There was a lot of immersive theater in 2019 – and we mean a lot. This kept our front page happy, and our staff busy! We saw the genesis of some truly special and great new companies (like Halogen Company) and the return of some favorites (hi, BLACKOUT, we missed you). We said goodbye to a fan favorite (CreepLA, we will miss you – but we’re so glad JFI Productions is sticking around), and we saw a ton of Cold War spy immersives hit the market (we’re looking at you Crimson Cabaret and Cold War Lounge – but you’re both on our list, so good job!). And we saw Extreme Immersive Horror truly hit its stride, with HVRTING, Death Project, and Miasma all receiving high praises. While there was some mediocrity and some innovative misses, this year was great no matter what genre you like. Haunting loves a good New Year’s round-up – and with so many memorable immersive experiences across multiple distinct genres, we made sure to reach out to our entire staff to highlight them all. We asked each staff member to pick their two favorite experiences of the year, and repeats were allowed. Interestingly, of the almost 40 productions chosen (yeah, that’s a lot), only eight of those were picked by more than one person. That means that tastes varied – and that there were a lot of great experiences. staff picks 2019
So, whether your favorites are the evocative nature of immersive theater (like our Chris Wollman and Cristen Brinkerhoff), or you love the terrifying storytelling that accompanies immersive horror (like our Chelsea Cook and Dan Waldkirch), or you like the extreme nature of boundary-pushing extreme experiences (like our Carl Webb and Daniel Hastenstaub), there’s a favorite on this list for everyone. And if we missed your favorite – please let us know in the comments! Now, onto Haunting’s Staff’s Best Immersive Experiences of 2019!!
Extreme horror (extreme immersive horror) starts our best of list. These are experiences that push the boundaries of participants by utilizing full contact and strong theatrical elements. This typically comes in the form of a strong narrative, where guests assume the role of a victim or perpetrator of said horror. However, some, like BLACKOUT, simply take abstract ideas of horror filtered through a theatrical lens.
It’s important to note that Haunting is differentiating extreme horror experiences from extreme haunted houses, which we are defining by themed attractions that have incorporated aggressive contact or intense elements in order to provide a more frightening experience without strong dialogue or narrative to justify it.
BLACKOUT – Blackout10NYC
“I never know what I’m getting myself into when stepping past the black tarps of BLACKOUT, and their tenth anniversary show was no exception. It’s a disorienting journey through dream logic that left a lasting impression on me, leaving me uncomfortable by the things I saw and shaking by the things I couldn’t.” – Jon Kobryn
“Having the chance to go just one more time was the event of the year and a reminder why they are the masters of immersive horror…” – Justin Brink
HVRTING – Serialized Death
“Probably the strongest of HVRTING’s shows I’ve attended, there were a couple of attributes that made Serialized Death one on my list of favorites for 2019. But what really put it over the top for me was the pacing. Plenty of extreme haunts gradually ratchet up the physical and emotional intensity over the course of the experience, but HVRTING did a truly superb job here. Each scene started off relatively low-key, letting the participant settle in and get their head around the context before building to a high-stress conclusion. And the way the scenes are ordered, the overall tension level steadily rose from one scene to the next as things grew creepier and more violent. It’s an ideal flow for encouraging people to push their limits, and it certainly got me to agree to one or two things that had previously been hard nos. Combined with a well-chosen venue, simple but effective set design, deliberate lampshading of classic horror film tropes, and some really strong performances by the cast, Serialized Death offered plenty for haunt and true crime enthusiasts alike.”
– Matthew Kennedy
“HVRTING’s Serialized Death was the ultimate kind of fan service in the most depraved of ways. As somebody who has always been obsessed with all things horror, having these infamous serial killers literally come to life in front of me fulfilled one of my darkest fantasies. I was left emotionally broken by the end of the experience, but I enjoyed every second of it.” – Fernando Haberfeld
HVRTING – The Byford Pledge
“This HVRTING event was, at its core, a private show for one guest, but a number of “supporting actor” slots gave others a chance to experience it, and it was well worth the trip to an isolated house well north of L.A. It distilled the process of rushing, pledging, and being initiated into a fraternity into one hectic night. An extended sandbox section at the beginning gave the pledges the chance to get to know the active brothers, who were numerous, and had detailed backstories and confusingly similar names. Some of the brothers were good examples, and some were bad, but all were actually worth knowing, and not just if you hoped to avoid paddling. Real life is full of examples of hazing tragedies, but here the hazing actually managed to produce the desired alchemy of bonding individuals into a cohesive group of brothers.” – Carl Webb
“On the outset of the experience, participants were told they would come out the other side closer, stronger, and more bonded than ever, and HVRTING delivered on this promise in spades. The Byford Pledge was a marathon 8-hour immersive extravaganza that gave participants a fraternity hazing experience filtered through the stylistic imaginations of the HVRTING team. Those of us that lasted through to the end of the night emerged, as promised, stronger and with a permanent bond that ensures this experience will not be forgotten anytime soon.” – Daniel Hasenstaub
For more on HVRTING, check our company page for information, upcoming events, and more.
Death Project: Ritual
“An ambitious labor of love for a select few, this extreme haunt featured a multi-month ARG that both served to select the participants and prepare them for their mission to brave the depths of Hell in a rescue mission. It culminated in a live event where a harrowing van ride (representing Limbo) in the mountains led to a house of horrors where every room embodied one of the circles of Hell and its respective sin. Many of the rooms presented difficult moral choices which would affect the journey not only for the participant, but for their fellow travelers. This night of pain featured a stunning locale and a large and high-caliber cast.” – Carl Webb
“It began with a mysterious online presence and ended with 9 selected people journeying through Hell itself. Death Project: Ritual combined lengthy real-world intrigue with a three-hour adventure that maintained fear and a sense of real stakes for the entire run of the show. Keen casting and set design elevated the experience, while constant choices and extensive personal agency gave the lucky participants a night they’ll never forget. I walked out of the location at the end of the experience, covered in gore and grime, grinning like a fool and, like a kid at a carnival, all I wanted to do was to go through one more time.” – Daniel Hasenstaub
Read our review for Death Project: Ritual here.
Miasma – Desecration of the Seven Witches
“A new Miasma show for me is like when one of your favorite bands releases a new record, and Desecration of the Seven Witches is their most eerily chilling production so far. Raw aggression, intense self-reflection, and somber atmosphere stitched with a punk rock flair. It’s everything I want in an extreme haunt.” – Jon Kobryn
Miasma – Homecoming
“Homecoming was everything I had imagined extreme haunts could be when I first heard about them years ago. It was incredibly scary, but the fear and intense physicality never felt disconnected from the powerful storytelling. Slow dancing in a dark room with a woman I had deeply hurt and sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger when the guilt became overwhelming were moments that will stick with me for a long time.” – David Higgins
Stygian Experience – Haunted Vessel
“This show scared me and nothing scares me anymore. For this 30-minute solo horror experience, you’re tasked with finding a dead body in a theater. Instead, it turns out that you must elude a blinded hunter in a room filled with fog. Don’t. Move. Don’t. Make. A. Sound. It had all the best elements of a classic Heretic show.” – Tim Redman
The 17th Door – Fearless
“The 17th Door never fails to surprise me with the new rooms every year. With no engineering background, these home-grown haunters manage to pull off the most amazing technological innovations. Every year I am amazed by what they can pull off – especially with the sheer number of people they can get through each night. While this haunt isn’t for the faint of heart, I always leave with a smile on my face.” – Alyssa Concha
Immersive horror consists of theatrically horror-themed experiences with strong theming and narratives, but without the full-contact physicality and boundary-pushing elements of extreme immersive horror. These are often rich experiences that give audiences an active role in the narrative, thus frightening or unsettling them far more than any other passive media. All of the experiences below succeed in just that: creating a world that breathes, frightens, and haunts us long after it has ended.
I Want to Live in Your Mouth
“Unlike many immersive fans, I’ve never been terribly concerned with story. For me, atmosphere is king, and I Want to Live in Your Mouth laid it on thick. While characters were often whispering about this or that, it’s the dreadful, hazy images that will stay with me for years to come. Like a real-life nightmare, it seemed to make sense at the time, but any attempt at sharing it with others dissolves into nonsense. Regardless, I’m pre-filling my picks for 2020 with Whatever the IWTLIYM Crew Does Next.” – Dan Waldkirch
“I Want to Live in your Mouth was a stand-out this year. It delved deep into the dark nooks and crannies of a child’s mind. With amazing storytelling and ingenious use of limited space, it deserves exceptionally high praise.” – Tristan Wells
Read our review of I Want to Live in Your Mouth here.
Santu Deliria – Angelica
“As somebody who suffers from clinical depression, Angelica’s portrayal of mental illness was extremely profound and made a huge impact on me. By forcing each audience member to embody someone suffering from clinical depression, Angelica promoted a form of therapy between the body and the soul.” – Fernando Haberfeld
For more on Santu Deliria, check our company page for information, upcoming events, and more.
Zombie Joe’s Underground – The Bogeyman
“Zombie Joe’s The Bogeyman was a favorite because it stepped away from typical scares that are so visually based. By impairing the sense of sight, the focus was placed on sound and touch which was well executed and caused heightened senses.” – Charlotte Cocker
Zombie Joe’s Underground – Dark Dark Ride Ride
“As a huge theme park enthusiast, nerd, and geek, Dark Dark Ride Ride was everything I needed and more. I really felt like I was in a dark ride, and for whatever reason, the entire experience really turned me on (sorry not sorry). What I loved about Dark Dark Ride Ride is that it was more than an immersive, more than a show, and more unique than anything I’ve ever experienced. It was an absolute experience that I simply cannot describe with words but will never forget, and for all the right reasons.” – Spencer Frankeberger
JFI Productions – Haus of Creep
“Haus of Creep was one of the best immersive theaters this year for me because it allowed you to observe or participate as much as you would like, also the characters were fun.”
– Chelsea Cook
Cross Roads Escape Games – The Séance
“The Séance was well crafted in such a small space and utilized every aspect of the room making an hour-long experience fly by. It also stayed very true to ritual proceedings and obviously had the research necessary to create an authentic experience. Plus, props to the two actresses who carried the entire show!” – Charlotte Cocker
Alone – Simulacrum
“Alone was my first immersive experience and served as a strong foundation for why I love immersive theater as much as I do today. While there’s been a serious lack of Alone experiences lately, they did come back for a single-night experience entitled Simulacrum, which explored the distinction and interaction between audience and performer (how immersive of them). Taking over the entirety of the Montalban Theater (including the stage, the under-stage, the bathrooms, the street outside, and more), Alone asked some truly interesting questions in the surreal and abstract way that they do, bringing people together in easily one of my favorite experiences of the year. I hope to see more from them soon.”
– Taylor Winters
JFI Productions – The Willows
“The Willows had a great story line, fun ways to interact, and left you wanting more.” – Chelsea Cook
Haunted houses need little introduction. These may not be theatrical in the traditional sense – but they are immersive, for sure. Each one is fully site-evocative, recreating a locale, a theme, or a film in its layout and characters. While the stories are usually implied rather than acted out theatrically, they are still insanely fun and scary. While only two haunts made it on our list this year, both deserve strong recognition and are worthwhile for anyone looking for a Halloween scare.
Horrorland Scream Park
“Horrorland is a scream park, set in a now-defunct nuclear plant in the mountains North of Barcelona, Spain. Through a combination of full-contact scares, impeccable actors, flawless crowd control, top-notch theming and a huge variety of entertainment, they are a major force to be reckoned with in the European horror landscape. Highlights include being hunted by zoomorphic, highly sadistic butchers, getting lost in a radioactive sewage system, and an R-rated attraction that had guests wheeled through the experience while secured on top of a stretcher.” – Mathias Verduyckt
Read our review of Horrorland Scream Park here.
Queen Mary – Dark Harbor
“The level of dedication and creativity to making each unique haunted maze a thrill for guests of varying ages and levels of scare tolerance is most impressive. The entire atmosphere both inside and out of the Queen Mary is inspired, delightful, and frightful.” – Deb Kavis
Immersive theater is the most populous category on the list – and thus, saved for last. These are theatrical experiences in which the stage has been removed and the audience is given an active role to engage, participate, or simply watch the experience unfold. These are narratively driven, and all of these in the list excel in transporting guests to another world.
Klubhouse Arts – Sockhop on Saturn
“The opportunity that Sockhop on Saturn: A 1950s Intergalactic Experience gives its participants to step inside another world and become fully engrossed is a valuable means of entertainment. I, for one, came away from my trip to Hyperion Flats with a renewed sense of creativity and nostalgia. It was amusing to watch each story unfold and, although I couldn’t see every single story, it was fun to have little interactions with everyone in the town. The variety of characters allowed visitors to choose whom they identify with and with whom they would want to interact – or not. Whether it’s patching up a long-standing feud between Ursa of the Pop N’ Bop and Mudy of Mudy’s Beauty, bringing the Nebulas back together and better than ever, or helping a sad soda jerk find love, Sockhop on Saturn was truly a brilliant experience that left attendees wanting to come back for seconds.”
– Deb Kavis
“This show stands out for me because it reached audiences that immersive shows often can’t find. Most of the audience I spoke to when I went weren’t even aware that what they were seeing was an immersive experience. They were just enjoying the hell out of a trip to a Mars town full of 1950s-style Martians. I think for immersive theater to reach its full potential, shows like these that can reach – larger, family-friendly – audiences are a crucial step.” – Erik Blair
Read our review of Sockhop on Saturn here.
Scout Expedition Co. – The Nest
“In the world of immersive theater, where budgets are tight and time is limited, it’s rare to find a work that can call itself polished. But that word doesn’t begin to describe the astounding execution of The Nest, a gorgeous quasi-escape room recalling the life of a young woman named Josie. Don’t let the intimate, gentle experience fool you – behind this sweet little show is a team of master artists taking a big swing and knocking it out of the galaxy.” – Dan Waldkirch
Candle House Collective – Under the Bed
“Having not experienced anything from Candle House Collective previously, I wasn’t certain that I would even find phone-only stories immersive at all. Boy, was I wrong. This collection of stories was compelling, amusing and – on occasion – absolutely terrifying. I’ve done a huge number of immersive shows this year and NOTHING made me shake as badly as The Lucky Ones. Just incredible, incredible stuff.” – Erik Blair
“Under the Bed from Candle House Collective was a hauntingly beautiful exhortation to hope. This festival of shows was unsparing in its subject matter, extraordinary in its execution, and refreshing in its creativity. Candle House Collective achieved a level of intimacy and personalization that gave real weight to each story, creating pockets of shared humanity where both grief and hope could play tug-of-war with participants’ hearts. Their ability to achieve all this through remote communication alone speaks volumes to their hard work and talent, making Under the Bed an easy choice as one of this year’s top picks.” – Emma Lee
For more on Candle House Collective, check our company page for information, upcoming events, and more.
Delusion – Alt-Delete
“Alt-Delete was also a stand-out this year. It kept your heart pumping with wonderfully edgy retro action-adventure. With amazing storytelling and ingenious use of limited space, it also deserves exceptionally high praise.” – Tristan Wells
Bar of Dreams
“In Bar of Dreams, Jonathan Pedigo and Alex Leff opened their home and gave participants a space for playful silliness we rarely get; not just in immersive theater, but in waking life. Pairing signature cocktails with fully interactive vignettes that rewarded total commitment to their goofy premises, audiences were utterly charmed as we put on our PJs and gave our inhibitions the night off. The remarkably detailed set dressing made Will’s bedroom a mood-lit treasure trove of Easter eggs that revealed an all-too-familiar story with subtle notes of melancholy, bringing a richness that stuck with you long after the last drop; the numbing bitterness of dreams unfulfilled, the tempting escapism of an altered state to hide in, and the endless possibilities of a fresh start after a good night’s sleep.” – Chris Wollman
Read our review of Bar of Dreams here.
The Waldorf Project – Barzakh
“BARZAKH was the fourth chapter presented by The Waldorf Project. Suspended somewhere between performance art, immersive theater and extreme haunt, BARZAKH asked participants to let go of control, as their souls drifted between Hell and Heaven, somewhere in a warehouse outside of London, England. In the end, the experience was designed to make guests feel in the presence of an abstract higher being – and remarkably enough, actually managed to evoke something weirdly close to that feeling.” – Mathias Verduyckt
Read our review of Barzakh here.
Best Night Ever: A Bachelor(ette) Night
“Boozy, raucous and completely unrestrained, Best Night Ever took a fairly simple idea – you’re a guest at a bachelor or bachelorette party – and executed it both ambitiously and creatively. Set almost entirely within a moving limousine, offering plenty of one-on-one interaction by a gifted cast and featuring two different tracks that only cross once, the one-hour Best Night Ever promised a wild party and delivered it. Strippers, champagne, loud music and party games were all present and accounted for. Yet, within the free-flowing drinks and rampant bad behavior could also be found a simple, effective story spun out of the internal uncertainty and outside pressure experienced by anyone who’s about to get married. The result was a fun, liberating night that still left you with plenty to think about and discuss after you’d sobered up.” – Tim Beedle
Read our review of Best Night Ever here.
Delusion – The Blue Blade
“The Blue Blade let me finally live out my childhood fantasies like exploring exotic locales in search of a lost artifact and hiding under a bed with held breath as a monster searched the room. I was constantly in awe at the detailed sets, and the actors all convincingly pulled me into the exciting narrative. Simply put, this was the most fun I had in a show all year.” – David Higgins
Woolf and the Wondershow – Cages
“The moody, atmospheric pre-show, themed cocktails and stoic immersive actors perfectly set the stage for Woolf and the Wondershow’s brilliant musical, Cages. Itself a visually stunning and technical tour de force, Cages redefined musical theater with its whimsically beautiful projection mapping and catchy emo musical numbers. It’s the closest thing to seeing a Tim Burton-esque graphic novel come alive with music.” – Lacey Rae Pawlowicz
Read our review of Cages here.
Spy Brunch LLC – Cold War Lounge: The Asset
“In a year which saw several immersive productions tackle the spy genre, it was the one-weekend pop-up, Cold War Lounge: The Asset, that managed to most effectively recreate the secretive, sexy world of high stakes international espionage that I love. That’s not to say Cold War Lounge: The Asset was the most ambitious or realistic, but by leaning into the mysterious, who’s-playing-who intrigue made famous in classic spy capers and ’60s-era Bond films, the one-hour show presented its vision of spying as what it is – a fantasy to get lost in. With a juicy, memorable script by Nick Rheinwald-Jones and colorful, rich performances by all involved, Cold War Lounge: The Asset was a lot like one of those drinks our favorite spy is so fond of: simple, strong and likely to leave you shaken.” – Tim Beedle
The Unmarked Door – Crimson Cabaret
“This ambitious and utterly stunning experience brings guests into a 1960s cabaret in West Berlin during the Cold War. What participants do from there is up to them – they can imbibe several specialty cocktails; watch the engaging stage show of burlesque, singing and aerial work; or they can take part in the many clandestine spy missions, interacting with many of the sordid characters within the club. A thoroughly entertaining evening, and so well-executed!” – Lacey Rae Pawlowicz
The Art Department – Dandelions
“Dandelions was so whimsical and fun. I loved the idea of taking an industrial electrical substation (all cold metal and concrete) and filling it with nature. This show was a mixture of beautiful sets in a striking location with quirky immersive interactions reminiscent of my favorite Alone shows.” – Alyssa Concha
The Green Waltz
“This one-weekend pop-up show was a 50-minute immersive staged at the Heritage Square Museum in South Pasadena. Seven doomed characters, each with their own track, wound you in and out of several restored Victorian structures in this well-staged ghost story.” – Tim Redman
Read our review of The Green Waltz here.
The Speakeasy Society – The Johnny Cycle
“Three things stood out to me with The Speakeasy’s Society’s remount of The Johnny Cycle. The venue, a mausoleum near Glendale, was an inspired choice that gave the cast a lot of space to lead participants through branching, occasionally intersecting paths and was a perfect fit for a story which dealt heavily with death and memory. The narrative structure was also very clever. Leaping back and forth between time periods and perspectives, The Johnny Cycle did an excellent job of balancing the overall feeling of a disjointed fever dream with making sure the scenes still made sense. But it was also a triumph from an execution perspective: The cast all turned in solid performances, and a less-skilled team could easily have stumbled when trying to create and manage a show with such an intricate, branching network of paths for participants to follow. The end result was a rich, surreal, and haunting site-specific show that gave participants plenty to chew on both during and after the experience.” – Matthew Kennedy
Optika Moderna – Las Quinceañeras
“I can’t express enough how worth a trip to San Diego the world of Optika Moderna is. First with Waking La Llorona in 2017 and now with Las Quincañeras, Optika continues to re-define the capabilities of immersive theater with their unique combination of dance, set decoration, visual presentation, and most importantly, their reverence and respect for Latinx and Mexican tradition. If Optika is putting on a show, make it your business to get yourself wherever they are. I have rarely been so moved by such beauty as I am while within one of their worlds. Las Quinceañeras lived and breathed around me, spooling out a tale of love, loss and coming-of-age that suffuses my senses and shook my heart. – Cristen Brinkerhoff
The Halogen Company – One Exit
“The second experience by The Halogen Company, One Exit invited guests into the In Between as recently deceased souls waiting to pass on. Directed by Julia Henning, One Exit was a magnificent look into several different aspects of death, sin, and fate. The nuances, intricacies, and depth of the characters within the In Between are beyond measure and wonderfully portrayed. From the sound and production designs to the personalization of the climax to the acting, One Exit was top-notch immersive entertainment. I only wish it had been longer so I could have heard all the stories that were created in this rich and eerie world.” – Lacey Rae Pawlowicz
Read our review of One Exit here.
“I really loved this piece, and wanted everyone to see it. Meredith Treinen has such a keen eye for human stories, and this unmatched ability to express them in intricate ways. I’ve never seen a show do so much with so little – just the cast and the walls themselves working in harmony to speak to their audience. Really powerful stuff. I can’t wait for her next production. Few creators and cast can toe such a delicate, unspoken line between stage and sincerity. As such, Re-lease was a triumph of despised experimental theater; it was the medium at its best.” – Cristen Brinkerhoff
Read our review of Re-lease here.
CoAct Productions – Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite
“Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite felt more intimate and warmer than any other experience this year. Creating connection organically is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in immersive theater, but CoAct Productions excelled in this field. This is in major part due to the strength of Kelly Pierre as an actress – her ability to naturally acclimate me into my role as her son and create such an easy rapport with me so quickly is a testament to her acting skill. Even though it is only one piece in a multi-part puzzle, the experience felt complete, with enough mysteries to keep me engaged while not leaving me feeling unfulfilled.” – Taylor Winters
Stay on the Line
“Nothing is more satisfying than watching creators improve and master their craft. SOTL took me by surprise with how much they improved over a single year while staying true to their core: minimalist, guest-focused, and unpredictable.” – Justin Brink
Read our review of Stay on the Line here.
Third Rail Projects – Then She Fell
“Then She Fell from Third Rail Projects was a playful and contemplative excursion through the looking glass, where audience members received front-row seats to the liminal space where nostalgia and reality collide. The set, score, choreography, and acting were rich with both calculated subtleties and whimsical exaggerations, all of which worked together exceptionally well to captivate the audience. Then She Fell’’s status as a staple of the New York City immersive theater scene is well deserved, and its all around production quality made it a clear choice as one of this year’s top picks.” – Emma Lee
For more on Third Rail Projects, check our company page for information, upcoming events, and more.
“With the tired refrain of “Too Many Cults” still ringing in the L.A. immersive community’s ears, The Why offered a fresh, irreverent take that drew participants in and made them part of the family. Dakota Loesch, already a favorite immersive performer, pulled double duty as creator and treated us to his cheekiest, most volcanic and gonzo turn to date in this boozy Ted Talk that escalated into a paranoid fever dream over four captivating sessions. While Loesch’s hilariously cockeyed philosophy of total connection was the central focus, it was the sense of community he and his gang of “cousins” cultivated for returning members growing with each passing week that made this sublime experiment a cult worth joining.” – Chris Wollman
This wraps up Haunting’s best immersive experiences of 2019. I’m rather excited that the list was so broad, and it wasn’t contained to just one or two that surpassed all others. It shows that this community is varied in taste and style – and that there are numerous strong creators in this space. Do us a favor and check out the company pages for these companies – especially if any of the quotes resonate with you. We’re looking forward to bringing you the best immersive coverage in 2020. Hope you have a great rest of your year.
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