Experience: Ascension describes itself as “more than a haunt and more than immersive theater”; it is both. The creation of horror movie director Darren Bousman (the man behind three of the Saw movies), along with co-creator Clint Sears and producer Gordon Bijelonic, Tension is based out of a 24-room, 45,000-square-foot warehouse. Haunts like this began back in 2009 with an experimental theater experience called Blackout in New York, says Norman Gidney, owner of HorrorBuzz.com, a website that reviews all manner of haunt experiences in Southern California. The industry was born out of a desire among Halloween enthusiasts turned nutcases to be scared “on a deeper level,” says Gidney, unsatisfied by out-of-work actors wearing plastic masks jumping out of the shadows with a “Boo!” And it has been making a killing ever since. There are one or two haunts that are slightly more extreme, where participants leave with bruises and might even be subjected to waterboarding — no, thanks. At Tension, perhaps the most interactive, each participant gets a unique pathway through the experience, and the cost ($125 per person) means the actors and set can reach movie quality.
Part of the fun was the buildup, with few clues as to what lay in store. Tension is premised on a cultlike organization; I received emails in the week preceding my experience from unknown people with cryptic warnings that the institute was real and dangerous. Could I really trust the director of Saw III to keep me safe? I don’t want to give too much away, but there were dozens of characters ranging from creepy older people to minimally clad young women, and the rooms (when I could see them) steered clear of gory clichés and instead manipulated my senses until I was truly unsettled and confused.
Blindfolded for a large part of the experience, I had no idea what I was being made to eat and drink, where I would be taken next or why I couldn’t move my hands. At any moment, I could be snatched from the group and moved to a new part of the warehouse. Each room elicited different extreme reactions, from intrigue to disorientation to panic. Above all, the experience was centered around creating “a ‘What the fuck’ factor” for participants at every stage, says Bousman.
Some of the most unsettling moments “were the ones where you were completely aware of what was going on but still completely unsure of what was going to happen next and whether the next stage was going to push you past your limits,” says fellow participant Noah Gray-Cabey. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a stooge on account of the fact that he’s my college roommate and the friend who booked the tickets for me, but Tension taught me to trust nobody and question everything.
Cameras captured my every move. Turns out director Bousman is there the whole time, keeping track of everyone on screens in a control room. Not that we knew it, but our movements were choreographed by the second, he tells me afterward, and each character we interacted with had half a dozen or more different scripts that they could follow to cater to each individual participant. Bousman calls this total immersion unique in the entertainment industry. He has a point: Not once did my mind wander to the outside world, which, thanks in part to our phones, can’t be said of most Netflix shows or even trips to the theater.
Of course, you have to fully commit to being in this fabricated world and suspend disbelief, which was hard at times, despite my best efforts. “In the back of your mind, you know that you are safe,” says Gidney. Nevertheless, it was just like being immersed in a horror movie, but one in which the actors can literally breathe down your neck.
After the roughly two hours — I had been made to leave my phone and watch behind — I was left wondering what the hell had just happened to me. To be honest, I am not fully convinced that it has completely ended. After all, they still have all my personal information. I’d go back again, but I may not have to.