It's not often that on a nice sunny day in May, you get to experience a "haunted house". I say haunted house in quotes because Vortex Theater's NYC Haunted House is not your typical haunted house. What it is, well it's kinda beyond description. But that's a cliched answer I know. Suffice it to say, you're not walking from room to room with actors scaring you . No No. This crew has no need for elaborate sets (though what was to come would change all that), haunted house themes or anything else. There is no giggling, no screaming (well actually there was) and no rushing from room to room. Vortex Haunted House sets up what I am calling "a personal horror interactive experience".
In their spring version which remotely resembles their Halloween version, you go through the experience alone and you can't share the fear with others. In a nutshell, this "haunted house" is more like experiencing an interactive horror anthology composed of disturbing vignettes. The deal is you play the part of the "victim" kinda but not totally like the poor guy or girl who in every horror movie has to suffer at the hands of a insane slasher or a family of sadists. Playing part of the sadists is Vortex Theater. The twist here is you're PAYING for this privilege of being the torturee.
Having experienced NYC Halloween Haunted House last October (full walkthrough here) I believed I had a good grasp of what was to come. But the journey to last Saturday's events was just as fun as the event itself. You can check out the online ARG journal I composed here. This will give you the idea of the e-mails that were sent so you could get an opportunity to take part in this off season event.
So here's the deal. Reading about what happened won't really give you any idea of what it was actually like. I've decided to give you a moment by moment perspective of what was happening and what I was thinking and feeling. Every moment was a WTF moment but each scene seemed to have a designed and desired emotional response they were going for. YOU ARE THE STAR of this horror freakshow and all I can say is I had fun playing Victim #5.
So here we go.
Basically I was told to meet at a certain area in Chelsea (a neighborhood in NYC). Greeted by one of the creators I had to sign a waiver/consent form plus read the part of the disclaimer on camera! Clearly, this was more paperwork and consenting from the previous haunt. I stumbled on the word indemnity. I still have no idea what that means.
Once signed, the experience begins. Told to enter the back of a van, I'm greeted by 2 men dressed in black (like they were 60's Batman henchmen). They order me to sit towards the edge of the van. I assume I'm suppose to do something and I keep handing them the keys but they don't move. This game I signed up for is deadly serious to them and they keep in character. Handed a blindfold I wrap it around my head but then am doubly blindfolded and noise cancelling headphones are placed over my ears.
The van ride was rough and as I sat there blindfolded listening to staticky AM radio that echoed throughout the van I have to admit I wondered where exactly we'd be going. It's a disorienting feeling to ride around not knowing the destination. This may be close to a kidnapping feel I may ever get. This little ride around the city was a new twist and it's a good one. I kept my composure and as the van stopped, I knew this was only the beginning.
Told to exit the van (still blindfolded) I was told to follow the sound of my mysterious guides voice to an entrance. The first thought that popped into my head was I must look completely crazy to innocent bystanders who are just walking around the city that day. Here is a kid, blindfolded walking with his arms out like a mummy. The funny thing about partaking in an experience like this is that you still are concerned about how you may look to others. Did I look like a fool to random pedestrians? To the Vortex crew? Of course I looked like a complete moron! It should be the least of your concerns at that moment but the fear of being embarrassed or looking ridiculous is one we have everyday and I'm sure I'd even do a double take if I saw what was happening.
I now enter what I believe is a warehouse and I am told to remove the blindfold. As I do, garage door shutters which were gleaming in pulsating afternoon sunlight were sent crashing down and now I'm in complete darkness. For a second, I felt like I was in the umpteenth Saw sequel. Fuckin Jigsaw. I can see this new space is filled with piles of junk and right in front are 2 more men in cat burglar suits with candles lit in a circular fashion. My initial thoughts were, this looks devilishly Satanic. And on the day of the supposed Rapture, it echoed a little harder.
What they asked me to do next was probably the BIG turning point for all who participated. They asked for me to remove all my clothing and put on a hospital gown and rubber shoes that lay next to it. I sort of hesitated at first and couldn't believe at what I just heard. I knew yelling the safe word was not an option. I had paid a good deal of money to go through this ENTIRE experience and a little case of nudity was not going to derail me from this goal. I undressed, put my clothes into a basket and put on the gown and shoes. After this was done I was told to sit in a chair which lay in the center of a dozen candles. One by one, the men blew out the candles.
What would happen next? I assumed they'd plan a nice mock Satanic ritual here. And my instincts were right. They then smothered a wet, sticky liquid on my arms, legs and neck. It was a little disconcerting as they did this. The liquid was cold, icky and dreadful. Thoughts of Druids and ritual chanting were entering my head. It had to be the horror fan in me developing possible scenarios of what would happen next. But the most distinct feeling that I had was one of being 100% vulnerable to anything. I had no clothes, no cell phone and no level of safety or comfort. Sure I knew this was all an act but 70% of your mind and body start to make it feel real. It's sort of like your dreaming and you know it's a dream but it feels real.
More blindfolds more darkness. Oddly this felt familiar (as it was a gimmick used in the October haunt) But I knew this wouldn't be the same old stuff. Random touching, shoving and yelling. Then nothing. Just silence. It was an iambic pentameter of dread. Ordered to scream. I never ever scream. I scream. I follow orders because that's in the rules. My mind wanders and all I think about are the rules. I'm not suppose to speak. Suddenly I'm hands are handcuffed. My arms are lifted and the handcuffs are on a rope of some kind. My wrists are now getting irritated. It's a uncomfortable position, standing handcuffed to a rope above your head in total darkness. I actually feel slightly scared.
And now I feel a rope around my neck.
I can honestly say this was the first time I felt completely terrified. Something about strangulation doesn't sit well with me. Handcuffed, naked and helpless. I felt for the first time things were out of my control. It's an eerie feeling. 90% of you know it's not real but that pesky 10% is louder than the rest of the voices. Your body is saying "YO DUDE! YOU BEING STRANGLED! YOU SHOULD REALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS SHIT!". Who knows if a NYHH production PA had an argument with his significant other and he wants to take it out on strangers. I paid them to strangle me?? I'm a sick motherfucker. Then nothing.
Bust out WTF Moment #2 and all that can be said is I got mouthraped. Yeah you heard that right. Latex gloves, voices telling me to open my mouth and wiggling figures are being inserted down my throat. I start gagging (because HOLY FUCK! it's a reflex action you know?). It seems to go on for a while. Like Dr. Giggles decided to check for cavities. It's a double whammy and it was a convulsion of fear and a bit of anger. But in the back of my mind, I'm clearly impressed by it all. Then silence again and an order to go to the next room.
Holy fuckin rapture, these guys tripled the intensity from last October's haunt. My preconceived notions of mild touching and being lazily pushed around were gone. These guys had gone Hostel 1 and 2 hardcore. They got degrees in asphyxiation and dental surgery. It's not everyday you get actually physically abused. I was completely caught off guard and was a little angry. Somebody does that to you, the first instinct is to retaliate. Emotion and logic were having a field day in my head. This time logic prevailed and I remembered: I PAID FOR THIS.
Now handed a lit candle I enter a next room and am told to sit in a chair. The only light source is my candle and I see a woman, a completely naked woman with dark curly hair staring at me a few feet away. I also hear a sound of an infant, making noises and crying. My first instinct is to see WTF is going on and I put the candle a little closer to the woman. She is dripping blood from all orifices. It's quite a sight (from what I can tell). She movies closer to me and saddles up on top of me. It's like Hostel strip club. She suddenly digs out what I believe to be fetus entrails (wow I can't believe I actually wrote that) and starts to stuff them into my mouth I turn my head and she starts smearing it all over my face.
Probably to a serial killer, this is a very arousing experience but I'm clearly disgusted and grossed out. I am definitely not scared but a little weirded out. In the past haunt, nakedness was displayed in a fucked up Skinemax sort of way. But seeing an impromptu abortion will make even the hardcore gorehound cringe. The fact that this is happening to me front and center has made it feel more real than anything I've ever seen. I've watched countless horror movies and have seen some pretty disturbing shit (newborn porn in A Serbian Film comes to mind) but I'm aghast at being present in a make-believe sexually deviant sideshow. However, in the back of my mind a little part of me is going "Holy fuckin shit, this is fuckin awesome!"
After the unfortunate planned parenthood event, I'm told to head to another section of the funhouse of fucked up funhouses and see a girl push a basket towards me. She is completely naked and only wearing pants from what I can make out. She hands me the lit candle and tells me to put on my clothes. Obviously, my modesty juts its head but Ms. Topless doesn't turn around. I quickly put on a shirt and search frantically for my pants. The naked girl eerily creaks out "Would you like your pants?" I nod my head.
She starts unbuttoning her pants which I now realize are my jeans. I move the lit candle and see that something is written on her stomach right below her breasts. The night before, we had e-mailed NYHH an emergency contact name and number and answered a few questions. I had put down my father's number (you know just in case they electrocuted my balls or some shit and they needed to call somebody because I passed out from the pain). Now scrawled on her stomach was "I fucked [My Dad's name]".
I have to admit, I smirked and giggled a bit. I mean a very hot looking girl who now had removed my jeans and now was completely naked had fucked my dad. It's quite a sight. I mean it's technically not scary. It's a mixture of WTF and peculiar exotica. Clearly, this is not the time to ask hot naked stranger girl if she wants to get some coffee. My mind was clearly focused. I wanted to get dressed. Hell she is probably comfortable being naked in front of strangers in a dark damp warehouse but I'm not. I've got my pants on (unbuckled), my Museum of the Weird - Austin, Texas t-shirt on and a hooded sweatshirt. And that's when I'm rushed out into the blinding light.
I get pushed out of the building and I don't have my sneakers! Also, I'm missing my hat which I now realize somebody has thrown into a fuckin puddle (thanks guys!). My sneaks are dropped in front of me and I'm told to put on my shoes but my eyes are now adjusting to the sunlight having not seen it for what I can tell is about half an hour. I put on my sneakers leaning against the white van seen previously. I am then handed a index card with 3 dots, told to give it to the ice cream man in the green ice cream truck and to get a treat. And it's at this point, I assess the damage.
I've try to straighten myself out. I've got blood on my hands and I can tell it's on my neck and face. My hat is filthy and I try to dust it off. I stand behind another customer (a tall black man) as he orders an ice cream. He's looking at me, then checks out the selection of ice cream. He then checks back at me. I think this dude thought I was going to murder him for his ice cream in broad daylight. I mean what would you think of a man with blood over his mouth, neck at hands was behind you at an ice cream truck?
I get my ice cream (I picked a lemon/lime icee) and was told to walk down the street. I'm not sure where to go next. Suddenly my Spider-sense is tingling and in the corner of my eye I see a dude and takes my ice cream and puts a t-shirt over my head yelling "It's never over!". I'm confused at this point. I have a black t-shirt on my head and a spoon in my right hand. So I walk to the end of the block and enter some sort of feather art exhibit. The art patrons must have been confused by this man who obviously broke out of Bellvue. I walk around the art exhibit and decide to remove the t-shirt from my head which I realize is a shirt with 3 dots on it. Holy shit it's a souvenir!
I figure I should check with the ice cream man for further directions but then I spot a PA who's laughing. I ask him so is it over? He says yes, still chuckling. I realize I have the blindfold in my pocket and give it to him.
Walking home I receive a few looks from the residents of Chelsea. I stare into a parked car's window to see what I must look like and I look awful. I use the t-shirt to wipe away the faux blood but this shit ain't coming off. It's not until I get to a Starbucks do I wash away the last remnants of the mid-spring nightmare.
This is kinda the amped up sequel and it was intense and more crazy just due to the naked thing. Vortex Theater clearly are masters at pushing the boundaries of the supposed "haunted house". It's a psychological mind fuck within a pseudo snuff experience. The content NYHH came up with were sick and twisted. The actors and especially the actresses must be from a cast of fringe theater to muster this performance. But kudos to them. They all acted as menacing and as crazy and their performances were again top notch.
If I am calling Vortex Theater sick and twisted I must say the same has to be said about me and my fellow 19 participants. We volunteered and paid for complete strangers to torture us. I feel like all 20 of us lucky (unlucky?) participants should meet and go through therapy. "Hi my name is XXX and I'm addicted to paying to be tortured and humiliated by a group of strangers."
So who's really more sick and twisted?
But I did have a few gripes. I felt it lacked the POW! factor from October. Maybe it's because last year was my first NYHH but there were a few elements in that experience that worked so well. Crawling down a tube with a supposed dead body which was scary the first time wasn't part of the Spring haunt. Also, I'm not sure what the point of the blood was. To freak out people as I walked home?
Also in October, you were told to grab a rope to help guide you in the darkness. Somehow, this served a purpose psychologically. The participant seemed to have a initiative within the house. Something we could latch on to. What the Spring event seemed to lack was a sense of involvement or motivation. People love to figure something out on their own. An ARG so to speak. If I had a chance to navigate on my own with possible clues of what to do next, I would have felt like I was a real VICTIM of this twisted nightmare. Instead, I was moved from place to place. I just expected a little more creativity on what I needed to do within the experience, like something for us to do to make it feel like we were motivated to escape from this warehouse of horrors. Maybe some made up back story?... I just don't know.
Finally, was the nakedness needed? It did up the ante and make you feel as vulnerable as you could be. I did feel helpless. Being partially naked, handcuffed to a rope and being strangled was the most terrifying part of the entire thing for me. But in this germ-phobic society of ours, one can ask was everything completely sanitary? I hope so. I wouldn't change the gratuitous nudity on either side (I'm all for it!) but it's a little disconcerting and you have to trust everything was on the up and up.
As for an overall feel, it's top notch. Audience participation at its most extreme. I loved the fact I was playing a part in this interactive horror movie. The 20 of us who paid for this must be insane but that's kind of why we went. As for the execution, some of it was stellar (the van, the security gate, the handcuffed naked strangulation (i can't believe i just wrote that). They do know how to startle you with gratuitous nudity.
NYCHH made a true horror sequel. More extreme rules, more gore, more splatter, more gratuitous nudity and more psychological mind fucks. It's an experience I won't soon forget. I've already told my friends and they all don't believe that this really happened.
Am I still dreaming? They did say it's never over.
The top is still spinning.
For more information on Vortex Theater's NYC Halloween Haunted House check out the links below.
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