I died last week.
This death was not peaceful, it was not surrounded by loved ones, and it definitely wasn’t my time. This death different: it was violent and it was frightening. We all make choices daily—just some lead to death. And the choices I made led me to the desert, to dig my own grave, to die.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
V A N II S H is the first experience developed by The Parallel, the next evolution of the Heretic franchise. Related in many ways to the original Vanish, V A N II S H is a multi-location extreme horror experience that expanded upon the core mythos by serializing its main events over three nights with the possibility of two auxiliary death experiences. As this show exists within The Parallel, choices are offered, and these choices carry consequences. Make a wrong decision, and you will be given a death card, forcing you to return and experience a death experience in order to proceed to the next main night.
The three main experiences all spanned vastly different, yet awe-inspiring locations. Location one was something familiar to previous Heretic fans: a seedy motel. The location was perfectly accessorized with a naked dead girl in the bed, bloody towels scattered around the room, and enough clues for those willing to search to find out. These items helped support the fractured mindset of the character within, and a closed door in an extreme haunt always fosters a sense of foreboding.
The second location was a college campus, complete with two massive lecture halls and a creepy boiler room drenched in darkness. This location was absolutely incredible. The Parallel took a location that is usually considered safe and full of people, and twisted it into a nightmarish version of itself. The classroom was perfectly equipped for a game of cat and mouse down the aisles. Further, it offered both a massive space to make you feel small and small side rooms to induce a feeling of claustrophobia with the actors. I truly hope this location can be used again in the future for something with a collegiate narrative.
Finally, the last location was two hours out from Los Angeles in the high desert. However, this location differentiated itself by offering both a woodland wetland as well a barren desert landscape. The former had participants hiking along narrow paths through trees to a soundtrack of croaking frogs. The wind rustled the leaves, facilitating a fear that people were around you at all times—ready to grab you. It was large and expansive, with enough cover to give the actors room to play. Further, the desert was barren and cold. The fear here was not manufactured by The Parallel; it was real. This is where people go to die. And to help solidify this terror, we were forced to dig our own grave as we were stripped down to our underwear. This moment alone was enough to make the drive worth it.
The Parallel delivered a strong, fragmented, episodic narrative. The story is centered on two characters: a cruel bitch with a dark past and a broken man looking for his wife. Yet, this story isn’t told linearly, and it isn’t even told in full to each participant. The Parallel provided different aspects of the story to different participants—thus, forcing patrons to discuss, to talk, to share their experiences. This fostered a small community that formed during the month long experience and also proved to be cathartic due to the extreme nature of the events. The story was meant to be confusing and to have discrepancies as it mirrored the mindset of the broken man. Some moments were extremely beautiful and loving before throwing you right back into chaos.
Presenting a show in multiple episodic pieces was also a first for The Parallel/Heretic team. This proved successful for the team. It allowed guests to discuss their experiences, the narrative, and the choices they made—as well as theorize about the direction of storyline. This proved to be an extremely fun and rewarding aspect of the show. Furthermore, by splitting the content up, the locations were able to be selected to support and strengthen the narrative. Finally, it allowed characters to develop over the course of a month rather than a single show. The more time participants invested in this, the more connected the audience felt.
However, this format did reduce show-times and increase ticket price. While this may not be an issue to some, it is a consideration for future shows. One singular full length show provides more room for quiet moments juxtaposed to the intense ones—and more time to be fully immersed. But I will say the shorter content always left us wanting more. One suggestion to further improve this content is to keep the immersion going during the breaks between shows: a phone call from a character can add suspense and anxiety leading into the next event.
You can’t have a strong narrative without a strong cast to deliver it. And this was one of the highlights for the experience. Both the two actors and the cast of tormentors were incredible. The girl made you feel sorry for her on the first night—an innocent bystander killed by a deranged man in a hotel room. Yet as you continue into nights two and three, you realize she wasn’t so innocent; she led many into the desert to their deaths. And similarly, the arc of the man transformed as the nights progressed. From a killer in the first night to a desperate man just trying to warn you, plead with you not to follow the girl, he felt more like a voice of reason. And then to discover that his wife was killed by this very girl in the desert, my heart felt for him and his wife (especially since I was about to meet her same fate). His arc made him human and real. He was easy to empathize with and connect with.
Finally, if the actors were the heart of the show, the tormentors were the body. The expertly tortured us scene after scene. But their torments weren’t unnecessary torture. They fit within the narrative, as this group became a menacing cult, demanding that the broken man (and I) kill for their pleasure. Thus, the brutal physicality of this show strengthened the narrative, rather than detracted from it. It was responsible for the majority of the fear and terror induced in the show. And it was always done in a manner that I never felt was unsafe (although I did think I might die). Finally, I must applaud their stamina. They continued to lift me into the air and slam me into the ground. Doing that multiple times across multiple people must be exhausting.
The Parallel implemented a new system of choices with real consequence in this experience. If the participant makes a wrong choice, the participant would die, meaning they must experience a night of death in order to proceed to the next night. Death is a fifteen-minute experience with increased intensity and physicality, and the safe word is removed, replaced with an ease-up word. The choices, however, in V A N II S H were not immediately obvious. Often hidden within a story, it was unclear exactly what choice made you die. While this is true to real life, it was frustrating to die—not knowing exactly how it happened. The director of the experience was happy to explain afterwards that two water bottles were offered in one scene—one was laced while the other was not. So while multiple people drank from the bottle, one bottle was safe and one was not. Thus multiple participants could have drank from a bottle, but only a few were chosen to die. These choices would be stronger for me if subtle clues were delivered in dialogue that helped influence a choice and the death card was dealt directly after.
The consequence of a poor choice was Death—and Death proved to be another one of the highlights of the show. By removing the safe word, Death strips you of any comfort you may normally have. And while Death is absolutely terrifying—it isn’t simply straight up torture. Flashes of narrative are interspersed within the terror, and these were some of my favorite moments. These respites from the torture were powerful and needed. And the physicality was more than I was used to, but never pushed my boundaries beyond anything I was not comfortable with. This is something special that I am glad I experienced and I look forward to what other aspects of Death The Parallel will explore.
V A N II S H was an innovative, ambitious, and an improvement upon one of Heretic’s best shows. It took what worked in that show and expanded upon it. It added elements of choice, improved the locations, and added a beautifully layered and emotional narrative. These enhancements are what differentiate The Parallel already from Heretic.
This experience was the most terrifying experiences I have ever done, but it was also one of the most beautiful. There were moments of shear awe combined with moments of true terror: sprinting away from a grave I just dug, as the forty degree wind cuts at my naked skin; strangling the life out of a nude girl, who wants nothing more than to claw my eyes out; sitting alone in a forest, seeing stars twinkle above as the sounds of nature surround me. It’s these moments that will stick with me far beyond the nights of the show. These moments are what make The Parallel special. They expertly crafted a cinematic journey that surpassed even my favorite horror movie.