FRATERNITY: A RECOLLECTION OF INITIATION
I arrive half an hour before my allotted time, slightly sweaty and out of breath. The power walk I thought might burn off some of this nervous energy hasn’t worked. It feels like every cell of my body is on high alert as I take in the building before me. The location for my Initiation into the Ordre d’Elysium…
A Victorian grammar school recently converted into the Mexborough Business Centre, it is the perfect venue for an ancient society operating in the modern age.
The mood in the communal area is split, so much so that several people remark on it. Those who have already made it through the Initiation ceremony are giddy, euphoric. Frantic, hushed conversations take place in corners, careful not to ruin the experience for the others. But those who await their turn remain quiet, introverted, unsure of what lies ahead and whether they will return like their triumphant friends.
I sit apart, questioning and reaffirming to myself why I am here. This isn’t just about an initiation; this is about getting closer to the truth, and about the connections I have made. I am here for Henry. I am here for Magen. I want to help them, whatever it takes.
A well-dressed blonde-haired boy of around 11 or 12 appears at a set of double doors and calls my name, dragging me from my thoughts. “Ohhhh shit.” The words are out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop them. Those around me burst into fits of laughter, but luckily, I don’t think he heard me…
He leads me to a desk where a lady sits, also dressed in a sharp white shirt and black trousers – it is apparent that this is the uniform of the Ordre. She hands me a waiver, parts of which I recognise from the e-mail in Greek we received all those weeks ago: Immersed in water… Hands and feet may be bound… You may be shouted at, or taunted… The pen trembles in my fingers as I sign.
The boy takes me through a door and down stone steps. It is like I am descending back through time; gone are the clean, bright, modern magnolia walls, replaced by dimly lit old stone. I am entering a different world, the domain of the Ordre d’Elysium.
In front of me is a chair, a bell and a sign. The serious young Ordre member tells me to follow the instructions and wishes me luck in such a way that it seems like a threat. And then disappears silently back up the stone stairs.
I am alone.
The sign instructs me to remove my clothes, with the exception of my underwear, along with my shoes. I place them in the bag provided. I pull on the oversized white t-shirt provided, grateful to find it covers the Batman panties that I thought would bring some humour to a dark situation. That decision seems foolish now. This isn’t funny anymore.
I sit on the chair, ring the bell and wait.
Another female member of the Ordre approaches and gestures for me to follow her down more stone steps, deeper into the basement of the old school. She doesn’t speak as she leads me into a room and guides me to a chair. And so begins my Initiation.
As my body is prepared and cleansed, I am aware of another body in the room with me. Lying motionaless under a sheet on a table, just within my peripheral vision, it is at odds with the soft, soothing touch of my attendant as she gently washes my feet. With her attention diverted, I turn my head to take a better look. A bloody wrist hangs below the covering, the crimson liquid dripping into a glass decanter. My muscles spasm, caught between the desire to be present and relax into this intimate moment, and the tension caused by what I uneasily assume is the corpse in the room.
After the outside world satisfactorily washed away, I am led over to the form covered by the sheet. An academic identity tag swings from a nail in the wall and as I read the name, my fears are realised. I am gazing upon the body of my foolish friend, Henry Jr, and as I am offered the ceremonial chalice, filled with blood poured from the jug, I drink to his sacrifice. Because I need to see this through.
As I push on, blindfolded, through my initiation, I am mocked and manhandled by unseen assailants. I am challenged, chastised, and baptised in icy water. It’s not easy, mentally or physically. I am shuddering from the cold, gasping for breath, and fighting my own internal demons, but I keep going, because every step takes me closer to finding her…
But then, as I feel I am approaching my limit, she finds me. Her voice familiar, yet desperate and shaking with terror. Magen. As we hide, hunkered down side-by-side, our hands clasped tightly together, my heart hurts for this girl. She wasn’t exaggerating when she said this was a matter of life and death; the stakes are too high for someone only just on the brink of womanhood. She should be hanging out at the movies with friends, not mourning the loss of her love as she tries to escape from the oppressive Fraternity he came to save her from.
But this is our chance – her last chance to get out, my only chance to help her. We run together in the dark for a fleeting moment until a dull thud and a scream… and her hand is ripped from mine.
I freeze, stunned, bracing myself for punishment. To be expelled from the Ordre before getting anywhere near the truth. I would almost welcome it right now. But, as my blindfold is ripped away, I see that my defiance seems to amuse Origen – an unnerving figure who seems remarkably un-phased by the violent end to his daughter’s failed bid for freedom. I grit my teeth and take part in his trust exercise and somehow manage to further gain Origen’s approval… His gleeful grin is the last thing I see as I am blindfolded once more, and sends chills down my spine as he sends me onward to complete my initiation.
The final ceremony is short yet powerful. As I kneel, amazed that I made it so far, my arms are laid on the altar. Something is dragged across my skin in a triangle shape; the sensation is hot and wet and leaves me wondering for a moment if a blade has been used to permanently mark me as a member of the Ordre. But the pain of a flesh wound does not follow and when my blindfold is removed for the last time, I can see the symbol drawn on my forearm in white wax.
A man in ceremonial robes welcomes me to Elysium and guides me to a door. As he pushes me through, I realise that while I have left behind my past, my future within the Fraternity remains shrouded in darkness.
FRATERNITY: THIS ISN’T OVER
Although Los Angeles has seen an explosion in long-form alternate reality experiences in the past 18 months, Fraternity was a ground-breaking work here in the UK, dragging the Scare Industry kicking and screaming into a new era of immersive horror entertainment. While Fraternity pays a respectful homage to the cult-based trend over in the US, it does so with a distinctly British flavour; a level of modesty and rawness that somehow makes the whole thing feel a lot more real.
There are so many positives about this experience: the use of amazingly talented young actors, some of the most challenging puzzles I’ve encountered in an ARG to date… Within the Initiation itself, the clever use of space and staging/lighting was astonishing. But the main thing I keep coming back to is intimacy. From the personal interaction with characters I came to consider as friends, through the assignment of our nicknames, to the physical contact during the Initiation itself; even small touches such as going through with bare feet left you feeling vulnerable yet connected, both physically and emotionally. You came away feeling welcomed, even loved despite your inability to affect the fates of those you came to save – if that indeed was your reason for attending. For those with a more extreme background, Fraternity: Initiation provided elements of a haunt, but opened them up to a profoundly immersive experience rarely found on this side of the Atlantic.
What is next for Fraternity? Although Henry is lost to us and Magen’s current condition is unknown, the Ordre remains in contact through a newly created Slack account. But the implications for the initiated are unclear. To what depths will we be driven in our attempts to ascend through the Ordre? And what punishment will I receive for revealing so much of my journey so far? Because as Magen herself once told us:
They will stop at nothing to get who or what they require to survive as a secret order.