This is part of Haunting’s Recollection series – it is a complete account of Death Project: Ritual. It contains full spoilers and is intended for readers who have attended or could not attend the show, or are curious about this creator’s work.
It is past midnight. Though it is June, the air is cold and getting colder. My two companions and I are walking through a pine-scented neighborhood in the mountain town of Big Bear, our target an address we were only given earlier that day. Our original group of nine has been split into three groups of three, and we are the last. We spy our destination, a U-Haul truck parked in a driveway. We share an apprehensive glance. Well, two of us are properly apprehensive; to my mixed annoyance and amusement, one of my companions looks more excited, like we stumbled upon a late night taco truck.
Following the given instructions, we get in the back of the enclosed truck, sign the waivers left there for us, put on blindfolds, and lie face down – all with a sense of ritual. Finally, after we’re settled in, one of us shouts, “Begin simulation!” As we wait for all Hell to break loose, possibly literally, I have a conveniently-timed flashback of the events that led up to this. Cue the wavy special effect…
Two Months Earlier…
One morning in April, I wake up to find that I’ve been followed by a new and mysterious Instagram account, Death Project, which promises to be a “brutal horror simulation.” Hmm, I muse, It’s no secret I’m a fan of such things, but who are these people? There is a lot of imagery, both pictures and text, from Dante’s Inferno, and a link to a website with a disturbing questionnaire. I navigate my way through questions like “How big should we build your coffin?” and “What is your relationship with pain?” and submit my answers.
I am contacted within minutes. A mysterious person needs my help, but she can communicate with me only (ever) after sunset, so I wait. It turns out she is a prisoner in Hell, and needs my help to escape. She has left me a trail of puzzles, and says that if I am the first to reach the end of the trail, I will be her herald and champion. She will contact others as well to seek their aid, but they will have harder and more painful paths to join the quest.
Over the course of several late nights, I solve her puzzles, goaded by the occasional warning that others have started on the trail, and it would be to my benefit to finish first. The trail leads through several more questionnaires, and I answer questions about my nightmares, my sex life, whether time is linear or cyclical, and finally, “Will you come and find me in the dark?” Yes. “Will you claim your prize?” Yes.
When I hit Submit for the very last time, I am left with one simple message on my screen. They are going to try and kill you. You have to let them…that’s the only way you’ll find me.
I soon receive a box in the mail. It contains an animal skull and a note telling me that I have earned my place in the simulation as the holder of Limbo, the first circle of Hell. This suggests there will eventually be eight other participants. I am encouraged to share part of the note with them. It contains the date of the simulation, payment details, and an ominous statement: There will be a portion of the show where you will be asked to remain still and silent. Excessive movement or talking during this portion will count as a safeword. Furthermore, using the safeword would disqualify the user from the remaining two shows of Death Project’s planned trilogy.
A second, private section of the note explains that the skull is a powerful talisman that can return one to the world of the living. I must bring it to the simulation, but tell no one about it beforehand. I also learn that the first show will be called Ritual. The note is somewhat congratulatory, since apparently as the holder of Limbo I am one of the heroes of the story, but ends with a sobering observation: Heroes must always endure the greatest suffering.
Over the following weeks, the ranks of Hell fill. As promised, the other eight paths are more painful than mine. An early puzzle sent to all interested parties reveals the existence of another Instagram account, belonging to an entity we first refer to as the Emperor, who is clearly the prisoner’s captor. Admittance to any of the other circles of Hell will require his blessing, and the prisoner frets to me that it will be hard for anyone to complete the tasks he sets without being corrupted by evil.
Information trickles out slowly, and getting bits of it often requires doing the Emperor’s bidding, which can be painful. We learn that the prisoner is none other than Life itself, and she is growing weaker during her time in custody. Her captor is Death, who waits in the spot usually reserved for Satan in the frozen ninth circle of Hell. He amuses himself by setting us against each other to secure a chance to meet him. Since Life has told me I am her champion, I try to keep everyone working together, but I sense that there are a lot of private messages behind the scenes; clearly other people have been given goals conflicting with mine.
None of the paths to entry are easy. The holder of Lust has to fill out an exquisitely personal questionnaire, and is briefly blackmailed with its contents. Gluttony is the only other applicant to receive a box in the mail; she must consume its unsavory contents on video. Heresy performs a ritual with her hand held over a candle flame. Fraud and Treachery perform mysterious tasks behind the scenes, which the rest of us assume are not to our benefit.
In later weeks, Violence writes things in his or her own blood. Greed takes a wound to the pocketbook, since that ticket is auctioned off to the highest bidder late in the process, when most spots are filled and FOMO is high. Perhaps most worryingly, Wrath has to earn her spot by making a late night rendezvous with violent and terrifying people parked near her house…in a U-Haul truck. Bruises are involved.
After a ridiculously long expository flashback, I recall that I am in a U-Haul truck myself. Uh oh. A few seconds after we shout that we are ready, the rear doors bang open. Rough hands pull us out and walk us a short way. When our blindfolds are removed, we see that we are standing in what is best described as a killing shed. The walls are black plastic tarps, and covered in pictures of people who are obviously previous victims. Before us are three body bags. They are going to try and kill you. You have to let them…
Killers come in one at a time, a different one for each of us. A tall, skinny man with long, unkempt hair enters, sizes us all up, and moves to my first companion. Moving behind his victim, he applies a stun gun to his thigh. My friend falls so bonelessly and silently that I wonder for a moment if he’s actually unconscious. His killer finishes the job with a strange-smelling rag held to his face, then wrestles the corpse into the first body bag, and leaves. The body bag remains.
My other companion gets not one but two killers. They wrap his head in plastic wrap, and mock his futile attempts to struggle and breathe. I force myself to watch. He too is bagged, and his killers leave.
By this point, I just want my own “death” to come to end this awful anticipation, and I don’t have long to wait. My own killer turns out to an enormous man, shirtless and bestial, who entertains himself by throwing me around the room before pinning me down and choking me. He punctuates this by grunting the last word I hear in life: “Dead.” It is clear that this is the period foreshadowed months ago, where I would have to remain still and silent. I lie limply as I am manhandled into a body bag.
Life After Death
The three of us are loaded into the same truck they brought us from. Our killers are jovial as we proceed down the road. Judging from their banter, they seem to be organ trafficking hillbillies. The pair who kill with plastic wrap are fairly businesslike and just want to get paid. Then there’s Skinny, who has a taste for necrophilia. “Mah girlfriend was so much quieter after ah killt her, but then ah had ter use electric shocks to make her move.” For a while, they all make fun of my killer, “Wolfy,” who’s driving, and apparently thinks he’s a werewolf. Soon, though, they turn their “wit” to each of us. In my case, they spend a while debating whether I’d died a virgin. Skinny finally decides, “Nah, ah don’t think so, but just look at ‘im. He must’ve had ter pay t’ get some.” The dead, being dead, do not respond.
Their party kicks into high gear when we arrive at our next destination. We are unloaded from the truck, and our killers carry each of their respective victims to separate rooms, each to enjoy their own version of body-desecrating fun.
When I am pulled from my body bag, I find myself lying on a floor covered in plastic sheeting. I remain properly limp and lifeless, but can’t help my eyes darting around. There is a silent observer in a skull mask leering down at me, but most of my attention goes to Wolfy, who is standing astride me, holding an open book and reading from it with his brows furrowed in concentration. I can’t help but notice that the book is titled simply, Werewolves. (The dead don’t laugh, I had to remind myself.)
Apparently following instructions from the book, Wolfy tears my shirt off and performs various indignities on my body. None of them seem to have the desired results. After a round of cutting and biting, he grunts, “Doesn’t bleed.” He then gets out some wire and a blowtorch and starts heating the wire, to my growing apprehension. Once it’s glowing nicely, he rolls me over and applies the brand to my back. I wince in anticipation of pain, but the brand isn’t even slightly warm. “Doesn’t burn!” he howls in frustration. His ritual also involves taking big swigs of wine and spitting it out on me.
I decide he’s probably lonely, and is trying to turn me into another werewolf for company. Is the process failing because I’m already dead, or is the skull token I still have protecting me somehow? Or is Wolfy just a deluded psycho?
Eventually, Wolfy gives up in disgust, shoves me back in my body bag, and carries me downstairs over his shoulder. I get a glimpse out of my bag at my two companions lying on the floor, back from their own desecrations, since their body bags have not yet been sealed up. One looks very cold and wet after his organ harvesting; you can’t harvest organs properly without a bathtub of ice, after all. The other is disheveled from Skinny’s affections, and presumably more electric shocks. We are briskly repackaged and loaded once again in the truck for our final ride.
This time, there is no conversation, just incredibly eerie music. I lie peacefully in my body bag, still a bit dazed, listening to the music, and coming to terms with being dead. The experience seems to have gone on forever already at this point, and it is only with a jolt that I realize, We haven’t even reached Hell yet…
We get to our final destination, and are once more unloaded like cordwood. The room is warm, and I think I hear what seems like the crackling of a fire. Unseen hands open up our body bags, and we look up at a woman, wild-haired and perhaps a bit scorched, with sigils drawn over her body. She dances over us, reaching into a skull filled with blood and marking each of us. As the tone of the background music shifts, she steps back and tells us, “I am your guide. Your physical bodies will be left behind as you come with me to court Death. But it appears there is another who has been waiting for you…” With that, a woman in a wispy white dress appears, the prisoner we have come to rescue: Life.
“Thank you for sacrificing so much to come to my rescue,” she says sadly. “I am just sorry that you have so much suffering still to endure.” She turns to me. “You in particular, if you are going to stay true to me as my champion.” She helps us out of the body bags, and we look around a room softly lit with many candles. “From this point on, you are but spirits and will be leaving your bodies behind.” Ah, we can move and talk again. “Please, refuse Death and choose Life as much as possible. I am growing weaker here, but might still be freed.”
More figures come into the room; it looks like we’ll have a large honor guard on our tour of Hell. Death is unmistakable in his mask and cape. He grabs the ritualistic sprite’s throat and pulls her close. She seems to be Death’s voice; or at least, everything he says, he whispers to her for her to echo out loud. There are several silent skull-masked figures, like the one who had been looming over me earlier. Finally, I spot our three killers. My eyes widen. Why are they still with us in Hell? As we all file out of the first room, Skinny whispers in my ear, “Don’t know why you’d be so surprised to see us. We live here.”
Abandon Every Hope
Our tour follows Dante’s order fairly strictly; Limbo we have already experienced in the form of our journey here. At each room, Death has pronouncements to make about the sin within and the ways it corrupts the soul.
We reach the room symbolizing Lust, which is – unsurprisingly – a bedroom. “Lust. A sin many of you have felt. Some more than others. Sex is an insatiable beast that drives many to insanity. But it’s not fucking that we crave; it’s the exchange of power and control. Why don’t we all get more acquainted, shall we?”
As we enter, Life tries to give me some urgent warning about what not to do here, but we get separated. A naked man and woman writhe athletically on the bed. I’m not sure what my friends are asked to do. I have an obstructed view for two reasons: First, there are many people in the room. Second, I am in a closet – with Skinny. I first realize this when he reaches out of the darkness and starts petting my hair.
“Say, purty boy, why don’t you take your shirt off for me?” he whispers. Easily done; I still have it, but by now it’s just a tattered rag lying across my shoulders. I nevertheless hesitate a moment before doing it. “Now, how about your shoes?” Again, still not a problem. The trajectory is clear, though, and it does occur to me that Life might have been trying to give me some sort of warning about being too cooperative with the demons. It’s a bit of a dilemma, really, since haunts usually demand total compliance. Before the moral choices get too awkward, though, everyone’s filing out of the room, the main show over.
All You Can Eat
We are led into the third circle, Gluttony. My first impression is actually of a huge dining hall, perhaps the refectory at a monastery. Then I blink, and I see a fairly ordinary dining room, but candle-lit, with a long wooden trestle table. I might be getting a bit punchy. I don’t have time to further reflect on the imagery, since a blindfold goes across my eyes as I am seated with my companions. If Life has any opinions about what we should do here, she doesn’t share them.
Death speaks: “Gluttony. The need to consume everything. Where does this sin come from? Yet again we arrive at power, the ability to absorb all things and make them a part of you. To enforce your devouring will over plants and animals alike. A will to control all of Life. Don’t we all want to control life? To master it and make it subservient to us? And so you will be filled, but I know that the hunger of the damned can never be fully satisfied.”
A huge ladle is pushed against my lips. Tonight’s special seems to be…some sort of gruel, perhaps? There are flavor notes of oatmeal – and of things that definitely are not oatmeal. Death’s commentary: Our demonic hosts take great glee in pointing out that our repast is both vegan and gluten free. Since Life is not urging me to resist, I sigh and choke down a second ladle when pressed. Hell definitely seems to believe in the Clean Plate Club. From the sounds, one of my friends is not thriving on this diet.
Mine, All Mine
The next room is Greed. Death says through his spokesperson, “Many think Greed is about money, about wealth and status. But it is about coveting things that others desire as a means of power over them. We all want power, don’t we?” He turns to me (Why me?) and gives me a choice. “You can take whatever punishment lies behind this closed door yourself, or give it to both of your companions.” Monty Hall never did this on Let’s Make a Deal, I think. Grimacing, I accept what’s behind the door. Maybe my friends will return the favor later. Life gives me an approving smile as the demons jeer.
This time I don’t have an obstructed view. The room behind the door contains a bathtub, with two chairs set up in it. As I sit in one of the chairs at Death’s direction, I reflect that if I’d chosen otherwise, both would be occupied. This thought comforts me slightly as the wet cloth goes over my face, and the water starts to get hotter and hotter…
The fifth circle is Wrath. “Anger is something we all call upon in moments of suffering. It protects us from a harsh world that means to do us harm. But Wrath comes from a primal part of our brain…” We, the damned, are herded into a small, foggy, red room. Death and his skull-masked observers block the door, and the demons who killed us are waiting inside. Most are empty-handed, but one has some sort of whip. There are no moral choices to be found here, just shared pain. It does not last long on any objective level, but the details are blurry through the haze of adrenaline.
Into the City of Dis
The hosts of Hell guide us, still a bit staggered, to an outdoor balcony. More dishes seem to have been prepared for us; however, this is not a snack but a sacrament, for we have reached the sixth circle, Heresy. Life puts her hand on my shoulder. “This one you must resist. The host and the wine are infernal and will corrupt your soul. If you hope to free me, do not take them.”
Death silences her with a look. “Heresy…An act of rebellion against one who believed they were all powerful. Defiance of power is just as important as power itself. How can you control your own destiny when someone controls it for you? Take the sacrament of Hell and in doing so reclaim your fate.”
We are not blindfolded, and can clearly see the choices we face. My companions are pushed to their knees, and one at a time take the offered wafer and drink the contents of the chalice. Their stifled groans tell me Hell’s latest gift is particularly vile. Death comes last to me. He holds the wafer to my lips, but I keep my mouth clenched tightly shut. “Take it!” I mutely refuse. Denied, Death presses the wafer against my mouth hard enough that it crumbles, and smears it and its glistening coating over my whole face. My face begins to burn. “Perhaps the wine at least?” He holds the chalice, brimming with liquid, before me. I shake my head, and with a snarl Death upends the chalice over my head. The acrid brew runs into my eyes and down my bare skin. “Go, then.”
In the seventh circle, the pain of Violence is less blunt and more exquisite than that of Wrath. Death’s Voice rakes our backs one at a time with her long claws, seemingly drawing blood. Even though this is not the room of Lust, there is a definite sensuality to it. The assembled demons watch with what seems to be jealousy; one smacks me as I exit the room.
Fraud and Treachery
By the time we reach the eighth circle, there is a sense that the journey is reaching its culmination. As we enter the room of Fraud, we see a number of skull-masked observers solemnly waiting. We are told to take our socks off and kneel with our toes facing the fireplace. That’s worded oddly, I note as I comply. I swivel my head looking for threats, and am told to stay still. Death brings out a cloth bag.
“I have a game for you three to play. You will each draw a stone from this bag, but not look at it. Two are black, and one is white. Each of you has a special rule. The first may look at his own stone, and only his. The second may look at the stone of either of the other two, but not his own. The third may not look at any of the stones, but may at his option trade with either of the other two. The two who end up with black stones will be punished.” Wait, I think. None of us can actually take any informed action to change who wins. This game is…fraudulent.
Again, I am last. With no idea who has what stones, I elect to keep the one I drew. I open my hand and see a white stone. Even though I made my choice blindly, I have this terrible sense of having betrayed my friends. Just as I think that, I hear their yelps of pain, because the person who has been hiding behind us is shocking their bare feet. Has to be Skinny.
Life screams out, “Stop! I’ve seen enough of their suffering…no more.” She quickly cuts the last two skull pendants from her neck. “These have kept me safe from his grasp for long enough. You need them more than I. Their power will allow you to return to the world of the living.” Death smiles. “If you give up the last of your protection, you will certainly rot in Hell with me for eternity.”
Once Death is done laughing at his own joke, he has an announcement for us, as always through his spokesperson. “There is one last circle in Hell. I trust by now you all know what it is.” Treachery. “I will await you there.” He looks at his underlings. “Bring them out to me one at a time so each can make his last choice without being influenced by the others.” He exits.
As soon as he leaves the room, Life tells us urgently, “You all need to know that at this point, he has no further power over you. He will make you empty promises and empty threats, but you have already run his gauntlet, and all you have to do now is to refuse him. He will have no choice but to let you leave.”
One of my companions is taken out. Two of us wait for him, still kneeling by the fireplace; the demons amuse themselves by trying things to make us flinch. Our companion returns, shivering but looking proud. With visible relief, Life jumps to her feet, embraces him, and has him sit near her.
My other friend is led out. The minutes pass tensely. When he returns, one hand is covered in a blood-soaked bandage, and he is holding a sheet of parchment. Life’s face falls. “No…how could you?” My friend looks at me with a twisted smile. Did Death somehow manage to break him tonight, or did he betray us long ago? Maybe there’s a reason he didn’t seem that frightened to enter Hell. He takes his seat among the demons.
Life turns to me somberly. “I will not be able to leave Hell tonight, but you still can if you remain true. I will try to endure until such time as you come back for me. Remember all the things I have said.” The demons lead me outside.
Death Shall Have No Dominion
The moon is as full and as bright as I have ever seen it. And the air is cold on my bare skin, since by now it’s three in the morning in the mortal world. Improbably for June, there is snow under my bare feet, though I note that it only lies on the balcony where I stand.
I am not alone, of course. Death stands before me at the center of his icy domain, no longer accompanied by his spokesperson. He speaks directly to me.
“Even after defying me for so long, you still can choose to serve me, and I will reward you with power. The contract is ready and only needs to be signed.” Behind his back, I get a glimpse of a knife.
“Are you quite sure? I have much to offer, and refusing me will not change the outcome.”
I’ve been the good guy so long. I should probably finish this path as I started it. Still, I feel a pang of curiosity…
Death shrugs slightly. “It is what I expected, but it was worth one last attempt. As you have been told, you may leave.” He points at the door I came out here through.
Is it really going to be that easy?
It is, in fact, about that easy. Having worn out our welcome in Hell, we are chased from it by its combined demon horde. The traitor in our midst is detained a few minutes longer (Hell is a notoriously bad place for traitors, even ones who claim to serve it), but he too is eventually unceremoniously ejected. He declines to state what was said or done to him.
In the end, we stand on an eerily quiet street amongst the trees, starting to shiver from the cold and nearly blinded by the moonlight. Our relief at survival is tempered by the knowledge that this is just the first of three installments…
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