So I may have been initiated into a cult.
Waivers were signed. A cone-shaped red bag was thrown over my head. My cell phone was confiscated.
Let’s back up: The cult in question here is The O.O.A. Institute, a fictional (as far as we know) organization at the center of The Tension Experience—which is, well, difficult to define. So far The Tension Experience seems to be a multimedia, immersive experiment that hosts events in Los Angeles and is extending its reach even further on the web.
The Tension Experience appeared on the internet around the end of last year. Some outlets for horror and reviews reportedly received press releases from Tension, but news about its website and its mysterious events largely seemed to spread through word-of-mouth among horror fans, especially the kind who appreciate a good walk-through haunted house. We’re not just talking about the standard jump-out-and-yell-“boo” haunted house. In particular, many of the people talking about The Tension Experience were the kind who are willing to sign waivers agreeing to be touched, possibly manhandled, as part of their experience. Some were even the kind who have sought out interactions so far beyond that of the standard haunted house that many would consider it actual torture, using tactics that restrict breathing and deprive the senses.
Let’s back up even further: Southern California, like numerous areas around the globe, has really stepped up its haunted house game over the past few years. The popularity of the notorious Blackout Haunted House—the “extreme haunt” experience that originated in New York and has since expanded with shows appearing in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco—and similar independent horror productions seems to have inspired other boutique haunts popping up every year, many of them offering unique interactive experiences that amplify the intensity. Some of these productions are extreme—arguably not even to be considered in the same category as a “haunted house,” no longer creating cobweb-dusted hallways with supernatural characters lurking around dark corners, but instead focusing on the very realistic and visceral types of horrors that human beings inflict on one another. Others, such as Alone, the Los Angeles-based “existential haunting,” have evolved into very cerebral interactive performance art installations. Many of these haunts have transformed the haunted house formula into something new, something theatrical yet personal, something that goes above and beyond a haunted house.
Similarly, The Tension Experience is not a haunted house.
But I still don’t exactly know what it is.
Their Facebook page labels the project as “performance art,” which seems fitting enough. What they offer has a sense of the theatric to it—although it also seems an oversimplification to call it “theater.” There are actors and specific events involved in the experience, but so far these seem to be another layer of clues in the ongoing puzzle that is the experience—which puts them in a different category from interactive, immersive plays such as Sleep No More, the modern interactive adaptation of Macbeth in New York City. So far in L.A. (and so far only in L.A.) The Tension Experience has organized at least three personal meetings with participants in the area since February. So far Tension events have been free—albeit brief—encounters where participants are interviewed. The production’s Facebook page recently teased that tickets for an upcoming event that has yet to be revealed will be available in July. What type of an event this will be and when it will take place is still unclear.
The first in-person meetings Tension organized were “consultations” for any volunteers willing to seek out The O.O.A. Institute online and contact them. This experience involved sitting alone in a waiting room with a smiling woman who told each participant that they smell like popcorn (it seemed to be a good thing). Then they were led into a warehouse where they were asked a series of questions ranging from who their best friends were, the names of their elected congressmen and when they estimated the sun would rise and set. At one point participants were given a riddle to solve, and their answers led to varied results and reactions from the cast. I was teased with the promise of entering “The Red Room” when a man gestured toward an ominously lit closed door, before being sent away because it was “a bad idea.” A friend of mine, on the other hand, was cussed out and dismissed after answering his riddle incorrectly. A week later, the consultation participants were contacted by strangers (who claimed they were either investigating or attempting to expose the truth about The Institute) for follow-up meetings to discuss The Institute and its secrecy.
Yesterday’s event returned the focus to the guests themselves. After signing a waiver and agreeing to wear a hood over my head, I was led blindly through a building in Downtown L.A. and was only freed from the hood to stare into my own reflection and answer a series of introspective questions from the unseen Institute leaders lurking just out of sight behind me.
“Are you a good person?” one of them asked repeatedly.
This question came up both before and after my cell phone was taken away from me and I was told that it would only take a few minutes for them to access all of the information I had stored on it.
“What secrets could we find on your phone?” the voice pressed.
At the time, I honestly wasn’t even sure. It was returned to me later, a hand placing it into mine, wrapping my fingers around it again, as I was returned—hooded again—back to the streets of L.A. where the chaos of downtown traffic and the droning blank expressions of people wandering the sidewalks and waiting at bus stops served as a striking contrast from the intimate, isolated experience of talking about myself—in a sense, even to myself—in a dark room staring into a mirror.
In addition to the in-person meetings, Tension participants can expect to receive strange phone calls and e-mails from the Institute at any time. And some of those calls and e-mails get really personal. Upon registration on their web site, visitors are asked to complete a questionnaire that feels eerily similar to some type of pysch evaluation, asking participants about everything from their family histories to details about their sex lives. Tension organizers also seem to have a knack for finding their followers’ social media accounts. One friend of mine was even called and congratulated by a stranger from The Institute shortly after posting online about his wife’s pregnancy.
Tension’s reach has expanded beyond L.A. as well. Blumhouse, Dread Central, HorrorBUZZ, Bloody-Disgusting and We Are Indie Horror are among the sites that have published write-ups on not only the L.A. events, but also Tension’s mysterious web presence. Forums on the Tension website, Reddit, and its active Facebook page have drawn in participants from around the country. My Haunt Life, a website and podcast dedicated to reviewing haunts and immersive experiences in L.A., has been posting play-by-play updates with news about Tension since the experience began. One of My Haunt Life’s contributors was recently acknowledged by the O.O.A. personally and honored with the title of “Official Scribe of the Archive of Knowledge.” It seems that no matter where participants are located or who they are, they all end up having a slightly different experience when they interact with The Institute.
An assortment of cryptic messages and puzzles have appeared on the Tension website and Facebook page, with some clues leading to hidden parts of the Tension website with intriguing Easter eggs that develop the story behind The Tension Experience. There are even additional shady characters surrounding The Institute to interact with, including a hacker from a rival organization who occasionally trolls their Facebook page. Tension seems to be indulging in long-form storytelling, leaving loose ends for its followers to theorize about scattered throughout the internet as well as in the individual experiences of its followers.
Tension relishes in its online following, encouraging—and at times even rewarding—participation from its fan base. It seems the more participants choose to interact with Tension, the more the get out of the experience. Last weekend’s event was invitation-only for thirty-six of their most active registered users, and a promotional video even touted in a hidden frame that the experience was “not for the passive.”
Tension’s following at this point, while notable, remains relatively niche and close-knit, particularly when it comes to its most passionate regulars. Tension’s Facebook page has more than 600 likes at this point and their website has 352 registered members.
Coincidentally, I was discussing the concept of cults, and how to define one, with someone last month. A good friend of mine had done some reading on the subject and although it tends to be a slippery term, she explained that the main difference between an organized religion and a cult is, arguably, that cults are more secretive in nature. They are heavier on the manipulation of their followers and focus on drawing them into the cult’s inner-circle, only releasing more information to them when they have reached higher levels within the cult’s enclosed society.
So how does one define the difference between a cult and a haunt (or…a multimedia form of performance art)? The Tension Experience seems to be interested in exploring that territory. Or perhaps a multitude of different territories. Or perhaps it is still too early to tell. Those who are curious—and somewhat forthcoming with their personal information—may find themselves on an interesting journey if they choose to sign on for the ride.
“You gave up your privacy to others long before you met us,” Tension posted to Facebook last night. “Why was today any different?”
Another question in an ongoing series. Tension seems to be attempting to probe into concepts of belief, enlightenment, identity, paranoia—and even exploring the lingering question of why the production’s followers are signing up for the experience in the first place.
“You didn’t have to choose to do that,” my inquisitor said yesterday after I agreed to allow the cast to confiscate my phone.
I knew he was right. And I understood the choice I had made—although any time they asked me why, why I was there, why I was putting up with all of this, the best answer I could come up with was “curiosity.” My inquisitors were unsatisfied. I didn’t know myself yet.
Would I make the same choices I made in that dark room in Downtown L.A. again?
Though maybe I should delete some compromising photos from my phone before next time…