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 that we at HVRTING put together in honor of Carl Webb, a deity in some of our experiences.” 023412 loved that one, apparently, and confesses she prays to Webb every night before bed.

 

“He often grants me wishes, like the smallest genie that ever did live.” Tiny God, Carl’s HVRTING persona, I recall. Apparently 023412 even has a shrine to him. “And I never use his name in vain! I’m no Heretic,” she explains, then her tone grows conspiratorial. “But maybe a bit of a Creep!”

 

Okay, yep, pun city, I remark internally. The Director, for his part, ignores the wordplay silliness. “Uh, okay. Let’s move on,” he instructs. “Tell me about some of the memories you have that have captivated you.” Oh lord, he’s doing it too. I literally just went to that last one. 024312 responds by babbling a mixture of plot synopses and show title puns: rescuing her mom from a vampire’s castle, having someone live in her mouth, going to the “real” Oz, with a drunk wizard and dead Dorothy…you get the idea. Eventually the Director cuts her off. “Well, I think that’s all the time we have for today. Thanks, Patient 023412. I will see you next Wednesday for a deeper look into your delusions. I hope this proves to be a catharsis for you.” Goddammit, Taylor. I take off the headphones and go over my mental notes so far:

 

Item one: This show is so meta it wears flannel year-round and its parents bought it a condo in Silver Lake. Item two: So far, both of these logs have mirrored the overarching themes from the “experiments” they follow. Item 3: The patient is clearly suffering an acute case of immersivitis. Is the point, then, that we are too? Is this all a flashback sequence of her treatment, or do we just share the disorder? I guess we’ll find out, but either way I’m “curious” where this is going next. And how many puns he can cram into a single audio journal entry? But now, it’s time for the next experiment.

 

Experiment Four: System Two Error
Emotional State: Amused, Covertly Sassy
Dissociation Level: Low

 

“Matthew?” a new voice calls, in an accent that I can’t quite place but sounds mostly German. My next doctor is a svelte, dark-haired man who I last encountered in his role as naked bunny in Rebirth. Oh, falsetto guy? This should be entertaining, I think, chuckling internally. I stand, and walk just behind him as he leads the way to the next room. A conference room during business hours, for this experience it’s been done up to resemble some flavor of occult/ritual space. Lights off, windows covered, black cloth covering the large central table, and a host of electric tea candles arranged in neat, even rows on top. I follow him to the far end of the table.

 

“In zis room, ve vill test just how real your delusions have become,” the doctor explains on the way. “In immersive theater you are often given powers. Powers to repel vampires, powers to move through time, even powers to speak vith ze dead. Tell me, have you attempted to use zese powers outside of an immersive experience?”

 

I didn’t go to any of those shows, so no, but “Does tarot count?”

 

“We’ll call zat a yes,” the doctor replies, making a note in his clipboard. He directs me to sit at the corner of the table. “Today we vill be testing some of zese abilities. In order to properly motivate you, ve vill be adding in an element of classical conditioning. If you successfully use zese powers, you vill be positively reinforced and get a treat,” the doctor continues, reaching down under the table to pull up a bag of jellybeans and place it on the table in front of me.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Please, god, do not let those be the same ones from Rebirth, I think, recalling how a couple of the flavors I had to deal with during that “film” nearly made me vomit.

 

“But if you fail, you vill be negatively reinforced vis a punishment.” He shows me a taser, then demonstrates it is in fact charged and ready to go. Well okay then. Maybe they’re not playing around. “Do you understand?” he asks. I nod. “Good.” the doctor reaches down a third time, pulling up a fishbowl filled with scraps of paper and placing it before me, then shows me a pair of dice. “First, ve will be testing your ability vis telekinesis. In zat bowl there are slips of paper with two numbers on zem. Please pull one out und look at it.” I do so, noting that 7 and 11 have been scribbled on it. I inform the doctor of the targets when he asks.

 

“Your job is to concentrate on ze dice und ensure that ven I roll zem, the result is vun of zose two numbers. Vit more advanced telekinetics I would have zem try for only a single number, but since you are new at zis we vill use two.” He walks around the edge of the table, standing across from me, dice in hand. “Now. Concentrate on ze dice. Concentrate on ze numbers 7 und 11. Picture zem in you mind.” Fuck it, let’s play along. I make a show of closing my eyes and breathing in deeply, then the doctor rolls. I open my eyes.

 

“Seven, very good,” the doctor praises. “Have a treat.” As I reach for the bag I try not to smile, but probably fail on account of the relief I feel when I pop a jellybean in my mouth and it doesn’t taste like earwax. Either I’m lucky, or you’re full of it. Statistically speaking 7 is the most common result from rolling 2d6, but that’s still only 1 in 6 odds. But let’s see how the rest plays out. “Now, for scientific purposes, ve vill repeat ze experiment to test for repeatability. Please concentrate again.” I do so, he rolls. “7 again! Zis must be a very important number for you, vun vit great emotional significance.” Yeah, right, I think. That, or the number you rolled and the result you declared have nothing to do with each other. Or maybe trick dice, but I’ve never heard of loaded dice that throw 7 or 11. Either way I call bullshit, but we’re having fun, so why call you on it?

 

The doctor meets my gaze, getting ready to roll again. “Ve vill do zis two more times. An oh, you forgot your reward!” Dutifully I pop another jellybean in my mouth. The next roll is supposedly an 11, earning another candy. Ditto the following. One in 18 chance of rolling 11 once; twice is somewhere around 1 in 200. But I’ll play your game, you rogue. What’s next?

 

“Now ve shall move on to ze next test: ESP. Extrasensory perception, zey call it,” the doctor explains, pulling out a deck of cards. “Zese are Zener images,” he explains, pulling a card and turning it so I can see the image on the other side, naming them as he does so. Square, circle, wavy lines, cross, star. Oh yeah, I think I’ve seen these before. “Ze object is simple: You are to guess the image on the back of the card. Ze same rules apply as before. You get it wrong, you get punished; you get it right, you get a treat. Now, let us begin.” He holds up a card, its back to me, an expectant look on his face.

 

Obviously, I have no idea what image is on the other side, so I’ll be pulling a guess out of my butt. When in doubt, pick C, I decide, then call out “wavy lines.”

 

“Very good,” the doctor replies. Whatever you say, man. I pop in another jellybean; raspberry, or something similar. For the next card I guess star, then cross; both are apparently correct. I notice you’re not showing me the card, though.

 

“Can you see through zese cards?” The doctor asks, doing a fair job of feigning surprise. This time I can’t quite hold the chuckle back.

 

“That’s not how this works,” I reply, deliberately vague. Could be that I know you’re fucking with me, could be I genuinely believe I’m nailing it, I think, but I suspect we both know this is all a sham. Including me playing along. I flub the next card, though; apparently, it was NOT a cross.

 

“Wrong,” the doctor tells me. “Now for ze negative reinforcement.” You’re seriously going to taze me? I wonder, but there’s still a faint smile on my face as he reaches for the taser and I start to offer my forearm. But he doesn’t shock me with it. Instead, he primes it, then crackles it at me in a manner that might have been threatening if this weren’t all so amusing. I’m almost disappointed, but then I run through the potential safety concerns and decide it’s for the best. “Try again,” the doctor orders. I circle back to the beginning and guess wavy lines, but this is wrong as well. Another crackle.

 

“Vhat happened?” he asks. “You got cocky maybe?” That’s one theory, sure.

 

“I guess,” I reply. He puts the deck away, then starts walking back around to the head of the table.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Ze final test vill be holding a little seance to see if you can commune vit ze dead,” he explains, taking a seat. “First ve vill join hands, zen I’m going to say a short spell that I learned from an immersive experience. When I’m done, you vill communicate vit ze spirit and ve shall see vhat happens.” We link up, arms extended loosely across the corner of the conference table. The doctor continues. “I commune with the spirit realm. Use my body as a bridge and my soul as a gateway. If those at this table are worthy, transform me into a vessel and let others speak through me.” A moment passes, then his body seizes up for about a three count.

 

And here we go, I think, probably still smiling, as he relaxes before fixing his gaze on me. “Why did you betray me?” he asks, voice now a breathy rasp.

 

So that’s the direction we’re going in? Alrighty, let’s see what you’ve got. “Who are you?” I answer. The doctor’s voice shifts again, jumping up an octave and taking on a wholly different timbre.

 

“You left me,” he replies. Seriously, he sounds just like a woman. How the hell does he do that? Where do I get that kind of training? If I hadn’t already heard him do so in Rebirth of the Rabbit, and if I were a bit more credulous (or less sober), I might have re-evaluated whether this really was a hoax. But I’m prepared, and sane-ish, so I just repeat “Who are you?” with a touch more emphasis.

 

“I was so cold,” he replies mournfully, still in that studio-grade falsetto. “I was afraid and alone, and you left me. Why did you leave me?”

 

“Who are you?” I ask a third time, and he shifts back down into that malevolent rasp.

 

“You know who I am!” he accuses. “Say my name. Say the name of the person you abandoned.”

 

Oh, let’s fuck with him a little, part of me suggests. “Cleo,” I tell him.

 

“Apologize to Cleo,” he hisses. I do so, mostly keeping a straight face. He then proceeds to pronounce doom on me, supposedly to be delivered by Cleo. “I curse you, from now until the end of your days,” he states. “You will never know happiness, and all that you seek to achieve will end in failure. You will die alone, with no one to mourn you,” and so on. The doctor slumps forward, as though a spirit really had departed him. Well that was fun, I muse.

 

“Zis is not good,” the doctor pronounces, back in his old European accent. “Spirits like zis are no joke, you should not take zem lightly you know? You should think about vhat you did to offend zis person.” He suggests I might want to look into getting some help laying Cleo to rest, then tells me to stand on account of the experiment being finished.

 

As we walk toward the exit back into the waiting room, he is nonetheless encouraged by what transpired. “Classical conditioning verks well on you. Ze appeal of a reward and the threat of a punishment brought forth your powers – your belief became reality. Very interesting responses, very interesting indeed.”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Yeah, okay, I think, my inner voice dripping with sarcasm and on the edge of laughter. I mean come on. You know this was hilarious bullshit, I know it, you know that I know, and I know that you know that I know, and…

 

Stop that this instant, another part of me interrupts. Besides, what he doesn’t know is that Cleo was only a person in a very broad sense; our family’s cat that lived a long, happy life in a loving home before going out peacefully a decade ago.

 

Oh yeah, that did make that whole scene even funnier. I mean, in hindsight I could have thrown out someone still living, but the notion of Dr. Voice Actor being possessed by the spirit of a cat who was friendlier and more affectionate than most dogs tickled my fancy more, and then the idea of her being this malevolent shade speaking through him was almost too much.

 

The doctor makes some notes on his clipboard as we step out of the darkened room. I wonder what he’s scribbling. Are my responses being noted to say I bought it? Or was I obviously playing along for the entertainment value? I wonder if they’ll let us see all the data they’re collecting on us, I ponder, thinking back to the forms from earlier, the doctors’ notes in these scenes so far, the heart monitor on my wrist. Suppose we can ask, my inner data geek offers.

 

Interlude Three: Even a Child Could Do It
Emotional State: Amused, Introspective
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

The Coordinator takes over from the doctor and leads me to a fold-out, plywood table in the waiting room. “We apologize, we seem to have misplaced audio file #3,” she informs. Aww, I was enjoying those, I pout. I was actually looking forward to hear how Patient 023412’s story progressed, especially in parallel to this last experiment. But oh well.

 

“But to make up for it, we have a small treat for you,” she continues, placing a marshmallow on the table in front of me. “The rules are simple: You can eat this now, or you can be patient and get two when I return.” This is straight out of child psychology, I think. I literally saw a video where they did this with elementary schoolers. Am I being insulted, or is this just them deliberately emphasizing that everything up until now has been kid stuff?

 

“You’ll be rewarded for your patience,” The Coordinator adds, “or possibly punished for your impatience. The choice is yours. Remember, we’re always watching.” The Coordinator heads off, leaving me to decide how to proceed.

 

I guess the real question is, do I even want two marshmallows? Blasphemous, I know, but it’s somewhere around 10pm by now and I’m not really craving sweets. On the other hand, marshmallows are marshmallows. Alright, I guess we’re gonna wait then. In the meantime, Final Jeopardy loops through my brain as I sit and do, well, not much. I glance around the waiting area and things seem to be winding down. There’s nobody filling out forms, but there does appear to be someone in the blanket fort next to me. Wonder when that comes into play? I consider. And, more to the point, what comes before it. I recall seeing shoes and a flannel shirt on the chair next to it before, so presumably there’s a scene where some degree of nudity is involved, but beyond that… oh, wait. That’s definitely someone shouting, coming from next to the conference room. More than one person.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Before I can speculate further as to what might be going on in there, a doctor I haven’t met previously comes over. She notices the marshmallow still on the table. “Good boy,” she praises, patting me on the head, tone patronizing. Okay, really? Something about this whole situation irks me, but I decide to brush it off and take the reward.

 

Okay, but honestly, I don’t really want both of these. Let’s see if she’ll take one. The doctor refuses, however. “No, that’s yours, you’ve earned it,” she responds to my offer, in that same tone that part of me finds funny but also makes my eye want to twitch.

 

“Shame I don’t have a coat hanger,” I reply. “I could toast these.” But none is forthcoming, so I pop the marshmallows, one after the other, smooshing each against the roof of my mouth with my tongue so I can feel them disintegrate before swallowing.

 

“Follow me, please,” she instructs. I stand, and she leads me to the next experiment. Not the noisy room, this time; it’s at the far end, back by where Tristan/The Expert and I had our scene earlier.

 

Experiment Five: Interrogation
Emotional State: Acutely Uncomfortable
Dissociation Level: High

 

The door opens and I step into a darkened bathroom, the only light coming from a slightly-ajar door at the other end. I don’t clock any offensive smells or naked rabbits, so we’re starting off very differently than Rebirth. Instead, my attention gets pulled to the closed shower door, and the banging coming from the other side.

 

Well this is a little more on-brand, I approve. Wonder what’s waiting for me in there. Knife-wielding boogeyman? Psychotic death clown? Nightmare Bunny Friend? But we’re not there yet. First, the doctor hands me a glass of water. “You must be thirsty,” she tells me. “Go ahead, drink up.” As I knock it back, she makes an approving noise. “You are obedient, aren’t you?” Uh… ok… “This room will be a study of secrets,” she explains. “We have two participants in this room – and luckily the participant who entered before you is already here. Your friend, in fact.” She pulls back the shower door, revealing a woman, hooded and restrained to a chair. Wasn’t expecting that, I admit, and even less so the voice who calls out, “What the fuck is going on?!” Shit, I DO know her, I realize. She played the role of Eostre in Rebirth of the Rabbit, but I also know the actress personally.

 

I examine the bound actress while the doctor lays out the situation. “You will be given the role of interrogator – and she will be given the role of victim.” Likely problematic. Cruelty is not my strong suit, and emotions in general are going to be muted when I’m in an experience that strays outside my comfort zone. A convincing portrayal will be difficult. “As the interrogator,” the doctor continues, “your instructions are to extract the information we need from the victim. Use any means necessary to do so, but ensure that her answer is the truth. Because if your final answer is a lie – you will fail.” Her tone becomes grave as she adds “And trust me, you don’t want to fail.”

 

Do you suppose she means what The Coordinator mentioned earlier about one of the doctors being in a porn film? I think to myself. Probably. So, I guess that gives me an out: If I ask about that, then maybe it’s like a “get out of jail free” card. Skip past the unpleasantness and avoid having to be an asshole to her. In that case, perhaps I should hedge against the possibility by playing dumb until I become too uncomfortable to continue. I decide just in time for the doctor to tell me, “Now… go get that secret.”

 

“What the fuck is going on?” my friend asks. “What am I doing here?”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Okay, so how do I play this? I wonder.

 

First of all, I need to stop thinking of her as a friend, I decide. If I’m going to get through this, I need to assume a character, play a role, and that means thinking within the context of the narrative. I am the interrogator, and she is the prisoner in possession of crucial information. No more, no less.

 

I decide I’ll open with trying to reason with her. It likely won’t go anywhere, but it should at least serve as a warm-up. “You know why you’re here,” I begin. “You have information that they want, that I need. Tell them what they need to know and we can both get out of here.”

 

The prisoner is defensive. “No! I don’t fucking know anything! I’ve been here since fucking 4 o’clock, tied to this fucking chair, and…”

 

“You do know, or you wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here. The sooner you tell us, the sooner we can leave.” This goes back and forth: her denial, my refusal to accept and repeating the ask, but as I suspected it goes nowhere.

 

The doctor pulls me aside. “You’re doing well, but maybe it’s time for a different approach,” she suggests. Try begging. Pleading. Offering something.” I’m really not sure what I have to offer, but when I return to the shower I soften my tone.

 

“Please just tell us what we need to know,” I implore, drawing on my genuine desire to end this awkwardness as soon as possible. “Neither of us wants to be here, but neither you nor I can leave until you tell them. Please.”

 

“I don’t. Know. Anything,” the prisoner insists. I keep trying, but it’s futile. She’s not budging.

 

After another minute or so the doctor pulls me aside again. “Try getting a little… darker,” she offers. “Yell at her. Scream at her. Get up in her face! Make her afraid.” Yeah, that’s not going to go well.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

I inhale, summoning all the anger I can muster, but it’s a pittance. “TELL ME WHAT I NEED TO KNOW!” I shout. “Just tell me! Tell me and this all ends. We can all. Leave. What do they want to KNOW?!” At least, that’s what I go for, but it feels half-assed at best. I look at her hooded face, then around the shower’s interior, seeking some sort of inspiration. My gaze settles on the shower head.

 

“I don’t think it works,” the doctor tells me, “so you’re not going to be able to waterboard her.”

 

“I wasn’t thinking about waterboarding her,” I retort, which is actually true. “But maybe I could beat her with it.” I turn to the prisoner. “Of course, you might enjoy it. Maybe that will get you to talk?”

 

“Put your hand on her shoulder,” the doctor orders. Somewhere, a record screeches to a halt.

 

What. Uh, no. Last I checked, a cardinal fucking rule of immersive theater was DON’T TOUCH THE ACTORS. But it would appear – in this case – I need to make an exception. Besides, this is only light contact, and I would not be asked to do so if it were not part of the narrative. I place my right hand on the prisoner’s left shoulder despite my discomfort.

 

“Both of them,” the doctor clarifies. In for a penny, in for a pound, I think while complying. “Close your hands around her throat.”

 

Okay, NO, HOLD THE PHONE I scream internally. That is a BIG no-go. Choking is bedroom only, and even then only when specifically asked, NEITHER OF WHICH APPLY TO THIS GODDAMN SITUATION.

 

On the other hand…

 

I realize I’m thinking about this all wrong. You’re playing the game their way, I explain to myself. Trying to separate the actress from the character, pretending that she’s this nameless prisoner because that’s how you’re “supposed” to play it. But that’s the exact wrong approach here. Because the truth is I don’t have it in me to choke out a stranger, and thus I can’t bring myself to strangle the prisoner. So stop thinking about her that way, I tell myself, and remember that you do know her. You know that she’s done plenty of experiences like this – so a little grade school breath play won’t even faze her. It’s fine. You’re fine. DO it.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

I clasp my hands around her throat, thumbs making a V around her windpipe. You’ve got this.

 

“Very good,” the doctor encourages. “Squeeze.” I keep it light at first, since I have to assume she’ll make me dial it up. “Harder,” she orders, proving me right, and I tick the pressure up a notch. “Harder,” she repeats, and I press in my thumbs still more.

 

Uhh… Is this safe? I wonder. I can’t see her face, so it’s hard to tell how she’s doing. But I don’t have to hold it for long.

 

“That’s enough,” the doctor tells me. I immediately release my grip and jerk my hands away from my friend’s throat. She gasps, but gives no sign of distress or even anger toward me.

 

“She’s tough,” the doctor concedes. “Let’s take her hood off so you can get a look at her,” she adds. I pull the hood off, but I can’t look my friend in the eyes.

 

“Now be nice to her,” the doctor tells me. “Touch her cheek, nice and gently. There you go,” she encourages. I comply, but my whole body tenses up from how skeeved-out this is making me feel. We’re well past my comfort zone in general, and this sort of affection is definitely NOT how I interact with friends. Plus, she appears to be just as uncomfortable as I am with it. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

 

Before I can worry, the doctor takes my wrist and positions my hand about six inches from my friend’s face. “You know what to do,” she instructs. I do, but I’m not happy about it.

 

We’ve come this far, I point out. Ugh, fine.

 

I slap her, just barely hard enough to count.

 

“Try that again, but harder,” my friend tells me.

 

Well, you heard the lady. I reposition with another four or five inches of wind-up, then hit her again. Still a play slap, but in the you-literally-asked-for-it range. Or so I thought, but her head flies sideways from the recoil. Shit, was that too much? Perhaps, or perhaps just enough. Either way my friend slumps, finally giving in. “The Vile was murdered,” she tells us.

 

Very good,” the doctor praises. “I think we’re done here.” I start following her out of the bathroom, but miss what she says next. The second we step out the door and back into the waiting room, I consider how many lines I just crossed. And I am not okay with it.

 

Interlude Four: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…
Emotional State: Guilt, Anxiety
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

The doctor sets me up with another pair of headphones. “Congratulations, you passed the loyalty test,” she tells me, queueing up the next audio log. But technically, I didn’t. I didn’t get the secret I was supposed to, after all, but there was no punishment. No repercussions. Somehow that makes it worse, the implication that in the end it didn’t matter. That I just choked, then slapped a friend for no other reason than I was told to. My mind keeps flicking back to her head after that second slap, flung sideways, again and again. I feel an overpowering urge to take out my phone, to send an apology, but on the other hand, what would that solve? I still did it.

 

My mini-freakout keeps me from paying much attention to the first few seconds of the clip, but I manage to catch that this is audio journal number four, and another interview with Patient 023412. I force the big ol’ ball of self-loathing and anxiety aside for now so I can focus on the rest.

 

“Can we continue, Patient 023412?” The Director asks. She sounds about as distressed as I feel, and on some level, I realize that this is most likely deliberate. Well played, I concede.

 

“I have to protect myself. The monster is coming for me. There’s that weird guy, who just stands in the corner watching. He never helps, the monster just attacks me. I can’t seem to do anything.” Wonder if that’s how my friend felt, part of me asks, but I know that’s not fair. And hope it’s not accurate.

 

“And how do you plan to protect yourself,” The Director asks. “Tasing? Waterboarding? Fingering a cooked chicken?” Oh right, it’s the reference parade, I realize. I think I saw that in The Blackout Experiments Documentary.

 

“The last one is a little odd,” the patient replies, “but the others sound fair.” Fair? But The Director doesn’t dispute her position.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“One last question,” he says instead. “I’m afraid to bring it up again, but we spent most of audio log 3 discussing it. You explained the incident…” he continues. 023412 gasps at the mention of this mysterious occurrence. “…and the following blackout. How you resorted to hiding your car keys in toilets and storing jars of piss in your house.” Definitely missed those shows, but with the reference to Blackout, it sounds like it’s connected, I think. “But ultimately, but I need to know why it all happened.”

 

023412 sighs, hesitant, then inhales. She says she’ll do her best to explain. “I no longer felt safe outside,” she begins. “The elements were too harsh. But I also no longer felt safe in my house. Even my phone betrayed me. Those little three dots mocked me every time someone typed an iMessage to me. It was 21 days ago, and I’ve barely slept since! I’ve kept all the doors locked, but the monsters still got in. That’s why I did it. That’s why the incident happened.” Any more Blackout titles you want to sneak in? I ask the ether. The Director asks if she feels better now, if the paranoia stopped. “Stop? No, it’s not over. It’s never over.” Classic Blackout line – even I know that.

 

The Director sighs. He has his diagnosis. “You believe you are a character in an immersive experience. You believe that you are being tormented by monsters and men in ski masks alike. You believe that you must be proficient at these skills to be able to protect yourself. Is that correct?” Timidly, the patient replies in the affirmative. The Director, in turn, informs her that there is only one treatment.

 

“I am offering you a place here,” he tells 023412. “You can join us, HVRTING. You can craft your own experience based on the dark delusions in your head. You can truly become the character you think you are. What do you think?”

 

At first, she hesitates. “I think it’s…it’s…” a pause, then her tone shifts. Afraid to delighted, weak to wicked. “Perfect,” she concludes. I can hear The Director’s predatory smile.

 

“Now, the only thing that remains is a name. I am The Director, and behind you is The Coordinator. Our names define what we do. But there are others who describe what they’re like, their personality – like The Drama, or The Vile. What do you think for yourself?”

 

She hems and haws for a moment, then seems to come to a decision. “I think I’d like to be… The Curious.” The recording ends. Well, I guess that was her all along, I realize, thinking back to the earlier journal when the possibility occurred to me. Mystery solved, I suppose, and well-delivered. But now what?

 

Experiment Five: Torment
Emotional State: Angry
Dissociation Level: Very High

 

“Matthew?” an all-too-familiar voice asks. Outside HVRTING, The Actress is a close friend, but here she’s just another doctor here to bring me to the next experiment. The room where I heard shouting before. I step inside, and The Actress tells me to have a seat, taking my glasses.

 

“Take in the room; you have one minute,” she informs me as she sets a timer.

 

I focus, clocking as many details as possible. Man in shorts, Hawaiian shirt, half-mask, I note. Phantom of the Opera. Don’t like the look of him. I pan my gaze around the rest of the space. Framed pictures on the walls; unimportant. Plastic bags and a gimp mask along the baseboards; foreboding. Young woman sitting on the cabinet. Jeans, mask, video camera. Observer? Likely important, but to be determined. I look at the wall in front of me. Whiteboard. A couple drawings, lots of profanity. Not a good sign. I’m not paying attention when the hand claps my shoulder. I jerk, startled out of my observer state.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Why’d you jump?” a man’s voice asks, aggressive. Don’t answer, I tell myself. Just endure. From behind, the man smacks my back, my side, my stomach. “Why’d you jump?” he repeats. He curls his fingers in my hair, then yanks down and sideways “Why’d you fucking jump?!” He bellows. I can feel my blood start to simmer.

 

“Shirt off, shoes off, socks off,” my tormentor commands. The Tormentor, I realize. The new one. Shit. I comply, then grudgingly stand when told. I am rewarded with more slapping. Some of the blows hit tickle spots, triggering a weird sensation. I instinctively bat The Tormentor’s hand away. He does not like that.

 

“The fuck?!” he barks. “Fuck it, put your fucking hands UP,” he adds. I comply.

 

He slaps me around a bit more – and then instructs me: “Draw a picture on the whiteboard.” I’m already fuming, so it takes a second to find one of the dry-erase markers. “Draw what you feel,” The Tormentor “suggests.” There’s not really enough space left to draw a picture, but that’s fine. I know just what to put down. I find a bit of open space near the top of the board, then chuckle to myself as I write two simple words of defiance: “Fuck off.”

 

I expect The Tormentor to lose his shit, but instead he responds with an honest-to-god belly laugh. “FINALLY! Someone who FUCKING GETS IT!” Celebratory smacking ensues, then he gives a new command. “Roll.” Or at least that’s what I hear, but when I roll onto my back he’s angry again. “I said fucking CRAWL!” he shouts.

 

“I heard roll!” I shout right back, then correct my movement. I start to crawl, facing away from him, and more open-handed blows find my back and flanks. He puts a bag over my head when I’m in front of the observer, pulling back hard. I grit my teeth, growing angrier still at the strangulation, but the bag rips and falls away before it becomes a problem.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Focus on the observer,” The Tormentor commands. “Tell me what you see. Now!”

 

“Blue sandals,” I spit. “Blue jeans. Blouse. Video camera. Phantom of the Opera mask.”

 

“Back in the chair,” he tells me next. Once seated, he hands me the gimp mask. “Put the fucking mask on,” he orders. I try to loosen in a bit, but I’m being hurried, so I just do my best to pull it on. It doesn’t feel like it gets all the way, but it’s enough to at least partially see out of. “Focus on me,” he instructs. “Tell me what you see. What about my mask?”

 

“Can’t see your fucking mask,” I growl.

 

“My shirt, then.”

 

“Hawaiian. Flowers. Palm leaves. A parrot.”

 

“What kind of fucking parrot?”

 

“Hard to tell. Could be a blue macaw.”

 

“You’re a smart fucker, aren’t you?” he replies, though I can’t tell if he’s sarcastic or actually impressed. Too angry. “What about the girl’s mask?” I reiterate my assessment from earlier. “What about my nurse’s mask.”

 

Oh, for fuck’s sake, “She wasn’t WEARING a fucking mask!” I shout.

 

“Very good,” The Tormentor responds. “I see someone’s got good, what is it, attention to detail? Yeah, that’s it. Very fucking observant.” Then he notices my mask is apparently on wrong, and jerks it down into the correct position. “You’ve got a big fucking head, you know that?” he asks. “I’m amazed it fucking fits. He crouches down, looking me in the eye. “Can you see my mask now?”

 

“Half mask,” I confirm. “White, with blue or purple accents.” No praise, this time. Just “crawl.”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

God, I want to beat the shit out of him. It’s not even personal, in all honesty. If I were to meet the guy outside tonight’s experience, I’d give a friendly hello and happily catch up over a beer. But being dommed like this doesn’t tickle me the way it does some others who frequent extreme haunts. It just triggers my fight response, a purely animal reaction, and right now The Tormentor is just barely keeping it at a level I can handle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely red-lining. But I keep it together by throwing as much as I can spare into bolstering my stoicism and focus, distracting myself from the burning itch to hurt someone.

 

The Tormentor orders me back in the chair, and I can feel heat radiating off me from where bruises are starting to form. “Do you like water?” he asks, then stuffs another plastic bag in my mouth. No waterboarding tonight, though. Instead the bag comes out, and then I feel something cold press against my side. “Where should I shoot him?” The Tormentor asks, though I couldn’t say if he was asking the The Actress or the observer. “The side?” he poses, then runs the tip of a staple gun up my chest to the back of my skull. “The head?”

 

“Time,” The Actress interrupts, and the gun falls away.

 

“I wanted to shoot you,” The Tormentor stage whispers into my ear as he puts the staple gun down, “But The Actress wouldn’t let me.”

 

“Eh, she wouldn’t have stopped you,” I retort, which sparks a laugh from all of us, breaking the tension. The Tormentor helps me out of the mask. “You okay?” He asks, all malice gone from his voice. “Have a good time?”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Yeah, sure,” I reply. On the one hand, my blood’s still pretty up, and I’m going to have some nasty marks on me in the morning. On the other, I’m oddly satisfied. I held it together. I faced a level of anger I haven’t felt in years, and bested it. Kept control, and stayed focused enough to pay attention to what was happening. Fighting your baser self and winning is a powerful victory, and I’m buoyed by the triumph as put my shirt and glasses back on, then follow The Actress back out into the waiting area.

 

Interlude Five: Aftercare
Emotional State: Introspective
Dissociation Level: Low

 

The Actress takes me to the blanket fort. “You can rest here for now,” she explains. “There are snacks, and juice. Relax for a bit, then someone will collect you when it’s time. I’ll leave your shoes and socks on the chair here.” I crawl inside the fort and get comfortable. It’s cozy. Pillows, snacks, and dinosaur-print bedsheets forming a little aftercare refuge. I notice a pair of orphaned marshmallows on one of the structural chairs. Guess someone wasn’t hungry. I take a few minutes to go back over what’s happened, both in the previous scene and throughout the show overall.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

One narrative thread was obviously The Curious’ origin story, I realize. But the interesting question is whether that was written first, and the broader experience designed to mirror it, or whether it was the opposite. Which was the chicken, and which was the egg? I take another long sip of juice.

 

Smart move doing the interrogation scene before that last one, I observe. Other way round would have gone very differently.

 

There’s also the broader thread of the need to recognize the separation between actor and character, especially in immersive theater and haunts, but then directly poking at how that’s often not possible. At least, not completely. And, in fairness, that knowing the actor can sometimes even enhance the experience. Or at least make it easier to stomach.

 

And then there’s how meta this whole thing has been. It’s completely riddled with references to other shows: enough that even I caught a fair number, and there are a LOT of shows I never got to see. Especially the pricier ones like Delusion. I can imagine a few of the more experienced folks must have been howling, at least internally, during the audio journal sections.

 

I grab my shoes and socks from outside and put them on, and notice The Coordinator is coming for me.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Just one more scene,” she says as she leads me back to the office where I met with The Director what feels like a lifetime ago, and tells me to go right on in.

 

Experiment Six: Unaided Recall
Emotional State: Calm
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

This time, it’s not The Director, and The Curious is nowhere to be seen either. It’s another woman I don’t recognize. No, scratch that. I saw her at the very beginning of the experience, sitting in a chair by the stairs and tables where I filled out all those forms. Waiting her turn, apparently.

 

“Congratulations, you’ve completed all the tests,” she tells me. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m relieved. Not anything against the experience itself, but it has been A Thing and it’s getting late. First I am given a sheet of paper to read: a debrief, informing me that The Director’s mention of partnering with UNLV back in the initial interview was not just building the narrative. Apparently they really are working with the university, and this whole experience has been an elaborate experiment designed to test eyewitness reliability. I indicate that I understand and return the paper.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Next, we have a few questions to wrap things up.” She hands me a clipboard with a familiar pair of surveys. “These are the same as ones you took earlier,” she confirms. “For the first, please answer the questions based on how you felt during the experiments. For the following set, please answer based on how you feel in general. I realize you answered them before, please just do so again, and be honest.” You’re measuring pre/post shifts, I realize. Interesting, and potentially insightful, or at least fun.

 

“I pity whoever has to digitize these responses,” I remark.

 

“Yeah, that’s probably going to be me,” my interviewer sighs.

 

“On the flip side, all this data should be fascinating.” I finish the post-stimulus psychographics and hand them over. I don’t expect my answers about my general outlook changed much, but I’d be curious to find out.

 

“Great! Next, I have a couple more forms for you. These pertain to the last room you were in. Please only answer the first two, regarding the man and the observer in the room. If you don’t remember, don’t worry about it.” Each is a short series of open-ended questions asking me to recall details about each of the characters in turn: gender, age, hair color (trick question for The Tormentor; he was bald), their mask, and their clothes. I think back to the room, using the memory of what I’d angrily shouted at The Tormentor’s prompting to supplement my actual visual memory. I have more detail on him, but feel like I do a halfway decent job of it overall.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“Great,” the last doctor says as I hand the forms back. Another clipboard, this time two sheets of paper with images of half-masks like the two were wearing at the time. “The first page is for the man in the room, the second for the observer. Please indicate which mask you believe they wore, and how confident you are in your choice.” I think back, and select the one in the top left. White mask, purple around the eye, silver filigree. I think it was silver, but I’m not completely positive the way I am about the rest, so I indicate being 70% confident. I honestly thought the observer wore something similar, but none of the options seem anywhere close. I write “Don’t see it here/don’t recall” on the bottom of the page.

 

“That it?” I ask, returning the final forms.

 

“That’s it!” the doctor confirms. “Oh, and the heart monitor.” Right, I’d completely forgotten about that. If they were actually tracking heart rate throughout, that should be some fascinating data, I think as I pull it off and return it. I make my way out of the building and back to my car. I see I’ve got a text from Lacey, who was in the room with The Tormentor. “You okay after all that?” she asks. I’ll tell her I’m fine when I get home, that in fact the most uncomfortable part was actually the interrogation scene.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

Until then, I’ve got a decent drive ahead of me. I spend most of it mulling over what I’ve just been through, rehashing thoughts that occurred during the experience and thinking about how I’m going to tell the story. I had a lot to mull over on the way back to the valley.

 

Epilogue: Remote Debrief
Emotional State: Relaxed, Curious
Dissociation Level: Negligible

 

I arrive safely back home. Bruised, certainly, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before, and mentally I’m pretty much back at equilibrium. I empty my pockets and notice a slip of paper I’d forgotten about until now. I think back to the sequence of events from earlier, and seem to recall being handed it right at the start. It has a header with the name of the show and the HVRTING logo, and some simple instructions in the body:

 

ONCE YOUR EXPERIENCE IS OVER

WATCH ME

HTTPS://TINYURL.COM/SCIENCE-OF-HVRTING

NOW TELL ME

WHAT IS REAL?

 

Well alrighty then, I think. Guess there’s one last piece to this experience. My curiosity piqued, I plug in the URL and am taken to a YouTube video titled “Science of HVRTING with credits.” It begins with The Director seated at a desk covered in black cloth, decorated with various macabre items: a skull, part of a spine, and a heart atop pedestals; a worryingly large syringe; a severed head in a jar; two medication bottles. He and the desk are lit in some sort of green glow, while the background appears to be some sort of examination (or autopsy) room tinted red.

 

The Director stares into the camera for a moment, then begins. “So, now that it’s over, can you tell me what was real, and what wasn’t? I’ll give you a second. Please, think it over.” He pauses, shifting slightly in his chair, focus remaining squarely on the viewer.

 

“So, have you come up with your answers?” he asks. “I’ll assume by now that you’ve read your debrief,” Indeed, I silently confirm. That was quite the plot twist. “That this was a collaboration between myself,” he continues, “and the University of Nevada Las Vegas to investigate the accuracy of eyewitness reporting.” He rests a hand on his chin. “So, I ask again: Was my experiment… real?” Another pause. “But what does real even mean?” It depends. “Is it the fact that a university conducted an IRB-approved research study that makes it real?” No, but that is definitely interesting.

 

“But what does that mean about the experiments in the other rooms? I’m sure you’ve noticed that almost everything in this experience is based on real, scientific studies, conducted… and published.” And in truth there are a couple points where I recognize the experimental design. The marshmallow bit obviously is recognizable, the interrogation sequence seems to be reminiscent of Milgram’s obedience tests, and the Zener test is at least well-known pseudoscience. “Does it make it real because scientists and researchers did it? Or was this all just a thinly-veiled excuse… to torture you?”

 

The two are not mutually exclusive, I muse. So I’m going to go with “yes.”

 

Science of HVRTING

 

“And what about the torture?” The Director inquires. “Did you actually slap that poor girl in the chair?” Yeah. Don’t remind me. But he presses the issue, asking if it was any less real for being in-experience, or if I am absolved of blame because I was acting under orders. No, I admit. I did it. I rationalized it at the time, but in the end I still hit her. Twice, I remind myself. Admittedly the second was at her insistence, so that takes a bit of the sting out of it. I almost smile when he asks if I think my friend will go home and think about how I yelled at her. I believe it’s fair to assume the answer’s yes, though not in any way that I or the other participants need to feel guilty over. Again, I know her. The same familiarity that got me through the scene itself is telling me that I need not worry over her emotional state.

 

“Let’s shift gears,” The Director suggests. “The attention that an immersive actor gives you… the look in their eyes?” He’s referring to the scene with The Tormentor. Like the interrogation, it was voluntary, part of the narrative, and apparently legitimate research. But regardless of the justification, the abuse he hurled and my reactions to it still happened. Just thinking about it is enough to get my hackles up all over again. “Was that real? Some would argue that all connection is real,” he continues. But am I going to go home and add him on Facebook? Ask to hang out? Probably not. But there are definitely a few people in my friends list who I first encountered when they were part of a show’s cast, then got to know them as people either at the bar afterward or from seeing them when we were both in the audience.

 

“But can they ever really be your friends?” he asks. “Or are they just actors, wearing whatever mask they need to in order to get through the day? After all,” he adds, “masks are common. Even I wear one.” He takes his off, explaining that it’s just something he wears for this experience. Well shit, that’s a bold move, I think. I mean, a key part of Taylor’s whole brand strategy for HVRTING up until now has been to paint it as this shadowy cabal he has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH, regardless of how many people know the truth. Is he doing this just for the shock value, I wonder, or does he just want our undivided attention for what comes next? “What masks do you wear?” he poses. Do I have different masks for different people and experiences? Do I find comfort in hiding behind the anonymity of a mask? “I know I do at times,” he confesses. “But there’s always so much more beneath the surface. That is where the truth often lies.”

 

With his mask off, I can see the sincerity on Taylor’s face as he asks a favor: “Look beneath the surface. Question things. Don’t just believe a person because they’re in a role of authority.” He probably wants us to think back to the Milgram room and recognize it as a cautionary tale, I deduce. While it’s a point well made, in my case what played out in that room was more than just me following orders. Up until then, The Director had frequently and strongly made the point that we needed to separate the actor from the character by tying a failure to do so with insanity. Explicitly, in the case of The Curious’ origin story, but also implicity in the scene with Tristan/The Expert in the way the video degenerated when real and fictitious roles were conflated. And so I’d started off the interrogation with playing by his rules. By haunt rules: Treat the experience as a temporary, isolated parallel universe. Suspend disbelief and ignore any familiarity with the actor. The narrative is truth, and the character is real. The irony is that I had to disobey one set of orders to successfully follow another. So long as I followed The Director’s (admittedly implied) orders, so long as I made myself believe I was interrogating someone I’d never met, following the doctor’s orders to abuse the prisoner was a profound, maybe insurmountable, ethical issue. So I broke his rules. I embraced what I knew about the actor, the scene, the show. Once I stopped thinking of her as a nameless prisoner and let myself see her as a friend who likes getting slapped around, the moral opposition that was paralyzing me vanished. At least until I started playing by the rules again.

 

I don’t know that there’s a broader point here, but it does remind me of something I often struggle with in my own research: We can question and observe people all we like, but in the end, even to a trained professional it’s all but impossible to know the full truth of why we behave and believe the way we do.

 

But I digress. Back in the video, Taylor has one final thought: “I’ve talked a lot tonight about the reliability of others, but what about yourself? You saw many faces tonight, many masks, many decorations. But were you able to remember them all? With so many nerves firing, the fear of the unknown, and of course someone physically assaulting you… were you able to identify your attacker? Or at least the mask that he wore?” Actually, yes. That’s pretty well seared in. The details of the room, less so, but when he asks how much I trust in my own memory, my internal response is “pretty well, for the important parts.” As the clip ends with him asking once more, “What was real, and what wasn’t?” my brain is already heading off on a tangent.

 

Science of HVRTING

 

This meditation on the fallacy of memory and the subjective nature of experienced reality is all well and good, I think, but what about the DATA?! All those questionnaires, the observation notes from the experiments, the heart monitor data… obviously UNLV will find it immensely helpful for their research into witness reliability, but is anyone going to take the opportunity to see what we can learn about the participants as immersive theater/haunt enthusiasts??

 

…Can I? Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING 

 

To attend an extreme HVRTING show, you must email THE DIRECTOR to make sure the experience is a good fit. Find more information on upcoming shows and out-of-show, personal experiences on HVRTING’s website, Facebook page, and Instagram. Check out our Event Guide for more extreme horror events throughout the year.

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Matt is a mostly boring person with a horrifying imagination. Occasionally interesting things happen to him, including immersive theater. He lives in Los Angeles and only rarely gets lost in his own nightmares.

About The Author

Matthew Kennedy

1 Comment

  • Jennifer A Kearns on June 24, 2019

    What a wonderful recollection – it allowed me to recall certain elements I’d forgotten or not noticed at the time of the event!

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