Below is a Recollection–this is not a review, but rather a walkthrough of the author’s experience in Screenshot Production’s Fear Is What We Learned Here. As this experience had elements of personalization, this is only the author’s experience, and other experiences should be expected to be variants of below. This recollection also has elements of the Los Angeles and San Francisco run of the show. The experience is described as a synesthetic immersive experience that explores the use of fear as a social framework for control. The experience is meant to force participants to consider their place within the social injustice occurring today. For a review of the San Francisco event, read it here.
I am standing a nondescript sidewalk in Koreatown, Los Angeles. I pass through an arch, leaving the outside world behind. A graceful upholstered armchair, a lone beacon of homeliness, awaits me in this industrial space. I notice a clipboard on it; and following the instructions I’d been given, I sit, sign the waiver, and wait.
Behind me, a door opens, and a man emerges. He escorts me through the door and into the darkness beyond. I reach a new room: a spotlight illuminates a bed on the floor. “Your dream is about to begin,” the man whispers in my ear as I settle into bed. A large television screen on the ceiling plays a montage of speakers addressing large crowds. Among their number are the famous and infamous: Hitler, Trump, Martin Luther King. A voice, a narrator speaks to me, and then is replaced with a synthesized voice. The video switches to other scenes; one is of a slaughterhouse. The babble of voices continues. The overall effect is very unsettling — when my guide suddenly returns and places his hands on my shoulders, I flinch.
I follow the lights until I reach the next station: a little nook with a low chair and table, set up with a gaming laptop. Standing next to it is a friendly man who gestures to me to sit. He speaks excitedly of indie gaming and its future. He gestures at the game on the laptop–it’s not his own work, but an innovative indie game.
The game consists of a 360-degree view of a rendered lecture hall. Using the trackpad, I can rotate my view, but there is no way to change my position or interact with any objects. My new companion points out these and other limitations of the game; and I notice he has not stopped talking since I entered.
Then I notice something I don’t see in most games: text starts scrolling up from the bottom of the screen, a litany of negative comments seemingly intended to make me doubt my self-worth. I look sidelong at the man next to me, but he seems completely unaware of this as he continues talking about the pros and cons of indie games.
More text appears; a set of three responses to the right in the style of dialogue options in many RPG games. One seems to be positive, one neutral, and one negative. I select the positive one, something to the effect that making positive changes comes effortlessly, and my companion’s chatter seamlessly and completely changes topic. He begins to talk about how the creative process has always come naturally to him, and game ideas are always flowing. I seem to have found the remote control for his inner voices.
The dialogue options change. Feeling more than a little guilty, I select the negative one, and the conversation takes a darker tone, about times when hope and creativity fail. Mercifully for him, it is time for me to move on.
I am directed into a dimly lit maze with laminated documents suspended at face height. It is too dark to read them, but dark marks across them make it clear they’ve been heavily redacted. I emerge in a more open area. On a lit table is littered with documents, a pile overflowing into the room. They are technical, but they seem to be a list of intercepted calls to and from various public officials.
Following the lights in the dark, I reach the next station, where a man indicates a box about the size of a large dog crate. “Here’s the prisoner you need to break.” Inside is a still form huddled in a tight ball, and hooded. “Until two days ago, she was a respected and valued citizen of this country until she betrayed it by sending sensitive files off her computer to our country’s enemies. We need you to find what she sent and to whom.” He hands me a length of thick rope. “Here, take this, and feel free to use any of the implements.” He points to a shelf full of tools for torture. “You have a free hand, but you don’t have a lot of time.” He steps back a few feet to give me space.
I kneel down in front of the crate. I can’t tell if the figure hunched inside is even a real person at first, since there is no movement I can see at all. “Is what he said true?” I whisper. No response. I touch her hand, and she flinches. Real, all right. “Give me something to work with,” I say. I fish around through a head full of clichéd interrogation scenes from movies. “Why did you do it?”
Finally, there is a hoarse whisper. “I didn’t. Please believe me.”
It is all too believable. To be able to talk more freely, I get into the box with her, similarly folded over. When the guard sees that, he comes over and tells me, “Oh, so you’re trying the soft touch first? Could work. You’re free to take off her hood, offer her water, or whatever. But remember, we know for a fact she did it. Only she had access to that computer.”
“That’s not true!” the prisoner pleads. “We had the password up on a sticky note in the cubicle. Anyone could have done it!” The guard says to me, “See how uncooperative she’s being? That’s why you’re here. I’ll give you a few minutes to work.” He steps back again.
Softly telling the prisoner to hold still, I slowly pull her hood off. Her face is gaunt and lined, reflecting her harsh treatment. She blinks at the light. “I believe you,” I tell her quietly. “I’ll try to get you out, or at least get word out. How did you get here?”
“Don’t you get it?” she hisses under her breath. “They took me! They took me from my home. I didn’t do any of what they said.”
By this point, it is getting harder to remember that this was all staged. My remaining time alone with her is a haze; I mostly spend it whispering comforting promises of help that I know I can’t deliver. Soon, the man in charge comes back and taps the rope that I’ve forgotten I am holding.
“Time’s up,” he says. “We need to get rougher now. Start by tying her wrists.”
I reach out with the rope for a moment. It would be easy enough to do; she is perfectly still. But something in me snaps. I clutch the rope to my chest. “No, not happening. I refuse.”
The man studies me for a long few moments. “All right,” he says flatly. “Come with me.” As he leads me away, he whispers in my ear, “You’re a good man.” And then I am alone in the dark again, looking for the next light to follow.
The path leads me into a long tunnel-like tent, lit at intervals with lanterns. Eventually I come to what seems to be a homeless person sprawled under some blankets. In an outstretched hand is a small voice recorder, playing a poem offering insight into his life. I listen; his words are beautiful, yet despondent. His hand reaches for mine, and I take it, sharing this person’s pain for a while.
I leave the homeless man, his loneliness affecting me. I crawl through the remainder of the tent, which is littered in clothes and wet trash. I emerge into a dark room with a singular object illuminated at its end: a wheelchair. With a sense of foreboding, I walk to it and sit. Immediately, a tall, animated man in a dusted blue suit approaches me and stands looming over me.
“Lord, I have one of your lost children; a child who wants to become a Shepard boy for you and bring other lost lambs back to the flock. A soldier, who wants to march for you. But to march you gotta walk, and to walk you gotta have faith.”
The preacher circles me, pausing intermittently to look me in the eye. I crane my neck to keep him in view. “Two years ago, I had a dream that Donald Trump would be the president of this great nation!” he booms in a southern drawl. “They laughed at me, but it has come to pass. Now, let’s get the devil out of those legs, so God can return. Let us pray.”
He takes hold of my head, and moves it roughly back and forth. I realize that the effect is that I am nodding along with his plans for me, as repellent as I find them. He mutters a phrase from the bible, and I try to say it back, but he’s reciting it too quickly. My head is moving faster now and I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. But then he stops. He reaches out his hand and asks me to stand. I am still shaken from my exorcism, so my footing is unstable–but he holds my weight. I take a step, hesitantly, as if I’ve in fact been confined to that chair for a long time, but then I steady. In his Southern accent he proclaims it’s a miracle. With my ability to walk, I climb through another tent, a bit bemused.
At one end of a long room, a lit table beckons. A woman sits at it, gazing at me intently. I approach and take the chair across from her. The floor around us is strewn with letters. As soon as I sit, she begins to speak.
“All women are liars; all women will try to destroy you. All women are your mother.” She proceeds with a litany of accusations, but they are about the relationship she and I have shared, one that is clearly breaking down badly. And it is apparently all my fault. At first I am stunned at the unfairness of being blamed for all these things I don’t remember doing. Then, to my surprise, I find I am trying to defend myself, to explain myself. Eventually I plead for forgiveness, and beg for a chance to prove I can change. My pleas are met with stony silence.
Suddenly her expression softens, and she stands, takes me by the hand, and leads me away to the last room, which like the first has a bed and a video playing. She whispers, “I love you,” before slipping away. Whipsawed by the opposite extremes of emotion, I sit in stunned silence for a moment before paying attention to the video.
The video is the same as the one in the first room. It has the same disturbing imagery and sounds, but there is an important difference: I am not alone with it. A man is dancing silently in front of the screen, and his dance conveys hope and defiance against the indoctrination of the video. I watch raptly.
Soon, the video and his dance come to an end. The dancer kneels beside me and whispers into my ear:
“My child, how is there so much evil in this world? My heart is full of love for you. Will they see you are loved? Will they hear your voice? My child, you are my sunshine. How will I keep you safe? How will I raise your voice above the noise?”
He walks behind me and gently places a blindfold over my eyes. I am no longer scared, and I don’t even flinch when he grabs my hands. I follow him down a long passage and then we stop. And he says:
“Time to wake up.”
For more information on Screenshot Productions, check out their website.
A huge thanks to Ben Taylor for all images included in this article!