Author’s note: Due to the length and complexity of “The Science of HVRTING,” this review will only briefly touch upon the actual content in favor of focusing on general execution and overarching themes. Those who wish to see a more detailed look at what took place can find a full accounting of the experience in our full recollection here.
Further, while there are staff members at Haunting that both direct and act in HVRTING experiences, this review was written by someone who is not employed by Haunting and was not influenced by any Haunting or HVRTING staff.
The woman’s hands tug against the handcuffs restraining her to the chair. She is my prisoner, and I her interrogator. But she is also my friend, and now the doctor to my right is telling me to close my hands around her throat and squeeze. Am I really doing this? How many lines am I crossing as I gently press my thumbs in around her windpipe, then apply more pressure when told? And why does this scenario feel somehow familiar?
The Science of HVRTING was a 2-hour solo haunt, which ran for only one day in a rented-out office space in Inglewood. Jointly conducted by HVRTING and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), it was as much a research study masquerading as a haunt as it was a haunt pretending to be a research study.
The experience took a deliberate pace, alternating between scripted scenes with one or two cast members and interludes during which participants are left alone with a stimulus (one of three audio journals, a marshmallow, or a blanket fort). The scenes and the marshmallow interlude were all drawn from real-world psychological research: MKUltra’s subliminal messaging, Pavlov’s classical conditioning, and Milgram’s obedience experiments, among others. The audio logs, meanwhile, followed a separate but related narrative revolving around The Director identifying the mental disorder Immersivitis and humorously interviewing patient 023412, who had a remarkably severe case. The experience ended with an exit interview with UNLV personnel who informed guests that we really were participants in a research experiment, and finally a post-experience video (to be watched after we leave) in which The Director addresses us directly and adds further context to what we had just gone through.
From a narrative and thematic standpoint, The Science of HVRTING was surprisingly complex. And very, very meta. I counted five major threads woven throughout the extensive, two-hour experience. There was the primary arc, where we were participants in The Director’s experiments designed to gauge the severity of our Immersivitis. But buried within this story was also UNLV’s primary research into eyewitness reliability in the face of trauma, the experimental elements seamlessly integrated into the haunt’s storyline and event sequence. We also had the audio logs, which both provided a parallel tongue-in-cheek narrative focused on one of The Director’s patients and assailed us with a constant stream of immersive theater references and puns. Stepping back from the specific events, there was also an overarching theme of commenting on larger community issues, such as a) the necessity of treating immersive characters as separate from the actors who portray them, and b) the reality that this is not always easy or even possible.
Finally, we had what was perhaps the moral of the story. The Director wants us to question everything: ourselves, our actions, and even those we normally trust with authority. This was covertly encouraged via weaving in elements that felt deliberately crafted to induce cognitive dissonance, and by giving the participant time to ponder what’s really going on. But it was also explicitly advised in his closing remarks. All in all, there was plenty to chew on after the experience ended, and it took me several days to fully digest the various layers which were in play.
While the haunt featured a reasonably large cast (and several UNLV students), several were mainly there in behind-the-scenes or administrative roles. Still, there are a few members that bear calling out. A standout in my mind is Dr. Joe, whose vocal transformations between deadpan European ESP tester and baleful female spirit were a mind-boggling treat. I found the juxtaposition of The Curious’ bubbling enthusiasm and The Director’s detached, clinical demeanor to be a fun contrast, and The Drama was a convincing innocent victim—to the point that I had to question what was real and acceptable under the circumstances.
The Tormentor also warrants a special mention, though unfortunately it is not all to the good. In my specific case, I found him to be effective at elevating and maintaining my stress levels just on the edge of what I could handle. This was aided by the involvement of the actor monitoring the safety of the scene and their guidance based on my reactions to The Tormentor’s initial intensity level. However, others experienced aggression that felt too rough or exceeded their limits. Specifically, for those who had injuries that were noted on their “chart” or who had requested a reduced intensity level for their experience, The Tormentor did not always tone things down as much as he could have.
Minimalism and efficiency defined the set design in The Science of HVRTING, but I don’t mean that as a knock. The waiting area and doctor’s office (where the intake and exit interviews took place) were well-lit, intended to resemble an actual medical office environment. The rooms for the scripted scenes, meanwhile, tended to be dark, with props employed as needed to fuel the interactions and give the appropriate vibe for each interaction. HVRTING generally tends to rely on low-budget ingenuity, and this was on full display here. They brought in what they needed to make the experience work — no more, no less — and eschewed fancy props or elaborately-constructed pieces in favor of things that could be procured, set up, and torn down easily in addition to benefiting the narrative.
The integration of legitimate primary research into a science-themed haunt was one of the more interesting elements of The Science of HVRTING. It was also the first time I’d been to a haunt, or even an immersive experience in general, where it was designed to promote introspection and questioning during the experience rather than after. I’ve been to several shows which did a great job of layering narratives, themes, and thought-provoking elements that left my brain engaged long after I’d left, but the normal MO even for thematically-complex shows is to keep you engaged and immersed from start to finish. While the spots of downtime in between scripted scenes were not exactly dead time, there was still room to pause and ponder what was happening—and how I felt about it. I don’t know that I would advocate making this the norm, but given what HVRTING was ultimately driving at, it did work here.
Finally, like other HVRTING productions I’ve attended, there was plenty of humor woven throughout. This came through most obviously in the audio logs, but in general one gets the sense that the cast doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Things were deadly serious when they needed to be, but otherwise it was fun to have a bit of levity injected into the show’s calmer sections.
If I had to distill The Science of HVRTING down into a single phrase, I’d probably call it “A Mad Science Layer Cake.” Legitimate psychological research formed the crunchy center, but covering it on both sides were healthy portions of lunacy in a lab coat. Allowing participants to specify a preferred intensity level ahead of time is something I hope they continue to do, and ideally also become a bit stricter about adhering to those indications during the more intense scenes. I have to give props to The Science of HVRTING for quite literally contributing to the body of psychological research on human perception during traumatic experiences, and for successfully hiding it within a clever narrative with moments that pushed me to my limits. I personally love shows that give the audience lots to think about and dissect, and HVRTING provided plenty here, along with two full hours of content that made the ticket price a fair ask.
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. Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING Science of HVRTING
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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.