Science of HVRTING – A Recollection of an Extreme Psychological Experiment

This is part of Haunting’s Recollection series – it is a complete account of HVRTING‘s show, The Science of HVRTING. It contains full spoilers and is intended for readers who have attended or could not attend the show, or are curious about this creator’s work. You can read our non-spoiler review here.

Please also note: HVRTING is an extreme haunt offshoot of this website (Haunting.net); see the links below for more information. Science of HVRTING 

 

Experiment One: Preliminary Paperwork
Emotional State: Curious, Amused
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

I step inside and climb the stairs, entering a lobby with several people in scrubs (some HVRTING brand, some not), a few people in hospital gowns, and a couple individuals in regular clothes. Who’s a participant, and who’s part of the cast? I wonder. I could go either way on a couple, but the guy filling out forms is probably the former. I take a seat next to him.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Hey, Matt,” The Coordinator greets me, handing me a clipboard with a small stack of forms and a pen. Rather a lot, considering that before tonight I’ve already filled out a) a “candidate profile” form, and b) a reasonably lengthy online survey that bore a striking resemblance to a psych eval I once took as part of the interview process for a sales job I ultimately turned down.

 

The profile, though, got a little odd. In addition to the contact info and some basic medical questions, and which extreme haunts I’ve previously attended (not many), it asked for my social security number. That, I felt, was none of their business. Also included was a pretty comprehensive checklist asking which things I’d either enjoy or be willing to try, and which I would not enjoy. I declared a hard NO on real blood, personal nudity, and acids, but the rest I felt were fair game. Finally, it ended with a more general question about my desired intensity level. A multiple choice with five options: limited physical contact, reduced physicality and duration, standard HVRTING experience, increased physicality and duration, and “You give us free reign.” I ponder my options before deciding on the latter. By now, I reason, I know enough of the likely cast – and they know me – well enough that I can probably leave it up to them.

 

This all plays out in my head as I read through the waiver. Standard stuff from this crew; the usual laundry list of warnings re: things I may or may not encounter during the show, an inside joke or two, release of liability, bish-bash-bosh. Below that is a UNLV consent form. Is that for fun, or are they actually collaborating on this? I wonder. I hand the forms to one of the assistants in regular scrubs, then I look to the “nurse” who’d handed me the forms. “Oh, that’s all for you,” she clarified, and upon further inspection, I’ve got a ways to go. Next in the stack are several medical questionnaires, which I’m guessing apes what you might expect before going into a clinical trial or visiting a new GP for the first time. Diet, alcohol/drug use, sexual history, etc. The last time I had sex is none of your business, I decide, but sure I’ll bite on the rest. There’s also a more general psychographic battery: “How often do each of the following describe how you feel?” or something to that effect. It covers things like “happy,” “secure,” “pleasant,” “stressed about unimportant things,” nothing too crazy.

 

“Okay, that’s good enough,” I hear The Coordinator say. For a moment I hope it’s directed at me, but no. She’s talking to the gentleman next to me who’s further down his pile. I sigh. I’ve still got at least three documents left. For a moment I wonder what the point of all this is. Are they using the busywork to buy time in case they’re running slow? I consider. Seeing how much we’re willing to divulge? Or is this a calculated subtle torture to start things off?

 

…Yes? I propose. I’m getting a strong vibe that there are multiple layers to what’s going on. In the meantime, I keep on trucking.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Next up is a series of questions that poke at how well (or poorly) I can distinguish reality from fiction. You know, it’s funny, I think. On one hand, if I answer these questions with a “yes” I sound like a bloody psychopath. On the other, I can think of half a dozen immersive shows I’ve been to where at least one of these was very much the case by design. Maybe that’s the point? A subtle dig at how immersive theater participants voluntarily choose to behave as if a fiction were reality for an hour or two? A part of me takes exception, so I scribble some criticisms of how a few questions were worded as I go through. “Double-barreled.” “Vague.” “Common in immersive shows.” Et cetera.

 

Form four is a little more on-brand: a consent to have my organs harvested. It does not specify that said harvest will only occur in the event of my death, nor does it give the explicit choice to opt out. I can at least specify whether all of my innards are fair game, or pick and choose from a list, then declare whether they may be used for transplant, research, both, or “THE DIRECTOR’S PLEASURE.” I am disinclined to hand over anything, but for the sake of playing along I agree to give my hair for transplant and/or research. Fuck it, I decide, throw the heart in there. Confuse or amuse whichever poor sap has to key all this into Excel this later. I am a researcher in my day job, and let me tell you: entering the data from paper questionnaires into a spreadsheet is soul-destroying work, so dropping in a little whimsy is often appreciated. So long as it doesn’t screw up anything important.

 

I’m about to start on the form agreeing to donate my body to science if I do perish when The Coordinator calls my name again. “That’s far enough,” she tells me, relieving me of the tedium. “Nobody’s gotten all the way through.” She beckons me to follow, pulling me aside. “Before you go in, I should tell you that part of this is about finding out secrets. So, I’m going to give you one that will help you out of a sticky situation.” Okay… I think, but do my best to keep my face neutral. “One of the doctors has been in a porno movie. If you can find out who, it’ll help you.” Oh dear. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, but let’s assume otherwise.

 

“Ready?” A voice asks. I turn to see a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young woman whose attire and demeanor practically scream “grad student.” I nod. “Good, The Director will see you now.” She gestures to a nearby door, and I follow. Time for the show to begin in earnest.

 

Experiment Two: Intake Interview
Emotional Status: Curious, Philosophical
Dissociation Level: Low

 

I’m led into an office, where The Director sits behind a large executive desk. The woman gestures for me to take a seat in front of him, while she takes one off to the side. “Mr. Kennedy, glad to see you again,” The Director says.

 

“Likewise,” I reply. The Director starts to take up his clipboard when the woman who led me in coughs politely.

 

“Oh, how rude of me,” he apologizes. “This is The Curious, a student who has come all the way from UNLV (our sponsor for this evening).”

 

“Nice to meet you!” she exclaims, offering her hand. I take it, returning the sentiment.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Well, let’s start with why we’re here,” The Director begins. The Curious returns to her seat, affection focused on her supervisor. “One night after a long therapy session, I sat down with The Curious for a cup of coffee.”

 

“It was a lovely cup of coffee,” The Curious adds. The Director ignores her, continuing.

 

“She was praising me for the many, many films I’ve directed, some of which you can see up on these walls: The Rebirth of the Rabbit, The Skin Collector, How to Summon Santa…” The Curious is effusive with her praise, but once again ignored. “But we noticed something odd. Participants would ask for The Director during scenes where they were scared. Other times, they thought the experience was real.” I can feel his attention focus on me. “Do you think you’ve been having trouble with that?”

 

“No,” I answer. At least, not beyond forgetting whether the event description said it was a film or not. The Director laughs.

 

“Well, I’ve worked with The Curious here to devise some experiments to see how people respond to a mixture of immersive techniques and real events. This will consist of evaluations, tests, and experiments.”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Lots and lots of tests!” The Curious cries, barely able to contain her excitement. If she gets any more bubbly I’ll be worried about taking a cork to the face, I think. Still, the dynamic here is fun.

 

“Do you have any questions?”

 

“No,” I reply. “In fact, I’m a researcher by trade, so I’m very curious to see how this all plays out. Very interesting concept.” This is, in fact, the truth, but also me slipping into a role. A fellow academic, playing off The Director’s professorial vibe. I find it helps with high-agency shows like this is shaping up to be if I build a character to one degree or another: a crafted self to insulate against whatever oddities or horrors I’ll be asked to face.

 

“And that’s why we’re so glad to have you join us,” The Curious responds.

 

“Yes, indeed,” The Director echoes, turning his attention to the form on his clipboard. “We’ll start with another questionnaire. You haven’t filled out enough forms, have you?”

 

Please no, I bite back, instead replying with “Let’s just say I pity whoever has to digitize all that data later.” He laughs.

 

“Fair enough. Well, I guess I’ll fill this one out for you. The Curious, my dear, will you please record his responses?” Eagerly she takes up her video camera and begins filming us from different angles.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“First, approximately how many immersive theater shows have you attended?” I have no idea, I haven’t been counting. I guess around twenty. “Interesting. And which of those was your favorite?” I don’t have a straight answer to that one, so I meander.

 

“Hard to say,” I begin. “There have been different ones I’ve enjoyed for different reasons. Recently I’ve done Captivated: You, and I found bedrUmplai quite poignant.”

 

“Yes, Keight is delightful,” The Director concurs.

 

“And Zombie Joe’s is usually a good time. So, hard to say, but those were all good.”

 

“Hmm, and what about your least favorite?” Again, I struggle to settle on a standout.

 

“I don’t really have any off the top of my head, guess the bad ones don’t stick. Possibly something during Fringe?”

 

“Yes, there’s a lot of crap there,” he echoes. The Curious makes another polite cough.

 

“We’re running long,” she informs him.

 

“Ah, very well then. These next ones will be more rapid-fire.” He rattles off the rest of the survey and I give simple yes or no responses. “Have you ever thought than an immersive production was real?” No. “Have you ever had a crush on an immersive character?” No. “Have you ever had a crush on an immersive actor?” Yes. But who is none of your business. “Have you ever had trouble distinguishing between character and actor?” No. “Surprising,” he responds, then continues.

 

I’ll admit most of the rest blur, save “Do you believe Carl Webb is a god?” which forces me to stifle a chuckle before replying no. Once we finish, he turns to The Curious. “Will you please escort Mr. Kennedy back to the waiting room?” He turns to me as I stand. “You will be called soon you the next experiment.” I follow The Director’s pupil out.

 

Interlude One: On Immersivitis
Emotional State: Amused
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

“Please have a seat here,” The Curious tells me, gesturing to a chair near the office door. She holds up a pair of headphones attached to an iPod. “Next, we’re going to have you listen to an audio recording. Put these on and let me know if you can hear anything, then when it’s done, just take them off.” I nod, putting them over my ears, then give her a thumbs-up when The Director’s voice starts waxing scholarly.

 

“May 2nd, 2019,” he begins. “Audio Journal #1 for Patient 023412. Patient is female, age 21, and suffers from acute immersivitis.” I suppress a chuckle. This should be good, I think. “It’s a new term I’ve come up with. It is defined as ‘A condition in which an audience member cannot tell the difference between the real world and the fake realities of immersive theater.’” Certainly tracks with that last conversation, I observe. Wonder if they’ll have one of these after each scene? The Director goes on to elaborate on the symptoms: Essentially, subjects view their myriad forays into the creative, surreal, wondrous fictions of immersive theater productions as true, lived experiences.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“The problem arises,” he adds, “when she has fallen in love with certain characters and made enemies with others. Her arrest file…” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere, “indicates that she has resorted to stalking actors, attacking others, and there’s one incident that’s sealed – not even I have access.” The one he can talk about, and does, concerns a specific actor. Patient 023412 developed a crush on a character played by “Terence,” and thanks to her acute immersivitis, she could not separate the persona from the person. Unfortunately for her, Terence had a girlfriend. She saw them having dinner together at Mastro’s and… well. As the Director summarizes:

 

“The patient became violent, screaming that she would use The Blue Blade to travel back in time and kick her grandfather so hard that the poor girl would never be born. Then she grabbed a glass of water, and a napkin, and proceeded to waterboard Terence’s girlfriend in the middle of the restaurant.” A pair of wait staff were able to save the day, thankfully. These events seem to leave The Director not so much concerned as…offended. “What kind of extreme haunt does she think this is?” he asks. “And since when do participants do the waterboarding? As you can see, things have become dire, and intervention is needed.” He feels that drastic measures must be taken if Patient 023412 is to be cured of her delusional disorder and rehabilitated, that she might be able to safely enjoy immersive theater again. Well, this should be an interesting little meta-narrative, I think. For now, though, what I feel is a sneaking suspicion that I may have one or two “extreme measures” coming my way before the experience ends.

 

Experiment Three: The Alex Treatment
Emotional State: Cheerful, Curious, Amused
Dissociation Level: Low

 

I place the headphones on top of the iPod next to me when the recording ends, then crack my neck and a couple knuckles. Put me in, coach! I’m ready for the next scene, and appreciate the references to other immersive shows. “Matthew?” a young man’s voice calls, and I recognize it as Tristan (aka The Expert) even before I look toward the source and spot his signature black mask paired with HVRTING-brand scrubs. “Hey,” I answer, standing. Tristan tells me to follow, and I let him lead me to the other end of the office into a dark room with a chair, laptop, and projection screen.

 

“How’s it going, man? Been a while,” Tristan asks.

 

“Yeah, since Rebirth,” I concur. “That was fun times,” I add, taking a seat at his request.

 

“Definitely! Okay, let’s get you all strapped in here,” he remarks, fastening Velcro straps around my wrists before adding “I’m excited for a little bondage.” Tristan returns to his own chair for a moment. “So, what have you been up do lately? Doing any immersive theater, escape rooms, karaoke?” Okay, this whole situation is kind of hilarious, I think. I’m strapped to a chair, about to be (I’m assuming) tormented, and yet here we are, making small talk, and we’re not even trying to pretend we don’t know each other.

 

“All of the above, actually,” I reply. “Did my second run through Captivated: You last weekend, karaoke earlier this week, and an escape room earlier today.”

 

Nice,” Tristan replies. “Any good?” I reply in the affirmative while watching him stand back up. “Okay, so we’re gonna watch a little video next. But first, we’re just gonna do a little Clockwork Orange thing and tape your eyelids open so you don’t miss anything.” Gingerly, he uses small bits of bandage tape to secure my upper eyelids in the fully open and unblinking position. “And…try not to blink. There will be a test after.” Well alrighty then.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

The video begins with nondescript, ominous music. What, no Beethoven’s 5th? I refrain from joking out loud. A sequence of images cycles slowly: an image of The Director, his name in a caption near the bottom, followed by a lightly strobing black screen with white text that simply reads “REAL.” Next, an image of The Skin Collector, also named in a caption, followed by “FICTION.” Papa Bunny, FICTION. Taylor Winters, REAL. By now my eyes are watering in protest of being forced open, but I brush it off and focus on the pictures. The rest of the core HVRTING cast is shown, including their roles in some of The Director’s films and in most (but not all) cases, the actor as well. The HVRTING persona and the actor behind it are tagged REAL, their characters in The Skin Collector, Summoning Santa, and Rebirth of the Rabbit (where appropriate) are FICTION. It’s a fairly complete introduction, one I suspect is aimed at newcomers. I have encountered most before tonight, save Chelsea/The Curious.

 

The sequence repeats, but quicker and…wrong. The images cycle faster, REAL and FICTION are switched in several cases, half-second clips of foreign video interject themselves at random points, The Tormentor in the first sequence is replaced by a man I don’t recognize. He is FICTION.

 

A third loop, severely corrupted. The Director’s image is followed by “OBEY.” Tristan’s is followed by “HVRT.” Interjected between the now familiar images of the cast are random snippets of gross imagery, ritual, and random people being tortured in what now feels like some old-school subliminal messaging lifted out of a B-horror flick. It ends in an oddly-colored still with text I don’t recall.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Now it’s time for the assessment,” Tristan informs me. Only it’s not Tristan anymore. His tone and demeanor have shifted from friendly acquaintance to commanding interrogator; he’s The Expert now. “First, we’re going to replay the images you just saw, and I want you to tell me which are real and which are fiction.” Sure, simple enough, I think, recalling the pattern from the first loop. Actor/core persona equals real, anything else equals fiction. The Director, real. Alyssa, real. Sacrificial daughter, fiction. The Drama, real. And so on. The only one I trip on is the replacement Tormentor.

 

“Fiction?” I guess.

 

“No!” The Expert replies, angry. “Real.” OK, got it. The rest of the sequence passes without incident.

 

“Good,” The Expert tells me after the completion of round one. “Next, we’re going to repeat the images, but I want you to name them.” Alright, fire away. This time I flub two. “Papa Bunny,” I answer to a photo from Rebirth.

 

“No! How could you get that wrong?” The Expert scolds.

 

“Oh, Mama Bunny,” I correct. The next image shows a different rabbit holding a gun. “That’s Papa Bunny.” I get the next several right, but then The Actress’ role in Summoning Santa pops up and I blank. “Yeah, I dunno,” I confess.

 

“Twinkle! Twinkle the Elf!” The Expert exclaims, visibly irritated. But I don’t bother to apologize, and there is no further discussion. I’m in test-taker mode, focused on giving answers as they come. We breeze through the rest of the cast without incident.

 

“Good, very good,” The Expert praises after we finish. “And in record time. Let’s get you out of that chair and onto the next experiment!” Delicately he removes the tape from my eyes, now gratefully able to blink again. I close them to let them re-hydrate while The Expert undoes the straps over my wrists, then he escorts me out and over to a seat in the lobby and sets me up with the next audio recording.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Interlude Two: Delusional Patient
Emotional State: Amused
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

Well that was certainly interesting, I think to myself while taking the headphones from Tristan. On the one hand, we’ve established that in The Director’s eyes, losing the distinction between actor and character is a Bad Thing. On the other, he made blurring that line central to the narrative in that last scene. I can appreciate the irony, but before I can get further down this mental rabbit hole the audio kicks in.

 

“May 2nd, 2019,” the Director begins. “Audio Journal #2 for Patient 023412. Today, we will be interviewing Patient 023412. Patient 023412, how are you feeling today?”

 

“I’m feeling wonderful,” a young woman’s voice responds. The same woman I met earlier: The Curious. Now isn’t that, well…curious? Out of reflex, my hand strokes my beard. Is she this patient of his, or is she playing a character? I decide it’s too early to make assumptions and turn my attention back to her tale. “Yesterday, I just danced with a unicorn and received armless hugs from a strange cult who say I’m a triangle.” The Director makes a disapproving noise.

 

“023412, you’ve been alone this entire time. There’s been no one with you. And – you do understand that unicorns aren’t real?” Something about his inflection on “alone” and “unicorn” makes me thing of the immersive company Alone and the stories I’ve heard of their dancing unicorn. After all, he dropped a few references into that last audio log, but those were more subtle. We should keep an ear out in case we recognize any more puns. As this plays out in my head, 024312 confirms that yes, of course unicorns aren’t real, to which The Director mutters “Finally, some progress.” But the patient keeps right on going.

 

“No, the unicorn was really just a girl in a onesie who was a part of a cult of people who wore all white, worshiped our bodies, and might have been aliens or robots or just weird hippies or something. I have no idea.” I don’t recognize the plot to – I’m guessing – Alone, but The Director does.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Ah, so you went through The Tension Experience. Darren is a good friend.” Either he missed the mark, the shows were similar in narrative, or the patient is still quite delusional, because her response is confused. “Oh, I mean, you were inducted into the OOA,” he corrects himself. I can practically hear her nod.

 

“The OOA, The OOB, and The OOC. I’ve done them all so far! I’m waiting for Annie Lesser to do cults for every letter of the alphabet.” Welp, back to crazytown I guess. The Director explains that she (Lesser) is doing the sequence based on locations rather than cults, before continuing.

 

“You mention, The OOC. That is something