We don’t talk about the safe word, and we don’t talk about what happens when the doors close and we put our masks on. I’ll talk about both.
The night of Heretic: Devil begins gently, even tenderly. Outside a martial arts studio in downtown San Francisco, Adrian Marcato offers me the crook of his arm, and I take it. He leads me down a flight of stairs, underneath the sanctioned classes.
At the basement landing we turn a corner and stand at one end of a dark hallway. A strobe light at my feet pulses toward the opposite end. Adrian hands me a mask, and I put it on. My body is clothed in a secondhand suit. For now.
Another masked man in a suit emerges from an open doorway. A young masked woman slithers after him. I can’t make out the details of her appearance through the inconstant light.
“Do you see the man?” Adrian whispers in my ear. I say I do.
“Do you see the woman?” I say I do. He tells me that most people can’t see her, only those wearing the mask. As I watch from afar, the woman only I can see jumps on her companion and appears to sink her teeth into his neck. They stagger back through the doorway from which they came.
I feel Adrian withdraw from my side, and I am alone. The speed of the strobe light changes, so the darkness lasts longer than the light.
Then I am no longer alone. The woman reemerges. She shuffles down the hallway toward me, though with the darkness I see less than half of her approach. Suddenly she is sprinting toward me and slams into me and wraps her arm around my neck and pulls me backwards through her door.
Inside there’s a wrestling mat on the floor with a bare light bulb dangling above it. Masked men and women stand and scowl at me. I am kicked in the back of the knee, forcing me to a seated posture on the mat.
Unseen behind me, the woman who had pulled me in whips me on the back. It stings, but I consider that the pain is muted by my suit coat and shirt. She whips me several more times. Then she circles in front of me. I can finally see her mask, an ugly crone face, and I can see the whipping implement, a thin and flexible fiber. She snarls and whips the backs of my hands. Nothing protects them, and the pain is quick and bright. It’s most intolerable when she whips my right thumbnail. I scream and she withdraws.
After a moment’s pause, though, I feel her behind me again. She puts me in a chokehold and yanks me onto my back.
The masked performers suddenly descend upon me. There is a blizzard of hands. Hands hold my limbs down. Hands rub an astringent around my eyes. Hands roughly tear my dress shirt open. Hands rip the left leg of my pants all the way up the seam.
The woman straddles my chest. First she probes my eardrums with the whipping fiber. Then she sticks it up my nostrils, and I hold myself extremely still because I fear she will jam it into my nasal cavity. She does not. Instead she eases the fiber down my throat until I gag. Again until I gag. Again until I gag.
Nearly all of my cognitive and sensory self shrink to an awareness of mere tactility. I taste nothing. Vision is unhelpful. Now and then I smell something unpleasant but unplaceable. I have few thoughts, though I take a moment to introspect and determine I am not enjoying myself in the slightest. I dimly hear a tormentor say this is how they worship my body. Then I sink back to the sense of touch.
There is a strange vibration on the skin of my left thigh, a light tapping or buzzing. More hands wrestle my left shoe and sock off.
Then my bare pinky toe is electrically shocked. I howl—I loathe being shocked—and I buck under the restraining hands. As my spasm subsides, the next toe is shocked. I find mental space to make a pact with myself that if I am shocked once more, I will say the safe word. The soft arch of my foot is shocked, and amidst my screams I cry out the safe word:
The hands release me. The lights come on. Performers filter out of the room, and Adrian comes to my side to check on me. Gentleness and tenderness return.
It’s all over after five minutes.
Reflections on the Experience & Safe Word
I. Failure and Self-Evaluation
That was the first and so far only time I’ve used a safe word.
I pride myself on my ability to withstand intense experiences, from roller coasters to horror films to haunts. I’d spent years gradually scaling the mountain of haunt extremity. But passing through Heretic: Devil—a level 9 on our Intensity Rating Scale—I found a limit.
It’s not as though I nearly finished Devil but collapsed shy of the finish line. I withdrew at the start of the race. In my mind, it seemed saying the safe word meant other people, the finishers, are tougher, more determined, and more resilient than I am.
Add to that: I write for a haunt website, and it was my job to cover this experience. I didn’t just quit. I failed.
The night after Devil I found myself in an existential sinkhole. Why do I do this to myself? Can pain be art? What is the purpose of extreme haunts? Should I still write about them if I can’t handle some? To be sure, friends and family have put similar questions to me a hundred times before, but all of a sudden the answers were lacking.
II. Art and Loss
We often quit works of art in mundane ways. We put a book down and never pick it up again, or we abandon a series after the second season. And so—by neglecting the last hundred pages or dozen episodes—we don’t experience the entire story. Perhaps we didn’t care to. Maybe apathy or competing claims on our attention prevailed.
The change comes imperceptibly, too. It’s not that we vowed never to touch that book again. It’s just that a day went by without picking it up, and then another, and then a week. In the constant flow of our media consumption, these cessations are not felt as losses, and most importantly, they are reversible. That novel still waits on the bedside table.
It’s different with haunts. In the first place, I can’t pick up Devil where I left off, and I can’t restart it. Heretic will continue; Devil will not. I can’t even read about what happened after I safeworded out because it was my job to bring that report back from Hades.
My decision to withdraw early ensured I would remain in the dark about how that pain would be woven into the narrative. To use the safe word was to strip the sensations of their purpose.
What was I left with? Just a brief, unstructured bout of aggression that I couldn’t justify through its incorporation into a story or cohesive experience. Just the physical hurt and mental disquiet.
Interestingly, my conversations with Adrian corroborated these reflections. Before I began Devil, he assured me that the brutal physicality would be imbued with meaning. After I quit, he expressed concern and regret that I couldn’t see how the aversive sensations would fit within the whole show. It seems he felt a loss, too. He lost his ability to give me the experience he wanted to. He lost the ability to orchestrate any catharsis.
III. Wisdom and Limits
In defiance of the adage, when I found myself going through Hell, I stopped.
I acknowledge that I could have endured longer. I was not medically or psychologically incapacitated. Another minute or two wouldn’t have killed me. But five minutes’ intensity rocked me, and I knew there was more pain in store, and I wanted out.
I’m glad I said the safe word, and I’m glad I did when I did. Any sooner and I wouldn’t have felt truly tested. Any longer and I worry I might have been more lastingly traumatized.
There’s much about Heretic: Devil that I don’t know. Were the three shocks I received the only ones in store for me? Or were they just the beginning? What other abuses would I have suffered? How well would the full experience recuperate the initial material?
On the other hand, there’s much about myself that I do know. I know how it feels to be usefully challenged, and I know how it feels to be completely overwhelmed. Devil overwhelmed me.
If I turn my experience on its head, however, I view it as a success. For years I had sought to test my limits and encounter greater extremity. At last I got what I wanted. Now I truly have found my limits and discovered hellacious intensity. Through that process, I realized I had subconsciously feared I would soldier on unwisely even if I was placing myself in mental or physical danger. I was afraid my own desire to prove my resilience would steer me unsafely past my limits. No longer.
In a way I am grateful to Heretic for overwhelming me. I have conquered my fear of saying the safe word. Now I know I can quit when I need to.