It’s very dark inside Blackout, which makes sense. The whole thing is built on deprivation, and the first thing that gets removed is the tiny comfort of flipping on a light switch when entering an unfamiliar room.
You see a staircase leading to a floor, largely empty except for a stranger beckoning you to join him. He’s not quite as tall as you, but after he commands you to step into the small circle made by a beam from his flashlight, it’s clear that doesn’t matter. His forceful tone suggests that you answer in kind, confirming that you do not have any of a handful of conditions: Asthma, PTSD, epilepsy.
Once you’ve proven that you’re not disqualified (but not necessarily qualified, however), The Instructor grabs you by the arms and rushes you into a room lined with tiny video monitors. There’s barely enough time to register that there are soundproof headphones sitting on the stool that you’re being thrust toward. You are to sit down, cover your ears with those headphones and pay attention. If you have any free will to disobey the orders, now is not the time to find out.
Through the fog beginning to accumulate on your glasses, you can see that each of these monitors now has a video image of a young teenager. It’s night-vision, as if this message was recorded for you in secret. You don’t allow yourself to think that this is a message others have seen. In that moment, this message is meant for you and you alone.
Like the initial staging room, this is another test. The girl in the video tells you to repeat after her. You know she can’t hear you, but you echo her cryptic submissions back to her. As before, it’s a directive, a gauge of how willing an accomplice you’ll be during the horrors to come.
“I am prepared to be marked,” she wants you to say, a confirmation that this is what you really want. “I am prepared to be marked!” you shout louder at her behest. “I AM PREPARED TO BE MARKED!” you scream, not daring to break your focus to check what might be lurking behind you. Good thing, because when they smother you with a plastic bag and whisk you away from the room with the monitors, you don’t have to worry about seeing them coming.
Blackout isn’t a Scooby-Doo haunted house where unwanted guests tiptoe through hallways and peer around corners. Everything happens with breakneck speed. It’s designed to maintain perpetual motion so that it’s impossible to register what’s artifice and what might leave a tangible effect.
What I experienced was a condensed version of what began as an immersive theater piece. Co-creators Josh Randall and Kristjan Thorgeirsson began Blackout in New York in 2009 and in the intervening years, it has fostered an emerging cult phenomenon. Focusing on the fan base surrounding this enigmatic, mysterious enterprise, director Rich Fox and producer Kris Curry had a number of potential subjects for their documentary “The Blackout Experiments,” which premiered at Sundance 2016.
Obviously, the overall Blackout experience depends on the participant. Those who enter with trepidation and reject the off-the-bat intensity will likely have a diminished experience.
Like any narrative participatory endeavor, Blackout presents any individual with an alternate reality — not a false one or a fantastical one, but one that requires whomever's inside it to segment their perception. To mentally switch over 100% to an experience like this would be psychologically dangerous, but to do so 95% is ideal.
“The Blackout Experiments” features interviews with individuals who, despite the rigors and mental exhaustion that accompany an experience like Blackout, find themselves returning to its clutches. These Blackout superfans exemplify the power of that divided perception, an inherent part of the theatrical process that is at once therapeutic and addictive.
But the power of an experience like this to unlock someone’s understanding of themselves is a retroactive process. In the moment, that other 5% remains a safeguard against paranoia. It's the 5% that signs the liability waiver at the door and assumes that since this is run by a reputable organization at a festival-sanctioned event, no real harm should come from it.
Blackout derives its terror from that other 95% telling you that assumption is wrong.
Next: The wordless answer to Blackout's questions.