A hunger for a different kind of October fright led to my first experience with Immersive Theater.

The young woman in the white dress grabbed me by the arm, her green eyes piercing me with desperation.

She whispered with paranoia and alarm, “You didn’t come here for immersive theater, did you?  That’s what I did, and I’ve been trapped here for five months. Please. Save us”.

*     *     *

I was in the Florence airport in September of last year, scouring the internet for entertaining Halloween activities while waiting for a flight. October meant chilly nights, autumn leaves and some spooky fun. I wanted more than mazes with jump scares, but less than the “extreme haunts” – intense terror-driven experiences where patrons are manhandled, bound, water-boarded or worse.

I wanted something different. I wanted something with a story. I wanted something meaningful, a tall order to ask from a haunt. Most of all, I wanted something that would shake me out of a creative stupor.

I needed inspiration.

I came across “The Tension Experience.” It sounded more akin to a suspenseful, challenging perceptual experience than a haunt. I signed up and received an invitation to visit an organization called The O.O.A. Institute, offering an unspecified form of “enlightenment.” I received e-mail instructions on where to go…

…and soon after, an e-mail from a man named Thomas Barrow warning me not to go.

“This isn’t immersive theater,” he wrote, “this is a goddamned cult.” Worse, the O.O.A. had kidnapped his daughter Addison. If I was still stupid enough to go there, could I try and save her?

A cult masquerading as immersive theater? A kidnapped woman? This was a joke, right?

Tension-Experience-kathy-processing

Kathy the Processing Lady from ‘The Tension Experience.’ You can trust her. Tell her everything.

Upon arriving one Sunday night, I was told to leave my valuables in my car, placed in a spooky black van, and a velvet hood placed over my head. I was deposited outside a nondescript door of a warehouse in the sketchiest part of Boyle Heights.

A drunken bum down the street relentlessly pounded on a garage door, screaming for liquor. The transformer station across the street buzzed and crackled.  I was told to knock on the metal door, and the van sped away.

For the next two-and-a-half hours, I was in another world. It was neither a haunted house nor an extreme haunt. Nor was it theater. This was real. Everyone inside the labyrinthine O.O.A. Institute knew all about me. They called me by name. They’d researched my digital footprint — Facebook, Twitter, they knew everything.

Suddenly, the warning that the O.O.A. was a cult filtered back into my mind.

Even though I had been given a safeword which, if spoken, would immediately end my experience, I forgot it. It was impossible to remember, because at every turn, something was happening. I filled out forms, danced with an elderly lady, was asked inappropriate personal questions, yelled at by a dictatorial Brit who ran the room where inductees were processed, and repeatedly asked why I had come.

RELATED: Immersive Theater: Tips, Resources and Much More

I met 30 people that evening. Half were over 50, whiling away time in an outdated living room, playing with jigsaw puzzles, and dancing to the standards. The other half were under 30, despairing young women in white dresses (known as “Handlers”) who escorted a young blonde woman named Addison around the 24-room complex.

Wait…Addison? The kidnapped Addison?

Yes, except I realized I wouldn’t be saving her because she appeared to be in charge of the place. I couldn’t worry about her anyway because one of these young women pulled me aside, and said, “You didn’t come here for immersive theater, did you? That’s what I did, and I’ve been trapped here for five months. Please. Save us”.

Oh, snap!

tension-experience-handlers

Addison Barrow and The Handlers from ‘The Tension Experience.’

I was led from room to room, each holding a challenge, a confrontation, a test, an assault on my senses — only to have those senses removed through deprivation techniques moments later. I became a walking adrenal gland in a real-life psychological thriller.

By the end of the experience, I had discovered the O.O.A. worshiped a god named Anoch, and the only way to communicate with him was to have one’s senses removed, permanently.

Following a failed sacrifice that involved just such an attempted removal by an unwilling participant, ending in his apparent death, I escaped the O.O.A. with my life — but was wracked with guilt as one of the young kidnapped women implored, “Don’t leave us!”

What the heck was going on?

What was going on was what The Daily Beast accurately referred to as “The Biggest Mindf**** in Los Angeles.” This was immersive theater at its best. This world had been perfectly constructed. These weren’t actors to me, but real people. This wasn’t theater, but a cult. I wasn’t watching a play. I was totally sucked into a reality that had been created for me.

The entire environment – from script to direction to production and sound design, and to the extraordinary actors — elicited not mere reactions from me, but genuine emotional responses: Fear.  Suspense. Attraction. A desire to protect. Disgust. Trust. Pity. Courage.

Most of all, I felt electric. I felt alive. I felt creatively rejuvenated. That was nothing compared to what was to come.

I could not just leave those kidnapped women in that spooky warehouse. I had to go back.

*    *    *

A terrific short documentary by Andrew Kasch is at www.thetensionexperience.com, and provides a comprehensive overview of the adventure that was The Tension Experience, and its preceding ARG.  It also delves into how the Experience positively affected the participants in their everyday lives, created a community of friends and colleagues and offers behind-the-scenes footage.

“The Tension Experience” was created by director Darren Lynn Bousman, writer Clint Sears and producer Gordon Bijelonic. Bousman’s blog gives a thorough accounting of his drive and passion behind creating the project and provides plenty of imagery that supplements my account above. You can also check out “The Tension Experience’s” Instagram account.

The trailer for “The Tension Experience” provides a sense of its creepy, unsettling, and suspenseful atmosphere.

Here’s some more imagery, courtesy of “The Tension Experience’s” photographer. I cut it into a little mash-up with an iconic film series to give viewers an idea of the emotional tension surrounding the experience.

You can get a feel for “The Tension Experience” by watching this video from my colleague Bryan Bishop, who covers immersive theater at The Verge.

“The Tension Experience” has concluded, but a follow-up entitled “The Lust Experience” is currently running as an ARG.  Just sign up at www.thelustexperience.com/register/ …but don’t be surprised if it turns your world upside down.


Lawrence Meyers is a crisis communications consultant, financial writer and former television writer. He has written over 24 hours and produced 60 hours of episodic television. He is also an award-winning playwright, having authored“Porn Rock” in 2016, and “Dark Arts” in 2017. “Dark Arts” is the first-ever play to have an immersive prologue and epilogue, bookending a traditional proscenium show. Contact him at [email protected]