Sex, Blood, and Screaming: Blackout’s Dark Frights

The Daily Beast

October 7, 2014

The first thing that happens at Blackout—less a haunted house on New York’s Lower East Side, and more a many-roomed building of ghoulish theater—is the actress playing the coat-check lady is rude to you. Unsmiling, curt, unhelpful, surly. She hands you the waiver, which puts your life in your own hands, as if she couldn’t care what happens to you. She is brusque and unsmiling.

The show’s self-conscious nastiness has begun. You are warned there might be sexual contact of some kind. What does that mean? The rude coat-check lady gives you a mask to wear over your face, and then you are sent down some stairs. From there, well—a video on Blackout’s site gives you an idea.

Later, its founders Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor will tell me that for this, their sixth year doing Blackout, they wanted to do something their rivals (they don’t name them—but presumably ventures like Blood Manor and Nightmare New York)—who they feel are copying them anyway—weren’t doing. This year, instead of going through the house of horrors on your own, you are in a group; entry costs $45 per person.

Ours numbered five. We were made to stand against a wall in a barely lit cellar area, where a large man looked at us forbiddingly. Another man darted in and out. The soundtrack was a low, monotone dirge. The darting man—unsmiling, curt, rude, you get the picture—shone a flashlight in our faces while we were asked if we were epileptic or prone to seizures. We all replied no. Some gassy-smoky substance was piped in.

The experience is intended to emulate being taken hostage, which feels strange in these very real ISIS horror-drenched times. Randall and Thor say politics had nothing to do with Blackout’s creation; if we want to project politics on to it that is another matter. But it’s telling that their creation boldly implies today’s “haunted house” visitor wants less haunted house, and more Saw movie.

Even though it’s theater, and even though you are paying for it, the tone and feel is immediately so malign your fear-anticipation antennae switch to max. Initially you can’t see where you’re going in the pitch-black space, so you must put your hand on a compadre’s shoulder. I was less scared of monsters than simply falling over.

The frightening thing is the disorientation; the surreal tableaux that the Blackout’s creators have crafted are so odd it’s hard to feel scared. The thing you become self-conscious about is being manhandled. You’re guided, shoved, and shouted at to progress from room to room. In the first, we met two muscular young men, almost naked and smeared with a blood-like substance.

They writhed this way and that, and we were supposed to retrieve keys hidden under some wooden slats beneath them. One of the men launched himself at me, face brushing my groin. A capable woman in our group requisitioned the keys.

In another room a lady trapped in a mesh cage escaped while we stood above her (there then followed more draping around our bodies, plus banshee-like shrieking), and then we alighted upon another woman, this one naked and masturbating, who smeared her fingers over my friend Brian’s face. Another person was locked in a cell. In another room, a lady shrieked at us to follow what was instructed on some cards. I had to lick someone’s neck.

We got nearer and nearer to some intriguing-sounding screaming, and soon we were, too, because we were told to scream and holler as we were made to crawl across a floor to eventual freedom. If you want a genteel night out, this is not for you. But neither was it terrifying, one first-timer told me afterwards. It was unpleasant and discombobulating: a simulation of hostage-taking, mental asylum and demented dreamscape all rolled into one.

Randall told me that he and Thor, who have known each other for 15 years, dreamt up Blackout six years ago—a Blackout House in L.A. will open October 16. Both had come from the avant-garde theater world, the world of confrontational, immersive theater, and wanted to do a haunted house where “there were no monsters, vampires, very little make-up, and we don’t really do prosthetics. The whole goal is to create an effective experience of fear, which is subjective. We don’t try to be scary as much as be effective. This is more about performance art, rather than ghosts and goblins.”

Randall said the show involves the audience, “rather than just indulging their voyeuristic fantasies. Blackout’s scares are based on reality. It tries to create a canvas on which people project and create their own fears. Whatever we create can’t be half as scary as that.”

The show, Randall says, is deliberately set around situations like sex, nudity, and the bathroom which we are innately uncomfortable with anyway.

Inevitably people’s reactions, he says, can be extreme: they have panic attacks and seizures, even though they have been asked if they are prone to those before the madness unfolds. “People lie,” Randall smiles.

It is an extreme, heightened set-up, I say: the whole hostage-taking, life-imperiled prolog. “The goal is to create a really effective experience that feels like you could get killed, but all within a safe and legal environment,” Randall says. “One of the points of Blackout is that you have to surrender control to experience it or it doesn’t really work.”

Thor says Asian horror movies inspired the various tableaux and indecipherable shrieking the visitor is subjected to. “Blackout has been likened to BDSM (sexual dominance and submission role-play), and there is a desire on the part of people to be subdued and subjected to things. But this is less about getting off on power trips and subjugation than letting one’s guard down. We run into problems when people are resistant to that, who don’t want to be touched or told what to do and where to go.”

Maybe they’re just frozen in shock and terror, I suggest. “Absolutely,” says Thor. “Afterwards I’d want them to ask themselves why they have such problems letting go, or,” he laughs, “why they let go of control so easily.”

Thor and Randall monitor the space and actors carefully, via cameras, to ensure the performers are not harmed or abused.

Still, Blackout is taking place in one of the most litigious cities in the world, so whatever waiver visitors sign at the beginning, how can they protect themselves against a lawsuit from someone saying they were unlawfully touched or manhandled?

In my group, faces were shoved into performers’ breasts, a masturbating hand was smeared over a face, and groins grabbed. Thor laughs. “We’re always prepared, we’re probably the safest haunted house in the world. We have to be. Although it feels dangerous, it’s not dangerous at any point.” The actors perform these scenes for four, sometimes six hour, stints and are “exhausted,” he adds, by the end of their shifts.

Crawling out on all fours, shirt hiked up and screaming, the Blackout visitor, Thor says, should be asking, “Why is this effective? Why am I letting someone do this to me? They are questions about your own experience, and way more important than a guy jumping out at you with a chainsaw.”

It’s funny he should say that. For all its performance art and immersive theater foundation, the show also has its own shriek moments. Things got so baroque, stylized, and demented so quickly in Blackout, I had forgotten the first fright had come when a pair of hands suddenly came out of nowhere, locking around my waist.

“Well, it also has to be a little fun,” Thor laughs.