Would you ever attend a show if you knew nothing except for the title and the company producing it? Unwrapped.
That is the exact question that sparked through the minds at Faceless Ventures (FV) when they unleashed Unwrapped on the world – a show they called “Our gift to you”. And indeed, apart from a mysterious promo image and an intensity rating of three (mildly aggressive physical contact), every participant remained in the dark – right up until the point they were allowed inside the venue.
The Court Case
Never one to turn down a good conundrum, I found myself walking down the stairs at the Mexborough Business Center, a laminated card hanging from my neck. “Jury pass”, it read, in “the case of The World vs Faceless Ventures”. Not long after I, along with four fellow judges, had taken my seat at the jury table, the entire FV creative team, donning orange jumpsuits, was led in. Accused of mistreating their participants, willfully causing harm, disregarding safety and going against the best interests of the scare industry in general. Lee, Sarah, Rosalie and James. In an attempt to show us their true intentions, each of the accused creators pleaded their case by means of a flashback to one of their previous shows. Lee, the lead creative writer of FV, whispered to come play with him, and soon we found ourselves in the blanket fort of a young John Doe from Diary of a Deceased, trying to keep safe from the noises outside. Lights flicker, the sheets start to move, and soon the entire fort is shaking as monsters try to claw their way in – monsters that had previously terrified guests in Evac, one of Lee and Sarah’s creations from way back in 2014.
Up next, Sarah testified how she was often tasked with ensuring the wellbeing of each and every guest, and detailed the importance of earning and keeping the guest’s trust. Punctuating this, we were hooded, and told not to let go of the rope as we navigated a chaotic maze, ducking under obstacles with unseen creatures trying to drag us away into the darkness of The Pit. In my case, they quite easily succeeded in their attempts, leaving me stumbling around uncertainly, until I was grabbed and brought back into the court.
Rosalie’s testimony was up next, and she chose to focus on the joy and laughter the Faceless Ventures team has been responsible for over the last few years, by showing us what can only be described as an extreme haunt blooper reel. All familiar faces, in situations I remember all too well, moments that we’ve recounted so many times, crying from laughter. Spastic electrically-stimulated movements, actors letting go behind the scenes, and some of the most infamous captured moments from Cracked vs Heretic followed each other in a nostalgic blast from the past. After the video concluded in cheek-warming fashion, Rosie made us follow her to a doorway, and just a few feet away from the door, my brain starts to tingle. I hear a familiar soundscape, a bustling casino, a floor or two above us. I can’t grasp it, just yet, but the door swings open, and the puzzle fits. “Welcome to HVRTING”, she exclaims, with a gleeful grin. A very playful take on the game followed, and for the very first time, I didn’t have to suppress and hide my laughter.
Back in the courtroom, only James remained to plead his case. Next to him, Lee in plaid pajama pants, Sarah, clothed in black after traversing The Pit, and Rosie, in her glamorous croupier dress. By this time, we could all guess what would be next. After James told us jury members about his proclivity towards eloquent monologues and about misconceptions that keep hovering around FV’s most notorious event, we were mobbed, hooded and wrangled outside the courtroom. Blake’s crew, lining us up against the wall, giving us a very, very small taste of Cracked. Unable to see, spun around, trying to keep the time, losing myself in Blake’s mantra, but before things can get too much out of hand, Blake himself intervenes, and brings us back into the courtroom. Only our verdict was to follow, whether FV was guilty of crimes against their guests and the scare industry in general.
Unwrapped was a multilayered show that would be perceived very differently by the various participants, depending on their familiarity with the Faceless Ventures curriculum. Yes, this was FV at their most self indulgent, being horribly self-referential and making a little best-of offering out of what they had created previously, but done with a sense of self-awareness and humour that kept the show from devolving into them merely patting themselves on the back. For me personally, having seen the majority of FV shows ever since I attended Cracked 2.0, it was a lighthearted, fun and nostalgic throwback to past events. It was great to get a feel of Evac and The Pit, a few of the early events I never got to see but heard so much about. On the other hand, the more intense offerings were treated with a comedic edge that made sure revisiting these moments was an absolute delight for the more seasoned attendees, staying true to the original idea while not going beyond the proposed intensity level and feel of the show. It was brilliant to see so many actors in their more iconic roles, to experience these scenes with fuller background knowledge, and to actually be allowed to laugh, to interject with inside jokes, and to reap the rewards of actors engaging with those inside jokes. On the other hand, novice participants were treated to a Faceless Ventures smorgasbord, including a small taste of the more extreme offerings, in a way that would not push them out of their comfort zones.
On a deeper level though, the show handled the difficulties and frustrations the organizers have been dealing with ever since the controversy when they brought Cracked into the light. The case of The World vs Faceless Ventures definitely wasn’t conjured up out of thin air. After earning their spurs creating home haunts and more traditional scare attractions, FV developing Cracked in 2015 divided the UK scare scene. The ripples of that can still be felt today, and it has earned them a reputation that sticks. Later immersive offerings, like Fraternity, have often been met with controversy and trepidation from a scare landscape accustomed to the to-death recycling of butcher, clown and zombie themed mazes, and even today, a review ban from the largest UK scare review website still is in place, no matter whether it is about the next Cracked show, or a more general audience friendly immersive offering like Is There Anybody There?. After Unwrapped had concluded, it dawned on me – I was not the intended audience for this show. Of course I would appreciate the throwbacks, inside jokes and nostalgia. But there was no need to sway or convert me. The majority of FV shows these past years have been designed to be approachable for a more traditional scare audience, to introduce them to the concept of immersive theatre. Yet, the extreme label still sticks, for some reason. Under all the playful renditions of previous shows, Unwrapped was a call for fairness and proper judgment.
Unwrapped was about FV pleading their case, how their experiences are not about causing pain to participants, and how the UK scare community has wrongfully designated them an “approach with caution” label, no matter the actual intensity level of the show at hand. Ironically, the day after Unwrapped, exaggerations, faulty accounts of what had happened and general rumours made the discussion flare up once again, highlighting how eagerly reviewers from mainstream websites will hop onto the hearsay train, without checking facts or actually attending the events themselves, while happily spreading whatever juicy gossip they were able to gather. On their end, immersive horror enthusiasts were quick to jump in the fray and come to the defence of the genre, sometimes misinterpreting genuine questions or concerns as fight talk and coming off as overly hostile. Needless to say, the entire thing derailed fairly quickly – the middle ground and common interest thrown out of the boat. It was a turn of events that made the concept of this show so much more relevant. Side A versus Side B. The world against Faceless Ventures.
The contrast between the sheer joy that emanated from Unwrapped (party poppers!), and the bitter reason why the creators of FV felt like they needed to put themselves on trial feels very contemporary and applicable to recent developments in immersive theatre communities, not only in the UK, but also in the US. There will always be disagreements, and people not enjoying certain types of shows – and that’s okay – it’s a given in a theatrical concept that started small, but has expanded a lot in recent years. We, all of us, need to keep an open mind, a willingness to discuss our thoughts, without shutting other opinions out. Importantly, in the end, the entire spectrum of scare attractions and immersive theatre is meant to be entertaining, in one way or another. With Unwrapped, FV tried to tackle misconceptions and ongoing, often unconstructive debates about what constitutes scare entertainment – but did so in a fun, tongue-in-cheek fashion, and it was obvious every one in the team was having a great time. Unwrapped was a treat, to new and old guests of Faceless Ventures. I’m curious what their opinion would have been, if the handful of conservative reviewers dictating what is and isn’t okay in the UK scare landscape would have taken a seat at the jury table.