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Horror Movies You Can Live: Why Immersive Experiences Are the Future of Entertainment

A new film festival showcased a lot more than movies — and in the process may have highlighted storytelling's future.

A clue from the immersive horror game at the Overlook Film Festival

In late April, genre fans crowded into the Timberline Lodge in Mt. Hood, Ore., for a new horror film festival, but they didn’t spend the whole weekend watching movies. Instead, the newly founded Overlook Film Festival used its contained setting to showcase an emerging creative field that may point the way to the future of entertainment: the immersive experience.

“The value of showcasing immersive storytelling at film festivals, to me, is that it can only stand to add texture and flavor to the overall programming,” said Dylan Reiff, co-founder of Bottleneck Immersive. The gaming company, which presented an escape room at Fantastic Fest in Austin last fall, invited Overlook participants to opt in to an immersive horror game. “It adds this underbelly of energy that permeates the space.”

For his Overlook project, Reiff and his collaborators gave participants wristbands when they arrived at the hotel, and throughout the weekend they were approached by actors who engaged them in a murder mystery unfolding on the premises.

Within 24 hours, news percolated about an escaped convict running amok and dozens of participants dashed about the hotel and other venues at the nearby town of Government Camp, gathering clues and interrogating characters. On Friday night, the game took an exciting turn when the alleged criminal was spotted on the dance floor of an afterparty at the hotel and “captured” by authorities, as players chased him to the parking lot, recording every detail on their phones. (See two examples below.)

Reiff’s game was filled with such unexpected bursts of activity, and the experience provided a window into a kind of audience engagement beyond traditional film and TV experiences. The designer and his collaborators met each morning to discuss how players were engaging with the story, and wrote new details to accommodate them.

“It gives attendees access to another dimension of narrative storytelling,” Reiff said. “I saw people who came to the festival together in the same car, even people staying in the same room, accuse each other of being the real killer. I think that is a very unique way to explore themes of trust through a living narrative.”

Also at the Overlook was “The Chalet,” an adaptation of Los Angeles-based playwright Annie Lesser’s site-specific show “The ABC Project.” This was a 15-minute experience in which participants spent most of the time in a neon-lit bathroom with a corpse — except that corpse was actually nude actress Keight Leighn, and she’s covered in blood, speaking to you as if you’re responsible for her death. (Imagine a Marina Abramovic performance art piece by way of Alfred Hitchcock, with a dash of Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void.”)

“The Chalet” is creepy and disorienting, but also deep with feeling. Leighn slowly gets up from her position sprawled out on the floor, locks eyes with participants and whispers dark thoughts into their ears, creating the haunting impression of what it might be like to wrestle with the knowledge of committing a murder. The experience was so popular that Lessig had to add additional performances, which continued well past midnight.

“A lot of people are scared to try immersive theater,” Lesser said. “They have a concept of it being for a certain niche audience or they picture being dragged onstage at an improv show or cheesy dinner theater. The truth is it’s something that can be enjoyed by anyone. And instead of alienating you in a way that’s meant to embarrass you, it’s meant to alienate you in the way that all intense changes in one’s life does. I want my theater to grow and challenge a person. So it was incredibly amazing to expose my work to people who normally might not go see it if given the chance outside the festival.”

Other popular interactive experiences included Blackout, which previously surfaced in another format at the Sundance Film Festival, and was seen as the most traumatizing experience available — players were blindfolded, pushed around, and bore witness to fictional scenes of sexual assault. On the lighter side of things, performer Clay McLeod Chapman shared playfully spooky stories with festivalgoers in one-on-one sessions, sitting across from them and maintaining eye contact as he took on a series of storytelling identities. Chapman also participated in a live recording of “Tales Beyond the Pale,” the horror radio series produced by filmmaker Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix. 

Meanwhile, VR provided another interactive experience with “Mule,” which took place in the confines of a coffin and gave participants the option of experiencing the brief experience as either “cremation” or “burial.” The five-minute piece was designed as a first-person experience of a man who overdoses on heroin in a hotel room, dies on a hospital bed with his wife yelling in his ear, and continues to see the world around him even after he expires. The result is a haunting, visceral dose of grim possibilities. “Like theater, VR puts you up close to the talent and holds your attention in a space,” said “Mule” producer Guy Shelmerdine. “However, you get the added benefit of being able to leave the real world behind and step completely inside the story.”

The author endures the “Mule” VR experience at the Overlook Film Festival

Eric Kohn

While more conventional forms of storytelling flit between theatrical and home viewing experiences, the popularity of interactive experiences showcased at the Overlook reflects a prevalent excitement over the prospects of actively engaging with art. It may not be a specific business model, but at a moment of tremendous uncertainty for the industry, it could point to a promising new direction.

“With our fully immersive games, you become the protagonist of an unraveling narrative happening around you in real time,” Reiff said. “You never know what is real and what is the game. Our goal is for you to lose yourself in the grey area between fantasy and reality.”

You know — just like a movie.

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