As a Comic-Con attendee for more than fifteen years, I’ve been able to watch this moderate artist convention explode into the media and pop culture experience it is today. The boom has encouraged major industry players to bring their A-game and spend some serious coin when it comes to marketing and creating buzzworthy experiences. And luckily for us, this has taken on a new, exciting form in an ever-expanding list of immersive activations onsite each year. Such is Hulu’s “Castle Rock” experience, promoting the new series from Stephen King and executive producer J.J. Abrams, inviting horror fans inside the foreboding facade of a New England bed and breakfast across the street from the San Diego Convention Center as the rear end of an automobile sticks out ominously from a nearby pool. Those who survived the 2+ hour lines are treated to a tantalizing mix of King’s greatest hits — mixed with a weird, mind-bending mythology that hopefully teases what viewers can expect from the new series.
After receiving your hotel room key (one of the most desired pieces of swag from this year’s convention), you begin the experience in front of the bed and breakfast, where you are met by the owners, Gordon and Lillith. Gordon is happy to snap your photograph with their wooden sign out front, because after all, what tourist wouldn’t want to capture the idyllic setting? Especially when it’s a cute, stately Victorian home, practically right out of the picture postcard you received in line. You’re then approached by Lillith (the fantastic Katie Peabody of E3W Productions’ In Another Room), who inquires about your knowledge of the history of Castle Rock. You must be here because you heard about the boy they found in the attic. No? Perhaps it’s the train crash? Not that either? It must certainly be the dog, or a number of other alarming events that have almost certainly put Castle Rock on the map. Or … not.
With an intense, soul-penetrating stare, Gordon and Lillith eerily direct you inside the lobby of their B&B, filled with Stephen King novels and comfortable seating. But don’t get too relaxed, because as soon as the rules are dictated to you (by the one and only Terence Leclere of ABC Project and The Experiences) (no touching, speak when spoken to, etc.), it’s time to check into your room.
Our group is split up and directed to stand in front of one of six doors. I am ushered toward room 237, which fills me with glee as a King fan. I open the door when told and pass through; it shuts behind me. Audio loops from “The Shining” play over a speaker, as I slowly move toward a giant black and white map on the wall ahead of me. These mentions of “The Shining” and anticipation for what was about to occur cause an overwhelming rush of nostalgia and excitement to come over me, just as the lights went out and the door swung open.
As I walk forward, the floor slopes downward, and we are all once again joined together as a larger group. We are underneath the car we saw outside, partly submerged in a lake. The projected water dances against the walls, and we are captivated by it for a moment, until we are beckoned into an open door.
We enter a room with a bathtub full of mannequin parts, as a man wearing a plastic garbage bag protecting his clothing kneels over it. He begins to talk about creating something new out of something old. At what part does the old thing become more of the new thing then the old, or is the first introduction of something new the death of something old? He washes his mannequin arms and legs with care. He strokes them slowly and delicately, until he notices my arm and begins to fixate upon it. He holds up a prosthetic arm to mine, and in an instant, his demeanor changes, and we are aggressively instructed to leave.
We exit into a long, winding mirrored hallway. The walls are lined with mannequins and mannequin parts. Among the rows and rows of life-sized dolls is one small child mannequin. I notice it because it is the only one dressed that I can tell, but I run past too quickly to note anything curious about her.
Our progress quickly halts as, one by one, we push our way through a black inflatable void. That’s the only way I can describe it. This journey through it feels endless, but altogether too quick. It is like being born and dying all at once. It pushes against us, but we push back.
It is the perfect segue into what happens next. At the end of this inflatable birth, we are dumped into a tiny entryway, where a nurse scans our room keys and ushers us into the next room. At first glance, it appears to be a hospital room, with a patient tethered to a gurney. The patient acts calm enough, which is why it is strange to hear the nurse (the wonderful Beth Stranathan of Blackout) proclaim that we are there to witness the execution of this inmate by lethal injection. We notice the prison officers standing behind a viewing window to our left. We are in a prison. But not just any prison. We are in Shawshank Penitentiary. With a few taps of a needle and a slide of a tube, the inmate is gone. It appears to be a peaceful passing. That is, until the inmate jolts awake, screaming, lunging toward us.
Suddenly, the room is filled with flashing lights and the sound of sirens. Panic takes over as the officers in the next room rush in to detain the inmate and evacuate us. As we hurry out, we pass a small control room with old, analogue television sets, stacked one on top of the other, playing what I believed to be closed circuit footage of each of the rooms inside of the experience.
And in the blink of an eye, we are outside, dropped into what appears to be a prison yard, our escape in front of us. You couldn’t help but leave wondering what you just saw. Who drove the car into the lake? Did they survive? Who was the dressed mannequin child? Who was the inmate? Many questions, no answers. Hopefully some of them will come in “Castle Rock” on Hulu, available to stream beginning July 25, But, for now, I will relish in the unknown.
The acting on all parts was wonderful, perfectly creepy yet approachable with hints of humor and charm, and included numerous immersive theater veterans expertly cast in their roles (the amazing Karlie Blair of Safehouse ’77 and The Experiences was also double cast as the nurse and Lilith to round-out this amazing cast). The sets were simple but impactful, and the story inspired questions while sparking interest in this new series. The keys we were given, while being a super cool keepsake for this fun event, also served as an RFID tag that, when scanned, coordinated email delivery of a couple of fun photos to remember the experience by. It really made this experience feel like a step into the future and the past at the same time.
Thanks to Steve Barton from Dread Central for the Castle Rock images in this post.
Castle Rock. Castle Rock