Note: While Erik Blair is the main author and wrote almost all of the below immersive definitions, this document is influenced by all members of the staff to ensure that it is a complete representation of Haunting’s views.
When exploring the immersive community, creators and audiences alike will find a great many words being used as short-cut ways to define what a given immersive event includes. In fact, there are so many different words it can be confusing for new audiences (or creators) to understand what each word means and how they differ from one to another.
To help anyone interested in the immersive world, we’ve compiled a list of definitions, and broken it into a few categories:
- General Immersive Definitions: Words used to help describe the immersive world
- Immersive Types: The various types of immersive events
- Immersive Design Styles: How a specific event is designed or experienced
- Audience Contact Levels: Different ways audiences and actors interact in an event
With these definitions, audiences will better understand what kind of experience they will get with a given immersive event. Creators will also be better able to describe events for their audiences.
As the immersive world is constantly evolving, we will do the same with this list as new words come into use within the community.
General Immersive Definitions
Immersive: The biggest word within the entire community. Various creators and critics define the word differently and it has become a buzzword that is used almost without any definition by marketers and creative agencies.
In a general sense, immersive is the large-scale umbrella term that encompasses every type, design and contact level listed below. It often requires other words from this list (such as interactive or site-specific) to further define the style and level of audience interaction for a given experience.
But there is a simple definition that encompasses all immersive works. For something to be immersive, it must be an event or experience where the audience must enter the narrative or space of the experience for it to occur.
In traditional theater (whatever style), the audience is a passive watcher whose presence or absence doesn’t alter the narrative in any way, and they are often separated by the stage. In an immersive event, however, the audience becomes a part of the show’s existence. They become active participants as the boundary of the “stage” vanishes, allowing them to interact with other elements within the space to make the show complete. While the level of interaction can vary to a wide degree, an immersive event requires the audience to truly engage the space or narrative with their senses. As the division between stage and audience disappears, immersive engages the audience’s senses to surround them within the space. This can be as simple as a walking through a haunted house to a fully interactive experience in which the audience is a main character in the narrative and their choices influence the narrative.
Experience: Many creators call immersive events or shows an “experience” in order to highlight the idea that audiences don’t just watch an immersive event – they engage with the event in a way that allows for emotional and intellectual responses. Immersive events are not simply something you watch. They are something you do.
Narrative: The story, themes and ideas being told through an immersive experience. Some immersive experiences have strong narratives that must happen in a specific way each time while others allow for the audience to impact the story in ways that can change character goals, alter plot points and even determine whether characters live or die. Some also only reveal portions of the narrative to any given audience member, requiring discussions between members to uncover the full storyline.
Story World: The world (usually but not always fictional) where an immersive experience is placed. Story worlds can include entirely fictional universes as well as our world but in a different timeframe or with different historical events or fictional elements (such the sci-fi creatures in Delusion‘s The Blue Blade).
Agency: The level of choice or ability to act that an audience member has within a given immersive experience. Shows with little agency tend to give each audience member few choices to alter the story. This creates an experience that is largely similar for each audience member. Shows with large agency, like They Played Productions‘ Captivated: You with its 30 possible endings, allow audience members to make many choices during their experience, leading to different and sometimes even personalized experiences.
One-on-One: A scene within an experience that has one audience member and one actor only. One-on-one scenes can happen within any other type of immersive experience, including intimate/solo shows (where this type of scene is almost a given) and larger audience shows (where such design can bring a surprising intimacy within that larger show). Many audience members seek out shows with one-on-one scenes as they find them to be some of the most rewarding experiences in the immersive world.
Jump-scare: The surprising and unexpected emergence of an actor from off-stage/off-screen that is often accompanied by a loud noise. Hallmarks of traditional haunted houses like those found at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, jump-scares are the typical method of eliciting screams and fear from its audience. Immersive horror and extreme haunts rarely utilize this type of scares, and instead, rely on anticipation, a build-up of dread, and mental or physical fear.
Throughput: The number of audience members that can move through an experience during a given time, typically an hour. Events with a higher throughput like at Six Flags Fright Fest can generate more money due to higher audience numbers but are often limited to little agency because of those same higher numbers. Shows with a lower throughput often generate much higher agency and individualized audience experiences but must either charge significantly higher ticket prices or budget for much smaller revenue.
Conga-line: A long, continuous line of guests that slowly maneuver their way through a haunted house as jump scares occur around them. Conga-lines have been a highly-criticized mainstay of traditional haunted houses because they as they allow guests to witness the jump scares the occur ahead of them – and when the line moves to the scare, the scare falls flat because it’s expected. This is a hallmark of large theme park haunts. Modern haunts are moving past this concept by utilizing small groups and spacing them apart – but this affects throughput.
Live/Digital: Live experiences are those that use actual sets and actors directly in front of the audience. Digital experiences are those that utilize technology as the primary way of driving the audience’s experience. It is possible for a show to utilize both live and digital aspects to create a hybrid immersive experience.
Themed: An experience that is built around a specific type of set design or narrative style. Themed locations (such as Sinister Pointe‘s Spirit Lounge) can be a very light immersive experience or can be a design element for much stronger experiences (such as Halloween haunted houses).
Site-Specific: An immersive experience designed specifically for a given location and using that location as an aspect of the experience. Site-specific locations are typically exactly what they purport to be. In ABC Project‘s Barbershop, Annie Lesser wrote the show for a real barbershop, focusing on the secrets people tell their barbers.
Site-Evocative: An immersive experience designed to create the impression of another location in an audience’s mind. Instead of casting a space for what it is, site-evocative locations typically use dressings and decor to portray themselves as somewhere else (such as Parturition by Screenshot Productions transforming a black-box theater into a birth canal).
**Hybrid experiences of multiple types can also exist.
Installation: A traditionally large location or piece that audiences can physically enter and/or move through in some fashion. Installations typically have almost no agency at all except for the emotional/mental response the audience member has to what they have just entered, such as Wisdome.
Activation/Pop-Up: An immersive experience created by transforming a story told in a different medium, usually for a very short duration of days or weeks. Activations are currently mostly built as a way of marketing a movie, television show or book by allowing audiences to ‘experience’ the story in a novel, interactive way. Activations can be largely designed for audience members to take photos for social media or can be a more complete experience (see our San Diego Comic-Con coverage for specific examples). The trend is toward more active engagement as marketers realize the potency of immersive experiences.
Haunted House / Haunt: An immersive walkthrough / maze designed expressly to scare audience members, typically built to run during the Halloween season. Haunt is a shortened term for “haunted house,” and specifically refers to attractions–not real haunted locations. Haunts are extremely popular with audiences around the world. The thrill of being scared, the endlessly inventive horror theming, and the creative monster designs are only a few of the reasons audiences have grown over the years. The only agency audience members have during a typical haunt, however, is the ability to progress through the attraction and whether or not the creatures found inside scare them.
Home Haunt: A walkthrough / maze designed expressly to scare audience members built in a family home or yard and runs during the Halloween season. They are mostly free or donation based and is a shortened version of the term “Home Haunted House.” Home Haunts are a great way for passionate creators to give back to their community during the Halloween season. These experiences usually run for only the final weekend of October and are free, resulting in long lines–so if you plan on going, get there early or plan on waiting. Further, these experiences are often family friendly as they appeal to the entirety of the community.
Yard Display/Haunt: Halloween-themed decorations in a home’s front yard, usually incorporating whimsical props, technological projections and sounds, and plenty of photo opportunities. These typically run during the Halloween season, are free, and have little to no interaction or actors. However, their gorgeous and innovative design draws large crowds, especially families.
Escape Room: An immersive experience tied to puzzles, clues and a limited amount of time to finish the experience. Escape rooms have become very popular in recent years because they are built around the idea of the audience becoming actively engaged in trying to solve the puzzles of a given room. Escape rooms can be great team-building experiences because the agency that is created is specifically tied to the idea of people working together and combining their strengths. One of our favorites is The Hex Room by Cross Roads Escape Games.
Immersive Theater: An experience where the traditional focus of theater – narrative, character and theme – are revealed through direct sensory input and a design that surrounds the audience. Perhaps the most common term audiences may run across, immersive theater is a specific style of immersive event that transforms theater into something tangible. It erodes the barrier between audience and actor while maintaining the same goals of traditional theater.
Immersive Horror: An experience where a participant takes an active role in a narrative that is designed to evoke darker emotions such as fear, panic, or despair in the audience. Immersive horror started as an antithesis to the traditional haunted house. As participant looked for more evocative, personalized, and powerful frights, immersive horror creators expanded and innovated their experiences, adding in touch, interactivity, and exploratory elements (while not being extreme). Whether they are being scared or psychologically impacted like in JFI Productions‘ The Willows, immersive horror experiences look to create a potent emotional response for an audience member. These experiences are all horror themed, and while there are varying levels of contact, everything is simulated and theatrical.
Extreme Horror (Extreme Immersive Horror): A cinematic, theatrical, and physically or psychologically intense experience that actively engages participants through interactions, evocative themes, and/or strong narratives. They use their physicality or psychological horror to enhance the fear and add consequence to choices. Much like the Immersive Horror experiences that share their name, participants are given an active role in their story, allowing them to survive a horror movie. Whether the story requires guests to make choices or simply follow a linear narrative, the decisions made will have real consequences – which are made more meaningful with the backing of character motivations. For example, Hvrting’s Serialized Death utilized strong pacing, a narrative build-up, and emotional connections to characters prior to anything extreme occurring–and when it did, the full-contact elements only served to highlight the brutality and horror of the serial killers haunting these halls. Ultimately, these extreme horror experiences are not “torture for torture’s sake,” but rather, deep experiences that help audiences immerse themselves further by getting them out of their head and evoking an emotional response.
Extreme Haunt: A physically intense experience born from a haunted house that evokes a given theme through set design, scare-actors, costumes, and messiness, often with a focus on enduring or surviving the experience across various intensity levels. Much like the “haunts” that share their name, extreme haunts usually lack a strong narrative thread, but rather focus on one overall theme or multiple themed rooms, such as The Victim Experience’s focus on various themes of death and victimization. Sometimes these will even be a “extreme night,” which adds contact, actor touching, or blood/messiness to a normal haunted house for a single night, like High Desert’s Extreme Night. For the most intense extreme haunts, they become tests of endurance, forcing guests to survive an onslaught of ever-increasing tortures, like Faceless Ventures’ Cracked or Castle of Chaos’ Level 10 Krusebel. These tortures can be insanely difficult and only for the strong of body and mind. Those that survive carry the title of “I Survived” as a badge of honor.
LARP: Live-Action Role Play, which means an immersive event where audience members portray specific characters within a larger narrative world. LARP events can be built around any theme or narrative and can include any type of character from the audience member as themselves to complex characters with full backgrounds and game-like ‘powers.’ Regardless of the type of character, LARPs offer a very large amount of agency as audience members often determine the outcome of the event entirely through their own actions and reactions. Often, the story is disseminated by the audience via interactions, which can lead to highly personal moments or unsatisfactory endings. Several LARP events, like Ascend, were very popular at this year’s Fringe Festival.
ARG/ARX: An experience based around the idea of an alternate reality that audience members pretend is ‘real’ within the context of the experience. ARX experiences tell a narrative story and allow audience members to play along as though it was actually happening. Most ARX experiences use a website or forum as their main narrative home, where the audience can join in the alternate ‘world’ and interact with the story. Some ARX experiences also have major narrative moments that happen either in the digital world or in actual physical space. Many have characters that live within the alternate world that can and do interact directly with the audience via email, phone calls, Skype sessions, live meet-ups or any other modern form of communication. ARX experiences can have tremendous agency as many of them allow audience interaction to determine almost every aspect of the narrative. At the same time, ARX experiences can require a much higher level of investment on the part of both audience and creator in order for them to function effectively. The Experiences (Tension and Lust) both had rich ARXs as well as major in-person group events.
Augmented Reality (AR): A digital experience where elements of the narrative are overlaid onto real world locations or items. In an augmented reality experience, the audience exists in the real world but sees elements that are added by the immersive creator. Most events require glasses or some other digital device to see the AR elements. AR has found popularity in games such as the Pokemon app, where the creatures are found by traveling through the real world to actual locations.
Virtual Reality (VR): An experience where the audience is encased within a completely digital, computer-created world. VR experiences like the ones released by Dark Corner require glasses and headphones to see and hear the digital experience. They may also require devices for the audience member’s hands so that they can interact with the story world. Most VR experiences offer a limited amount of agency currently due to the limitations of VR in mimicking real-world elements such as moving through a space.
While VR experiences are purely digital experiences, innovative creators have been combining VR visuals with real-world sensory inputs. Both Into the Black and The 17th Door have produced VR content that adds bursts of air, shocks, and seat movements to elicit greater levels of fear. Other VR producers have brought their content to conventions or festivals; Dark Corner placed guests in a coffin or wheelchair to mimic the digital visuals of their experiences. While all these prior examples may be extreme, there are plenty of VR experiences that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home or offer a whimsical, wonderful adventure on an alien planet, in a literary classic, or in a Star Wars blaster fight.
Mixed Reality (MR): An experience that combines digital and physical aspects to create an immersive event that utilizes the strength of both types. An MR experience like Chained can overcome the typical limitations of a VR experience by allowing audience members to move through an actual space that echoes the digital space they are seeing through the glasses – although to do so it may require live actors or physical objects that are overlaid by digital imagery. It also can overcome the limitations of a physical set by allowing more bizarre or fantastic imagery through the glasses. One current example of MR is the company The Void and their “Hyper-Reality” experiences where audience members are in full VR gear and yet can feel the items and space that they see with their hands and bodies due to the carefully designed physical space they move through during the event.
Immersive Design Styles
**Every immersive type can also be designed in many different ways. The following list is roughly in order from least to most audience individualization.
Promenade: An experience that moves audience members from space to space but may have no direct interaction between audience and actor. Promenade shows like those by Wicked Lit give each audience member almost exactly the same experience as the event generally repeats the same way each time. Some creators call this form of experience fly on the wall as the audience can follow the action by watching it but cannot interact to change it.
Linear: An experience where the audience follows a single track through the narrative or themed immersive. Whether the experience is for one audience member or fifty, a linear experience will always begin at the beginning of the narrative and follow the same steps until it reaches the end. If the audience has agency in a linear experience, that agency can only impact small pieces of the overall narrative (such as an improvised conversation response that does not change the actor’s dialogue as a whole). The story will always remain the same (such as Into the Black at Horrorworld).
Multi-Track: An experience that starts a group audience together and then splits them into separate, smaller groups that only experience a segment of the narrative/theme of the story world. Multi-track experiences are the equivalent of putting multiple people/small groups onto different linear tracks that cover different parts of a story. Each person/small group gets to experience their version of the narrative but has no way to know what others have seen. Multi-track experiences like Spy Brunch‘s Safehouse ’77 are specifically designed to create this partial narrative for every audience member during any given performance. Audience members can then find other parts of the narrative by discussing with others who have seen the show or by returning to the experience again and taking a different ‘track’ to see another piece of the story. Multi-track experiences can allow for a large amount of agency depending on how they are designed but at no point will any given audience member learn the entire story from one performance.
Dark Ride: An experience where audience members ride a vehicle along a pre-programmed track through a themed narrative or world. Originally a term coined for amusement park rides that run on a track (such as the rides at Disneyland’s Fantasyland), Dark Ride experiences tend to be strongly immersive in nature, surrounding the audience with strong design elements, but low on interactivity as you are confined to a vehicle. They also tend to offer small agency, as the experience is exactly the same each time you go through it. In recent years, Dark Rides have tended to be used for haunted mazes, but Zombie Joe’s Underground recently found tremendous success with their Dark Dark-Ride Ride.
Participatory: An experience where audience members are invited to join the experience in a way that may or may not invoke any agency. If an audience member is asked to perform a ritual or repeat phrases like in The Speakeasy Society‘s Kansas Collection, that act will be participatory. It is a different question whether that ritual will have any impact on the outcome of the event. If it does, then the audience member also has agency.
Interactive: An experience where the audience can impact the show in ways that can be either direct choice or true agency. Some shows offer audiences choices that impact the show but are an either/or scenario. Other shows, like Candle House Collective‘s Crossed Wires, offer audiences the ability to make a true impact on the outcome (or are designed to make the audience feel like they have such impact, even if the end of the narrative will be the same). While all of these are interactive types of show, only those that allow a true impact have a strong agency.
Hub/Spoke: An immersive design where audiences start at a central location and can explore in many directions but will always find themselves back at the central spot again. Immersive events designed like this use that central spot as a home base for the audience. They can explore outwards or get brought to different spaces by characters, but that central space will always be where the audience member ends up when the explorations or scenes are complete (HVRTING utilized this format during The Science of HVRTING). Some Hub/Spoke shows also allow audience members to travel from one scene outside the hub to another directly without returning to the main hub first. This type of event is great for allowing audience members to gather different pieces of information and then discuss what they have learned with each other.
Sandbox: An immersive experience where the audience has the ability to explore a given space and may have the ability to choose how to experience the narrative or how to interact with characters. Sandbox experiences, like Ceaseless Fun‘s They Who Saw the Deep, offer the audience a story world populated with characters and let the audience decide how they respond to the world. Audience members may choose to stay in one piece of the space and allow the narrative to unfold around them. Or they may choose to follow specific characters throughout the experience for a more character-centric version of the story. This has the benefit of allowing audiences to move if they become bored with a scene, but they also have the potential to miss sections if they are in the wrong place when a major scene unfolds. Actors offer a large amount of agency as they improvise character responses to the audience’s actions. Most sandbox experiences maintain limitations on extreme audience agency and many have a narrative that will happen regardless of audience choice.
Extreme: An experience designed to push audience members to their limits physically or mentally through moments using water, electricity, candle wax, rope or any other form of simulated torture. The goal of an extreme experience is to generate extreme emotional responses in the audience. These goals can be reached by any means including narrative, psychological moments, and physical pain. Extreme experiences are for those who are looking for a challenge or who are interested in testing the limits of their own physicality. Extreme experiences can feel very much like actually living through a traumatic experience. For some audience members, this is something that can be very therapeutic. For others, such an experience can be too much. But extreme experiences (such as Miasma) are also not meant to be truly dangerous. They should push people to their limits while still maintaining actual safety for each audience member. We categorize extreme experiences in two categories: Extreme Immersive Horror (strong narrative with extreme elements) and Extreme Haunt (heavily themed locale with minimal narrative and extreme elements). Audience members should be certain to verify the safety and style of these experiences before they ever purchase a ticket.
Intimate/Solo: An experience designed for either a very small group of audience members or one person at a time. Intimate and solo experiences allow creators to build immersive narratives that can be very emotionally or psychologically powerful because they focus on only a few (or one) audience members at a time. They can also be narratives that are completely personalized through asking each audience member specific questions (through surveys or questionnaires) before the experience begins. Such events can be very intense and have incredible agency – which is a draw to some audience members and frightening for others. Alone, much like the name implies, continues to push the boundaries of this format.
Audience Contact Levels
**The final aspect of definition to consider is how much physical interaction there will be between audience members and actors. No matter the level, all immersive experiences should remain as safe as the creators can possibly make them.
This list moves roughly from least to most intense contact level.
No Touch: Audience members and actors will not touch each other under any circumstance. This is the default level of contact for an immersive experience unless it describes something more. It’s very simple – no one touches anyone else. Wicked Lit’s performances are no-touch events.
Active Consent: Audience members and actors will only touch each other if given permission by the person who would be touched. In an experience with this level, audience members may be offered a hand to shake or asked to carry something or something similar (such as in Annie Lesser’s The Unknown). It is always the choice of the person who would be touched whether they wish to be so – and this goes for actors as well as for audience members. If the person who would be touched says no, the experience should be designed to continue without any problem.
Light/Minor Contact: Actors will touch audience members lightly for reasons such as being guided to a specific location or having something written on their forehead. In this type of experience, audience members should expect to be touched but can be certain that such touches will be for a simple narrative purpose and will be a light, soft touch. Nothing harsh should happen in this type of experience. The Speakeasy Society utilizes this standard to great effect.
Touch: Audience members may be touched in ways that are more intimate such as being held or being confined but there will be nothing aggressive or demanding. This is the first level of contact where audience members should expect to have their personal space impacted significantly. There should be no touching that is inappropriate or harsh but the audience member should be comfortable with having their space invaded and having actors in direct contact with them, like in an experience by Whisperlodge.
Full-Contact: Audience members can expect to be alone and may be picked up, touched, grabbed, moved or find their personal space invaded – but not handled in any way that is aggressive or painful. Full-contact experiences are not for those who have any issues being in close physical space, or who do not like having their body handled in any way. Full-contact experiences can be quite intimidating even for veteran immersive audiences due to potential sensory overload and personal space invasion. Audience may also find their bodies written on or their clothes/hair dirtied through such an experience, much like Alone’s Simulacrum.
Aggressive-Contact: Audience members will continue to have full contact but now that contact can be unpleasant, with actors pulling or pushing or impacting audience members in ways that are physically demanding and intended to generate fear. Aggressive-contact experiences, like Heretic‘s events, can include nearly any form of simulated torture, can destroy clothing and can attempt to truly scare audience members. Actors can tie audience members down or shove them into cars or create simulated moments of violence. The goal of an aggressive-contact experience is to terrify audience members and push them to their absolute limit. Many such experiences are designed to emulate a feeling of a loss of control. Audience members should be clear on what types of aggressive contacts an experience may use before starting such an experience. Emailing the company before paying for the ticket is recommended if unsure.
As the immersive wold continues to expand, creators will continue to develop new styles and designs to explore how they can tell their stories in new, encompassing ways. Those new options will in turn create new words and definitions. And Haunting will continue to help audiences and creators bridge their understanding of what those definitions mean so that everyone can enjoy the type of immersive experiences that best suit their tastes.
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