The haunted house plumbs new psychological depths of sensory deprivation. (Tom Keefe )
The Blackout Haunted House in downtown L.A. is so petrifying that even the pre-show liability waivers come with a cold flash of terror.
The event's website warns of "sexual and violent situations" and promises complete darkness and physical contact. There's even a "safe" word to utter if it gets too harrowing and you need to exit.
Lest you think they're kidding: When a guard shines a penlight in your eye, creepily slips a surgical mask on your face and shoves you into an ink-dark room, you're already afraid you've signed your life away.
"We wanted to strive for something more realistic," co-creator Josh Randall said. "You can rationalize away other scares. Vampires don't exist."
Now in its fourth year and first in L.A., the New York-based Blackout Haunted House uses techniques from avant-garde theater, the claustrophobic sadism of the "Hostel" movie series, and a heavy curtain of mystique to take the state fair Halloween staple into uncharted NC-17 territory. If you've ever watched a Dario Argento movie and thought, "Hmm, I'd like to vacation there," Blackout is the most intense fun you'll have all fall. If you're expecting a chuckle at some rubber masks and prop chain saws, perhaps you're better off with the lights on.
Without giving anything away, Blackout is in many ways a haunted house in reverse. Much of the scariest time in there is spent alone, in the dark, while nothing happens. It's a kind of horror-jujitsu; the venue turns your mind against you. Whatever you walk in there being afraid of -- that's what's lurking in the house's imagined dark recesses.
Fans of "The Blair Witch Project" will recognize the sense of creeping dread that comes from idle stillness, and there are no friends to cling to for reassurance: Everyone walks through alone.
Until, of course, you see something move down the hallway.
Co-creators Randall and director Kristjan Thor started Blackout after collaborating in the New York theater scene and generally growing cynical about their capacity to be spooked. They started planning a new experiment in minimalism and sensory deprivation.
"There have always been 'boo' scares, but they were so dismissible," Thor said. "Our favorite comments on Blackout would come from people weeks later, when they'd ask, 'Why did I think about that in there?' It sticks with you."
The duo started hosting Blackouts in various venues around New York, from storefronts to the back of a rented truck, and the events quickly earned a reputation among terror junkies for being next-level-upsetting. The L.A. installment, presented by local concert titan Goldenvoice, is in an empty part of a nondescript office building in downtown Los Angeles -- perhaps an appropriate post-recession locale.
It's hard to stress how not-kidding Randall and Thor are about the feigned sexual violence of Blackout. Parents used to taking surly teenagers to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios should do a thorough gut check before embarking on it, and admission is strictly 18 and older.
There are moments that will, in turn, evoke Eli Roth's thumbscrews, the Abu Ghraib prison photos and some scenes of sexual torture that might stir up genuine dark feelings in guests. No one can say they weren't warned about that, and as demented theatrical thrills go, they're virtuosically unsettling. But some feminist publications, such as XO Jane, have decried Blackout's use of make-believe sexually violent themes for entertainment purposes.
A post on XO Jane's website states, "I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that simulated sexual assault and torture should be marketed as entertainment."
Randall and Thor fully understand that, and make no effort to hide that Blackout is designed to make you ask true questions about what you fear. That can be an amusing weekend scream, but it can also be an existential question you take with you long after the show is over.
"Yeah. It's sensitive subject matter," Randall said. "But it should be deeper than shock value, it's about finding what an actor and audience is interested in, and make them interested in going to that place. We try to be as clear as possible about what people are in for."
Visually, Blackout is artful and occasionally kind of beautiful, evoking early ambient horror films like Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Vampyr." Casting is a tough process, not for lack of takers but due to the challenge of finding actors who understand the intended effect and the job's hard demands.
"It's incredibly grueling, and being good at monologues won't cut it," Thor said. "It's an experience like no other, and you have to be open-minded and curious."
The engagement is already sold out through its planned run (though there is a nightly standby list and new shows were just added from Nov. 6-10). While other local events like Blumhouse of Horrors (helmed by "Paranomal Activity's" Jason Blum) raise the haunted house stakes, Blackout is something else.
Is it theater, performance art, mixed-media set design or just a dastardly escalation of Halloween thrill-seeking? All of these, but above all, Randall and Thor see it as a safe place to confront the edge of your security.
"We want it to be safe. The only way to make this run is keep it as safe as possible," Randall said.
Thor agreed and was only half-kidding when he said, "When we're casting, what we're really looking for is kindness."
Blackout Haunted House
Where: 207 S. Broadway, 2nd floor
When: Times and dates vary