How many times have you sold your soul in the pursuit of something? Or at least broken off a piece as a trade? As we grow older, we make sacrifices to obtain success, wealth, or even happiness in our lives, careers, or hobbies. In big cities like Los Angeles and New York, ‘fame with a high cost’ is merely a fact of life and almost tragically expected. These cities of industry devour people, especially in the pursuit of creating entertainment, and again it’s tragically expected. And the pain is passed on, poured down on starry-eyed youthful creators, until they too are made the same: bitter. Hurt. Ruthless… All for the sake of art. Hidden Text: Shock Theater’s Eye for Horror.
Me, I’ve been participating in immersive theater now for nearly two years and I have come to expect certain things. Most shows exist in this odd twilight of feigning interest in you, but like most businesses, they do not. We suspend this belief, and everyone is happy. But most often, if you hadn’t bought a ticket, your opinion is moot; and realistically, even if you bought a ticket, your opinion, preference, or limits are still moot. It’s the creator’s art. Shut up and sit down. Being vocal about complaints and anxiety in the immersive community, even with the most expensive tickets, runs the risk of being expelled or overlooked from an experience. We accept that and internalize instead ‘If I can’t stand this show, it’s my problem, not the art’s problem.’
So what happens when someone doesn’t simply sit down and shut up?
Now, it is completely unacceptable for any participant to assume, rewrite, or take creative control from a creator. This isn’t talking about game-jacking. This is essentially about where is the customer service element in immersive theater? Does it exist? Can it? I don’t know, but I can tell you a story of an excellent example of phenomenal service given by a creator and the Shock Theater team.
It starts with a man named Dan, an avid fan of immersive theater who’s super ready to see his next show. He jumps at the chance to become involved with the mysterious, photography-inspired, out-of-state event, Eye for Horror. He buys the tickets.
A show in New York is already a logistical nightmare. Nothing is cheap! Nothing is easy! But regardless, Dan wants to go to this extreme horror haunt! He’s excited, nervous, and willing. However, Dan has certain needs, like not having explicit photos of himself plastered over the internet due to his job. Propriety matters. Others include almost near-crippling anxiety about certain events billed within the experience, post-ticket purchase. How bad is bad, really? Still, his anxiety and excitement are at equal levels, despite his internal conundrum. He pays for the trip and cements his investment.
In fact, so much so, he invites a complete stranger along for the ride, because he had a pair of tickets for this intimate, two-person-only, billed-as-customizable event. (Spoiler: It’s Me. Hi there.)
Once the immersive event begins, his anxiety skyrocketed. Perhaps, Dan is too stuck in his own imagination. Maybe he can’t physically stop obsessing about some of the torturous elements being teased. But no matter the reason and after much apprehension, he reached out to Shock Theater with questions.
And Dan had questions. Dan had reservations. Dan had doubts. He’s done extreme horror events before, but something about Eye for Horror was uncharted territory. Dan asked me, asked other immersive fans, and had full-length conversations about safety and the long-term effects of electrocution and waterboarding. All advice given led back to one fundamental truth: we must trust the show, their vision, and their creators, despite having no real reason to. In immersive theater the audience trusts with solely blind faith. Dan had a hard time trusting. The idea of being actually hurt was ruining his experience. It was too scary. It wasn’t fun.
Instead of dismissing or shaming their customer, who was entirely invested in the success of their product but concerned, Shock Theater exhibited patience and openness. They gave him reassurance and even paused the immersive elements in their show to again reassure him. Dan needed to hear they weren’t interested in hurting him, only simulating fear. At 11:00pm, Eastern Standard Time, they even called me to make sure all my questions had been answered, completely and fully. I was blown away. Sure, Dan had concerns, but it only mattered because they were listening.
Over the two weeks prior to the show, Shock Theater was actively listening to its audience. They were patient with Dan because they wanted Dan to have a good time. They remained accessible to him through Facebook. It took time to placate their customer, but it wasn’t wasted effort to earn his trust. They were entirely invested in a person who was invested in them. They wanted it to be fun, and they wanted him to have fun, regardless of their product. His enjoyment mattered more than his money, and they were confident enough in their skills of fun-crafting to address his concerns. But his confidence in them would create a successful show.
The day of, Dan was a wreck, standing in a Holiday Inn lobby pacing. He was constantly pacing. But he was excited. But he was terribly nervous. But so excited! While waiting, Dan received constant positive affirmations and pep talks from me to keep him grounded. And once the show started, Dan needed to know the safe word.
It may have been identical to this exchange:
“Hi. I’m Dan. What’s the safe word?”
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Will, the Creator of Shock Theater, replied, out of game, with zero animosity and seemingly infinite patience.
And I watched relief wash over Dan’s face as he repeated the powerful word. It was remarkable. Very visibly now, he was ready. That was the final piece of his puzzle. It was fun again.
And oh goodness, was it fun. Our car was quickly invaded by a pair of wayward, crazy hitchhikers who had a perverse affinity for both art and violence. It was a fantastic, bloody, sticky, waterboarding-ly good time. With a small cast, a small space, and a player-centered story, the intimacy we felt in the weeks leading up was effortlessly continued.
There were variants of torture. Our faces were forcefully painted. I was chained down by a maniac and suffocated with a wet rag on my face to simulate waterboarding. Once they had their fill of my suffering, they dragged me away. Dan was thrown on the table like a piece of meat and antagonized by a man wearing a mask made of loosely fitting flesh.
As I was pushed to the muddy ground I watched Dan hesitantly comply with the scene. But they hadn’t restrained him. They weren’t going to. That would have been too much. It wouldn’t be fun then. That attention to their customer’s comfort level is commendable.
Once the event was over, dripping in oil and what smelt like chocolate, we had the chance to talk. And you know what? Dan had a great time. I had a great time too.
The series of shows Eye for Horror all had about the same elements and incorporated photography. Our show was modified to ensure Dan had the best time Shock Theater could provide. They saw it as a challenge, not an insult, to make something new. We lost sexualized events and were given amplified violence. Essentially: more blood, more gore, and more modesty. All three shows were different, with different villains and motivations, which allowed flexibility in achieving the overall vision of a horror photoshoot.
But if everyone wasn’t having fun, what would be the point? Sure, yes, they could simply have Dan’s money, but at what cost? And it wasn’t a cost Shock Theater was willing to pay.
Now, okay, clearly the size of a production dictates the amount of variation: smaller shows can be more personalized while larger shows have the budget for multiple tracks of story. Other factors also matter, like how much variation does a creator want to deal with? Imagine, however, if shows could invest in their audiences beyond asking if someone has a food allergy? Maybe someone is concerned about pain? Torture? If someone’s asking about electrocution or confinement, shouldn’t they be met with something more than ‘Trust me‘?
But who the hell are you?
People new to this type of event only have seasoned veterans to inquire with, if you know them. If not, good luck and don’t make waves. ‘Don’t ruin my immersion,’ as they say.
There are so many resources and so much time and effort spent on and in immersion. People, real people, spend time interacting with us but often not really learning about their audience, apart from a few ambitious alternate reality experiences. Our good time is indifferent to their product because ‘Of course I had a good time! Everyone else had fun!’ If not, ‘You knew what you were playing. What’s wrong with your fun?’ Players are terrified of being categorized as high maintenance for having concerns. Some creators are unreachable. Others voice their apathy.
I feel as if sometimes players expect to be dismissed or to be a silent financial benefactor to someone else’s project. Normally, there’s no problem with this symbiotic relationship. But when good examples of creator/player communication exist, it needs to be shared. There are numerous terrible stories about the breakdown of experiences, betrayals of trust, and simply bad leadership. However slowly, the game is changing.
Artistic flexibility and communication will only broaden and benefit immersive theater as entertainment. This industry is moving forward with options like non-extreme variants and simulated substance use, while leaving the real option available for those willing to take it. What creativity do we sacrifice to incorporate an even more diverse audience? Conversely, what does a participant lose if they can accurately identify shows more relevant to their interests? The marrying of player and creator is hard, and it may always be hard, but is not impossible.
Shock Theater has set the bar for me when it comes to attentive listening from creators. Not every person, need, or anxiety can be addressed, but everyone can listen. Dan reached out to the community and they supported him. Shock Theater supported him. Everyone can peek out from behind their artistic walls to build something together. In this industry, anyone can find themselves switching from participant to creator and back again. Why should we forget what we’ve learned?
Everyone can work towards the same goal: having fun, without losing the fun.
In the New York Area? Looking to travel? Ready for an adventure?
Shock Theater has tickets available for its Eye of Horror: Spring 2018 event.
Check out their Facebook for dates and times! Eye for Horror Shock Theater Eye for Horror Eye for Horror
Shock Theater Facebook, 2018 shows
Eye for Horror