Video Interview: Inside The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts
Tracy and Curtis Hickman discuss their work on The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts, “Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment” and “Ghostbusters: Dimension.”
Stare into The Void long enough, and The Void stares back. Actually, this particular Void does more than stare. It immerses you in an imaginary world where you can bust ghosts with a proton back or track an ancient demon at the 1893 World’s Fair. Either way, you will feel – quite literally – as if you are inside The Void’s virtual landscape of shadows and terror.
The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts: Overview
What is The Void? The Void is a relatively new company that combines Virtual Reality headsets and backpacks with physical sets and effects, which give participants something to feel as well as see and hear. The Void’s first commercial venture was Ghostbusters: Dimension, which made its debut at Madame Tussauds in 2016 and is currently showing in a revised version featuring Dan Akroyd (recreating his role from the 1984 film). The Void’s newest effort is Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment, which launched in August, getting an early jump on the Halloween season.
Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment takes The Void’s approach used to a new level, emphasizing story to create an experience more akin to immersive theatre than video gaming. Whereas Ghostbusters: Dimension is relatively linear, with Akroyd’s voice guiding a team of four through a haunted brownstone, Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment sets up its premise and turns its paranormal investigators loose to find their own way. What happens depends to some extent on the actions of the participants, whose experiences vary according to the choices they make.
The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts: Tracking the Terror
Free-roaming VR is nothing new. With tracking technology, movements in the physical world are mirrored in the virtual world, allowing participants to walk down corridors, enter rooms, and even pick up objects. What is different about The Void is that the corridors, rooms, and objects actually exist (though they look considerably different to the naked eye). Most free-roaming VR takes place in a large, empty room, providing space for gamers to maneuver. The Void’s virtual reality experiences are situated in sets with handrails, walls, and movable props.
“The idea of pairing the virtual world with the physical world was brought up by one of my co-founders, James Jenson,” says The Void’s Chief Creative Officer, Curtis Hickman. “Both of us have worked in visual effects for a long time, and it just made sense that if you could do that on a production stage why couldn’t you combine that with VR and really make something out of it?
“Nobody had really done it before at least when we were trying it,” he continues. “The tracking technology we used was very primitive. We built a single wall and kind of made a loop around it, using magnetic tracking, which was terrible – especially since we were tracking the HMD [Head-Mounted Display – the VR headset]. The HMD creates its own magnetic field, which meant that everything got really weird really quick. But it was enough to convince us that there was something there. So we built a stage, and I started designing all these illusions and how the experiences would play out. After just a couple of months we knew we really had something.”
The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts: Terror Times Four
With a sample project (Curse of the Serpent’s Eye) serving as proof of concept, The Void interested Sony Pictures in licensing the rights to create the Ghostbusters: Dimension VR attraction, with input from the film’s producer-director Ivan Reitman and (especially on the revised version) from writer-actor Akroyd. During the development, The Void team determined that four was the optimum number of players.
“I stumbled upon that,” admits Curtis Hickman. “Originally we were only doing the Void with two people, which was great – you have interaction. But I said, ‘Let’s try three people.’ And everyone was, ‘It will never work – they’ll just bump into each other.’ So we put three people in, and it worked. I said, ‘We’re gonna do four people.’ They said, ‘It will never work.’ So we put four people, and it worked great. Which is awesome for Ghostbusters, by the way – to have an actual full team of Ghostbusters. So I said, ‘Let’s put a fifth person in.’ It did not work.”
The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts: Seasonal Horror
Timed to coincide with the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, Ghostbusters: Dimension was not designed as a Halloween haunt, though it can certainly serve as a light-hearted one. Loaded with ghosts, the experience is more fun than frightening but still spooky enough for the Halloween season. Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment is The Void’s attempt to amp up the scare-factor.
Virtual Reality certainly lends itself to the horror genre. In a way, the new VR technology parallels cinematic 3D as it was used when it first became popular in the 1950s: the additional visual impact, wasted on conventional dramas, was best utilized in science fiction and horror films, such as House of Wax (1953) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In a similar way, we are seeing a proliferation of horror-themed virtual reality attractions today: Ghost Manor (in Castle Dark), Time Zombies (in Knotts Scary Farm), Into the Black (at HorrorWorld), and the Jack The Ripper Virtual Reality Haunted House (at Mountasia Fun Center). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that The Void opted to elicit shivers with Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment.
According to Curtis Hickman, a seasonal Halloween attraction was “a big check mark” on The Void’s list of things to do. “We wanted to try something scary, because we know through experience that you can create very impactful reactions through fear,” he says. “You can do just about anything, and when you start combining that with the tactile nature of The Void, things get very real very quickly. There’s things we’ve had to back off from and try to find a balance of mood and atmosphere and mystery and puzzle-solving with the scaring.”
Tracey Hickman, Curtis’s brother, adds, “Sometimes it’s a question of where to put the silence, because in this virtual environment there is so much to take in. Because it’s something that you experience as a group, we want to make sure that you have that silence in which you can speak and interact with each other in the environment.”
“It’s funny writing a script for people whose lines you don’t know what they’ll be,” quips Curtis, referring to the leeway participants have to shape the action in which they find themselves. At a conference on immersive entertainment, Curtis once said, “Don’t tell stories in VR.” Now, he revises that statement to: “You can, but you have to take into account the agency of the guest.”
Tracy Hickman, a novelist who serves as The Void’s Director of Story, sees story-telling as a major component of The Void. He and Curtis have even penned “The Strange Case of Milton Edwards, MA, Phd,” a piece of fiction posing as a “Reconstruction of Historical Events,” which provides back story and clues that help guests navigate through Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment.
“Evoking story in The Void space is very much at the heart of what we do,” says Tracy Hickman. “It’s a new language of story, because for the first time in history we have shattered that fourth wall, and we were asking you to be at the center of what’s going on. So we don’t talk about telling story in The Void; we talk about experiencing story in The Void. How does our guest experience their own personal story – the story that they’re going to tell when they leave?”
The Void’s Virtual Reality Halloween Haunts: Immersive Theatre
Virtual Reality takes many forms. Some VR attractions put viewers in a passive position, sitting down and watching action happen around them. There may be motion-simulation (as in Fear VR at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt two years ago, which simulated a wild ride in a wheelchair); however, there is no opportunity for interaction, no way to determine the path taken. On the other hand, free-roaming VR allows players to actively move through environments and interact with surroundings. Still, there tend to be limitations: the experience can feel like a guided tour with a strict time limit, prompting players to move along a fixed route from room to room at regular intervals.
The Void’s VR Halloween Haunts obviously have fixed routes – there are, after all, a physical sets that prevent participants from wandering through walls – but Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment summons a greater illusion of freedom. You seem stuck in the electrical room unless you fix the fuse of the sparking equipment, or you feel trapped in the wheel house room until you spin the controls correctly. These challenges are in line with VR’s use as a game system, but The Void pushes more toward immersive theatre.
“I worked in designing immersive theater for years before the Void, and so much of what we do comes from that,” says Curtis Hickman. “I look at it this way: if I go to an immersive show – Sleep No More or one of these big shows – they’re fantastic, but there’s a huge limit to the amount of interaction that can be done with the actual guests, because there’s only so much you can do with the number of people that you have. You’re limited by physics and by the reality of the situation and the sets that you can build and the budget that you have. What’s amazing about The Void is to giving everybody a bit of agency as part of that story, making everybody feel like an intimate part of the experience, and taking them out of reality and putting them in a place where things that aren’t possible feel real. I feel, frankly, very blessed to be given this canvas to work on, to give these adventures that people crave, and to provide them in a way that that is magical.”
Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment and Ghostbusters: Dimension are currently at the Glendale Galleria, along with The Void’s science-fiction effort, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire. The address is 1164 Galleria Way, Glendale, CA 91210. The Void is located next to Victoria’s Secret, across JC Penny’s. Hours are 10am to 9pm on Mondays; 10am to 10pm on Thursdays; 10am to 11pm on Fridays & Saturdays; and 10am to 8pm on Sundays. Advance tickets are recommended to reserve check-in time; arrive early, and allow approximately one hour for the entire experience. For more information, visit TheVoid.com.