At Midsummer Scream, Josh Randall, co-creator of Blackout, sat down to teach his first ever class on the use of touch in extreme haunts. Below are key points from that class, lessons from Blackout’s past, and a description of the basic tenets of safety they use. While this is not applicable to all experiences and is not meant to be, we hope that someone reading it will find it useful—and it starts people thinking about how to handle touch and safety in their experiences. Thank you to Eliot Bessette for his help with this article and to Josh Randall for teaching this class.
For those of you unfamiliar with Blackout, they are the godfather of extreme haunts, pioneering many of the psychological and frightening aspects that immersive horror companies employ today. They revolutionized the haunted house industry by becoming its antithesis: marketing to adults, having guests go through alone, and most importantly, letting actors touch participants. As years progressed, other companies found inspiration in this and an entire genre of full-contact and extreme haunts was born. But as things grow in intensity, safety has taken the forefront in conversations. How do you touch people safely? And what do you do if things ever become unsafe for someone? Blackout’s Josh Randall talks to these points and more below.
It is important to note that Randall admits, “we made all this shit up on the spot. This is literally ten years of us just doing shows, trial and error, and making a ton of mistakes… There’s no one right way to approach this. It comes down to the shows themselves and what you—as a creator—what you’re going for and what you’re trying to achieve… The bottom line is that you have to figure this out for yourself. You have to have a kind heart. You have to think about safety first. You have to think about your audience members and what they are going through. And then work backwards from what it is you’re trying to achieve.”
This is a must-read for any creator, new and established, utilizing touch in their experience.
Why We Touch
While Blackout may be associated with extreme violence in shows, most audiences don’t understand that most of the physicality of Blackout came out of trying to keep their audiences safe. A normal audience member isn’t thinking about that in the moment because the light, fog, and theatrics all create an aesthetic that feels dangerous. Randall is quick to tell us that when “that actor is bear-hugging you and literally putting you up against a wall, it might feel like they are shoving you into a wall—but to them, they’re holding you really tight at your center; they actually have their hand behind your head; they’re making sure you’re not falling.”
Pick Kind People
So, how do you find the right people to touch audience members safely? Well, Randall says the most important rule is “to find people with a kind heart.” Whether it’s Blackout or Castle Rock or The Strangers Experience or Blumhouse’s The Purge, Randall always implements this in his hiring. “You genuinely have to look for people with kindness. You have to trust your actors before you throw them back there. Hands down, if you’re not working with the right people, the game is over, there is nothing to talk about. There is no exercise, there is no rehearsal that you can do to get someone on the right page.”
Randall wants people that genuinely want his audiences to be safe but can act scary. “I personally get really scared by actors that show up for auditions in monster costumes. I would never trust that actor who comes at me and tries to scare me and tells me that they are the most badass, scariest actor ever—I will never trust them in a room with an audience member of mine.”
“We’re looking for people that are genuine. We’re looking for people that are actually able to care. We’re looking for people that are able to sit in a room with you, look you in the eye, hopefully understand where it is you’re coming from, and start immediately shifting their own brain to determine what they need to do to get under your skin, and how they need to touch you.” Randall explains that this touch differs between audience members. “With certain people, that can be a really aggressive touch. For certain people, that can be a really soft touch. For other people, that may be no contact at all.” He wants actors that can understand these differences and not escalate the intensity when it is not required.
Escalation of Force
As shows and runs continue, Randall recommends creators and actors be aware of escalation of force. What this means is that after repeating a scene fifty or a hundred times, an actor forgets that this is the only time that the audience member has been through the scene. So even though you’ve strangled someone two hundred times and you’re really bored, this is the first time that a participant has had an actor put their hands around their neck. With extreme simulations, actors can’t escalate their touch over time. “I might be strangling you. I might be waterboarding you. I might be shoving your head into a wall or into water or into the floor, and ultimately if I’m doing it two hundred times a night, just as a human, I’m going to get bored and I’m going to start increasing the force.”
Randall says there’s a second instance of escalation of force. In this manner, an audience member is not responding the way that you expect them to respond. Thus, your natural inclination as an actor is to push harder—which Randall reiterates “is the exact opposite of what you need to do.” Why? Because this is when people get hurt. Randall explains, “I have a whole laundry list of shows where I’ve gotten hurt. All it takes is that split second for it to pull you out of it, and the only thing you think of is ‘They just hurt me.’ I don’t care what you’re setting up. I don’t care how good the lights are. I don’t care how good the fog is. I don’t care about any of that. I’m hurt. That’s it. I’m done. You lost me. You totally lost me as an audience member. I have no stake in your narrative whatsoever.”
Whether it’s an actor getting bored or trying to elicit a stronger reaction from an audience member, escalation of force is a real phenomenon and must be considered. Randall suggests rehearsing with casts prior to train actors on how hard to go—and ensure it stays there. “I generally always use a one-to-ten scale. I’ll say, ‘That was a really good choke. But it was at a three for me. I need it at a six.’ Once we hit seven or eight, you need to start calling it a day. That’s just for us; that’s just for a Blackout thing. We try to hit a level where it’s effective across the board, but you have to get the actors to keep it there.”
The Three Tiers of Safety
For Blackout, actors are trained in what Randall calls a three-tier safety process—in that, they cannot kick someone out of the show for not cooperating until they’ve gone through these three steps:
- Command: Step number one is the actor, in character, has to say to you, “I just gave you this command. Do you understand?” Everything has to be followed by “Do you understand?” So, if somebody says, “Get up against the wall,” and the audience member says, “No,” step number one is the actor stays in character and says, “I said get the fuck against the wall now. Do you understand?” If the audience member still refuses, move to step two.
- Character: So, now step number two: You drop character. You say in a very forceful tone: “I just gave you a command. The command was ‘stand against the wall.’ Do you understand that you need to do as I command, yes or no?” “Yes, I do.” Okay, great. “Stand against the fucking wall now.” If the audience member still refuses, move to step three.
- Consequence: That’s the last, final time. You have to say, “This is your final chance. Stand against the wall or you will be removed. Yes or no? Do it now.” And if they don’t do it, then they can get kicked out.
Randall makes a point to say that he will always have the back of his actors: “I will never question an actor in the show.” If the actor ever feels unsafe, they can call the safe word themselves and bypass this tiered system.
Spatial Relationships: When designing an experience and making things safe, Randall has strong opinions on spatial relationships. “If you’re going to be far away from someone, be far away. Choose to be really far away. If you’re going to be really close, choose to be really fucking close.” It’s simple, and it works
Extremity of Contact: Similar to spatial relationships, extremity of contact is the same idea. “I’m going to grab you, fucking grab them. If I’m just going to lightly feather you, then let’s just make a nice light feather thing. If I’m not going to touch you then let’s just stay away.”
No False Threats: Randall also believes in the concept of Chekov’s gun: “There are no half-gestures in Blackout. That’s one of the things we always try to do in the very beginning. We say that there can’t be anything false: in the sense that if I introduce a gun in the scene, I have to use the gun. If I introduce a knife, I have to use the knife.” He also states, for the record, that he’s never used a knife in a Blackout show because he has not figured out how to utilize a true knife without moving forward with the actual threat of putting in the audience’s hand and making them do something with it.
Misdirection, Simulation, & Staging: Immersive theater is, after all, just heightened theater. Thus, it must rely on misdirection and staging just like its predecessor. While the reality of horror is frightening, theater must use cleverly staged and simulated horror to frighten while keeping audiences safe. Randall discusses, “Yes, there are waterboarding scenes, but you’re not actually being waterboarded. For those of you that have been through the waterboarding sequence in Blackout, go read about what it is to be waterboarded. That is not what happened to you. If you ever get strangled—nine times out of ten, my hope is the actors are not utilizing their thumbs over your trachea. Within the rape scene, there were two naked actors lying in the bed next to you reenacting a rape scenario. They’re not actually doing it. It is simulated. It is misdirection. Utilizing those tools of misdirection to fool the audience. This is a piece of theater, so even though there are no false threats, you are also allowed to use misdirection and staging and do certain things behind sightlines.”
In the rape scenario specifically, Randall positions the light specifically to blind the audience; he puts the speaker right next to your head so the sound is loud and real. “I’m very specifically trying to misdirect your sensory cues, so that you’re thinking about the light over there; you’re thinking about the sound over there; you have this visual over there. And in the end the way your brain is able to put all that stimulus together is ‘Holy shit I’m in the bed in the middle of a rape scene.’”
How to Touch
Now that we understand the key theatrical techniques and tactics, the three tiers of safety, and the idea of escalation of force, we can appropriately dive into how Randall instructs his actors to touch. Below are some of the key techniques he espouses:
Keep an Arm’s Length Distance: Randall equates this concept to the idea of holding a kid back by placing your hand on their head as they swing punches at you that won’t ever land. By being at an arm’s length distance, you can anticipate anything an audience member is going to do—and be far enough back to be in control. Using this concept, Randall admits that “it is genuinely very rare for actors in Blackout to get hurt.”
Bear-Hug: Another technique Randall employs is bear-hugging. “Nine times out of ten, if I bum-rush you and bear-hug you, it’s because I’m either about to move you somewhere and that is the safest way for me to move you or you’re being too crazy, and I need to get you under control—and the only way for me to do that is to literally hold you at your center. Flailing arms are a big thing. Heads are a big thing. And I can get you to stop flailing by controlling you in this position.”
Guide from the Center: You cannot move people with their shoulders or they will fall over, you have move them from their center. Randall clarifies further, “Even if you’re using the center, do not push. Push is usually a singular action, which is very different than ‘guide, guide, guide, stop.’ Push means I’m shoving my energy at you and I have no idea where that energy’s going to go. I don’t know what his balance is. I don’t know what his footing is. So never push. It’s always guide.”
Never Approach Someone Dead On: The most common injury in haunted houses is the reaction to punch or push when something pops up in front of you. Randall says he sees this commonly. “You’re in the pitch black and somebody comes up at you, your natural inclination is to push them away or to punch; so never ever approach people dead on. You can hit them from the diagonal. You can get them from behind. You can come up. You can come down. But never dead on. And that is the other thing. We will always stage things in such a way that you will never see somebody come at you dead on. Or if you do, they will always stop three feet in front of you.”
Three-Foot Stop: This is one final technique and tactic Randall recommends. “Having someone pop out of the darkness and bum-rush you is obviously super awesome and highly effective. But nine times out of ten, I have that person run, run, run and stop three feet in front of you. If anyone saw Castle Rock, I used it in that. If anyone saw The Strangers, I used it in that. It’s a very common thing, and it’s a very good scare tactic to just have someone run up at you, but they have to stop at least three feet in front of the participant.”
Despite how much you practice and how safe you think your show is, people might still get hurt. Randall recommends being agile and course correcting as quick as you can. “You may need to pull that scene or props out of the show—or you may have to fire an actor.” The concept you originally envisioned may not be may not be what you achieve.
Randall states that the only way you’ll get a true understanding of your actors and your show is when it finally occurs. “You can rehearse till you’re blue in the face and you think that actor is perfect, but the moment the adrenaline hits them, the moment their enthusiasm comes into play, every rule that you’ve ever had gets thrown out the window. Suddenly, that actor that you thought was your golden child is the biggest problem you’ve ever had. And the one that you thought that you needed to lift them up and get them acting and do all that stuff, they just shine and they’re doing exactly what you need. That never happens until the first crowd comes through.”
Finally, Randall recommends having insurance and making sure your insurance company knows what you’re doing. “If they don’t know what you’re doing but you still have insurance, and something happens that they weren’t aware of, that’s just called negligence and it’s not covered. You’re not covered. One of the biggest mistakes I see people have is that they don’t have the correct insurance. You might have insurance. Do you have the correct insurance? Does the insurance carrier know what you’re doing? Are they prepared to support you if something goes wrong?”
Despite the reputation of Blackout being the poster child for extreme violence and aggression, much of the physicality in their shows is designed specifically to keep you safe. They may instill fear through simulated torture, but again, this is just simulated and not real. Utilizing strong theatrical misdirection and staging combined with a strong aesthetic and social media presence, Blackout makes what feels unsafe safe.
We hope this article will help creators take a moment and think about safety in their shows. While these are the techniques that have worked for Blackout, it is important to reiterate that this information may not work for you or your experiences. So feel free to use this as a primer or as a foundation, but implement your own tools and techniques of touch and be safe.