Below is a Recollection–this is not a review, but rather a full spoiler walkthrough of the author’s experience in The Tension Experience’s Ascension. As Ascension will never occur again, spoilers should not be a major concern. Further, this is only one path of many that were available during The Tension Experience / Ascension. It was highly personalized to the participant, and thus, many paths and many choices were available. Although this recollection is the participant’s first time through, some elements of a second time through were incorporated because of special circumstances.
When I stumbled across The Tension Experience in early July 2016, I was merely looking for a distraction from my half-hearted attempts to start writing a second book. It promised not only horror, but that I would learn something about myself in the process. I wasn’t hoping for any more than a procrastination tool – I live in the UK so how involved could I really be?
Little was I to know that this was going to change my life in unimaginable ways.
The best analogy I have found to describe the whole thing to the always curious uninitiated is this: Imagine you get hooked on the first season of this amazing television show, “The Tension Experience: Indoctrination”. It has a compelling plot, characters you love, characters you hate, all that stuff. Now imagine you can interact with that TV show remotely, solving puzzles, communicating with the characters, picking a side, in some ways even affecting the story-line. You make friends with a bunch of other fans and even see some of them get walk-on roles in the show.
Then comes the season finale – “Ascension”. And everyone is invited to take part! But Ascension is going to be taking place over 5000 miles away. So, you’re happy to live vicariously through the recollections of the friends who by now have become your family across the ocean. But they’re not happy for that to be it for you. Imagine they put the money together to fly you out to Los Angeles, because they believe you deserve to do this…
And that is how I came to find myself standing in a parking lot in Downtown LA one Sunday evening at the end of October.
When I arrive with a friend, there are already a few people milling around. I start chatting to a young woman named Liesel, a waitress and writer – just like me. I find myself saying “me too!” too often for this to be mere coincidence. Alarm bells are ringing in my head. And those alarm bells scream “PLANT!” Not that she is actually some kind of herb, but that she is an actress hired by Tension to infiltrate the wannabe initiates… I’ve heard the rumors.
Talking to her is a nice distraction however, as I am beginning to wonder why the hell I thought this was a good idea. You see, I am about to step onto enemy territory. I am about to enter the compound of the OOA, the Oracular Order of Anoch – what I believe to be a dangerous, murderous, religious cult that I have acted in opposition to since joining the Brotherhood of Seraph (BoS). I am a rebel with a cause. And they know I am coming… The Overseer is waiting for me.
A black van pulls up and two incredibly brusque men call out our names, handing us waivers to sign. Who signs something without reading it? Um, apparently me… See? I’m learning something about myself already.
As soon as we are in the van, we are commanded to put black hoods over our heads and ordered not to talk. Classical music blares from the stereo in short bursts, interrupted by one of the men telling people to leave their hoods alone (I am dubious as to whether anyone actually tries to peek, but it certainly adds to the… tension…). Suddenly, the van pulls up, the door slides open and my friend is told to get out. The door is slammed shut and off we go again. Music. STOP MESSING WITH YOUR HOOD SIR! Van stops. Liesel is told to get out. Off we go again. I know I’m next. I try to take deep calming breaths, but that’s easier said than done when you’re wearing a cloth bag over your head…
The van pulls up abruptly. The door slides open. The hood is ripped off. I am pointed towards a metal door. “Knock on there, as loud as you can.”
The van drives away.
And I am alone in an alley.
I have no choice. I take a breath of fresh air, wondering if it will be my last.
And I knock. Hard.
The door opens just a crack. A face peers out at me. A girl. A hauntingly beautiful girl. With bobbed hair. Dark make-up around her huge eyes. She regards me. Smiles. Tells me she likes my shirt. I tell her I like her white dress and that she looks very pretty. She opens the door and pulls me into the warmest and most genuine of hugs before taking my hand and leading me into a reception area. And there, waiting, is Mary Lynn, the famous receptionist of the OOA Institute with her heart-shaped pout and penchant for following unsuspecting people into bathrooms.
She moves straight over to me, taking hold of my hands.
“Oh sweetheart, you’re shaking!”
I shyly admit that I am a little nervous. She wraps her arms around me and tells me how happy they all are that I have made it. She leads to me to a chair and I begin to fill out the questionnaire on the reverse of the waiver.
I have my head down, concentrating on questions such as “who knows you are here?”, when a pair of shoes come into view. They stop directly in front of me. Full of curiosity, I look up and straight into the face of the Overseer – a petite blonde in a red dress who, as her title suggests, oversees everything within this compound. I actually gasp from shock. I have such mixed feelings about the young woman, but in this moment, I am in awe. Mary Lynn shoves my head back down, reminding me to be respectful. I carry on with the questionnaire although it is impossible to concentrate when the Overseer is standing next to you, playing with your hair… She whispers in my ear. And then she is gone.
I still haven’t finished my questionnaire when the handler who opened the door to me reappears, puts a hood back over my head and leads me away from the reception. We walk this way and that and although thoroughly disorientated, I trust this girl completely. Her touch is firm yet gentle, like we are old friends.
We stop and my hood is removed.
I gasp for the second time tonight. I am in a smoky room, illuminated by a red light. In front of me stands the Overseer. Behind her is a sea of faces – it seems like every single member of the OOA is here in this room, their eyes on me. I can’t make myself focus even though I know if I look carefully I could pick out people I recognize.
I. Am. Terrified.
Overseer talks about how far I have travelled. Everyone calls “Glory Be!” to me. And I “Glory Be!” back, because I am not exactly in the ideal situation to start being defiant. Overseer reaches for my hands. I think this is part of the welcome, but she turns my hands over, looking down at my fingers until she finds what she is looking for… My BoS tattoo.
Overseer holds my finger aloft, showing my tattoo to those behind her. I swear, amidst the horrified gasps, I hear some of them hiss at me. Overseer says she isn’t going to invite me to join the OOA like she has asked others, even those who had once been an active part of the BoS, because that simply isn’t my _path. But she welcomes me nonetheless and hopes that my time here is “enlightening”.
The hood is placed back on my head and I am returned to the reception area and taken into a side room where I meet the lovely Myles. He greets me with a hug and then takes my photo, attaching it to my file and writing the word “coward” on my still incomplete questionnaire. My time with him is far too short; just being in his presence has a calming effect on me and my hands cease their trembling.
Everyone has been so nice so far, so warm and welcoming (despite the hissing, granted). Am I being lulled into a false sense of security? Would it be so foolish to let my guard down, just a little?
I am taken from the photo room and into a communal lounge area. An older lady sits at a table, working on a jigsaw. My offer to help is politely declined. I wander around, joining Liesel as she looks through what appears to be a book on anatomy. She points something out, something scribbled on the page. I know that there are messages hidden everywhere in this room, but I am more interested in personal interactions so I join an elderly couple, him seated in an armchair, her on a couch.
I learn that they are Leonard and Mildred. Leonard is an elder in the OOA and is tired from a meeting that ran on too long… Mildred seems sweet so I try to ask her some questions.
“Have you been here a long time?”
“Oh yes, a long time” she replies.
“And you like it here? I mean, are they good to you?”
“Of course, dear.”
Her attention is caught by a young man entering the room and she asks him to dance to the music that plays on the stereo. I try to engage with the gentleman, but he is grouchy and wants to be left alone.
“Don’t you want to look around?” he snaps.
“This is your home,” I tell him. “It would be rude of me to go riffling through your things.”
He shrugs. “I don’t mind. Besides, it’s what you’re meant to do.”
Then he returns to his newspaper.
I take the hint and idly flick through a magazine, while watching those around me, waiting for Mildred to return. I make eye contact with another of the beautiful handlers who roam the room in their pretty white dresses. I smile, but she glares at me until I look away. Liesel sits beside me on the couch. The mood is somewhat relaxed, although I sense something bubbling, just under the surface.
Without warning, Jigsaw Lady gets up from her puzzle, muttering loudly, and turns off the “racket”. The dancing ceases and Mildred begins to protest. A confrontation ensues which results in Jigsaw Lady calling Mildred a bitch. I take a sudden and intense dislike to her. Her behavior is so unnecessary – all Mildred wants to do is have a dance.
Leonard calms the dispute by turning the song back on and agrees to join Mildred on her makeshift dance-floor. Jigsaw Lady comes over to the couch, introduces herself as Ina, and tells us that Mildred is stupid and that Leonard actually loves her. I have somehow found myself in the middle of an over-60’s love triangle… “I’m going to cut in,” she tells us with a spiteful giggle and does exactly that.
Mildred sits back down next to me. “She’s so mean,” she confides quietly. “She came to a party one night and just never left. She is delusional. I think she might actually have something wrong in her head. She tells everyone that my husband is in love with her. So, I let her have these moments with him. It makes her happy. What harm can it do?”
“You’re a good person,” I reassure her as we watch her husband dancing with mean, old Ina.
The song over, Leonard invites us all to join him in a toast. The group reconvenes at the couches; everyone, except Liesel and I, now wearing white overalls. Cups of Kool-Aid are handed around. I hold the cup to my lips but do not drink – I mean, come on, who drinks the Kool-Aid in a cult compound?!
It is then decided that we will play a game: two truths and a lie. Let’s just say I am surprised to discover that Mildred isn’t as sweet as she appears and leave it at that…
Everyone is taken into another room while I am led into a changing room with Liesel. Waiting for us are a strikingly handsome young man, and an older woman. We are ordered to strip down to our underwear. As someone who is usually incredibly self-conscious, I focus on the task at hand, reminding myself that these people have absolutely no interest in my pasty, un-toned body.
Liesel fumbles beside me and I have to stand there for what feels like forever, shivering and trying to hold my stomach in. The young man, although telling Liesel to hurry up, regards me the entire time with a surprisingly appreciative expression.
As soon as I am handed my own white jumpsuit, I clamber in as quickly as I can, glad to cover my body again. We begin to exit the room, but the young man stops me as I pass. “You are a queen amongst women”, he purrs into my ear. I blush, unused to compliments, and thank him. “A queen,” he repeats, then lets me go.
We enter a large white space and I am told to take a seat on a bench to await my turn for “processing”. But instead of being called forward to one of the many desks that fill the room, I am once again led away from the rest of the group. In the corridor outside I am met by Overseer who wants to talk to me in private. Out of the earshot of any handlers or other members of the OOA, she tells me that we believe in the same things, that we are not enemies, but friends. I am moved by her kindness; this tiny young woman who seems so frail and yet radiates such power and confidence. Maybe I was wrong about her?
As I confirm that we are indeed now friends, a handler approaches us and tells Overseer that it is time. Overseer seems confused.
“Time for what?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” replies the bewildered handler, “you just asked me to tell you when time was up.”
“Ok, ok. Thank you Sadie.”
“My name is Susan.”
Overseer shakes her head, and when she turns back to me, her expression is as if we have never met before.
“Hi!” she says brightly, “I’m Addison Barrow. Nice to meet you!”
I play along and shake her hand, before turning to follow Susan back down the corridor.
“Oh, and Sadie!” Overseer/Addison calls after us, “if you see Benny, can you tell him I’m free later if he can run through those lines with me…”
Back in the processing room, I am seated on a bench in front of a TV set on which a promotional video plays. It has a retro feel, like something filmed in the 1950’s, yet there is Overseer smiling on the screen. The confident, in control Overseer. Not the one I just saw in the corridor. I can’t shake what happened, as if something made Overseer revert eight months back to when this all began, when she was Addison Barrow, a wannabe actress. The sweet and naïve Addison who was in love with Benny, who in turn brought her into the clutches of the OOA and changed her life forever.
A man approaches my bench – the infamous Simon, who rules the processing room with a short temper and sharp tongue. I brace myself for a barrage of abuse, but Simon is welcoming to this fellow Brit, sitting beside me and affectionately chastising me for bringing the rain from the UK.
When a desk becomes free, he guides me over and introduces me to the lady seated there, Thresa.
She begins to ask me a series of questions that seem to be assessing my moral standpoint. I have to answer quickly and honestly; she knows when I’m lying or holding something back.
Satisfied, she offers me a bowl of candy. I take a Tootsie roll.
Simon is getting antsy, barking at the women to hurry up and complete their interviews. Thresa is visibly irritated and as soon as I finish describing the taste of the candy on my tongue, she begins to ring her bell aggressively.
I join the rest of my group and we line up, with Simon hurling insults as he walks up and down. But his threats and abuse seem almost half-hearted to me, almost as if he is resigned to this role, but tired of it.
We file into the next room, which is filled with a dense fog and red light. I realize I am at the opposite end of the room I was taken to first. I struggle to make anything out other than the floor which is covered in sand and rocks. There are glimpses of movement further into the room and I realize we are not alone. As the smoke shifts and swirls, I can see a man and a woman, scantily clad with amazing bodies all painted in black, adorned with tribal headdresses. A countdown clock ticks down time. Someone finds an envelope and begins to read aloud. We are to pick someone to answer a question. A lady volunteers and is beckoned to where the exotic man and woman stand. A shaman figure prowls around the rest of us.
The lady is asked to describe something she has done that has disgusted her. She answers and is given a key and another piece of paper.
She picks the next person based on the instructions she is given and he answers his question, returning to us with a key and further instructions. He picks another man in our group.
This man is asked about something he desires to do, but never has.