As popup haunted houses shutter their doors, a new form of entertainment rises from the crypt: interactive theatre and immersive experiences submerge audiences within a realm of supernatural scares. Are we seeing the end of one era or the beginning of another?
In case you have yet to notice, popup haunted houses have pretty much gone extinct in Los Angeles. The number of independently owned Halloween mazes operating within the city this season is virtually zero. If you want to walk through a professional haunted house attraction, you must visit one of the major Halloween theme parks or the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride (which is no longer truly independent since being acquired by 13th Floor Entertainment Group). Not counting amateur Halloween home haunts, your only other option is to head outside the city to something like the Reign of Terror Haunted House in Thousand Oaks or All Saints Lunatic Asylum in San Bernadino. What is a dedicated haunt-seeker to do?
This year, the answer seems to be immersive theatre. Halloween 2019 offers a wide variety of these productions: Give Up The Ghost, The Shadow Space, The Séance, Bite, Alt Delete, Afterlife Anonymous, and Creep L.A.’s House of Creep, along with other interactive and/or immersive Halloween events, such House of Spirits: A Haunted Cocktail Soiree and the I Like Scary Movies Interactive Art Installation.
Though the fear factor varies widely among these events, all of them immerse their audience within an environment where they encounter the afterlife, rub shoulders with the supernatural, of face off against sinister forces. Thus, they provide an experience akin to walking through a haunted house but more protracted and more personal, making the audience part of the story and keeping them intimately involved for the duration of the running time.
Clearly, the strategy is to offer something that large-scale Halloween events cannot provide, because they need to move crowds in and out of mazes as quickly as possible. Instead of competing directly with Queen Mary Dark Harbor, a mom-and-pop operation with low overhead can cater to a smaller audience, with more satisfying results. Profitability might necessitate high ticket prices, but in exchange, audiences get more than a few minutes walking through dark corridors – something more dramatic and engaging.
Are professional haunted houses crumbling into inevitable extinction? Are immersive experiences and interactive theatre the future of Halloween? To get their opinions on the subject, we queried several creators and producers of these shows: Jon Braver of Delusion: Interactive Theatre, Madison Rhoades of Crossroad Escape Games, Rachel Adams of The Count’s Den, Justin Meyer of Meyer2Meyer Entertainment, Shelby Bond of Best Medicine Productions, and Aaron Vanek of Give Up the Ghost.
However, before getting to their answers, we need to ask a few questions, such as: “What are we talking about?” and “Is it even a thing?”
LOS ANGELES HALLOWEEN IMMERSIVE THEATRE: WHAT IS AN INTERACTIVE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE?
The words “immersive” and “interactive” are tossed around frequently these days, often in conjunction with “theatre,” “experience,” or “theatrical experience.” The casual usage blurs distinctions, sometimes making it hard to tell whether we’re talking about something really new or just rebranding old blood in new bottles.
To cite one example outside of Los Angeles, Winchester Mystery House bills its 2019 Halloween event, Unhinged, as an “immersive experience” even though it is, in essence, a very elaborate haunted house walk-through, embellished with some immersive elements. We can see it as an example of an old house adding some new tricks, but we can hardly cite it as evidence that traditional haunts are being replaced by something else.
How do we draw the line between immersive events and haunted houses when any attraction that places its customers inside an environment can call itself “immersive,” including an old-school Halloween haunt? Shelby Bond, creator of The Shadow Space, wrestled with the “Semantics of Participatory Theatre” in his thesis for the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama at the University of London; citing a need for more precise terminology, he identified “immersive” as an “umbrella” term that involves various subcategories of interactive and participatory theatre, events, and experiences. For our purposes, “immersive” refers to an event that does more than place an audiences in a setting; it uses sights, sounds, possibly music, characters, and even narrative to create the illusion of entering an imaginary world.
These worlds invite, even demand, participation; consequently, “interactive” tends to go hand in glove with “immersive.” Interaction can range from solving puzzles in an escape room to becoming a supporting character in a play. It is not unusual for haunted house attractions to include interactive elements (such as choosing a path or finding a key), but in a so-called “interactive” event, these features should be integral, not mere add-ons.
Lastly, what’s the differences among “immersive theatre,” “interactive theatre,” and “interactive, immersive experiences”? A few examples should clarify:
- Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival, which is staged in a real mausoleum but does not invite audience participation, is immersive theatre, but it is not interactive.
- Delusion Interactive Theatre, which is staged in real locations and incorporates the audience into the action, is both interactive and immersive.
- House of Spirits, set in a real house with costumed characters, is immersive and interactive, but it has no narrative structure, so it is best described as an “event” or an “experience" - not theatre.
“Immersive Theatre” and “Interactive Theatre” are relatively easy to distinguish from traditional haunted houses because they are essentially site-specific stage plays that tell stories with dramatic resolutions. The distinction between “Immersive Experiences” and Halloween haunts is slightly less obvious. A so-called “Immersive Theatrical Experience” probably contains a story (even if it is revealed in a non-linear fashion), but so do some Halloween haunts.
What, then, is the difference between a haunted house like Unhinged and an immersive experience like House of Spirits? Unhinged incorporates immersive elements like character interaction and story elements, but the major focus remains on scaring people who scurry quickly through the labyrinthine interior of the Winchester Mystery House with little agency of their own. A more truly interactive Halloween experience like House of Spirits casts its customers in a role, even if a supporting one (in this case, party guests). Not only is their presence acknowledged but also their active participation is requested; they choose where to go and what to see.
Ultimately, the distinction between “haunted house” and “immersive/interactive theatrical events” is analogous to the distinction between Musical Theatre and Opera: it’s one of emphasis. Opera emphasizes singing; Musical Theatre incorporates songs as part of its storytelling. Haunted Houses emphasize screaming; interactive theatre incorporates screams as part of its storytelling.
LOS ANGELES HALLOWEEN IMMERSIVE THEATRE: IS THIS EVEN A TREND?
Now that we have drawn a bloody if blurry line between haunted houses and immersive experiences, we can examine whether one is replacing the other.
This Halloween, there are numerous shows in Los Angeles that qualify as interactive, immersive, and/or theatrical. Few if any of them could be mistaken for traditional haunts, even of the hybrid variety. If you’re looking for a seasonal popup attraction in the city, it will probably be interactive theatre, an immersive experience, or some combination.
Is this really a trend? Why would immersive events proliferate when independent haunted houses are all but gone? What do they have to offer in a city where potential customers flock to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood?
“The only way to compete with the huge haunts is to be more innovative,” says Shelby Bond, whose interactive play, The Shadow Space, is currently running in Hollywood. “As thrilling as the mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm are, waiting in line and then being shuffled through while things jump out at you can leave you feeling unsatisfied.”
How can interactive theatre provide that missing satisfaction in a way that an indie popup haunt cannot? John Braver, who launched the movement toward immersive Halloween experiences back in 2011 with his first interactive play, Delusion (more on which later), sums up the advantages in two words: “Agency and Intimacy.”
Madison Rhoades also cites agency as a major factor in the appeal of interactive theatre. Her hour-long play, The Séance, is basically a one-woman show about a medium seeking help from her customers (played by the audience) to rescue a soul trapped in the netherworld. Co-owner of Crossroads Escape Games in Anaheim, Rhoades incorporates puzzle-solving into her scenario, but there is a strong scare factor when the group must form a united front to face down and defeat demonic forces.
“In a walk-through haunt, it is usually very dark, and something is jumping out at you again and again - which can be fun, but it also gets repetitive,” says Rhoades. “An immersive play will transport you to a new location or even time period and put you in the center of the action. You will now have a purpose and a goal to achieve. You are a part of the story and get to grow just like the character you are watching. Immersive theatre just provides so much more content and one-on-one interaction that you don’t get anywhere else.”
“There is a huge conversation about interactivity and engagement between audience (or participants, as we like to call them) and creators,” says Aaron Vanek, whose immersive play, Give Up The Ghost (co- written with his wife, Kirsten Hageleit), takes interactive theatre to profound levels, more dramatic and cathartic than terrifying but still very much in the spirit of the Halloween season.
Vanek sees overlap between haunted houses and immersive theatre, but he believes that the agency and intimacy of the latter provide a richer experience.
“I have always been a fan of horror, but the short-term appeal of a shriek is not as attractive as it used to be,” he says. “Scaring people is a reliable method of getting to someone - evoking an emotional response. Haunted houses do one thing that increases the immersion: they acknowledge the audience exists: they see you; they are watching you. That can be inherently terrifying: ‘ZOMG! IT'S LOOKING RIGHT AT ME!’ In a haunt, the audience is in the same space as the performers, but the only thing the performers need the audience to do is be scared and keep moving.
“If you go back to Alfred Hitchcock's comparison between surprise and suspense, both of those lead up to the explosion—I am more interested in how to affect the audience after the bomb goes off. And interaction is one way of doing that: Did you set the bomb? Do you know the people sitting there? Are you sitting there? Did you die, and now do you want revenge on the bomber? In Give Up the Ghost, for example, we tell everyone ‘Congratulation you're dead. You are now the ghost of yourself.’ Armored with that role, now what do you do in these scenarios?”
Justin Meyer’s House of Spirits also relies on audience participation rather than jump-scares, but House of Spirits does not qualify, strictly speaking, as interactive theatre; without a plot, it occupies that nebulous limbo known as “immersive experiences” – a space it fills to perfection, with cocktails, live entertainment, and a few creepy sideshows.
Like Vanek, who believes a “backlash against pervasive digital entertainment” is spurring interest in “analog forms of entertainment,” Meyer thinks there is a hunger for "more interactive shows, rather than passive audience experiences. We get enough of that from our streaming services and cell phones. The visceral and tactile experience of a unique live event is exciting and interesting, and I'm not surprised it is a popular trend.”
LOS ANGELES HALLOWEEN IMMERSIVE THEATRE: WHY INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCES? WHY NOW?
In one sense, the trend toward immersion is at least a little surprising: unlike haunted houses, immersive theatre is not bound to the Halloween season. In fact, the first immersive play to become a big hit in Los Angeles, running for nearly a decade in the 1980s, was John Krizanc’s Tamara, which had nothing to do with Halloween or horror. It was not until the 2011 debut of Jon Braver’s "haunted play" Delusion that the potential for Halloween immersive theatre became abundantly apparent.
Like many “firsts,” Delusion had predecessors. The most notable was Theatre 68's annual Haunted House in Hollywood. Though nowhere near the level of Braver’s production, the 68 Cent Crew added a theatrical element to their haunted house, presenting a series of vignettes that seemed to be triggered by the arrival of the customers, as if each scare were being staged especially for their benefit. There was verbal interaction and even confrontation; there was, however, no real plot.
With Delusion, Braver took interactive theatrical elements further than Theatre 68 ever did, crafting a fully realized play, enhanced with marvelous special effects and Hollywood-style stunt work. “I set out to create an adventure for people to embark on together,” Braver recalls. "A meaningful connection to story and other humans! Plus, I brought my film knowledge, stunt work and connections to create a production that made guests feel as if they were inside a living, breathing movie with shit they could only imagine in a movie coming to life around them. There was nothing like it.”
His success paved the way for later efforts, like Creep L.A. – not to mention the current group of productions on view this Halloween. Why did audiences embrace immersive theatre during the Halloween season? Braver credits the “intimate escapism” of the experience, explaining, “It's like wearing a mask – it feels good to be someone else during that time of year.”
Aaron Vanek – who credits Punchdrunk's Sleep No More (a noir-inspired riff on Macbeth) for popularizing the connection between horror and immersive theatre – agrees that Halloween is ideal for this particular form of entertainment, because “we can wear masks that hide or protect our identity. You can try on a persona, a character, or an aspect of yourself and have an experience in a safe environment - mostly safe, anyway.”
Madison Rhoades thinks that interactive theatre is more appealing at a time when people are seeking frightful entertainment. “Fear is a driving factor for a lot of immersive theatre,” she explains. “Fear can be fun, scary, and exciting all at once. Halloween season is a time when people are looking to have those experiences.”
Shelby Bond believes that fear is inherent in interactive theatre, making it ideal for Halloween: “Many people think of being directly engaged by actors as a scary thing, so Halloween shows have evolved to fill this desire.”
Ironically, Bond’s own show de-emphasizes the fear factor. The Shadow Space, which played earlier this year before returning for Halloween, is a lively murder-mystery which, like Give Up The Ghost, casts the audience as invisible spirits intervening in the world of the living. The only scares are inflicted on the characters, who see evidence of the spirits in the form of flickering lights and disappearing-reappearing objects.
Leaning more toward the scary side of the spectrum is Bite at the Count’s Den. The venue presents an ongoing series of immersive plays throughout the year, for a targeted audience, but their current presentation is intended to appeal to the uninitiated, who might look for this sort of entertainment only during October. Guests dine and interact with a clan of vampires, gradually learning the secret of their absent host, whom even his family fears.
Rachel Adams, who oversees Bite, thinks immersive theatre is well suited to Halloween because guests are accustomed to being physically present in traditional haunt attractions.
“It seems like a natural progression from haunted houses — which I do consider to be a form of immersive theatre — to take the live horror experience and combine it with more traditionally dramatic presentation,” says Adams. “The two art forms seem to co-exist and, in some ways, feed off each other: immersive horror theatre certainly takes a lot of its cues from haunted houses, and likewise many haunted houses are beginning to incorporate some more theatrical elements themselves. There seems to be a greater emphasis on narrative within haunted houses now, without sacrificing their emphasis on scaring people out of their wits.”
Theatrical events turn the screws tighter by immersing participants not only in a setting but also in a scenario. "While horror and immersive can certainly exist without each other, it does make for a very effective combination," says Adams. "Even something as simple as walking alone into a dark room, not knowing what lies in wait for you there, can be scarier than almost anything else. It taps into very primal fears, I think — your fight-or-flight responses are exercised and tested in ways film or literature rarely manage. For however long you’re in the experience, it becomes absolutely ‘real,’ for lack of a better word.”
LOS ANGELES HALLOWEEN IMMERSIVE THEATRE: THE DEATH OF INDEPENDENT HAUNTS?
It is important to remember that the current crop of immersive Halloween experiences are not responsible for shuttering old-school haunted houses. Interactive Theatre has simply filled a space created by the demise of these attractions.
Is this just a blip, or have the crumbling timbers of Halloween haunted houses collapsed beneath the scorching blast of wind that blows not from the gates of hell but from something even more evil - corporate competition?
Perhaps 2019 is an anomaly, and we will be inundated with haunted houses next Halloween. History suggests otherwise. In the past dozen years or so, a distressing number of once successful independent attractions have been razed to the ground: Spooky House, Old Town Haunt, and Fright Fair Screampark come to mind. Meanwhile, several upstarts have opened the doors, only to close down after only a season or two: the Blumhouse of Horrors, Haunts USA, Paranoia, Hell Break. Even Into the Black, a maze that terrified victims the past two years, is shuttered this season, unable to secure a location.
There is a trend line here, and it’s pointed down.
Why? There are several reasons, but they boil down to profitability. With competition from theme parks like Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest, it’s hard for a smaller haunt to attract customers. With Los Angeles rent so high, it is hard to find a location. Add to that the cost of cast and crew, and economic survival is precarious.
Bruce Stanton’s Reign of Terror Haunted House has weathered the storm, but it does not offer an encouraging example for others to follow. A non-profit that raises money for charity, the attraction has a rent-free location above a Gold’s Gym in the Janss Marketplace. Without that advantage, the haunt would not be viable as a for-profit enterprise, even in Thousand Oaks.
“It’s very difficult for a private enterprise haunted attraction to survive in Southern California,” said Stanton. “With Universal and Knott's and Six Flags and Queen Mary, you've got major theme park competition. Unfortunately, that kind of traditional haunted attraction we seem to be getting less and less every year.”
Stanton also blames real estate for the death of popup haunts, noting that a good economy is, ironically, bad for haunters, because retail space gets filled by year-round businesses, leaving no empty store fronts for haunts to fill.
For at least a few years it seemed that non-profit operation might keep some Halloween haunts suffused with ectoplasm. Attractions that raise money for charity are subject to fewer restrictions, and they can legally rely on volunteer labor. A good example of this approach was provided by Evil Twin Studios, located in South Pasadena, which made its debut in 2013. However, despite excellent work, the haunt lasted only three seasons before calling it quits when they could not find a location for 2016.
Whether immersive experience and interactive theatre will completely fill the void left by haunted houses is an open question. These events have some advantage over traditional haunts: most obviously, theatre productions have a longer shelf life; for example, Delusion: The Blue Blade sold out from September through December in 2018. No haunted house is going to remain open that long in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, interactive theatre comes with its own set of problems, such as audience size. Performances that host a limited number of participants can sell only a limited number of tickets at timed intervals – perhaps a dozen every hour, depending on the exact nature of the event.
Because of this, both Aaron Vanek and Jon Braver have doubts about the long-term financial viability of interactive theatre.
“Traditional haunted houses have a higher throughput—more guests per hour,” says Vanek. “We top out at 50 per 80-90 minute show. A traditional haunted house can move groups through much faster.”
“I could make a hell of a lot more money from doing a traditional haunted house,” says Braver. “Even with high ticket price, nothing compares to 1000 people a day through a maze. That's not Delusion, nor do I wish to convert to that model, but the format that people love so much doesn't work in any sustainable fashion.”
Braver’s frustration is understandable: while other immersive creators are following the trail he blazed, he was unable to secure a suitable location to produce a full-scale Delusion show this Halloween. (Ironically, Delusion’s most iconic former location, the Beckett Mansion, is currently the site of House of Spirits, which is doing good business.) Instead, Braver is offering Alt Delete, a mini-production billed as a spin-off chapter of Delusion: The Blue Blade, which sold out during its run last Halloween but closed early when it was remounted this spring. The Blue Blade was Braver's first attempt to expand the Delusion brand into the off-season - another reminder that immersive horror theatre performs better during Halloween.
Beyond this, there is the question of increased competition in the immersive marketplace. Eight years ago, Delusion Interactive Theatre was the only game in town. Now, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the number of interactive theatrical experiences and immersive events.
“The competition has grown exponentially since 2011,” says Braver. “I can no longer believe Delusion is staying ahead. That route has only led to unrealistic expectations. In short, while competition motivates, it can also hinder creativity.”
Madison Rhoades remains sanguine on the subject of future prospects, perhaps because The Séance has the advantage of operating from the year-round Crossroads Escape Games business – saving her from one of a haunter’s biggest headaches: finding a location every Halloween.
“Since we have a large following already with our escape rooms, it has not been difficult for us to stand out,” says Rhoades. “There are so many people out there with so many different interests; as long as companies are creating new, original content, I don’t think it will be a challenge [to do well] in the future.”
LOS ANGELES HALLOWEEN IMMERSIVE THEATRE: IS THIS THE FUTURE?
Ah, the future! That is the question: Is Immersive Theatre the “Future of Halloween”? The answer depends on whom one asks.
“We'll see!” says Justin Meyer, whose House of Spirits has an advantage over interactive theatre: being an immersive experience rather than a play, the event has an audience capacity closer to that of a haunted house. “There is a place and a need for all styles of entertainment, especially when it comes to horror or the Halloween experience. Variety is the real secret, the real spice of life. You need it all, or else you find yourself pigeon holed and quickly stale. We're excited to be one of the most unique and varietal experiences out there today.”
“I think interactive shows are going to continue to grow in popularity because we are in a age where we want experiences to be more bespoke, more personal and moving,” says Shelby Bond. “Audiences want to feel a show all around them; they want to be inside an experience, and our shows will continue to make them feel like The Shadow Space is theirs to explore on their own terms.”
“Interactive plays are growing in terms of quality and quantity,” Aaron Vanek concurs. "I also think there is a small backlash against staring down at a small screen so much you develop a bone spur on your skull. Like vinyl records, some people are going back to more analog forms of entertainment. Haunts are one way of doing it, and interactive plays are another branch, another iteration of haunts.”
Madison Rhoades believes haunted houses and interactive theatre will continue to co-exists (well, at least in Orange County, where Sinister Pointe, The 17th Door, and The Fleshyard continue to do business).
“I think there will always be traditional haunted houses, but I do hope there are more independent companies that emerge and push through what has been done year after year,” says Rhoades. “Overall, I believe people are just craving something new.”
Since he was first on the Los Angeles immersive scene, we’ll give the final word to Jon Braver:
“It's a future of Halloween - a piece of the fantastical puzzle overall. Might be just a hobby, though, as I said earlier.... maybe an industry.... not sure yet.”
This article is the latest chapter in our coverage devoted to Halloween 2019's immersive theatre experiences. Read reviews and more extensive interviews at the links below.
More in this series:
- The Séance: Interactive Theatre from Cross Roads Escape Games
- The Shadow Space Interview: The Audience Becomes the Haunters
- Give Up the Ghost Interview: Turning the Tables on Traditional Haunts
- Bite: Dining with the Undead (Interview)
- Review: The Séance
- Review: Give Up the Ghost - Halloween 2019's Must-See Experience
- The Count's Den: Bite (Halloween Theatre Review)
- Delusion Master Jon Braver's Alt Delete: Review & Interview
- House Of Spirits: A Haunted Cocktail Soirée (Review)
- House of Spirits: Immersing Guests in a Halloween Sandbox
- Review: The Shadow Space
- Ouija: Official Emblem of Halloween 2019
- Halloween Magnum Opus on the way