We love you already.
I walk along an unassuming residential street, someplace I likely would have never visited, being coaxed up, up, up the steep incline by the serene, welcoming voice in my earbuds promising me that I am already enough and that all I need to do is be aware of my existence both inside and out of my “meat suit.” I begin to sweat and, as if she can hear my thoughts as clearly as I can hear her voice, she assures me that “your sweat is good.” I take a swig from my water bottle as the paved road gives way to a dirt path that will lead me even further up into the hills and down into the canyon below. A woman on her morning jog passes by going the opposite way with earbuds of her own; she gives me that nod of camaraderie all joggers seem to give each other, and indeed to any outside observer I could be mistaken for another of her ilk, except that I’m wearing oxfords and a tie. But still I’m here; breathing, sweating, listening, thinking; my entire body attuned to the experience at hand. It can only mean one thing: The Society has come down from the Mountain.
While the conveniences of our modern world continue to morph and change as their creators strive to make our gratification ever more instant, it can be increasingly difficult to find a moment in any given day to remind yourself that you’re more than just a floating pair of eyeballs. In a way, isn’t the rise of immersive theatre a response to that trend? Feeding a hunger of the soul to spring from our chairs and take part in the stories we choose to consume. To do, not watch. Agency over complacency.
With this in mind, by far the most nourishing experience currently in progress is the Society; its first ticketed event on July 8th capped off a packed month of multi-faceted, utterly engaging play that harkens back to that golden time in our nation’s history when we were all enthralled in the embrace of Pokémon Go. The delicious possibilities of infinity, where the only boundaries are those of the world itself and wherever you are and however you got there are just as important to your experience as the artificial elements provided by the creators.
The Society’s “seek and ye shall find” ethos has taken its Pilgrims on a grand tour of some of the most beautiful and out of the way spots in Los Angeles as we discover secret languages, buried knowledge, and a host of characters weaving a rich, complicated narrative. However, at this most recent event, the Society guides us along a path towards discovering something even more worthwhile: ourselves.
Our journey began in the earliest hours of a Saturday morning at the corner of Scarboro and Winmar in Glassell Park, where Tad Shafer, the Society’s Prudent Necessary (a kind of all-purpose representative and logistics chief that the Society employs) sits in quiet contemplation with his briefcase resting on his lap. He greets me warmly and asks me to wait a moment with him so a wide enough buffer is formed between me and the seeker who embarked before me. He apologizes for the dirty state of his hands but, as he explains, he has been eating blackberries all morning. As he judges that my time has come he points me in the right direction and advises me that the path is best taken at a leisurely rate, the speed you might go if you were walking along the beach while catching up with an old friend who you hadn’t seen in a long time. I put my earbuds in and begin the first of several tracks the Society has composed to accompany my journey.
It’s a sort of ethereal soundscape tapestry of horns and strings and snatches of opera with a slow pulse of a tribal chant marking time under the surface. The effect is palpable, serving as a kind of aural filter that completely transforms my perception of the area. All the while, my companion in voiceover coaxes me forward, gently guiding me through the streets while sweetly, earnestly reminding me how excited the Society is to meet me. She peppers in coy references to the world around me, asking me if I see the children playing as I pass by a yard with playground equipment and encouraging me to go “up. up. up.” as I reach a particularly steep incline. All the while she reminds me to be present and pay attention to what my body is experiencing as it goes where I tell it.
How is your body affected by your choices? Breathe. Sweat. Feel your muscles. Feel the heat that comes from the climb. Take note. Birdsongs. Breeze. Open your third eye. Up. Up. Up.
As I make my way along the dirt trail, I come upon my first stop in the journey. A beaming Society member dressed all in white rises from her blanket to greet me. She is called Brother and invites me to breathe. She anoints my hands with orange-scented oil and I breathe more deeply. She asks me a series of questions with the Society’s characteristic unembarrassed bluntness. How many times have I pleasured myself this month? Where was my last orgasm? How many sexual partners have I had? How many of them felt they really connected with me? How many did I really connect with? How many of them still live inside of me? Where is my control center? Where do I want it to be? Brother lights some sage and blesses every part of my body, calling them out as she does so. Remember every part of yourself. The top of your head, the back of your knees, your groin, your heart, your mind, all of you. She embraces me and instructs me to place my earbuds back in. I comply and continue to follow the path.
Down you go, down the trail. Blessed be. Your body is beautiful. You are cleansed already. Palms up as you descend. Down towards the red barn. Careful. Your body is precious.
My guide continues to whisper in my ears as she directs me down into the canyon and towards my next trial. In a clearing next to a red barn, I see a small table waiting for me. A small box with a hole in it invites me to reach inside but “take only one.”
Inside I find a piece of paper directing me to reflect on the last person I made love to and describe them in twenty-four words. Others I’ve spoken to were asked to describe death fantasies, upsetting sexual experiences, their deepest, darkest fears. With paper and pen we are asked to share what is inside of us and present it for review. A hundred different memories flash through my head on my way to my twenty-four words. I think about her, myself, what’s been done, what hasn’t been done, past, present, future, an entire life reexamined, thoughts that were always there waiting to be thought. Waiting for someone to remind me to think.
Come. Come. Come. When do you come? Do you come alone? Come to us. That pain. That little nagging pain. In your neck. Or your back. Or your feet. Or your groin. Or your mind. Or your soul. Or your breath. Or your breast. Or your pulse. Or your guts. Or your memory. Or your ghosts.
As I finish, I see more white around the corner, guiding me to my next stop. I clutch my testimonial in my hand as I move forward. I pass through an actual watermelon patch as the voice following me in my head reminds me not to step on the watermelons. I approach another clearing and Eric beams at me. Anyone who has been following the path of the Society will know him, one of the most visible and active members. While we on this path today are striving to reach level seven, Eric has attained somewhere in the five-thousands, second only to the Founder himself. We have much we can learn from him. There is a long cloth stretched out on the ground. We stand on opposite sides and he asks me to close my eyes and follow the sound of his voice towards him. In his voice is absolute safety and care and welcoming; the task is a simple one. As I open my eyes he leads me to a nearby blanket with pillows and invites me to lie down. He drapes a handkerchief over my face and sprays it with a sweet-smelling mist.
Eric proceeds to walk me through a visualization of my greatest desire. I walk down a hallway to a door. I open the door and fall into a galaxy. I float through the galaxy towards the brightest star. Does the star have a face? The cloth is removed and I am standing with Eric. There is a pause, a lull, something heavy in the air. Eric who at once was so calm and sure now seems different.
“Have you seen the roses? What color are they?” he asks.
“They’re black,” I respond, and the key has been given. Eric recognizes me now as a friend and he speaks to me as he really is: “The Black Rose,” the insidious member of the Boanthropic Resistance, dedicated to preventing whatever catastrophe is approaching at the hands of the Founder. I have to hurry, Black Rose warns me, Mary is in her second trimester. We are running out of time to save the Moon Child and for any of us to truly infiltrate the Society we must reach level twenty-five. He takes my paper without reading it and stows it in a chest nearby. His message is delivered quietly and in haste, his eyes darting all around him, as if the serenity and solitude of the canyon has now grown into something malevolent, where every bush has eyes, ears, and thorns. He quickly hands me a bunch of grapes and sends me on my way, back onto the path the Society intended, hopefully none the wiser. The grapes are small but sweet, their tang wakes my senses, spurring me forward.
I make the arduous trek up and out of the canyon, the sun beating down on me, when I find a third Society member waiting to greet me with an embrace under the shade of a tree. Her name is Autumn Joy, and she begins with her clipboard, asking me the same series of questions that Brother did. The answers come quicker this time, though they are not necessarily the same as before. Autumn Joy begins to inspect my body, instructing me to raise my arms towards the sky and I might, she suggests, actually touch it. She hesitates at my ankle and a shadow crosses her face. “Did you see Eric?” she asks, clearly sensing that something is wrong. I say I did and she brushes it off, but her energy never fully returns to the open friendliness that it was at the start. She asks me my name. Then she asks me what I wish my name was. I pause at this, not knowing what to say, then spit out the first name I can think of: Ken. The name of my grandfather and my uncle. I wonder at the significance of family legacy that subconsciously led me to pick this.
Autumn Joy now begins to play with me. She asks me to show her how Ken acts. How Ken stands. How Ken laughs. “Laugh Ken, keep laughing! That’s it, Ken. Now give me a really deep laugh, keep going! That’s it, Ken, you’re SO funny, Ken, you’re SO funny, now give me an evil laugh, a really evil laugh, that’s good, Ken, that’s SO good.” Autumn Joy continues to spur me on, demanding that I continue laughing. Sometimes the laughs are forced, sometimes genuine at the ridiculousness of the situation, sometimes intentional but in the spirit of fun. But eventually the laughter develops into something truly uncomfortable. Something changes in Autumn Joy as her tone gets harsher, more condescending, more callous. She demands laughter, but with no joy. She seems to want me to feel uncomfortable. And she’s getting what she wants.
Then suddenly it’s over. Autumn Joy has returned and congratulates me on all I have done today. She ties a white string around my wrist that signifies I am at last a member of the Society: level seven. I put my earbuds back in and begin the final leg of my journey.
What is your body? What is your sweat? Your ache? Your pain? Do you control it? How much control? Can you control control? Can you find in yourself your psycho-physical center? Don’t just tell us it’s your brain. We know it’s your brain. Where is it really?
The guide whispering in my ear makes me laugh as she anticipated the answer I gave both Autumn Joy and Brother. The last of the horns, strings, opera, and, underneath it all, the muted cries of a woman in distress, carry me back to my car. As I once again move through this residential neighborhood I wave and nod to the people who are working in their yard as I pass by. I look behind me at the distant hills and see my fellow seekers still in progress. I think about all of these people. Me, my friends, the joggers, the home owners, the Society. We each set out today on our own unique path. Some were connected to this event, others weren’t. Regardless, we are all connected. By our presence in this shared place. This shared world. Bound by our shared existence. Bound by our sweat.
This is what the Society is all about. While most experiences invite you to enter another world of their own making, this feels like something wholly different. The Society has entered our world, confidently occupying it alongside us and challenging us to see it and ourselves in a new way. The Mountain still seems far away, but gradually we will climb, level by level, up, up, up. Rather than claiming to immerse us, the Society instead gently, beautifully reminds us of something we often take for granted: in this world, in our skin, we are already immersed.
I love them already.
If you’d like to continue along with the journey of The Society, please join their Slack Board, or their Sub-Reddit, and follow The Society and The Boanthropic on Instagram. Also read our interview with a liaison of The Society, to learn more about the group that supposedly has the Moon Child, and continue to keep eye on Haunting for more updates.
Thank you to Cara Mandel and Taylor Winters for the above images.