The following is a recollection for Santu Deliria: Inductio, meaning that heavy, thorough spoilers are contained within. The show has since closed its doors with no official announcement of being remounted, and the recollection has been edited and approved by the show’s creators to protect the integrity of Santu Deliria and any future experiences.
4850 Lankershim Boulevard. Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater. The location is more than familiar to me. It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent hundreds of evenings over the last couple of years in this theater, and more often than not, they begin exactly like this one: Me leaned up against the wall by the door, eagerly waiting first in line for the doors to open.
Tonight is different, though. My usual excitement has been replaced with anxiety. My heart is racing, and a thin layer of sweat is forming on my brow. It occurs to me for the first time that when that door opens tonight, it won’t be leading into the warm familiarity of the lobby, the smell of incense, or the enthusiastic greetings of Zombie Joe. In fact, as the 11:00 showtime draws nearer and nearer, I come to realize more clearly than ever before that, frankly, I have no fucking clue what is going to be on the other side of that door.
No one else in line that night knew much of anything about Santu Deliria: Inductio either. The best most of us had to go off of were the few facts that appeared on the postcard: it was at Zombie Joe’s, it was “full-contact”, and you had to be over 18. It was neither written, produced, nor directed by Zombie Joe himself, nor was it attributed to any of the ZJU regulars. In fact, the creator or creative team behind the whole operation was entirely unknown at the time, and remains a mystery to this day. Entering into an immersive experience without any expectation whatsoever is not only exciting, but exceedingly rare in this community. When it’s all said and done, though, and whatever the hell you just signed up for is just on the other side of the door, the excitement fades to fear pretty quickly.
I don’t have much time to ruminate on this before two giant hands grab me by the shoulders (roughly) and position me in front of the door. The stern-faced doorman that I signed in with is now staring at me intently. Regardless of whatever our actual height difference is, he is towering over me in this moment. He pulls a flashlight from his breast pocket and shines it in my eyes—first left, then right. My pupils have barely finished recoiling when the door to the theater is flung open and I’m shoved inside. “Follow the light,” he whispers. The door slams shut behind me. My descent has begun.
As I slowly regain my vision, I see the path come into focus ahead of me. I’m not in the theater that I’ve come to know so well. This place is colder, more imposing. It welcomes no one. The place is completely black, save for two rows of tealight candles forming an aisle into a large open room. Inside the room: a dim light, a plastic tarp on the floor, and a single empty chair. This doesn’t bode well.
I forge ahead, looking over my shoulders the entire way like a prey animal. I seem to be alone in this world, for now. As I cross the threshold into the next room, I hear a soundtrack of ominous, ambient noise. I hesitate only for a second at the sight of the empty chair, but it’s a second too long. A sign of life makes itself known to me, in the form of a gloved hand clasped over my mouth. “Shhhh,” I hear a voice whisper in my ear. I feel the bristles of a beard and hot breath on my neck. A blindfold materializes over my eyes and ties itself, tightly.
“Imagine that you’re sinking,” a voice says to me as I’m pushed to my knees. “Deep down into the Earth.” I feel a body press its weight onto my back, flattening me against the cold concrete floor. The voice I’m hearing does not belong to the body; this is a new voice, coming from an unknown source, blending in with the din of the soundtrack so seamlessly that it loses its presence, seeming to lack any physical direction whatsoever. It might as well be coming from inside my own head. “It doesn’t matter who you are, it only matters where you’re going,” it intones, “And right now, you’re sinking.”
As I sink further down, the body and voice disappear behind me. I’m alone now, keeping company only with the hum of the music and the chill of the concrete on my face. There is no way to tell how long I’ve been lying on the floor. Maybe it’s only been seconds, but in my fear it feels interminable. Either the well was very deep, or Alice fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. I try to control my breathing, but my body tightens in anticipation of whatever comes next. More time passes. Still nothing. Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?
I land on my feet. Two bodies are holding me upright by the arms, walking me backwards in my blindess. A chair slides itself into the back of my knees and swallows me into position. The dark of the fall has given way to a burst of stimulation: indistinguishable whispers fill the air around me; a million pairs of hands run their way across my body; light bleeds through my blindfold, just barely hinting at everything beyond in faint silhouettes. It isn’t chaos, though. The hands move with the methodical precision of a surgeon prepping a patient. The intricacies of the prep process are unknowable to me, but my intuition tells me there must be a process at play here.
As the voices continue to mutter indistinguishably, I feel my wrists being strapped to the arms of the chair. Suddenly a single phrase cuts through the chaos: “Don’t be scared.” My shirt sleeve is rolled up on my right arm. “Just breathe.” A sterile swab slides across my inner elbow. “In and out,” the voice guides me, not altogether soothingly. “In and out.” I feel the pinch on my vein, and the push of the needle digging deep into my arm. Seconds later, latex-gloved fingers have pried my mouth open and are digging deep inside, digits running across the ridges of my teeth and depressing my tongue. My mouth closes and I receive a small slap across the cheek. I’m ready.
My blindfold comes off and the room floods in. Despite the horror of everything leading up to it, the sight is undeniably beautiful. Illuminated by a room-covering strobe light, three black masks stare me in the eyes. They slowly back away, separating from each other in perfect rhythmic unison. To describe the sight in words does it no justice whatsoever, but something about it signaled to me that I was in an entirely different room from the one I had walked into. Everything leading up to this moment was now being reframed in my mind as a set of steps necessary to enter this strange, beautiful world. The goal was to get here all along, it simply took preparation. One can’t believe impossible things without practice.
Still securely strapped to my chair, I notice one of the masked figures dragging a strange mass from the corner of the room. As my eyes adjust, it comes into focus: a wheelchair, holding a slouched, seemingly dead, and half-naked body. On its head rests a terrifying birdlike mask, covered by a veil. The wheelchair is parked a few feet to my right. Without a second of notice, the creature springs to its feet and lunges at me in one swift motion.
Suddenly I find myself under the cover of this being’s veil. Face to face with evil, insanity, desire, whatever this thing is, I find myself involuntarily straining at my wrist bindings. The being’s hand holds my face tightly, painfully, and growls into my ear. His speech is private, personalized, and does not bear repeating. The figure loosens its grip and, just like that, the encounter is over just as abruptly as it started. The only trace left behind being the crumpled, empty vessel in the wheelchair.
The masked figures crowd around me again loosening and removing my restraints and bringing me to my feet. I’m walked quickly out of the room, past a thick black curtain and into an open doorway. I’m shoved through with a kick to the back, and the door slams behind me.
There is something inherently terrifying about a pitch black room. Enveloped entirely by the darkness this new room, my mind begins to pace through the typical questions: Where am I? How big is the place I’m in? Am I alone? Is there someone with me? Two people? Ten people? Even the sound doesn’t bleed through the door. Or if it does, it’s quiet enough that I can’t hear it over the sound of my own heaving breath.
From somewhere in front of me I hear a small clinking sound, but I can’t be sure whether it’s just my imagination or not. A few seconds later, I hear it again. A few more seconds later, I hear the scuffling of feet across the floor, but the path that the sound cuts through the dark silence is impossible to determine.
All at once, noise and light burst into existence. The beam of a flashlight materializes, pacing back and forth in front of me. Eventually, the pale blue beam swivels around, just barely illuminating its owner: a woman in a dress pacing frantically and reciting something to herself in a foreign language. The pacing continues until she takes note of me, pressing my back tight against the door I came in from. “Do you know who I am?” she demands, lunging at me. Her breath is hot on my face, and in the pale blue light her face looks distorted, though I can’t place my finger on how.
“Do you know who I am!?” she barks again. I stammer out a “no”, to which she simply exhales deeply, bringing her hands to my face and digging into it gently with her fingernails.
“I know who you are,” she says, leaning in closer. “I see you. I see you every day. You look so different in the dark.” Her final line is complemented by the bizarrely soothing trace of her index fingernail down the length of my face. She begins to speak in what sounds like the same language as before, pushing me along the walls and doors.
“Do you know what they’re going to do you?” she asks, finally breaking away from me and crossing to the other side of the room. I squeak out another “no”. She scoffs at me, as if to suggest that I’ve fallen behind. Like this is something I should already know. A tension grips my stomach muscles: the familiar feeling that everyone in this new world understands what’s going on here but me. I’m the idiot who just dropped in without preparation. Why is a raven like a writing desk?
The woman continues: “They’re going to do the same thing to you that they did to me.”
“What’s that?” I ask nervously.
“They made me see,” she says, as if to herself. “They told me the truth.” She suddenly lunges at me again, pinning me to the wall and digging into my face. “Do you know? Do you know what the truth is!?” she barks. “There is nothing in this world that is good or pure or real that isn’t what you want. So what do you want? What do you WANT!?”
I say nothing.
“Do you want to touch me?”
I swallow my spit.
“Do you!? Do you want to touch me? Do you want me, is that what you want? You want to be inside of me!?” She lifts her dress up above her waist as she spits her accusations at me. “Do you!? Do you want to be inside of me!?” The dim light shows a deep gash going across her side. She falls silent and looks up at me one more time, expectantly.
Slowly, tentatively, I reach my left hand out. She watches my every move intently, quivering and panting. Finally, my fingertips connect with the gash. I feel its depth only for a second before I’m shoved back.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me! You don’t get to hurt me anymore!” she screams, pounding on my chest. “Don’t ever touch me! Get out of here, go!”
The door opens behind me and I stumble backwards into a new abyss. A man catches me, guiding me to the next room. “Don’t worry about her,” he assures me. “She’s crazy.” Oh you can’t help that, said the cat, we’re all mad here.
When we get into the next room, the man removes his hood and looks up at me. He smiles in relief. “Ah,” he sighs, “a friendly face. We don’t get many of those around here. What is your name?”
“Ah, Max. Do you know what you’re doing here?” He speaks to me only in exhales, breathy and nervous. Manic.
“They keep trying, Max. They keep trying to figure out what’s real. They keep trying over and over but you know what they keep coming up with, Max? Nothing. None of it’s fucking real.” He pauses. “They figured it out. I didn’t think they would but I have to give them credit. Sunlight is just a reflection of the moonlight if you think about it. Our own shadows are just reflections. That’s all any of it is, fucking reflections.”
The man raises his head to meet my eyes. There is a mischief in his smirk; a glint behind the eyes chilling me to my core. “There is one thing that always comes up real, though,” he says. “Desire. It casts no shadow it makes no reflection, do you understand?” He doesn’t wait for my answer before nodding, “I think you do. Come here.”
The man pulls me to the corner of the room, kneeling next to a mass of black tarp. Ripping it to the side, he reveals a young, attractive woman, completely naked with her head wrapped tightly in plastic. Her final breaths, whenever they were taken, still linger as fog inside the wrapping. Just below the surface I can see her face, frozen forever in a wide-eyed scream.
“I found this,” the man says, waving his hand over her body. “She’s beautiful isn’t she? I’ve already done just about everything you can think of to her. She’s yours.”
“Jesus fucking christ,” I whisper under my breath in horror.
“Go on,” he encourages me. “Whatever you’re into. I promise she’s up for it.” The man stands up. “I’ll leave you two alone.” He’s gone. I stare at the woman’s corpse, feeling increasingly more ill. “Fuck,” I say, running my fingers through my hair. I consider exploring the space around me, but I can’t make my legs stand up. Slowly, tentatively, I reach a hand out toward her. I do it as a way of offering a lifeline if nothing else, though I imagine it’s wasted at this point.
“What are you doing!?” I hear a voice yell from behind me. I’m suddenly snatched up by the collar of my shirt. At the exact same second I’m grabbed, the dead woman springs to life again, lifting herself up and reaching out to me with a horrifying gasp. Her reawakening is so painful looking it might very well be mistaken for her original death. Maybe it is.
“They’re ready for you, come on!” says the man who grabbed me impatiently. I recognize him immediately from before as one of my torturers. The black mask is still on his face.
The masked man leads me back into the large room with the chair, where I was first prepped for all of this. Only this time around, the chair is occupied by someone else: a scared looking bearded man, held in place by two more masked men. Squinting my eyes a bit, I recognize him. It’s the man who was standing in line directly behind me outside.
To the man’s right, one of the prep team holds a black latex glove open and gestures toward me. “He’s ready,” the figure says. I don’t resist anymore. I reach my hand inside the glove, feeling it snaps at my wrist. The captors pry the mouth of the man open. The experience has come full circle. My hand is guided into the man’s mouth. I dig around for a few seconds, feeling the ridges of his teeth and the warmth of his tongue instinctually fighting my fingers.
“Is he ready?” the man who handed me the glove asks. I nod and pull my hand back out.
I’m walked to the far wall, positioned directly in front of the man in the chair. I can see him licking the inside of his mouth, resetting and recovering from my prep work. A heavy weight finds its way into my hand. I look down to find that I’m holding a black pistol. The man beside me motions to the man in the chair. “Come on.”
My hand seems to lift itself. I aim directly for the man in the chair’s head. After a breath I begin to lower the gun, only to have my forearm grabbed tightly and guided back into aiming position. It has to be done. I clench my teeth, cringe, and pull the trigger.
A clicking noise. Nothing else. The man to my right takes the gun out of my hand and chuckles. “Got you,” he points.
The man places a heavy arm around my shoulders and begins walking me back to the hallway. His tone of voice has changed completely. “Great work today, man. Really great job.” He rubs my pats between the shoulder blades paternally. “So look, we have all your information. We’ll be in touch.”
A door flings open in front of me and I’m shoved through it, out onto the street. It slams behind me. My pupils contract. I’m in the alley behind the theater. I’m in North Hollywood. I see cars drive by on Vineland Avenue. I’ve driven down that street hundreds of times. I’m alone. Wake up, Alice dear. It was a curious dream, certainly, but now run off to your tea; it’s getting late.
Santu Deliria: Inductio was magnificent. To catch their next experience, please check out their website and sin up for their mailing list.