What exactly is an “immersive experience?” Used to describe widely different events, the label is not always informative to potential customers.
“You may be asked to dig up a grave. You may be asked to hold a severed tongue.” – IT’S ALIVE! | Frankenstein Intimate Immersive Experience
What is an immersive experience? It is a question we have asked before, but last night’s excursion to It’s Alive: Frankenstein Intimate Immersive Experience has us revisiting the topic. This Halloween season we have visited several events billing themselves as “immersive.” In all cases, the usage was justified; however, the events varied so widely that the term failed to convey their exact nature. If “immersive” is to be something more than a marketing buzzword, it needs to be used more precisely – preferably in conjunction with other terms that clarify its meaning to potential ticket-buyers.
Let’s examine three recent examples: The Clown Academy, We’re Wolves, and It’s Alive.
The Clown Academy promoted itself as an “immersive haunt” or an “immersive horror maze,” which is fair enough – any walk-through maze will immerse visitors in its environment. The use of “immersive” in this case seemed to indicate that guests played a roll in the experience, having to solve puzzles, answer questions, and complete tasks in order to proceed from one room to the next. In this case, we think the word “interactive” would have given a more useful description of the attraction.
We’re Wolves is described by its creator Walt Gorecki as an “immersive journey into a werewolf family’s cabin,” which conjures up various possibilities in the imagination: maze, fun house, etc. Fortunately, the event’s location inside the Hive Gallery in downtown Los Angeles clues potential visitors into the fact that this is a piece of installation art. Like a smaller version of the Evil Dead exhibit at Bearded Lady’s Mystic Museum a while back, it provides an appropriately themed environment for paintings and other artwork. In a sense, the artwork isn’t just on the walls; it is the walls.
Lastly, there is It’s Alive, which subtitles itself “Frankenstein Intimate Immersive Experience.” Set inside Altadena’s Mountain View Mausoleum (which used to host the now-in-limbo Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival), It’s Alive obviously earns its “immersive” label, leading characters through the venue’s marble hallways, which are filled with the remains of the dearly departed, creating an authentic atmosphere few Halloween events can match.
However, what does the phrase “immersive experience” mean, in this case? Judging from a tagline that warns, “You may be asked to dig up a grave. You may be asked to hold a severed tongue,” guests can certainly be excused for expecting some kind of grizzly escape room or possibly even an extreme haunt. However, It’s Alive is actually an interactive play, with a format similar to the 1980s classic Tamara: multiple scenes occur simultaneously; the audience splits up to follow different characters, sometimes sticking with one and sometimes shifting to another, so that the only way to understand the big picture is to attend with friends and afterward compare notes about what each other saw.
It is an intriguing way to tell a story, but it is more precisely called “immersive theatre” rather than “immersive experience.” During our visit last night, we rubbed shoulders with more than one horror fan (wearing Friday the 13th t-shirts or similar) completely baffled by what they had gotten themselves into. Based on the advertising art of a female surgeon poised over her creation, they had come presumably expecting to dig up corpses and assemble the parts into Frankenstein’s Monster; instead, they were pursuing actors through dark corridors as they portrayed the tragic circumstances surrounding Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.
It’s not necessarily a bad way to spend an evening, but it is a good example of how the “immersive” label can be misleading. The problem is not so much with the word itself, which is a broad term covering many types of events. Rather, as in the example of It’s Alive, confusion stems from phrases like “immersive experience,” which is used to create a mysterious sense of something novel instead of clearly describing the event. We think it’s time for Los Angeles Halloween events to be a little more precise in their terminology.