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.
Before they take the bag off your head, someone places a small container in your hand. It may be The Instructor, but even if you still had your glasses (they’re probably lying on the floor somewhere back near the monitors), there’s a layer of plastic covering your eyes. You shake the small gift and something small rattles inside. “Open it only when you need to,” whispers The Instructor. Off comes the bag and another voice shouts in your ear to find the girl and take off her mask.
This is not instruction that needs clarification. You’ll find out what it means soon enough. The arm connected to that voice squishes you down onto the floor. “Crawl! Keep crawling!” yells that second voice from the receding distance. You go forward, wriggling on all fours, coming to a wall that you can’t go through.
Out of your peripheral vision, to your left is a small area bathed in red light. Huddled in the corner of this cramped space is a girl. The bag over her head isn’t plastic, but made of black fabric. Staying in your crouch, you creep toward her, not sure if she can sense you coming. Taking off this bag might reveal something dangerous. But you were told to do this, and there’s no time to consider what creature might be lurking underneath. You’re told to do a lot of things in Blackout.
You whip off the bag and jump back a few feet in act of self-preservation, but she looks more frightened than you are. It’s clear this is someone you’re meant to help. “What do you need?” you ask her. Wordlessly, she doubles over in pain, convulsing. Maybe she tells you or maybe you just intuit it, but the key to ending this episode is giving her what’s in your right hand: A pill bottle. It’s a trick, you think. I’m not going to be responsible for a wrong choice. So you hand her the bottle without opening it. She tries, but can’t remove the lid. When she tosses it back to you, the choice is clear: Watch this young woman suffer or risk incurring the wrath of The Instructor and this new accomplice.
After you hand her the pill bottle, top now off, she fishes out the contents and swallows it. More convulsing. You’ve killed her. You chose wrong and now this is your consequence, to watch her expire in front of you.
But no! She gathers herself, as much as one can when huddled in a barely-inhabitable cramped space. She grabs you by the hand and leads you away from the red place, into the safety of a nearby bathroom.
She tells you to sit on the toilet, just as you are. You don’t fully sit down on the open seat, because if these kinds of terrors are out here, who knows what’s lurking down there? But she puts you at ease. She tells you to sit. Not to relax, but to center yourself.
As soon as you’ve got some level of calmness, she’s convulsing again. You left the pill bottle back at the red space, so what to do now? The wrenching of her body becomes steadily more violent.
Now sitting is not an option. She tells you to get up, to really see what’s happening to her. And then, something shifts. She’s ready for something that she wasn’t before. She rotates your body 180 degrees so now you’re facing the wall. There’s a voice inside you saying that it would be unwise to turn around and soon that voice becomes a hand on your shoulder telling you that it would be in your interest to stay in the direction you’re currently facing. She grabs you by your hand and guides it. First backwards, then down across the inside of her leg. You feel a string and she guides your fingers around it, like an executioner placing a weapon into your unsuspecting palm.
“Pull,” she says, with an urgency that’s now frightening. “Pull hard!” she tells you and you obey because this is going to spare her.
Right down the street from the Blackout space (which was held at Kickstarter’s official festival headquarters) is the Sundance Film Festival’s home for New Frontier, the section of the program that houses some of the best examples from the emerging world of virtual reality.
One of the pieces from this year’s New Frontier slate was Milica Zec’s “Giant.” Told through visuals shown in a custom headset, the participant is placed in a virtual basement location, witnessing a young family trying to survive a Western warzone. Two parents and their young daughter try to comfort each other in the face of impending destruction. Battle planes fly overhead out of sight and the encroaching sounds of military vehicles add a layer of dread to the human story playing out below.
The main goal of “Giant” is not the verisimilitude of sensory details, but emotional ones. It’s not long, but it ends with a fleeting glimpse into what it’s like to be a victim, to be faced with the real consequences of conflict.
Days before Blackout, as I was waiting in line for “Giant,” I spoke to a woman waiting in line with me. We discussed the various offerings from throughout the New Frontier building. But what stuck with me wasn’t her evaluation of the exhibits themselves, but the people using them. “Some people think all VR is the same. They jump right in to the most intense experiences, thinking it’s just going to be like anything with a headset,” she said.
“They’re not ready.”
Next: The resilient, post-Blackout collective.
“What are the numbers?! There were four numbers! What were they?!” The girl is gone and the Instructor is back, but he’s not the one filling your mouth with water. That’s the guy standing to his right. And you realize that it’s not water flowing through a tube that’s filling up your stomach, but the contents of a regular plastic water bottle being violently squeezed.
No time to register relief, because now The Instructor is asking questions. “Tell me the numbers!” he screams at you when you’re not instantly forthcoming with the information he desires.
There weren’t any numbers in the bathroom. Maybe there was a clock with hands that pointed to the correct time. Perhaps they were written in reverse on the wall behind you that reflected perfectly in the mirror above the sink.
But you didn’t have your glasses.
There’s no point in guessing. Lying will only make it worse. So you return The Instructor’s serve with a declaration. “I didn’t see anything!” you shout towards the space between the two men, the devils hovering at each of your shoulders.
You’re now being held against a wall, so there’s not much you can do besides wait to be quizzed further.
“The first number: Was it a 5 or a 6?!” The Instructor has given you a chance at redemption.
“6!” you shout with confidence, because he can tell if you hesitate. Doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, though. Which you are. The Instructor tells you so. Back in comes the water bottle, the bottom of it easily being crushed by this second man’s hand. The Instructor reminds you to keep breathing and swallow, a rare show of benevolence.
He asks you again: “The first number: Was it a 5 or a 6?!” Only now you can’t remember which answer was wrong the first time. “5!” comes your answer from a place you can’t quite identify.
“YES!” cries The Instructor, slamming his open palm on the area right next to your left ear. Even being right in Blackout has its consequences.
One time, you guess correctly on the first try. “YES!” he yells again, this time louder. The questions, already coming in rapid succession are somehow going faster.
Once you’ve gotten through all four, you think that it might be helpful to remember this sequence for later. Maybe those numbers open up a safe or they’re the combination to get out of your next locked room.
But this is Blackout, so the next immediate thing that crowds out all other thoughts is the tiny piece of paper that they’ve folded up and jammed deep inside the pouch just inside your bottom lip. It only takes three seconds to get it good and secure. Once it’s there, a voice whispers in your ear: “Don’t let him find it!” You’re being dragged again.
Aside from offering small glimpses into the Blackout experience itself, Fox and Curry’s film also shows a burgeoning community that’s sprung up on both coasts. (Randall, both in the film and in post-screening comments, expressed his hesitance to to allow the film any behind-the-scenes access to the creation of different iterations of Blackout.) In both New York and Los Angeles, Blackout enthusiasts have informal, living-room gatherings to share their personal connection to the reality that Randall, Thorgeirsson and the rest of the Blackout team have fashioned for them. In many cases, these uber-participants have gone through multiple versions of Blackout, returning to it with that odd mixture of trepidation, excitement and willingness.
These groups refer to themselves as “Survivors,” which gives what we see of these meetings the feeling of a weekly poker game, grief support group meeting and RPG campaign all rolled into one. They sit on couches and take spots around dining room tables, casually discussing these traumatic events as a way to form a communal, we’re-in-this-together bond.
In the individual, talking-head interviews that Fox has with these participants, they provide anecdotes from their past involving neglect, substance abuse, disorders, isolation and sexual violence. For them, taking on this immersive reality allows them to confront those past injuries and outlast them again. It’s a muted kind of triumph, a form of empowerment that they find not only helpful, but essential.
My experience was a concentrated dose of all of these horrors, experiences that I’d never been previously witness to. Rather than reclaiming a sense of strength and victory from a deeply-buried memory, it was a chance to track my instincts when faced with those terrible situations. The simulated horrific crime that was part of my experience (and of another male participant’s in the documentary) is a reality that many men and women live in every day, without the luxury of shedding the walls of some theatrical space.
Seeing these groups sharing their experiences together in “The Blackout Experiments” is a logical extension of that tiny, shared ground. Although Blackout is catered to the individual, it’s designed to be understood with the help of others in its aftermath.
In both the individual experience during and the collective coping in the weeks and months after, it’s a reminder that what was once a burden can now be manifested and conquered. To them, they’ve been given a great gift.
Next: When Blackout’s realities overlap…
When most people go through a haunted house, they expect to scream. They anticipate the jump scares, the deranged butchers with bloody cleavers or undead teens with half-decomposed faces. Shouting in short bursts brings on that tiny self-contained catharsis that finishes by the time you’re on to the next room.
Part of Blackout’s twisted genius is that the compressed timeframe and constant motion doesn’t afford you those breaks. There’s only shouting when prompted, but those aren’t the times when it needs to happen. There’s no time to scream when water is being forced down the esophagus.
There’s also terror in Blackout’s negative space. It’s an intricate production where participants are not given the gift of an alternate identity. At the beginning of the experience, as soon as that flashlight beam becomes visible, The Instructor asks for *your* name. You’re not given the role of a soldier in a post-apocalyptic landscape. You’re not stepping into the shoes of a tourist trying to outrun the snare of a serial killer. You are yourself. You are the sum of your vulnerabilities.
So when that last plastic bag covers your face and mouth and you’re told to shout, “It’s never over!” and you do and they tell you to do it louder and you obey and they tell you it’s not good enough and you summon all you have to scream “IT’S NEVER OVER!” and they push you out to Main Street, you realize that it’s true. It’s never over, because you’re the same person out in the midnight winter air that you were while you were inside.
Emerging from Blackout is far more jarring than being thrust into it. After a quarter hour of sensory overload, it rejects any form of resolution. There’s no friendly tour guide to explain what happened to the women inside. No, these characters aren’t real, but the experience still leaves you with a very real need to sustain those high levels of stimuli. Getting pushed back out into the normal flow of life without warning is their version of giving you the bends. The surface comes too quickly.
Blackout is an avalanche of extremes, one that leaves a noticeable void in its absence. I wasn’t keen on letting too many people see me stagger around in a post-Blackout stupor. As I walked home, to help sharpen those sensory responses, I put the earbuds back in, this time at maximum volume. I kept my gloves off, even though the Park City chill was enough to freeze the condensation on my beard. It wasn’t a desire to preserve that experiential dread, but a feeling that it was somehow necessary to create a bridge between the two realities so that I’d be OK on the other side.
It’s no coincidence that the final piece of preparation before Blackout begins is being asked if you have PTSD. In this way, it’s ensuring that what transpires next isn’t merely a cheap, manipulative facsimile. Going through Blackout dredges up feelings of horror, but it’s also giving empathy to go along with it.
Blackout isn’t strictly a virtual reality experience, but it’s a window into what might be to come. It offers a glimpse at what we can expect as “immersive” becomes an entertainment option that’s democratized and removed from specific places or means.
This is the train coming at the audience. And it’s not asking us if we’re ready. It’s shouting in our ears until we listen. Three days passed between my Blackout and a Thursday morning screening of “The Blackout Experiments” at Park City’s Prospector Square Theate.
After the film, Randall, Fox and one of the documentary’s subjects were all there, all speaking to their very different personal connections to the project. (It was a fascinating Q&A to see three individuals there on behalf and in support of the same project, each with their own levels of wariness towards each other.)
As I headed toward the exit, I made my way across the front of the screening room. Before I could reach the side walkway, I heard a voice calling my name from the second row.
Turning, I saw Randall. We exchanged knowing glances. I walked over and instinctively shook his hand. We spoke briefly about my time in Blackout, though I made sure not to ask too many probing questions, still wanting to preserve some of the illusion.
As we kept talking, I realized why he knew my name. Because not only was he an observer to my experience, but 60 hours ago, he was slamming his hand within inches of my left ear. He’d covered my mouth with a plastic bag and now we were chatting like new friends who’d met in line outside the theater.
Here was The Instructor, the man who I’d willingly accepted as my captor after a mere fifteen minutes in a dark basement. My guide through a new reality.