Cracked vs. Heretic: RELAX
A couple of times, during my journey through Cracked vs Heretic, I just laid my head down. Closed my eyes, only saw hints of flashing light filtering through my eyelids, merged my head with the soundscape created by roaring monsters, screaming participants, distorted vocals and industrial drone. Tiny, timeless moments where I became one with the chaos, welcomed it, and accepted what was to come. At home in hell. Those moments never lasted too long. At one point, an all too familiar face asked me a question.
Why do you keep coming back? What haven’t we done to you?
The answer to that question is more difficult than it would appear. I feel that every single time I walk with Heretic, I fall deeper into what they have created, that I discover a different level, a hidden door, a new glimpse into their multifaceted miasma. To me, they are a beckoning hand, guiding me through the dark, into places where beauty can be found – but only if you are willing to wade through deep pools of evil first. The more time I spent with Heretic, the more I trust them – to the point that very trust has become something they can toy with.
Blake vs Adrian. UK vs LA.
Cracked vs Heretic is an extreme haunt behemoth. A collaboration like none other. On one side, Cracked, a UK-based experience spearheaded by Blake Ciccone, an inscrutable enigma hidden inside a boiler suit and a gas mask. Subjects endure hours of psychologically and physically exhausting tasks, in an experiment they don’t know the reason for. On the other side, the LA-based Heretic, offering underground horror in its purest form. Its creator, Adrian Marcato, has been responsible for a plethora of terrifying experiences, each feeling more real than the next. Last year, Heretic challenged Cracked on their home turf, a desolate location hidden in the North of England. Now, one year later, the time had come for Blake’s revenge, with him and his followers taking the fight to Los Angeles. An epic face-off between two immersive horror masterminds, with us as their pawns on the board.
I had signed up for both nights of Cracked vs Heretic, something I always said I wouldn’t do. Because, why would I want to experience the same story twice? A year before, I kneeled down, bereaved, at the sight of Blake, six feet deep, and it was a moment that stuck with me for a long time. It would never have had the same effect if I had experienced that moment a second time, just a day after. But this year seemed different. A nagging whisper at the back of my mind, convincing me that only by experiencing both nights I would get the complete picture. Fifteen months earlier, I had been there when Adrian was set free of the guilt he felt, following three years of pouring everything into Heretic. One year ago, I saw the leftover sludge taking shape, consuming him, turning him into a spiteful, nihilistic demon, preaching violence and causing the fall of Cracked’s mastermind. The return of Blake gave me chills, making my heart jump when I heard his voice again. This would be the conclusion to that tale, with two nights happening in very different places. I needed to see it. I needed to experience the whole. And, that nagging whisper had been right. The two nights were like night and day. Contrasting, challenging experiences complementing each other. At first glance, a brutal beatdown, but putting together the pieces, an achingly honest, deeply personal insight in Heretic’s creator, showing an immense trust of him towards his audience. A trust, in terms of how much he’d give of himself, but also, a trust in the audience’s loyalty, in their capability of seeing the full picture, of looking further than what they experienced at face value.
Night One. Crimson Flecks on Dusty Gravel.
Night one happened on private grounds in Palmdale, a desert city separated from Los Angeles by the San Gabriel mountains. Heading to the location, the sun was setting behind wide expanses of dirt and nothing, only a few Joshua trees breaking the void. Temperature dropped significantly, and the wind was tearing at our clothes. As the night began, we were each brought to Adrian. With a bizarre smile and an odd look in his eyes, he told us about his personal life, revealed himself to us, told us he was tired of the bullshit. No more hiding behind names and masks. He confessed to us how he felt dead inside. Crushed by routine. Doing these shows, torturing people, he had had enough. Had reached the end of a long fuse. Blake shows up, and the two embrace like old friends. Revenge might not be coming after all. And soon, they turned their collective attention to the nine of us.
After the conclusion of that night, a wave of confusion and frustration hit me. Heretic always elevates itself by well thought out concepts, by disturbing, but beautiful visuals, by letting their violence serve a purpose. Everything is always there for a reason, and although sometimes there is an improvised quality to what they do, nothing ever feels out of place. During this first night, it felt different. Random acts of brutal violence. An unhinged, out of control feel to it all, situations seemingly close to getting out of hand. The foot was hard on the gas, in a perilous game of chicken where no one really knew the rules. It wasn’t just me feeling this way, most people who had experienced Heretic before confessed that a certain je ne sais quoi just hadn’t been there. It hadn’t been the acts they committed, and certain moments I will always carry close to me, but, something about the feel of it all, something about the flow of the whole, something didn’t feel right. Especially as soon as interchanges between Cracked and Heretic started happening, elements didn’t add up, a monument crumbling in front of our eyes. Participants were left on their knees, some of them forgotten, some of them randomly brutalized, all of this happening on a single patch of gravel. No mysterious lighting or moments of beautiful introspection – just the harsh reality of random violent tendencies.
Night Two. Suffocation in Dante’s Inferno.
I had no idea whether it was a good idea to enter the second night. My curiosity took over, but I entered with the idea in mind that I would tap out if I didn’t trust the situation. Happening in a warehouse in Koreatown, the very moment the show started, I immediately saw it would not be like the night before. It felt like the very first incarnation of Cracked vs Heretic. Brutal, but beautiful. Well thought out interactions, fever dream qualities, minimalistic but trippy surroundings. A totally different beast, equally vicious, but with a different mindset. Hours later, we emerged from the scene. I exchanged amazed looks with the people who had been there the previous night.. Never could we have expected the shows to have such a different feel, just a day apart. Everything that felt off the night before was perfectly on point. Violence framed in a concept. A heartbreaking tale. Us, trapped in Adrian’s hell, tormented by his demons, and by Blake. The Heretic we had been expecting all along – with a couple of somewhat meta character breaks thrown in. They pointed me out on my critiques about the previous day. How I was allowed to kill him, but wasn’t allowed to judge him. They knew. Or, maybe, an educated guess. It threw me off balance. These moments took the night beyond being just a show, and at the end of it, I didn’t know what was real anymore. The night before, I had sided with Blake. I had been an instrument in Adrian’s murder, a deeply touching moment. I told him this was what he wanted, my bloody face against his, as his life slipped through my fingers. This second night, however, I chose Adrian. I tried to rebel against Blake. To no avail. Seeing Adrian’s corpse dragged away after I had tried to make a stand, it left me broken on the floor, not knowing what to think, contemplating why I was there, whether I had made the right choices, whether I was still welcome there. The longest moment in a very, very dark space.
I could not shake it. After night one, ideas in my head were ablaze – for all the shows I had seen, this fell into a completely different category. The territory I didn’t want to enter – suffering just so you could say you made it through the suffering. I woke up the next day, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more. And then it hit me. Through hints in the lines, seeds that managed to get their roots in my head. Adrian telling us he was sick of all the violence. Actors screaming that everyone can torture people, that everyone can make a show like that. About how it is more than just a bloody selfie afterwards, about bragging rights. Us, being forced to direct each others suffering, placing ourselves in Adrian’s shoes. Like Andy Kaufman, reading from The Great Gatsby on stage to a booing crowd, playing with expectations and testing his audience, something that might not be the most fun moment to sit through, but which in hindsight was a genius move. And, I’m guilty as well. I always claim I go through these shows for the concepts, the visuals, the art, the immersion, and I stand by that. But, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an expectation of violence and brutality when going to an Heretic show. Torn clothes, being covered in blood – just tiny tools they use to tell a story, but something their audience has come to expect, losing its shock value in the process. Through this show, Heretic taught us that violence is just that. If the brutality isn’t framed within a story, within a piece of art, a concept – it’s not a lot of fun to experience. Night two continued the same themes, but with a different approach. The full on nihilistic chaos was gone, and was replaced by a somewhat more theatrical, more stylized vision of hell. Distorted screams, inhumanity. Atonement, a plea for peace. Still, the story told was the same, I believe. This show was all about killing Adrian – literally, by the hands of Blake, but more importantly, as a metaphor for how Heretic is slowly killing Adrian. How this endless cycle of torture is sucking the life out of him. How all of us, ever asking for more, are accomplices in his downfall. How he puts everything into creating a challenging, underground art form, while we ask to be choked harder.
In hindsight, I couldn’t be more happy that I experienced that first night. Never has a show gotten this deeply into my head for so long. The entire night made me think, made me confused, I obsessed about it for days, until I was one hundred percent convinced that Adrian torpedoed this one night, burnt his show down, just to prove a point. I still don’t know whether I was right, or whether I got stuck believing that it’s impossible for Heretic to have an off night. In the end, they didn’t break my trust in them. But, for the very first time, they managed to scare me to a point where I was doubting that trust. A fine line to walk, a perilous cliff edge. I choose to believe they trusted their audience enough to discover the message behind. The second night, they managed to turn everything upside down again, guiding us through the same concepts and themes in a completely different way. Those two nights combined made for probably the most emotionally and physically intense, and deeply personal show I have ever experienced. And once again, they gave me an experience I hadn’t had before. Once more, a hidden cellar door leading further down into their labyrinth. Heretic hasn’t stopped dragging me in, and if they let me, I will gladly be dragged deeper. Whether it’s a beatdown or an all visual trip through an obscure idea, all I want is to spend more time in the dark with them.